|dc.description.abstract||This dissertation is an animal-driven history of knowledge and colonialism in early America and the British imperial world. It focuses on the long eighteenth century, the moment when animals were being ordered into theoretical systems of nature as a consequence of global exploration while their physical bodies entered collections in America and beyond. I argue that animals put humans in a double bind: they facilitated the work of naturalists in surprising ways and made natural history possible, but they also fundamentally destabilized the enterprise, sinking ships and thwarting experiments in the process. Animals helped created knowledge, but just as importantly, they occasioned its loss. Cunning raccoons, enchanting rattlesnakes, and confounding corals illuminate a shadowy corner of the Enlightenment seldom acknowledged by historians—one in which humans celebrated the limits of human understanding.
In recent decades, histories of early American natural history have grown increasingly expansive by shifting attention away from metropolitan centers and toward the contributions of enslaved, Indigenous, and colonial female actors. However, scholars have yet to integrate the nonhuman subjects of natural history—such as animals and the specimens they left behind—into this story as active forces of historical change. Yet, nonhumans set the terms for what humans could learn about nature. As animals produced and foreclosed knowledge about the natural world, they simultaneously influenced the major social projects fueled by early modern natural history, including settler colonialism, nation building, and the drawing of racial boundaries.
The project proposes an interdisciplinary framework for early American studies that unites the history of natural history with material culture theory, animal studies, and modern-day biological research. In so doing, it integrates sources and methods not often seen together, combining natural histories, cookbooks, correspondence, museum specimens, visual images, oral histories, recent zoological studies, and my own reenactment of historical practices. The dissertation’s four chapters move forward in time, and each documents the history of a particular animal. Chapter 1, “‘A Different Species of Resistance’: When Corals Became Animals and Animals Had History,” examines how corals first came to be classed as animals and as so-called colonial organisms against the backdrop of colonial voyages that faced shipwreck from coral reefs. Chapter 2, “The Lost Serpent: Rattlesnakes, Extinction, and Myth in the Age of Enchantment,” shows how the history and historiography of New World rattlesnakes have been uniquely plagued by loss, due both to the animals’ cryptic nature and to their capacity to be symbolized and feared by humans. Chapter 3, “The Flounder and the Ray: Fish, the Page of Nature, and Embodied Enlightenment in Early National Natural History,” moves among fishing boats, museums, lecture halls, and kitchens to consider how even dead animals shaped national science in the early United States. Chapter 4, “Sleight of Hand: A Reverse Natural History of Raccoons,” entertains a history of natural history turned on its head—one in which animals might also be considered curious about the world. The Epilogue, “Getting Back,” shows the lingering residue of animal histories by recounting my visit to Australia to locate the coral reef that nearly ended Captain Cook’s first voyage in 1770.
The widespread decline of species in our own time makes understanding how natural history efforts transform the environment and its animal inhabitants all the more urgent. One need only look at the global destruction of coral reefs to conceive of animals and their communities as finite, historical entities that change over time—and to also appreciate the creativity of such creatures in the face of radical change. Moreover, eighteenth-century debates about animals created an impasse about the capacities and minds of nonhumans that I argue has never been fully resolved. My dissertation explores the dynamic interplay among species in the past, in the hope that we might better understand the importance of the natural world to our future.||