Peripheral Vision: Science and Creole Patriotism in eighteenth-century Spanish America
Helen Cowie, Department of History, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL
This paper examines the study of natural history of the imperial periphery in late colonial Spanish America. It considers the problems that afflicted peripheral naturalists – lack of books, instruments, scholarly companionship, skilled technicians. It discusses how these deprivations impacted upon their self-confidence and credibility as men of science and it examines the strategies adopted by peripheral naturalists to boost their scientific credibility. It argues that Spanish American savants, deprived of the most up-to-date books and sophisticated instruments, emphasised instead their sustained experience of local nature and their familiarity with indigenous knowledge. It details how some creole naturalists, such as the Mexican José Antonio Alzate, questioned the applicability of European classificatory systems to American fauna and flora, and it analyses the complex relationship between science and creole patriotism.
Natural history, Spanish America, creole patriotism, periphery
In the Personal Narrative of his epic South American journey, the Prussian savant Alexander von Humboldt recorded an unexpected and rather surreal encounter. At the remote settlement of Calabozo, deep in the desolate Venezuelan llanos, Humboldt stumbled, to his unconcealed surprise, upon ‘an electrical machine’, complete with ‘large plates, electrophori, batteries [and] electrometers’. He also stumbled upon the machine’s proud creator, Señor Carlos del Pozo, ‘a man who had never seen any instrument, who has no person to consult and who was acquainted with the phenomenon of electricity only by reading the treatise of [Sigaud] de la Fond and [Benjamin] Franklin’s Memoirs’. Astonished to discover such a sophisticated piece of apparatus in such ‘vast solitudes’, Humboldt could not disguise his unbounded admiration for its creator. Señor del Pozo, the Prussian surmised, must be an ‘ enlightened and ingenious man’ to have constructed this impressive machine entirely on his own initiative. He must also possess great personal determination and moral fibre in order to have persevered with his challenging project in the face of apparently overwhelming odds. ‘It is easy to judge what difficulties Señor Pozo had to encounter since the first works upon electricity had fallen into his hands’, reflected Humboldt. It was a testament to the Venezuelan’s persistence ‘that he had the courage and resolve to procure for himself by his own industry all that he had seen described in his books’.
If this chance encounter in the plains was a revelation to Humboldt, then its impact upon del Pozo must have been even more profound. Prior to the arrival of Humboldt and his companion Aimé Bonpland, the Venezuelan had never exhibited his precious machine to anyone with a modicum of scientific training, but had ‘enjoyed only the astonishment and admiration produced by his experiments on persons destitute of all information, and who had never quitted the solitude of the llanos’. Humboldt presumed, on this basis, that del Pozo would welcome ‘the opinions of two travellers who could compare his apparatus with those constructed in Europe’. His supposition proved correct, for the Venezuelan relished the opportunity to inspect the Europeans’ staggering selection of precision instruments and watched in awe as Humboldt performed physiological experiments on the local frogs, who probably took a rather dimmer view of proceedings. ‘Señor del Pozo could not contain his joy on seeing for the first time instruments which he had not made, yet which appeared to be copied from his own’, reported the Prussian. The experience of meeting a European savant was seemingly a cathartic one for del Pozo, and a source simultaneously of excitement, inspiration and much needed reassurance.1
Del Pozo’s situation epitomised the unenviable predicament of the peripheral savant. Marooned on the margins of the Spanish empire, the Venezuelan suffered from an acute shortage of scientific books and equipment. No expert supervised or advised him. He had nobody to applaud his achievements or to assuage his doubts, and, until Humboldt’s miraculous appearance on the scene, no educated companion with whom to discuss his work. Under such unpromising circumstances, del Pozo was compelled to rely upon his own initiative and ingenuity. His accomplishments represented a triumph of dedication over adversity. An admiring Humboldt portrayed him reverently as a beacon of enlightenment, radiating learning in the ‘vast solitudes’ of the Llanos.
This article explores the pursuit of the natural sciences on the imperial periphery. The first section assesses the problems encountered by men of science in late colonial Spanish America. It examines the factors that inhibited scientific research and it considers how these impediments impacted upon the scholarly self-confidence of American-based savants. The second section explores, conversely, the scientific assets that creole naturalists did enjoy, and the arguments they mustered to enhance their credibility. It suggests that men of science on the imperial periphery compensated for their lack of formal training and the relative poverty of their equipment by emphasising their experience of and proximity to American nature. It also examines how some creoles questioned the applicability of old-world theories to new-world fauna and flora, subverting the models and systems that governed contemporary science.
Naturalists working on the margins of the Spanish empire recited a litany of woes. They depicted themselves as beleaguered and isolated savants, battling valiantly against apathy, inertia and outright hostility. They despaired that their measurements were inaccurate, their instruments imperfect and their ideas outdated. They envied their European counterparts, who enjoyed a level of fame and resources of which they could only dream, and they conjured a melancholy picture of embattled savants, passionate about their research but perpetually thwarted by almost insurmountable obstacles.
Painfully aware of the constraints under which they operated, naturalists on the imperial periphery explicitly contrasted their unenviable situation with that of more favoured European colleagues. The creole botanist/astronomer Francisco José de Caldas, writing to Humboldt in 1802, juxtaposed their respective positions. ‘What a difference there is in our work!’ exclaimed the New Granadan. ‘Humboldt, full of enlightenment, wise, in possession of excellent instruments and accompanied by Bonpland, that is to say, associated with Linnaeus; Caldas ignorant, obscure, with miserable instruments and alone’.2 The Spanish zoologist Félix de Azara, who languished in Paraguay for twenty years, professed similar distress in a letter to his elder brother Nicolas. Comparing his fate with that of his sibling, who was then ambassador to France, Azara sketched a sober picture. ‘ You have lived in the great world, and, through your elevated employments, talents, works and virtues, you have made yourself respected in Spain and beyond’, reflected Azara. ‘But I…have spent the best twenty years of my life in the most remote corner of the earth, forgotten even by my friends, without books or rational conversation and travelling continually through immense and horrifying deserts and forests, communicating only with the birds and the beasts’.3
Whilst these pitiful statements may not, as we shall see, offer an entirely truthful reflection of scientific life in the Spanish colonies, they do summarise the three main problems that afflicted creole naturalists – namely, inadequate access to books and instruments, lack of qualified instructors and lack of scholarly companionship. Insufficient acquaintance with modern scientific works made creole savants worry that their methods were outdated, or that their discoveries, which to them appeared novel, had already been superseded in Europe. Imperfect instruments eroded their faith in the accuracy of their observations, whilst an absence of educated persons with whom to discuss their findings engendered loneliness and uncertainty, as evidenced by the case of the Venezuelan del Pozo.
The paucity of up-to-date scholarly literature proved especially distressing to aspiring creole naturalists. This obstacle was articulated with particular poignancy by Caldas, who lamented the dearth of essential scientific texts in his native New Granada and interpreted their absence as a source of national disgrace. Writing to his friend Santiago Arroyo, Caldas questioned what contemporary Europeans would think if they knew of the colony’s bibliographical poverty.
If we were to say in Europe that there was a people with nearly three hundred years of existence, under the domination of a civilised nation…that there are schools, a university, doctors who inundate the towns, and if one were to say that amongst this people one cannot find a copy of Linnaeus’ Filosofía Botánica, that [the work of the] the Count of Buffon is rare, that one scarcely sees master works of any genre, would they not believe that we were speaking to them of the Kalmaks or the Tartars, or perhaps even of the Lapps?’4
Caldas, who had elsewhere caricatured the Lapps as an ‘ abject people’, must have shuddered at the prospect.5 The New Granadan was, indeed, so incensed by the inadequacy of his book supply that he reprised the theme in a later letter and once more chastised the intellectual backwardness of his homeland. ‘How certain it is that we are two centuries behind Europe!’ exclaimed Caldas. ‘When we are presented with a happy idea in the few old books that find their way into our hands, it is already two hundred years since it was put into practice amongst the civilised nations’.6
At the opposite end of the continent, in the city of Montevideo, the naturalist Dámaso Antonio Larrañaga suffered similar difficulties. A recent convert to the delights of botany, Larrañaga penned a rather desperate letter to the botanical society of Barcelona in which he summarised the impediments that had thus far obstructed his studies. ‘I have not known or communicated with any botanist’, bewailed Larrañaga. ‘[H]ere there are no herbariums or gardens, and, what is most painful to me, Books are very rare and expensive’.7 Little better was the situation of the self-taught Spanish zoologist Félix de Azara, dispatched to the Río de la Plata in 1781 to settle a border dispute with Portuguese-governed Brazil. Since Azara’s passion for natural history germinated after his arrival in the Americas, he encountered the same problems in accessing books as his creole counterparts and experienced similar distress. In fact, Azara was obliged to subsist upon a single book – Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle – for much of his time in the Americas. Not only was this work insufficient, but the copy with which Azara was supplied by the Viceroy, the Marques de Loreto, was José Clavijo-Fajardo’s Spanish translation, rather than the original French version, and, according at least to Azara’s French critics, contained some defective illustrations. When, for instance, Azara stigmatised the depictions of bats in Buffon’s text as ‘deserving of the most rigorous censure’, the translator of his Essais sur l’Histoire Naturelle des Quadrupèdes de la Province du Paraguay, Moreau-Saint-Méry, sprang to the defence of his compatriot, insisting that ‘this reproach applies to the plates of the Spanish [of the Histoire Naturelle], rather than to those in the French edition that I have designated’.8
Inadequate access to books was not the only difficulty that plagued creole naturalists; the acquisition and maintenance of scientific instruments presented similar problems. As Mauricio Nieto has commented ‘the comprehension of the world, in addition to being a conceptual problem is a technical problem’, as a result of which ‘scientific instruments are as necessary in order to be able to form part of the community of the natural sciences as are bibliographical references’.9 Creole naturalists duly struggled to obtain the precision instruments that they required in South America, where such technology was not readily available. They were obliged either to import coveted apparatus from Europe – a slow and costly process – or to manufacture it for themselves.
Emblematic of this predicament is Caldas, whose correspondence is littered with petitions for instruments and expressions of gratitude following their arrival. The American opened one letter to his patron José Celestino Mutis by confirming his receipt of ‘two good barometer tubes’.10 He closed another with an even more exuberant outpouring of appreciation - ‘How can I paint for you my recognition and my happiness that fortunate day on which I received the telescope and the chronometer?’11 – and he could hardly contain his delight when Humboldt offered to sell him an astronomical instrument. ‘Baron Humboldt proposed to me the sale of his excellent quarter circle’, rejoiced Caldas. ‘My heart pulsated upon hearing this advantageous offer [and] a multitude of thoughts filled my mind in that moment. Will I come to possess this masterpiece of [the renowned instrument-maker] Bird?’12
Sometimes sophisticated instruments proved unattainable, or the wait intolerable. When this occurred, Caldas manufactured his own equipment, as his correspondence again attests. Writing to his close friend Santiago Pérez Arroyo, the creole mentioned that he had recently ‘constructed a quarter circle of wood of seventeen French thumbs in radius’ which ‘he had divided with as much precision as was possible’.13 In a letter to the Viceroy of New Granada, Antonio Amar y Borbón, meanwhile, Caldas summarised his scientific career, describing how, as an adolescent, he developed a passion for astronomy. ‘In the silence and obscurity of Popayán I tried to form for myself a quarter circle, like that described by the excellent Jorge Juan in his Observaciones Astronómicas’, reminisced Caldas. ‘This wise Spaniard, a credit to the Nation and to the sciences, was my guide amidst the dense shadows that surrounded me. Thanks to an obstinate persistence, I formed my wooden quadrant, which I still preserve in Popayán, and with it I began my observations’.14
The creoles were not, of course, absolutely without scientific instruments, in spite of Caldas’ repeated protestations to the contrary. They were, however, relatively disadvantaged in instrumental terms, a fact that was forcibly impressed upon them by their encounters with European travellers such as Humboldt, who, according to David Brading, brandished ‘no less than thirty-six of the latest instruments made in Paris, so as to enable him to take observations of latitude, longitude, altitude, temperature, air pressure and magnetic readings’.15 The New Granadan Jerónimo Torres, recounting his meeting with Humboldt, reported that ‘I have seen his instruments, which we knew of here only by the word of mouth or from the press’.16 Caldas, meanwhile, listed the Prussian’s fantastic array of apparatus with quasi-religious reverence. ‘He has offered me his books’, rejoiced the creole, and ‘his instruments and the famous chronometer have been at my disposition. In meteorology I have seen Luc’s hygrometer… the eirometer, the eudiometer; I know their use and their results’. 17 Such encounters both invigorated and depressed creole experimenters like Caldas, Torres and Del Pozo, who were offered a tantalising glimpse of instruments that they themselves would thereafter be unable to obtain, or at least only at great personal expense and difficulty.
The discontents of creole savants in general and Caldas in particular could fill many volumes. At this juncture, however, it may be helpful to stop to consider three important questions. Firstly, how representative were these concerns? Secondly, how truthful were they? And thirdly, to what extent did the problems described actually impinge on the reception of scientific works produced in the colonies?
As far as the first and second questions go, there is certainly some evidence that creole naturalists exaggerated their difficulties. Thomas Glick and David Quinlan have argued, in the case of Azara, that the ‘myth of the isolated Spanish genius corresponds not so much to the objective reality of the practice of science by its most outstanding Spanish exponents, as to the perception of the role of science in Spanish society as perceived by participants and observers alike’.18 Renan Silva has observed, likewise, how a broadening and increasing secularisation in the Atlantic book trade towards the end of the eighteenth century improved access to scientific works for the inhabitants of New Granada, whilst Humboldt, who scrutinised the personal library of José Celestino Mutis, director of the Botanical Expedition of New Granada, pronounced it one of the most complete he had seen. ‘ After that of [Joseph] Banks in London’, Humboldt informed his brother Wilhelm, ‘I have never seen a botanical library as large as that of Mutis’.19 Caldas, as a protégé of Mutis, would have been able to use some of these resources, and he certainly exploited his contacts with the Spanish savant and other obliging patrons to import some of the precision instruments he required.
These examples suggest that not all of the creole naturalists’ most self-deprecating comments should be taken at face value. Sometimes references to problems and impediments may be interpreted as a pre-emptive strike on the part of Americans, calculated to disarm European critics. Sometimes such pitiful tales of adversity may have been tactical manoeuvres, inserted in letters and texts to enhance the reader’s surprise and admiration at their author’s subsequent erudition. And sometimes expressions of self-effacement should be construed as part of a more general scholarly culture, in which, as Susan Scott Parrish has observed, ‘ to demure about your scientific knowledge was to show your social knowledge’.20
Moreover, we cannot assume that conditions were identical throughout the Spanish colonies. Some regions undoubtedly enjoyed better access to the metropolis than others, and scientific literature and equipment were unsurprisingly more readily obtainable in major colonial centres than in isolated backwaters. Whilst Larrañaga grumbled about the dearth of books in Montevideo, for example, the Peruvian Unanue quoted liberally from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1800) in his 1806 treatise on El Clima de Lima, indicating his familiarity with this relatively recent work. And whilst Caldas despaired at the tardy arrival of scientific literature in Popayán, José Antonio Alzate advertised the Parte Teórica del Curso Elemental de Botánica to the public in his periodical, the Gazeta de México. The Mexican informed readers that this work, ‘formed on the orders of His Majesty for the benefit of the Disciples and Aficionados of this important Science’, could be purchased for one peso at the offices of the Gazeta.21 Alzate also claimed that Bomare’s Dictionnaire d’Histoire Naturelle was to be ‘ found in almost all the libraries of the lovers of Nature’ in New Spain, suggesting its relatively wide circulation in the colony.22
Important as the above qualifications are, there was nevertheless a kernel of truth in the concerns articulated by creole naturalists. Whilst their situation was not always as dire as their portrayed it, most American savants were relatively impoverished in their access to books, instruments and forums for scientific discussion compared to their counterparts in Madrid, London or Paris, and, perhaps more important, the majority believed themselves to be at a disadvantage in these areas. This conviction – valid or not – influenced their self-perception and self-presentation. It induced a sense of inferiority and dependence on the part of some Americans, and led them to characterise their encounters with European scholars as moments of revelation or epiphany. Typical of this trait was Caldas, who, writing to his friend Antonio Arboleda in 1802, described his meeting with Humboldt as a cathartic experience. ‘How much have I learned in eighteen days!’ stuttered the creole. ‘In astronomy I hardly know myself; a dense mist has been dissipated before my eyes, and since I already had many works begun and almost concluded, I was only lacking the hand of a master to give them the ultimate perfection’.23
Did European readers really judge colonial naturalists harshly on account of their limited training, their crude instruments or their minimal acquaintance with scientific literature? Often, as we saw in the case of del Pozo, they reacted with surprise and delight at finding men of science in distant, little known countries, and they absolved peripheral savants of any minor misconceptions or inaccuracies. There were, however, instances in which Europeans censured certain aspects of the latters’ work, and we find a good illustration of this in the reception of Azara’s notes on Paraguay’s birds and quadrupeds, published early in the nineteenth century.
Fig. 2: Félix de Azara, by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1805
Introducing his English translation of the work, William Perceval Hunter remarked that ‘the numerous works of natural history which have since the beginning of the present century issued from the press have not been less distinguished for the immense body of new and original facts they have presented than for the animated, brilliant and often masterly style in which they have been narrated’. The Briton cautioned his readers not to expect such exquisite prose from Azara. He conceded that ‘those…who in this work look for the chaste and classical style of Cuvier, the poetic diction of Wilson, the gorgeous colouring and sonorous cadences of Buffon and von Humboldt, the elegant simplicity of White or the nervous eloquence and brilliant bursts of enthusiasm so delightful in the works of Audubon and Le Vailliant will be disappointed’. He prepared his audience instead for ‘a plain, unvarnished narrative of facts, professedly given as notes or rough sketches – a style simple indeed – and not always devoid of vigour, but seldom elegant and generally coarse’. 24
Azara’s French critics also pounced on his stylistic blunders, though they were less concerned about the lyricism of the Spaniard’s prose and more troubled by his intemperate treatment of their countryman Buffon, whose conclusions he frequently disputed. Charles Anathuse de Walckenaer, the translator of Viajes por la América Meridional, objected to Azara’s overly strident denunciations of Buffon’s mistakes, which he felt ‘gives his style an abrasiveness and a decisive tone that puts it at a disadvantageous contrast to the moderation that scientific investigations demand, in which the most well educated and experienced practitioner is not immune from falling into error’. 25Mérédic-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint Méry, translator of Quadrúpedos, likewise winced at some of the Spaniard’s expressions. The Frenchman admitted that many of Azara’s criticisms of Buffon had substance. He regretted, nevertheless, the frequency of these tirades and judged some of the Spaniard’s comments ‘a little severe’ for the genre of natural history.26
What was at issue in both of these cases was scholarly etiquette. Disagreement was clearly an essential element of all forms of scientific research, yet contemporary codes of conduct enshrined the ability to ‘demur without discourtesy’ as vital to the continuation of amicable academic debate, and tacitly precluded any comments that impugned the honour or credibility of a participant. In practice, this meant that men of science had to finesse their criticisms in order to minimise offence. They had to refrain from using incendiary terms such as ‘error’ or ‘falsity’ and to guard against any expressions that questioned not merely the accuracy of an observation, but the integrity and truthfulness of the observer.27
Azara flouted these unwritten rules when he unceremoniously mauled Buffon and his informants. His blunt rebuttals scandalised sensitive French reviewers, and one, Charles Nicolas Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncour, felt obliged to interject with squeals of indignation throughout his 1809 translation of the Spaniard’s Pájaros. Amidst a heated debate as to whether ynambu birds perched in trees (Sonnini thought they did, Azara was adamant that they did not), the French ornithologist accused Azara of ‘having violated, in respect to Buffon, in respect to many respected observers, and in respect to myself, all the rules of honesty and decency’.28 Elsewhere, in a discussion of the anno-guazu, Sonnini surmised that any differences between Buffon’s account of the bird and that offered by Azara stemmed from the fact that the former’s description was based on specimens from French Guiana, whilst the latter’s focused on the Paraguayan variant of the species. ‘This conclusion seems to me more natural, and above all more decent than the formal contradictions addressed by M. d’Azara to the chevalier Lefèvre-Deshayes, an estimable personage in all regards, who had supplied Buffon with some very interesting and very just remarks on the subject of the anis’, commented Sonnini. The Frenchman reproached Azara for describing Deshayes’ description as ‘full of falsities and lies’ – a major indiscretion in scholarly circles - and he remarked acidly that were ‘such a tone of criticism’ to become acceptable, then ‘Natural History would soon resemble an arena of gladiators’, rather than a decorous community of scholars.29
Azara was not, of course, the only naturalist to dispense with rhetorical niceties. What is interesting about his case, however, is the way in which both Walckenaer and Saint-Méry attributed his rather abrupt put downs to his long exile on the imperial periphery, where opportunities for ‘civilised’ conversation were limited. Walcknaer reasoned, for example that Azara’s ‘distance [from Europe/civilisation] and his own obscurity exaggerated the authority of Buffon’, leading him to issue a more vigorous rebuttal than was necessary.30 Moreau-Saint-Méry hypothesised, similarly, that ‘after a sojourn of twenty years in South America, amongst men of whom few were his social equals, the tone of a reproach could not be expected to be rigorously in unison with European urbanity’, suggesting that Azara, accustomed to issuing orders to his inferiors, had forgotten how to address polite corrections to his fellow scholars.31 Significantly, Azara himself, perhaps aware that he had been a little hard on Buffon, invoked his working environment as an excuse, imploring those who felt that he had ‘forgotten the respect due to such an illustrious personage…to consider that my zeal for the truth is the only cause, and that I have written full of sadness and melancholy, despairing of ever freeing myself from these sad solitudes and the society of animals’.32 Comments such as these perpetuated the image of America as a vast, untamed wilderness, an ideal venue for gathering exotic specimens, but a less than ideal arena in which to conduct scholarly debates.
The Experience of a Lifetime So far we have outlined the problems that creole naturalists faced. We have emphasised the disadvantages under which they operated and the insecurities that these engendered, suggesting a need for European acceptance and vindication. Creole naturalists, however, were not entirely submissive. They did not always defer unquestioningly to the authority of their European counterparts, but, on the contrary, rallied to defend their homeland – usually conceived in regional rather than continental terms – from the slurs of European philosophers such as Buffon and de Pauw. They disputed allegations that new-world nature was smaller, weaker and less perfect than that of the Old World. They also resented attempts to incorporate American plants and animals into classificatory systems concocted in Europe, celebrating instead the uniqueness of local nature.
Creole objections to European science arose most forcefully in response to provocative slights on their homeland. These insults surfaced initially in the work of the French naturalist, the Comte de Buffon, who concluded in his celebrated Histoire Naturelle (1761) that America was colder and wetter than the Old World, and its fauna, correspondingly, smaller and weaker. They were perpetuated by the Prussian philosopher Cornelius de Pauw, who appropriated and sensationalised this theory of new-world degeneration.
In his incendiary Recherches Philosophiques sur les Américains (1770), de Pauw disparaged American nature as by turns pitiful and monstrous. The Prussian dismissed the ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ of the New World as ‘bastardised, small, pusillanimous and a thousand times less dangerous than those of Asia and of Africa’. 33 He sneered that American mammals were ‘a sixth smaller than their counterparts in the old continent’,34 and he objected to the ‘abnormal’ forms of the tapir, the anteater and the sloth, which had different numbers of toes on their fore and hind legs.35 De Pauw alleged that European creatures transplanted to America deteriorated in its unhealthy climate, with the single exception of the pig, ‘which has there acquired a surprising corpulence’.36 He also hypothesised that the cold, dank conditions made the New World a paradise for noxious insects and unsavoury reptiles, which flourished in this squalid environment. ‘Panama is afflicted by serpents’, alleged de Pauw, ‘Cartagena by swarms of enormous bats [and] Portobello by toads’.37
Creoles unsurprisingly reacted angrily to inferences that America’s climate was insalubrious, issuing spirited rebuttals. The exiled Jesuit Juan de Velasco denied that America was awash with venomous insects and reptiles. He assured readers of his Historia del Reino de Quito (1789) that ‘there is no country comparable to Quito in cleanliness, and lacking almost totally in all that signifies danger, discomfort or annoyance to human life’.38 The Spaniard Félix de Azara, meanwhile, challenged Buffon’s assertion that old-world mammals dwarfed their American counterparts.39 ‘If my monkeys do not equal [in size] those of Africa’, stated Azara, ‘nor my curés the warthog, then my ferrets exceed the African variety…my otter surpasses that of Europe, my vizcacha the marmot, my armadillos the pangolin and the bull of Montevideo that of Salamanca’.40
Whilst some creole responses remained at the level of affronted denials, others blossomed into a more sophisticated critique of scientific assumptions and methodologies. They questioned not merely the conclusions to which Buffon and others had come, but also, more radically, the manner in which those conclusions had been reached. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra contends, for example, that the creoles ‘launched a formidable attack upon the reliability of travellers’ testimony’ and favoured, by contrast, their own sustained contact with new-world nature.41 Antonio Lafuente also diagnoses a more profound basis to creole polemics. Assessing the tensions between metropolitan and peripheral science in late imperial New Granada and New Spain, Lafuente identifies a multifaceted tussle for credibility that pitted ‘public against private, the theoretical against the pragmatic, the paradigmatic against the local, academic interest against patriotic interest and study in the cabinet against study in the field’.42 These contests signified a clash between the universal and the local in which the creoles summoned personal experience, indigenous traditions and regional curiosities to mount an assault upon European knowledge systems.
David Livingstone has argued that different spaces and places spawn different credibility strategies that determine the validity of the scientific knowledge that is produced in them. One of the most piquant rivalries at the turn of the nineteenth century centred on the antagonistic truth claims of the travelling naturalist, who explored distant lands in search of exotic specimens, and his sedentary counterpart, who operated within the confines of the metropolitan museum, botanical garden or natural history cabinet. In her article ‘New Spaces in Natural History’, Dorinda Outram shows how these distinct breeds of naturalist marshalled different place-specific arguments to enhance their scientific status. The intrepid travelling savant witnessed nature in the flesh, active, tantalising, alive, and founded his scientific authority on his proximity to the natural world, and his knowledge of species in their native environment. The museum-based naturalist, by contrast, only saw nature at one remove, faded, static and lifeless. Unable to claim the same intimacy with his subjects as the scientific explorer, he focused instead upon his ability to compare species from different corners of the globe, to touch and measure elusive or vicious animals and to survey nature’s productions calmly and thoroughly, free from the dangers and distractions that plagued his travelling counterpart.43
The Spaniard Azara exemplified the stance of the travelling naturalist. Having scrutinised Paraguay’s birds and mammals in situ, for more than twenty years, Azara unsurprisingly trumpeted the benefits of direct observation. He emphasised that he had written descriptions of American species ‘in their presence’, and proclaimed himself less susceptible to error than ‘those who have seen [them] weakened, bald and dirty in cages and chains’ or ‘those who have searched for them in Cabinets, where, in spite of the greatest care, the ravages of time must have greatly altered their colours…and where no skin or skeleton, not even the best prepared, gives a precise idea of their forms and measurements’.44
Another Spaniard, José Clavijo-Fajardo, made the case for the sedentary naturalist. As deputy director of Madrid’s Real Gabinete de Historia Natural, Clavijo did not have the opportunity to view his subjects in their natural habitats, or to study their behaviour whilst alive. The Spaniard insisted, nevertheless, that there were some things that a travelling naturalist could not do, and he savoured the advantages offered by a museum, which ‘presents the treasures of nature to us with method and order’. ‘In [a cabinet of natural history] we can observe and touch the most ferocious animals, we can approach them without fear or difficulty and take the dimensions of their skeletons’ meditated Clavijo. ‘ There ceases the natural restlessness and volubility of the birds, and their rest permits us to examine tranquilly their most delicate features’.45 The travelling naturalist, presented with vibrant, disordered nature, did not have the time or the facilities to engage in such studious contemplation; he forfeited overview for immediacy.
Where did creole naturalists fit within this framework? In many ways, their position approximated more closely to that of the travelling savant than to his sedentary counterpart. From their vantage point on the imperial periphery, American men of science rebuked immobile theorists such as Buffon and de Pauw for judging American phenomena from a distance, and they based their own scientific credibility upon their prolonged experience of local nature. Whilst creole naturalists challenged the conclusions of sedentary savants, however, they did not entirely subscribe to the rationale of the scientific explorer. On the contrary, several creoles also attacked the authority of travelling naturalists, whose fleeting visit to their territories exposed them to error and precluded the kind of intensive study that was necessary to properly understand American nature.
The Ecuadorian Jesuit Juan de Velasco proffered precisely these arguments in his 1789 Historia del Reino de Quito. Opening the natural history section of the work, Velasco chastised those European philosophers who ‘without moving themselves from the Old World, have traced such a sad anatomy of the New’.46 The Ecuadorian pledged ‘to refute the calumnies, falsities and errors of some modern writers, especially foreigners’, and he extended his critique to travelling naturalists, who witnessed only a small part of America but then extrapolated from their observations to include the entire continent. The French academician Charles Marie de la Condamine, for example, had claimed that all American birds were mute, and that ‘one scarcely finds one with a harmonious song’. Velasco retorted that La Condamine was speaking ‘only of those that he saw and observed in the province of Maynas’ when he made this generalisation; if the Frenchman had explored the colder regions of the kingdom, then he would have found numerous birds with indisputably angelic voices.47
Velasco juxtaposed the ignorance of armchair philosophers with his own intimate knowledge of Quito’s natural treasures. His text is peppered with expressions such as ‘I have seen’ and ‘I was eyewitness to’, and he emphasised both his proximity to American wildlife and his sustained and repeated observation of natural phenomena. Prefacing his discussion of South American mammals, for instance, Velasco promised to talk about Quito’s ninety different species of quadruped ‘according to what I have seen myself, with the experience of so many years’.48 The Jesuit announced that he had seen a manatee ‘with my own eyes’,49 that he had seen a species of bear called the ucumari ‘frequently’50 and that he ‘saw [pacos and llamas] daily for many years’.51 He also described how he had examined the cadaver of a man-eating puma in 1741, insisting that Buffon’s claims about the cowardice of this animal were wrong, something he would have known if he had ever witnessed one in action. ‘Those who have not seen it deny that there is a true lion in America’, scoffed Velasco. ‘But what does it matter if they are laughed at by all those who have either better information or personal experience?’ 52
Another creole to espouse the virtues of direct observation was the New Granadan, Caldas. Opening a treatise on the influence of climate on living things, Caldas announced that he would always be ‘guided by the torch of observation’, even if his results contradicted the findings of established thinkers. ‘My knees will bend before no philosopher’ declared the creole, for the views of Newton, Buffon or Montesquieu, ‘count for little if reason and experience do not confirm them’. 53 Caldas, like Velasco, also implicated the travelling naturalist in his censures. Upon hearing of Humboldt’s forthcoming expedition to South America, the New Granadan voiced some doubts as to the prospective achievements of his research, concerned that such a fleeting visit would only perpetuate existing misconceptions. ‘Can we expect anything useful and wise from a man who is going to traverse the Kingdom [of New Granada] with the greatest speed?’ questioned Caldas. ‘Is it to be believed that he will make good astronomical, physical, mineralogical and botanical observations in three or four months?’ And was there not a danger that Humboldt would ‘fill Europe with preoccupations and false reports, as almost all travellers have done?’54
Putting Nature in its place
Creole naturalists thus sought intellectual validation in their local knowledge and experience. They also authenticated their claims with reference to another resource – the accumulated expertise of indigenous people, which their familiarity with native languages permitted them to access. Creole savants frequently accused Europeans of distorting American nature because they misinterpreted native taxonomies. They prescribed the study of Amerindian tongues as essential to the acquisition of natural knowledge.
A key advocate of linguistic proficiency was the Mexican Clavijero. Reviewing the work of Buffon, Clavijero suspected that the Frenchman had underestimated the number of quadrupeds in America because he did not understand Indian animal names. The naturalist consequently amalgamated species that should have been classified separately. ‘Had Buffon known Nahuatl and, more important, had he spent time in Mexico, he would have realised that the species he placed into a single category were in fact separate and distinct’, conjectured Clavijero.55
The Chilean Molina concurred with this view, ascribing negative perceptions of America’s mammals to errors in nomenclature. ‘Nothing has been so pernicious to the natural history of America as the abuse that has been made, and that continues to be made, of nomenclature’, fumed Molina, for it was the tendency to bestow old-world names upon new-world creatures on the basis of some spurious analogy that led the latter to be seen as ‘inferior’ versions of beasts to which they were not even remotely related. ‘A very respectable modern author who believes the degeneration of the animals of America to be evident, cites as proof of his opinion the American Myrmecophaga [anteater], known vulgarly as the ‘ant-bear’, dismissing it as a degenerate branch of the bear family’, snorted Molina. ‘But since all naturalists are agreed that this small quadruped differs from the bear not only in the genus, but also in the order, there is no reason to view it as a bastard variety of a species with which it has never had the slightest affinity’.56
Another writer to champion linguistic accuracy was Azara. The Spaniard seems to have mastered at least a smattering of Guaraní during his time in Paraguay, and he, like Clavijero, ascribed many of Buffon’s blunders to his reliance upon non-Guaraní-speaking travellers. Describing a species of cat called the Mbaracayá, for instance, Azara charted the various names that travellers had assigned this beast and curtly dismissed them all:
Buffon describes it as Maragüa or Maragayá, which he supposes to be the name they give it in Brazil, following Abbeville in this. Marcgrave calls in Maracayá, and Barrère Malakayá. But all of these names are altered, and it should be as I write it.57
Touring the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in 1803, Azara was equally critical. The Spaniard detected many creatures that he considered inappropriately labelled, and he insinuated that the names of these animals had mutated as much as their colours and forms. ‘The names have suffered no fewer alterations’, asserted Azara, ‘to the extent that they would be unintelligible in the country inhabited by those same animals’.58
A familiarity with indigenous languages was thus crucial for the accurate identification of new-world plants and animals. Some patriotic creoles went further than this, however, suggesting that Amerindian plant and animal names were actually more useful than the Latin binomials devised by Linnaeaus because, unlike the latter, they often conveyed information about their uses.59 Where Linnaeus’ binomial system divorced American species from their natural environment, focusing purely on those features that related to their classification, Amerindian naming practices tended to reflect the virtues, location or physical appearance of a plant. They indicated at a glance what illnesses a herb could be used to treat, what it looked like, and where it was to be found.
One enthusiastic supporter of Indian plant nomenclature was the Mexican Alzate. In a letter printed in the Gazeta de México (24 June, 1788), Alzate criticised Linnaean taxonomy – newly introduced to Mexico by the botanical expedition of Martín Sessé – as ‘fatuous’ and unhelpful, because its Latinate binomials obscured the virtues of plants and taxed the human memory. Alzate protested that ‘to want to substitute languages is an extravagance’. 60 He commended instead Nahua plant names, which encapsulated the properties of Mexican species and communicated in an instant their medicinal, alimentary or material uses. ‘If a new Botanical Language were to be formed in this way it would be of great utility to the Public’, concluded Alzate, ‘but to borrow Greek words forged amidst the ices of Denmark is a mistake’.61
Caldas concurred with this view. In the preface to his translation of Humboldt’s Géographie des Plantes, the New Granadan extolled the virtues of Quechua naming conventions, which like their Nahuatl equivalents, referenced the appearance, location or uses of native plants, and he reflected that ‘the Peruvians, always precise and always careful in giving things names derived from their properties, their virtues, their figure, their position etc., named the herbs according to their virtues and uses in medicine, in the arts and in society’. 62Like Alzate, Caldas compared Quechua naming practices favourably with Linnaeus’ Latin binomials, which, instead of communicating the characteristics of a plant, commemorated the achievements of famous (and not so famous) men. He questioned ‘What idea the words discorea, plinia, buffonica, boerhavia, sigesvechia can give us of a plant?’ and concluded that ‘they tell us nothing, other than that there has been a Dioscorides, a Pliny, a Buffon, a Linneus, a Boerhaave, to whose memory these plants have been consecrated’.63
A similar pattern emerges if we study natural history illustrations. Like Linnaean taxonomy, late eighteenth-century natural history illustrations tended to de-contextualise their subjects. They privileged those parts of a plant or animal that were essential for accurate classification in accordance with the Linnaean system, but omitted details that were superfluous to this purpose – such as the roots of plants - obliterating any indication of where species lived and how they behaved.
Naturalists working on the imperial periphery sometimes subtly subverted these conventions, developing their own distinct artistic styles. Beth Fowkes Tobin suggests that the intricate botanical drawings sketched by Mughal artists for the East India Company in the 1790s borrowed from native traditions, even though these artists worked under the supervision of British botanists.64 Daniela Bleichmar intimates, similarly, that Spanish botanist José Celestino Mutis’ American artists also evolved their own unique style, including ‘a stronger penchant for symmetry’ and the use of ‘denser colours’. 65 These and other deviations were, she contends, deliberate, and did not result from the Americans’ inferior skill.
If Mutis’ botanical illustrations deviated perceptibly from their European counterparts then the natural history images collated by Jaime Baltasar Martínez y Compañón, Bishop of Trujillo, represented an even more radical departure from established artistic conventions. Stationed in Peru from 1767 to 1790, Compañón supplemented his pastoral obligations with the study of local fauna and flora. The Bishop, like Mutis, enlisted American artists to sketch the natural products of his diocese. He dispatched the resulting series of watercolours to Spain, along with a selection of ethnographic artefacts.66
Trujillo’s natural history illustrations fluctuated in quality. Some were relatively crude in appearance, whilst others evidenced a greater degree of skill and sophistication. What many of Trujillo’s prints shared, however, and what differentiated them from the output of contemporary European artists, was the effort they made to situate Peruvian fauna and flora within naturalistic settings. They sketched plants and animals in their entirety, rather than portraying a single branch against a white background, and they attempted to capture their interactions with other living things.
Illustrative of this approach are Trujillo’s zoological prints, which often allude to the dietary habits of their subjects, or document the function of their most notable body parts. Trujillo’ s anteater, for instance, excavates an anthill, the startled inhabitants of which scuttle obligingly up the insectivore’s outstretched tongue (Fig.1), whilst his ‘large tiger’, cavorts nonchalantly up a hillside (Fig.2). The Bishop’s chameleon is positioned next to a conveniently coloured sprig of leaves, to showcase the efficacy of its curious defence mechanism (Fig.3). His chipichipi retains its expressive Amerindian name, and all of his monkeys appear in the act of eating – the lion monkey clasps half a melon between its toes (Fig.4), the black monkey savours a freshly peeled banana (Fig.5), and the white monkey is about to sink its teeth into an orange. Trujillo’s watercolours thus reference the sustenance and hunting techniques of Peruvian animals. They indicate how they relate to other living things, and how their anatomical features equip them to survive in their native environment. 67
Fig.1: Oso hormiguero, Trujillo del Perú, Vol VI, Plate 39
Fig.2: Tigre Grande, Trujillo Del Perú, Vol.VI, Plate 36
Fig.3: Camaleón, Trujillo del Perú, Vol VI, Plate 77
Fig.4: Mono Leoncito, Trujillo del Perú, Vol.VI, Plate 16
Fig.5: Mono Negro, Trujillo del Perú, Vol IV, Plate 12
The distinctive qualities of Trujillo’s watercolours emerge most clearly when we compare them to, more orthodox zoological and botanical drawings, which tended to divorce their subjects from their native environment. Emblematic of this approach were the zoological illustrations in Juan Bautista Bru’s Colección de láminas que representan los animales y monstruos del Real Gabinete de Historia Natural de Madrid (1784), a selection of illustrations featuring animals from the Real Gabinete. Introducing the work, Bru announced explicitly that he had concentrated ‘most particularly in this collection on that which relates to the structure of the animals, rather than that which concerns their habits’.68 The Spaniard inserted a small scale in the corner of his paintings, to help viewers calculate the true dimensions of the beasts depicted, but he suppressed any reference to their behaviour or to their relations with other species, portraying them in static, rigid poses. Where Trujillo’s anteater molests an anthill, for example, Bru’s specimen stands stiffly on a generic piece of turf, one foot raised to better display its powerful digging claws and its glorious tongue tucked away (Fig.6). And where the Bishop’s ‘tiger’ frolics merrily up a hillside, Bru’s leopard adopts a rather unnatural posture and fixes the viewer with a vacant, glassy-eyed stare (Fig.7). The Spanish artist thus sacrificed naturalistic poses for anatomical accuracy, extracting his subjects from their native environment. The more holistic approach of Trujillo’s artists, meanwhile, was in keeping with the broader belief, espoused by several creoles, that new-world nature needed to be studied in situ, and in relation to other living things.
Fig.6: ‘Oso Palmera’, from Bru de Ramón, Juan Bautista, Colección de laminas que representan los animales y monstruos del Real Gabinete de Historia Natural, Madrid, Imprenta de Andres de Sotos, 1784-1786, Vol. II p.34
Fig.7: ‘Leopardo’, from Bru de Ramón, Juan Bautista, Colección de laminas que representan los animales y monstruos del Real Gabinete de Historia Natural, Madrid, Imprenta de Andres de Sotos, 1784-1786, Vol. II p.22
To some extent, the study of nature fortified creole patriotism. It convinced Americans of the economic and scientific potential of their native regions. It fostered a sense of epistemological solidarity in opposition to armchair philosophers and travellers, and it inspired creole naturalists to undertake research that would honour and glorify their native lands. The New Granadan Francisco Antonio Zea proclaimed that ‘the animal kingdom alone could occupy our future naturalists for many years and be a fertile source of riches when we begin to open our eyes to our interests’.69 An article in the Mercurio Peruano declared that ‘the Natural History of Peru is fertile in prodigies’, predicting that ‘all the systems that have been devised in Europe concerning this material will be subject to a thousand amplifications when they are applied here’, 70 whilst Caldas cast New Granada as an ideal theatre for scientific investigations, in which ‘aromas, balsams, precious woods, different palm trees, medicinal herbs, unknown flowers, colourful birds, bands of saínos (sustajassu L.), numerous families of monkeys, diverse amphibians, useful insects, [and] venomous reptiles call the attention of naturalists’.71
Whilst the study of nature thus quickened patriotic sentiments and engendered tensions between metropolitan and colonial savants, it should not necessarily be interpreted as some kind of catalyst for political independence. Once the independence process was underway, a number of American naturalists did support the patriot cause, and some perished at the hands of royalist troops – notably Caldas, executed on the orders of General Pablo Morillo in 1816. The actions of these individuals in the chaotic years after 1808 do not, however, reflect their attitudes and expectations prior to Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, and an examination of their pre-1808 writings suggests a more conservative, more nuanced conception of the function and significance of their scientific attainments. Renan Silva states, for instance, that ‘there is not a single text by the [New Granadan] ilustrados, of those that are known, that enables one to confirm, before 1808, [the existence of] an idea of nation distinct from the Spanish nation’.72 Lucia Duque Muñoz contends, similarly, that creole savants evinced ‘a sentiment of belonging towards Spain’, a feeling of ‘pride towards their peninsular ancestors’ and a desire to defend the metropolis from the slanders of northern European critics.73
Caldas exemplifies this stance. Though occasionally critical of the Spanish authorities for their lack of support, and of Mutis for his failure to accord the creole a more prominent position within the Botanical Expedition of New Granada, Caldas generally emphasised his fidelity to Spain, graciously accepting the encouragement he received from Spanish officials and applauding the accomplishments of Spanish savants. Writing to the Viceroy Antonio José Amar y Borbón as late as 1809, the creole reported that he had baptised two species of plant in his honour – amaria puctea and amaria violácea.74 Elsewhere, in a study of Bogotá’s geography, Caldas enunciated some equally laudatory comments about a Spanish subject, in this case the cartographer Salvador Fidalgo. The creole praised the accuracy of Fidalgo’s hydrographical charts, which ‘have assured forever the fortune and lives of all those who navigate our seas’, and he also adduced the achievements of the cartographer and several of his compatriots as evidence of the injustice of Nicolas Masson de Morvillier’s notorious portrayal of Spain in the Encyclopédie article ‘Espagne’. ‘It has been said that the Maritime Atlas of Spain, produced by the famous Tofiño, is an irreproachable response to Masson’s infamous question: what has Spain done for humanity’, snorted Caldas. ‘We could add that the hydrographical charts of Fidalgo will puncture the pride of this impudent geographer [Masson] who has insulted an enlightened and generous nation, and that the country [patria] of Juan, Ulloa, Mazarredo, Tofiño, Mendoza, Doz, Chaix, Galeano, Churruca, Ciscar and a numerous army of men famous in the sciences will oppose him as proof without question of its progress and enlightenment’. 75 Caldas thus defended Spain’s much maligned scientific record, as well as stressing the scholarly achievements of his fellow New Granadans.76
If the stance of creole naturalists did not amount to a full-blown repudiation of Spanish rule, however, then it did betray a growing sense of regional pride and a subtle difference in emphasis. Where Spanish savants viewed America as a source of natural riches for Spain’s use, their creole counterparts concentrated on the advantages they offered to their individual homelands. And where Spaniards solicited specimens for the Real Jardín Botánico and the Real Gabinete, American scholars, whilst providing copious plants and animals for their Spanish masters,77 dreamed of establishing similar institutions in their native colonies. As Nieto has commented in his analysis of the authors of the Semanario del Reino de Nueva Granada, ‘if we consider it problematic to identify the thinking of the creole elites whom we find in the Semanario with the ideals of national independence, we may see them as expressions of private interests, relevant to the social groups to which the authors belong, that on occasion differ from, and even enter into conflict with, the political and commercial projects of the peninsula’.78
This conflict in priorities emerges quite clearly if we compare two different assessments of Mutis’ botanical establishment in New Granada. The first assessment, penned by Mutis’ creole protégé, the zoologist Jorge Tadeo Lozano, focused on the benefits that the botanical expedition would confer upon Mutis’ adopted patria and cast the Spanish botanist as an honorary American. The second evaluation, contained within a letter by the Spanish General Pascual Enrile during the pacification campaign of 1816, emphasised the expedition’s contribution to metropolitan science. Enrile portrayed Mutis unambiguously as a Spanish patriot and a credit to the land of his birth.79
Lozano’s account of the botanical expedition synthesised fidelity to the Crown with a tacit regional pride. The creole characterised the Real Expedición Botánica de Santa Fé de Bogotá as ‘the most beautiful in the city, and the most suitable for exciting the tender affection of vassals towards the sovereign that protects and sustains it in order to make them happy’. He proceeded, however, to enumerate the agricultural and scientific benefits that the expedition would bequeath specifically to New Granada, before terminating his summary with a blend of imperial and patriotic optimism. ‘On the precious life of the Director [Mutis] depends not only the completion of his masterful works, a glorious monument that will immortalise their Author, the Nation that produced him [Spain] and the pious Monarch who has sustained him’, rhapsodised Lozano,
but also the realisation of the vast and patriotic projects that he has meditated, including the building in the Real Casa de la Expedición of two facades in whose enclosure one may comfortably position the library, the cabinet of natural history and a chemical laboratory, leaving between these buildings enough space for a botanical garden that may serve as a school for this faculty, with everything at the disposition of the public, who may enjoy it on certain days designated for that purpose.
The creole rejoiced that ‘when this comes to pass, the capital of Santa Fé de Bogotá can glory in possessing in its centre a complete museum’. He anticipated that the latter would facilitate ‘brilliant discoveries that are directly useful to the human race in general and in particular to these Provinces, which through its offices will extract the value from the exquisite and numerous productions with which Nature has enriched in the three kingdoms mineral, vegetable and animal’.80
If Lozano thus relished both the regional and imperial benefits of Mutis’ expedition, Enrile, by contrast, trumpeted only the latter. The Spanish General adjudged Mutis’ contribution to science ‘an immortal work...that provides authentic and evident testimony to the enlightenment of the Spanish Nation’. He grudgingly acknowledged the input of creole savants such as Caldas and Rizo, who had done an impressive job of mapping the viceroyalty and charting its fauna and flora, but he remarked with undisguised bitterness that the knowledge acquired by these individuals ‘had turned them against the very people to whom they owed their enlightenment’. Concluding his report, Enrile explained that he had salvaged what he could from Mutis’ battered establishment, remitting to the crown ‘all that corresponds to botany’ as well as ‘ the largest known grain of platinum and a young, monstrous and rare eagle’, and he expressed the hope that these remissions would further ‘the progress of the human race’ (not specifically the inhabitants of New Granada). The Spaniard closed his letter with a ringing endorsement of his superior General Pablo Morillo who, ‘ chosen to destroy discord in the vast possessions of the king in Costa Firme, has not only achieved this rapidly, and at minimal cost, but has not found sufficient obstacles from the Mexican empire to that of Peru to distract him from presenting such beautiful offerings to the temple of Science’.81
To conclude, therefore, the position of creole savants was in many ways rather schizophrenic. On the one hand naturalists working on the imperial periphery craved the praise and acceptance of their European colleagues, and coveted the chance to participate in old-world scholarly circles, even in the most trivial manner. On the other hand, however, peripheral scholars staked their scientific authority on foundations that implicitly challenged the credibility of travellers and sedentary savants. They resented misrepresentations of their homeland. They championed scientific projects that conferred tangible benefits on their native regions – rather than the Spanish empire as a whole – and they insisted that their own ingenuity, coupled with the staggering natural riches of America, permitted the creation of a form of science that was not merely imitative, but that boasted some distinctive features of its own. The New Granadan Caldas thus swaggered that his idea of mapping the geographical distribution of plants originated not from the Spaniard Mutis, but was entirely of his own invention, since ‘ neither Mutis nor all of his dependents can deny that I have not learned this general and philosophical manner of looking at vegetation in his house, where no-one has ever thought of leaving the common and well-trodden path’. The Mexican Alzate gloated that ‘ there are in New Spain productions that invalidate and overturn all hypotheses and established botanical systems’, whilst Trujillo’s American artists depicted several local species that even Linnaeus would have struggled to classify (Fig. 8 and 9). Such attitudes did not necessarily preclude collaboration with the imperial authorities in the collection of specimens, nor did they preclude a broader, collective pride in the intellectual achievements of the Hispanic world. They did nevertheless occasion certain tensions between imperial and peripheral scholars that sometimes flared up into a broader epistemological critique of the European scientific project.
Fig.8: Omeca Machacuai, Trujillo del Perú, Vol VI, Plate 60
Fig.9: Chachapas, Trujillo del Perú, Vol VI, Plate 27
Word count: 9524
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1 Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America during the years 1799-1804, Translated and Edited by Thomasina Ross, London, 1852, Vol II, pp.111-112
2Letter from Caldas to Humboldt, 17 November 1802, in Jeanne Chenu, Francisco José de Caldas: Un Peregrino de las Ciencias, Madrid, Hermanos García Noblejas, 1992, p.201
3Félix de Azara, Apuntamientos para la Historia Natural de los Quadrúpedos del Paraguay y Río de la Plata, la Imprenta de la Viuda de Ibarra, Madrid, 1802Vol. I, ‘Dedicación’
4 Letter from Francisco José de Caldas to Santiago Pérez Arroyo, 20 March 1801, Chenu, Caldas, p.84
5Francisco José de Caldas, ‘ Del Influjo del Clima sobre los Seres Organizados’, in Obras Completas de Francisco José de Caldas, Bogotá, Imprenta Nacional, 1966, p.87. Ironically, the original citation was lifted by Caldas from the Spanish translation of Buffon’s work, demonstrating the New Granadan’s subsequent access to this text.
6 Letter from Francisco José de Caldas to Santiago Pérez Arroyo, 6 October 1801, Chenu, Caldas, p.132 (my italics). Caldas also grumbled about the difficulty of obtaining a copy of Linneaus’ Filosofía Botánica in America. He questioned whether it was ‘possible that in the entirety of New Granada there is not one copy of this classic book’ and concluded that ‘if Mutis does not possess one, then I doubt that there is’. See Letter from Caldas to Santiago Pérez Arroyo, 20 January 1801, in Academia Colombiana de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales (ed.), Cartas de Caldas, Bogotá, 1979, p.55
7Draft of a letter from Dámaso Antonio Larrañaga to the botanists of Barcelona, to be delivered by a mutual acquaintance, Don Miguel Antonio Vilardebó, in Alejandro Gallinal (ed.), Escritos de Don Dámaso Antonio Larrañaga, Montevideo, Instituto Histórico y Geográfico del Uruguay, Imprenta Nacional, 1922, Vol. III, p.252 (my italics)
8 Félix de Azara, Essais sur l’Histoire Naturelle des Quadrupèdes de la Province du Paraguay, trans. Moreau-Saint-Méry, Paris, Charles Pougens, 1801, p.268. Azara eventually consulted the French version of Buffon in 1798, when the Argentine Pedro Cerviño lent it to him. The Spaniard thanked Cerviño for the work in a letter and pronounced it to be of use because ‘it contains Daubenton’s [anatomical] descriptions, which shed a lot of light on those of Buffon’. See Letter from Azara to Pedro Cerviño, 31 March 1798, in Alvaro Mones and Miguel A. Klappenbach, Un Ilustrado Aragonés en el Virreinato del Río de la Plata: Félix de Azara (1742-1821), Montevideo, 1997, p.183
9 Mauricio Nieto Olarte, Orden Natural y Orden Social: Ciencia y Política en el Semanario del Nuevo Reino de Granada, Madrid, C.S.I.C, 2007, p.99
10 Letter from Caldas to José Celestino Mutis, 5 August 1801, in Chenu Caldas, p. 121
11 Letter from Caldas to José Celestino Mutis, 7 November 1802, in Chenu Caldas, p.199
12 Letter from Caldas to José Celestino Mutis, 6 May 1802, in Cartas de Caldas, p.174. Elsewhere, Caldas thanked Mutis for the delivery of several precision instruments, including a telescope, a chronometer and a microscope. He regretted, however, that a thermometer sent to him by the Spaniard was broken in transit, a significant loss, since ‘in Quito it is almost impossible to find a similar instrument’ - a sad reflection upon ‘the state of physics and the useful sciences in this populous city’. See Letter from Caldas to Mutis, 7 November 1802, in Cartas de Caldas, p.204
13 Letter from Caldas to Santiago Pérez Arroyo, 21 January 1802, in Chenu Caldas, p.151
14 Francisco José de Caldas, ‘ Informe al Virey, 18 July 1809’, in Obras Completas, p.214
15 David A. Brading, The First America: The Spanish monarchy, Creole patriots and the Liberal state 1492-1867, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p.502
16Renan Silva, Los Ilustrados de Nueva Granada, 1760-1808: Genealogía de una Comunidad de Interpretación, Medellín, Fundo Editorial Universidad LATIT, Banco de la República, 2002, p.201
17 Letter from Caldas to Santiago Pérez Arroyo, 21 January 1802, in Chenu, Caldas, p.147
18 Thomas F. Glick and David M. Quinlan, ‘Félix de Azara: The Myth of the Isolated Genius in Spanish Science’, Journal of the History of Biology, Vol.8, no.1, 1975, pp.67-79. The romantic image of the embattled Hispanic savant surfaces with some frequency in contemporary accounts. The Colombian Joaquín Acosta, marvelled that Caldas, ‘ without teachers, without books and without resources, came, by his own efforts, to be a distinguished botanist, physicist and astronomer’, whilst the British naturalist Charles Hamilton Smith saluted Azara as ‘a fine example of what a person of ordinary education and intelligence may achieve by dint of steadiness and perseverance’. The figure of the untutored savant was, moreover, not confined to the American colonies, but extended to the Peninsula itself. Touring his native Valencia in 1795, for instance, the botanist José Antonio Cavanilles encountered an apothecary named Juan Antonio Barrera, who ‘has collected more than eight hundred plants in the region of Vistabella alone, all classified through his own labour, and without a master’ – another impressive example of what ‘a passion without limits and the constancy of many years’ could accomplish. See J. Acosta, ‘ Breve Noticia sobre Francisco José de Caldas’, in Semanario de la Nueva Granada, Miscelánea de Ciencias, Literatura, Artes e Industría, Paris, Librería Castellana, 1849, pp.ix-x; Charles Hamilton Smith, Memoir of Don Félix de Azara, in Sir William Jardine’s The Naturalist’s Library, vol.5, London, 1843, p.23 and José Antonio Cavanilles, Observaciones sobre la Historia Natural, Geografía, Agricultura, Población y Frutos del Reyno de Valencia, Madrid, Imprenta Real, 1795, p.84.
19 Silva, Los Ilustrados, p.245
20 Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World, Williamsburg, North Carolina University Press, 2006, p.117
21 Gazeta de México del Martes 17 de Junio de 1788, in Gazetas de México, Compendio de Noticias de Nueva España que comprehenden los años de 1788 y 1789, Vol.III, Mexico City, Felipe de Zuñiga y Ontiveros, p.80
22 ‘Carta que en defensa de la Botánica y de las imposturas que el Autor de la Gazeta Literaria opone contra el Systema de Linneo, escribe al Director del Jardín Botánico uno de sus alistados Discípulos’, Gazetas de México, Compendio de Noticias de Nueva España que comprehenden los años de 1788 y 1789, Vol.III, Mexico City, Felipe de Zuñiga y Ontiveros, Suplemento a la Gazeta de Mexico del Martes 6 de Mayo de 1788, p.100
23 Letter from Caldas to Santiago Pérez Arroyo, 21 January 1802, Chenu, Caldas, p.146. The Uruguayan Larrañaga evinced a similar sentiment in 1821, when he described his first encounter with the French botanist Auguste de Saint-Hilaire. ‘So great was my despair at being reliant upon myself for such a long period of my life, seeing myself deprived of master who could teach me, or whom I could consult about my doubts, that my pleasure upon seeing enter my door a savant of the first order who in a moment dissipated my uncertainties, clarified my ideas and corrected my errors was all the greater’, Larrañaga stammered gratefully, relishing the chance to discuss his hobby with European expert.
24 Félix de Azara, The Natural History of the Quadrupeds of Paraguay and the River La Plata, trans. William Percival Hunter, Edinburgh, A. and C. Black, 1838, p.xi
25 Azara, Viajes, p.13
26 Félix de Azara, Essais sur l’Histoire Naturelle des Quadrupèdes de la Province du Paraguay, trans. Moreau-Saint-Méry, Paris, Charles Pougens, 1801, p.xxii. Interestingly, Moreau de Saint Méry was himself a creole from the French Antilles. He was, however, educated in Paris, where he evidently developed a respect for Buffon and a knowledge of scholarly graces. See Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, Cambridge Massachussetts, and London, Harvard University Press, 2004, p.52
27 David Livingstone, Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003, p.104. For a more extensive discussion of scholarly etiquette, see Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1994
28 Félix de Azara, Voyages dans l’Amérique Méridionale, Paris, Dentu, 1809, Vol. IV, pp.142-143
29 Ibid., Vol. IV, p.28
30 Azara, Viajes, Vol.I, p.13
31 Azara, Essais, p. xxiii
32 Azara, Viajes, Vol. I, p.15
33 Cornelius de Pauw, Récherches Philosophiques sur les Américains, ou Mémoires Intéressants pour Servir à l’Histoire de l’Espèce Humaine, London, 1770, p.8
34 Ibid, p.4
35 Ibid, p.12
36 Ibid, p.13
37 Ibid, p.8
38Juan de Velasco, Historia del Reino de Quito en la América Meridional , Quito, Imprenta del Gobierno, 1844, Vol. I, p.109
39 José Hipólito Unanue, ‘ Historia del Clima de Lima’, in Obras Científicas y Literarias, Barcelona, Tipografía la Académica, 1914, p.64
40Félix de Azara, Quadrúpedos, Vol.I, p.vii-x
41 Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, ‘La Ilustración hispanoamericana: una caracterización’, in Jaime E. Rodríguez (ed.), Revolución, Independencia y las Nuevas Naciones de América, Madrid, MAPFRE, 2005, p.92
42Antonio Lafuente, José de la Sota and Jaime Vilchis, ‘Dinámica Imperial de la Ciencia: Los Contextos Metropolitano y Colonial en la Cultura Española del Siglo XVIII’, in Agustín Guimerá (ed.), El Reformismo Borbónico, Madrid, CSIC, 1996, p.202
43 Dorinda Outram, ‘New Spaces in Natural History’, in Jardine, Secord and Spary, Cultures of Natural History, pp.249-265
44 Azara, Quadrúpedos, Vol. I, p.ii. The botanist José Antonio Cavanilles concurred with this assessment in relation to Buffon. Appraising the Frenchman’s contribution to natural history, Cavanilles averred that no-one could improve upon the ‘grace and attractiveness’ of Buffon’s prose, but he observed that ‘many corrected his drawings, for they were not always a faithful copy of nature’. This was because Buffon ‘could neither examine all of the branches [of the animal kingdom] nor always consult accounts produced by educated men’. See José Antonio Cavanilles, ‘Discurso sobre algunos Botánicos Españoles del siglo XVI’, Anales de Historia Natural, Vol. VII, Madrid, Imprenta Real, April 1804, p.100.
45 Joseph Clavijo y Fajardo, Historia Natural, General y Particular, escrita en francés por el Conde de BUFFON, Intendente del Real Gabinete y del Jardín Botánico del Rey Christianísimo, y Miembro de las Academias Francesa y de las Ciencias, y traducida por D. Joseph Clavijo y Faxardo, Vice-Director del Real Gabinete de Historia Natural, Madrid, en la Imprenta de la Viuda de Ibarra, 1791, Vol. I, pp.xv - xvi
46Velasco, Historia del Reino de Quito, Vol. I p.iii. The North American Thomas Jefferson marshalled similar arguments against the reliability of travellers’ testimony. Commenting on the foreign writers who had maligned the fauna of his native Virginia, Jefferson asked ‘who were these travellers? He questioned ‘natural history [was] the object of their travels’, whether they had taken the trouble to ‘ measure or weigh the animals that they speak of’, or whether they judged them ‘by sight or perhaps even from report only’, and he speculated that ‘a true answer to these questions would probably lighten their authority, so as to render it insufficient for the foundation of an hypothesis’. See Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Baltimore, 1800, p.56
47 Ibid, p.106
48 Ibid, p.82
49 Ibid, p.97
50 Ibid, p.85
51 Ibid, p.82
52 Ibid, p.84
53 Francisco José de Caldas, ‘Del Influjo del Clima sobre los Seres Organizados’, in
Obras Completas de Francisco José de Caldas, Bogotá, Imprenta Nacional, 1966, p.80
54 Letter from Francisco José de Caldas to Santiago Pérez Arroyo, 20 July 1801, in Chenu, Caldas, p.107. Caldas questioned, similarly, whether Bonpland could conduct a comprehensive study of Quito’s flora when he had barely arrived in the province before ‘disappearing like a comet’. The creole also impugned the accuracy of Antonio de Ulloa’s account of America, alleging that this ‘young Spaniard…without experience, believed all that was said to him, and, eager to report new things in Europe and make his journeys interesting, amassed all that seemed curious and rare to him’, with the result that ‘many fables and exaggerations are presented as truths’. See Francisco José de Caldas, ‘ Memoria sobre el origen del sistema de medir las montañas y sobre el proyecto de una expedición científica’, in Caldas, Obras Completas, p.293; and Caldas, ‘Viaje al Corazón de Barnuevo’ in ibid., p.470.
55 Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, ‘ Postcolonialism avant la lettre? Travellers and Clerics in Eighteenth-Century Colonial Spanish America’, in Mark Thurner and Andrés Guerrero (eds.), After Spanish Rule: Post Colonial Predicaments in the Americas, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2003, p.93
56 Juan Ignacio Molina, Compendio de la Historia Geográfica, Natural y Civil del Reyno de Chile, Madrid, Sancha, 1788, p.304
57 Azara, Qadrúpedos, Vol. I, p.151
58 Azara, Viajes, Vol. I, p.100
59 Londa Schiebinger interprets the imposition of Linnaean names on non-European plants as ‘a form of what some botanists have called ‘linguistic imperialism’, a politics of naming that accompanied and promoted European global expansion and colonisation’. See Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, Cambridge Massachussetts, and London, Harvard University Press, 2004, pp.194-225
60 ‘Carta que en defensa de la Botánica y de las imposturas que el Autor de la Gazeta Literaria opone contra el Systema de Linneo, escribe al Director del Jardín Botánico uno de sus alistados Discípulos’, Gazetas de México, Compendio de Noticias de Nueva España que comprehenden los años de 1788 y 1789, Vol.III, Mexico City, Felipe de Zuñiga y Ontiveros, Suplemento a la Gazeta de Mexico del Martes 6 de Mayo de 1788, p.98
61 Ibid, p.99
62 Francisco José de Caldas, ‘Prefación a la Geografía de las Plantas’, in Obras, p.389 See also Jean-Pierre Clement, ‘De los Nombres de Plantas’, Revista de Indias, Vol. XLVII, Number 180, 1987, p.389
63 Caldas, Obras, p.389
64 Beth Fowkes Tobin, Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1999, p.201
65 Daniela Bleichmar, ‘Painting as Exploration: Visualising Nature in Eighteenth-Century Colonial Science’, Colonial Latin American Review, Vol.15, No.1, June 2006, p.91
66For a sample of the ethnographic artefacts that Martínez y Compañón remitted to Spain see Ana María Verde Casanova, ‘Notas para el Estudio Etnológico de las Expediciones Científicas Españolas a América en el Siglo XVIII’, Revista de Indias 40, 1980, p.93. María de los Angeles Catalayud Arrinero also summarises the Indian ceramics and other items that Trujillo remitted to Spain, including ‘pieces in the form of birds, reptiles and other animals, canoes, fruits, etc.’ , as well as vases, arrows and other articles. See María de los Angeles Catalayud Arrinero, ‘El Real Gabinete de Historia Natural de Madrid’, in Lafuente, Antonio, Peset, José, and Sellés, Manuel (eds.), Carlos III y la Ciencia de la Ilustración, Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1988, p.220
67 Trujillo’s watercolours are housed by the Biblioteca del Palacio Real in Madrid. They can be seen in the online collection entitled ‘Manuscritos Americanos en las Colecciones Reales’ at the following website: http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/portal/patrimonio/catalogo.shtml
68 Juan Bautista Bru de Ramón, Colección de laminas que representan los animales y monstruos del Real Gabinete de Historia Natural (2 vols.), Madrid, Imprenta de Andres de Sotos, 1784-1786, p.3
69José Celestino Mutis, Flora de la Real Expedición del Nuevo Reino de Granada, Madrid, Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1954, p.70
70 ‘Idea General del Perú’, El Mercurio Peruano, Tomo I, 1791, Edición Facsimilar, Biblioteca Nacional del Perú, 1964, p.6
71 ‘Estado de la Geografía del Virreinato de Santafé de Bogotá, con relación a la economía y al comercio’, in Caldas, Obras, p.191
72 Silva, Ilustrados, p.619
73 Lucia Duque Muñoz, ‘ Patriotismo, Geografía y Astronomía en la coyuntura independentista de la Nueva Granada (1808-1810), C.M.H.L.B Caravelle 83, Toulouse, 2004, p.170
74 ‘Informe al Virrey’, in Caldas, Obras, p.229
75 Caldas ‘Estado de la Geografía del Virreinato de Santafé de Bogotá, con relación a la economía y al comercio’, Obras, pp.206-207
76Other creole savants likewise professed their fidelity to the Spanish Crown and their appreciation for metropolitan scientific projects. The Peruvian Unanue commended Charles III, ‘that august monarch whose name cannot be invoked without eulogy’ for orchestrating the botanical expedition of Hipólito Ruíz and José Pavón to Peru in 1778. The Mexican Alzate tempered his tirade against Linnaean botany with a similar effusion of gratitude towards the Bourbon monarch, describing ‘the establishment of the Real Jardín Botánico of New Spain’ as ‘one of those enterprises that can only be executed by the greatest of kings and a true father to his vassals’. See José Hipólito Unanue, ‘Descripción Científica de las Plantas del Perú’ in Jean-Pierre Clément (ed.), El Mercurio Peruano, 1790-1795, Vol. II, Frankfurt, Vervuert, 1998, p.98 and ‘Carta satisfactoria’, Gazetas de México, p.104
77 The New Granadan Sinforoso Mutis, for instance, surveyed the flora of Cuba ‘and made numerous remissions of skeletons and seeds to the famous Cavanilles, the Director of the Real Jardín [Botánico]’. See Francisco José de Caldas, ‘Botánica’ in Caldas, Obras, p.32.
78 Nieto Olarte, Orden Natural, p. 151
79 Enrile personally supervised the execution of Lozano and his cohorts Caldas and Salvador Rizo, appropriated the remnants of Mutis’ notes, illustrations and collections for Spain. See Letter from Pascual Enrile, 14 March, 1817, Fragata Diana, La Habana, in José Celestino Mutis, Flora de la Real Expedición del Nuevo Reino de Granada, Madrid, Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1954, Vol. I
80 Mutis, Flora, Vol. I, pp.84-85 (My italics). Alzate also consistently emphasised the importance of scientific knowledge that conferred tangible practical benefits. Defending himself from the slurs of Cervantes’ disciple, the Mexican insisted that ‘I am not a systematic botanist because I see that in physics systems are worth nothing’, and he reeled off a lengthy list of his own scientific discoveries, all of which offered immediate advantages to New Spain. ‘I am not a botanist by profession’, confessed Alzate, ‘but everyone knows, or should know, since it was publicised in the press, how, in the recent years of 85 and 86, years of poverty, I communicated to the Government the plan for the sowing of maize in warm lands during winter, a policy that served to free us from the hunger that was threatening us. This is what it means for a devotee to execute true botany. If I had confined myself to being a simple speculator and counter of stamens, I would probably not have been useful to men’. See Alzate, ‘Carta Satisfactoria’, p.102.
81 Enrile, Mutis, Flora, Vol. I, p.132