Southern Africa and the Globalisation of Knowledge

Fig. 1: The Jesuits' temporary astronomical observatory at the Dutch fort at the Cape of Good Hope. From Guy Tachard, Voyage de Siam des pères Jesuites (Amsterdam: Chez Pierre Mortier, 1687), tome II, p. 64. Engraved by Pierre Paul Sevin and Cornelis Vermeulen.

Project overview

One of the most pressing questions in the history of science is understanding how local knowledge scales up to shape global sciences. My proposed project will examine how Jesuit missionaries’ and scientific travellers’ encounters with southern African knowledges transformed understandings of nature across the globe in early modernity. It will explore how Jesuits combined European, Asian, and African knowledge traditions in a hybrid and flexible cosmology in southern Africa, before exporting it across the world along maritime networks. As such, my project will demonstrate the crucial and underestimated importance of southern Africa in the early modern global history of science.

Aim and Rationale: the Cape as a Crucial Site of Early Modern Scientific Activity

Building on my past research into Jesuit encounters with Chinese sciences, this project aims to examine how early modern Europeans drew on their knowledge of East Asia to make sense of the unfamiliar at the Cape of Good Hope. Almost every traveller voyaging between Europe and the East Indies spent time at the Cape, where they engaged with the Indigenous Khoisan, enslaved Malays, and European settlers, producing new, hybrid knowledges in the process. Centring attention on southern Africa, this project will study how Jesuit missionaries and later European travellers transfigured Indigenous knowledge traditions, with reference to China, into globally pertinent sciences. Drawing on emerging perspectives from global history, my project will transcend the Europe-Other dichotomy that continues to dominate the literature on colonial encounters. Instead, proposing a new theoretical paradigm, the project will reveal how knowledge was produced through a triangular Asian-African-European arrangement.

Southern Africa is vastly underrepresented in the history of science. Nevertheless, underexplored sources demonstrate the Cape’s paramount importance in the globalisation of knowledge between Asia and Europe. For example, Guy Tachard’s Voyage de Siam (1685), detailing a French Jesuit mission to the Indies, describes astronomical activities at the Cape in great depth (Fig. 1). Tachard’s account reveals that the Jesuits were interested in institutionalising their presence as astronomers at the Cape, as they had done in China, and in using astronomy as a diplomatic tool to engage with local peoples. Through their interactions, Jesuits co-produced a hybrid Asian-African-European astronomy with Biblical undertones, which their European readers came to see as globally valid.

In recent years, the history of science has drawn extensively on postcolonial studies, paying close attention to how encounters between European and extra-European populations shaped the co-production of scientific knowledge. Despite this approach’s many merits, it often portrays intercultural encounters in an oversimplified binary way, exploring interactions between “Europe” and an “Other." Such approaches limit our understanding of knowledge production, which—as Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Serge Gruzinski, and Sujit Sivasundaram have demonstrated—is messier and multilateral. As a corrective, my project will examine how actors travelling between Europe and Asia via the Cape used East Asian scientific categories to make sense of unfamiliar nature in Africa. For example, as I have shown, Jesuits explained the medicinal properties of the Cape root kanna using Chinese accounts of ginseng.

Contributing to pathbreaking new studies of science in Africa, the project will show that the Cape lay at the crux of overlapping networks of Asian, African, European, and Biblical early modern cultures of knowledge. The literature on the Jesuits is extensive, but their encounters in Africa have received scant attention. While contemporary global histories of science still largely privilege Asia and the Americas, this project will, for the first time, locate southern Africa as a crucial and creative site of scientific activity in the early modern world.


The project’s primary objectives are to study: (i) how Europeans deployed Asian knowledges in southern Africa, and (ii) how interactions between Europeans and Indigenous populations in southern Africa reshaped Asian knowledges travelling to Europe. The Jesuits and their European readers took China as representative of an idealised “non-Western” culture and applied their understanding of its sciences to make sense of southern Africa. The resulting amalgamated forms of astronomy, botany, geology, and ethnology, which combined elements from these different cultures, were subsequently exported throughout the world along maritime networks. By exploring these processes of knowledge transmission and reception from the Cape’s perspective, the project will reveal how distinct local knowledges were recrafted across oceans, where they were transformed into globally pertinent sciences.


This project will examine an extensive, multimedia array of early modern travelogues, scientific writings, and visual depictions of the Cape and its Indigenous inhabitants. These accounts contain ethnographic descriptions of Khoisan cosmologies, comparing them to those of other extra-European populations—particularly the Chinese. Drawing on the methods of science and technology studies, I will contextualise these texts and images as part of broader, polycentric early modern efforts to construct a global history of knowledge. Given the lack of early Khoisan text-based sources, the project will make use of Indigenous visual culture and oral history sources, such as those in the Lloyd-Bleek archive in Cape Town. While projecting nineteenth-century Indigenous sources to understand earlier cosmologies would be problematic, the project will use these sources to complicate the colonial archive, re-evaluating Europeans’ ethnographic accounts of Indigenous cultures of knowledge. For example, the Indigenous storyteller !nanni’s painting The Star Country (Fig. 2) depicts the cosmos with nine different categories of celestial bodies, which is far more complex than European travellers’ accounts of Khoisan astral sciences suggest. Drawing on recent anthropological and archaeological literature on Khoisan cosmology, the project will read against the grain of colonial ethnographies, unearthing traces of Indigenous worldviews that were surreptitiously integrated into early modern European scientific writings.

Fig. 2: Indigenous San representation of the cosmos. "The Star Country" by !nanni. The Digital Bleek & Lloyd Collection.!nBook2_009.html 

The Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town

Porcelain plate of Table Bay, made in China for the VOC in the late 1730s-40s

The VOC Gardens in Cape Town, with Table Mountain in the background