Peripheral Vision: Science and Creole Patriotism in eighteenth-century Spanish America Helen Cowie, Department of History, University of Warwick, Coventry, cv4 7al abstract

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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.

Solitary Savants

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

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