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Colonial Modernity and the Empire of Experiment

In Colonial Modernity and the Empire of Experiment Dr Emily Senior investigates how the colonies of the British Empire provided a laboratory for experimenting with new forms of medical and scientific practice.

At the apex of the British Atlantic Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the colonies represented the laboratory writ large. Travel and migration brought a wealth of opportunities to discover new specimens, technologies, medicines, goods and ideas. The relative lack of institutionalized science and medicine created social environments ripe for new forms of experimentation. Examining colonial spaces such as the plantation as unique sites of experimental and hybrid forms of medical and scientific practice and discourse, this project will explore the forms of experimentation which created the new forms of knowledge that underpinned empire. These include experiments on people and animals, in agricultural and weather science and by European doctors with indigenous or African-Caribbean medical treatments.

Drawing on different methodologies and perspectives from literature and the history of medicine, the research addresses colonial experiments within their broader epistemological and scientific histories.  Different forms of experiment—bodily, social, imaginative, textual and public—are explored in order to historicize and illuminate the articulation of colonial medicine and science and their significance to the wider world.

The project puts colonial spaces, texts and authors to the foreground, reconsidering the model of scientific production in metropolitan ‘centres of calculation’ and examining the complicated relationships between North American, African-Caribbean and European empirical and experimental epistemologies. Addressing an era in which scientific knowledge was fundamentally allied to colonial power, the premise of this project is that the history of the ‘Enlightenment’ can look different from the perspective of colonial medical and scientific experience.

The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust.