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Two Major Fellowships Support Berquist’s Research Efforts, Book

Published: May 1, 2013

When History’s Emily Berquist sees the publication of her first book, The Bishop’s Utopia in Colonial Peru, from the University of Pennsylvania Press as part of its “Early Modern Americas”’ series, it will crown two years of final research supported by two separate year-long fellowships, including $30,000 from the American Council of Learned Societies and a $50,000 Dibner Research Fellowship in the History of Science at the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

The double fellowships were a result of hard work and generous support from the university, recalled Berquist, an assistant professor since earning her Ph.D. in 2007. “I received two major fellowships in the same year,” she said. “The History Department and the College of Liberal Arts graciously permitted me to accept them both. I was also grateful that Dean (Gerry) Riposa provided additional funding so I could make a final research trip to Madrid.”

A former Fulbright scholar, throughout her career Berquist has been awarded funding from the American Historical Association, the Atlantic History Seminar at Harvard University, the American Society for 18th Century Studies and the Spanish Ministry of Culture among others. She received her B.A. from Vassar College and her Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Texas at Austin.

The Bishop’s Utopia is based on 1,372 watercolor images of the people, plants and animals that Spanish Bishop Baltasar Jaime Martínez Compañón commissioned from indigenous artisans in northern Peru in the 1780s. Berquist believes this historical documentation furthers the understanding of natural history, art and the politics of empire in the Atlantic world.

“This book recreates the intellectual, cultural and political universe that Martínez Compañón inhabited, paying special attention to his reform agenda in the mining industry and in indigenous education,” she explained. “It locates the bishop and his work with the local Indians in the broader contemporary debate over the supposed inferiority of the American people and natural world, demonstrating how through his scientific research and his reform activities, Compañón positioned the Indians as intelligent, productive subjects of the Spanish crown.”

Berquist’s verdict after 12 years of research is that Compañón was a genuine Renaissance man—but of the Age of Enlightenment. “His biggest concern was to help the indigenous population,” she explained. “He sought to improve their working conditions in silver mines, to build schools and to provide religious instruction. But at the same time, he was an amateur natural historian. He traveled all over his bishopric and, using a team of indigenous artisans, recorded many aspects of the natural world, as well as culture and archaeology. The final result was a nine-volume set of watercolor illustrations willed to the Spanish crown upon his death. He was a utopian who also was one of those incredibly hard-working people who always seemed to be doing a million things. He never seemed to take a minute for himself.”

The illustrations he commissioned from his indigenous artisans continue to be reprinted in the 21st century and often serve as book covers or textbook illustrations in colonial Latin American history. But she found little study of where these illustrations came from originally. “Sometimes they are misattributed to the bishop when they were created by his artisans,” Berquist pointed out. “I wanted to look behind this and see who this individual was and to understand his broader project. He is truly a remarkable figure, yet this is the first book to bring together all the aspects his work.”

Berquist’s research took her to 19 separate archives and special collections in Colombia, Peru, Spain and the United States over almost a decade. She worked extensively in Roman Catholic archives in Peru, meeting various archbishops and bishops along the way to accessing the documents she needed. “You not only must find the archives, you need the people skills to gain access to them,” she recalled. To conduct the research, Berquist’s skill set included fluency in Spanish and a familiarity with 18th century Spanish usage. She also had to become skilled at paleography, or the reading of historical documents that use old-fashioned handwriting and archaic abbreviations and forms.

Emily Berquist
Emily Berquist

Her interest in colonial Latin America grew from her undergraduate studies of 17th century New England. “I grew up in an 18th century colonial home in Connecticut,” she recalled. “I realized I felt at home in the early modern period.” But during a semester abroad in Madrid, she became fluent in Spanish and she began to learn about the Spain’s history colonizing Latin America. She knew she wanted to incorporate her fluency in Spanish into her graduate work in history, but she still hadn’t decided on her focus at the start of her Ph.D. program. “When I started graduate study, I thought I would explore modern leftist politics in Mexico and Central America. But I found I couldn’t work with the material in the same way I could with that from the early modern period. It was simply more natural for me.”

After more than two years of writing five days a week, six hours a day, Berquist is ready for a new challenge in the form of her next book, Early Antislavery Sentiment in the Spanish Atlantic World, about which she published an article in the journal Slavery and Abolition in June of 2010. This investigates the global politics of the early antislavery movement in the Spanish Empire, and how it contrasted with royal policy promoting the slave trade within the Empire. The project has a special focus on the little-known Spanish attempts to establish a slave-trading depot in the Bight of Biafra in the late 18th century. “The tension between the promotion of the slave trade and early anti-slavery sentiments in the late Spanish empire forms the heart of the new book,” she explained. “Although the topic is integral to our field, we do not yet have any scholarly work on the topic. Most scholarship on abolition in Latin America focuses on the post-1826 period, after the independence of the Spanish-American mainland. My book will change that.”