In ways evocative of our own moment, word and image fought for supremacy across the pages of Enlightenment scientific books. Scientists strove, in a host of ways, to provide a direct access to nature, and with the advancement of copperplate engraving the printed image was increasingly seen as offering the reader/viewer a site of unmediated witness. Drawing on three texts—Hans Sloane’s Voyage to Jamaica (1707-25), Joseph Priestley’s Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1772), and William Roxburgh’s Plants of the Coast of Coromandel (1795-1819)—I argue that science’s entanglement with commerce and empire ultimately helped produce a new rhetoric of boundless expansion, of mastery of the world through accumulation and accounting.
Peter Walmsley is Chair of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and the author of The Rhetoric of Berkeley Philosophy and Locke’s Essay and the Rhetoric of Science. His current project, Manufacturing Subjects: The Cultural Politics of Labour in Britain, 1690-1750, investigates the revaluation of skilled work and personal industry in genres as diverse as sermons, trade handbooks, novels, and scientific texts.