Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, 1500-1800

By Daniela Bleichmar; Paula De Vos et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
A Visible and Useful Empire
Visual Culture and Colonial Natural History
in the Eighteenth-Century Spanish World

DANIELA BLEICHMAR

An unsigned portrait painted at the turn of the nineteenth century in the city of Santa Fe de Bogota, in present-day Colombia, depicts José Celestino Mutis (1732–1809), one of the foremost botanists working in the Spanish Americas in the last decades of the eighteenth century (see Figure 15.1). Trained as a physician and surgeon in Spain, in 1761 a twenty-nine-year-old Mutis traveled to America as personal physician to the newly appointed viceroy to the New Kingdom of Granada (a territory corresponding to present-day Colombia and parts of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama). Mutis never returned to Europe, remaining in New Granada until his death in 1809, aged seventy-seven. During his first twenty years in America, Mutis earned a living as a physician and a professor of mathematics and astronomy; he also conducted botanical and zoological investigations. In 1783, with the crown involved in a wideranging and large-scale program of investing in scientific pursuits, Mutis received permission and funds to direct the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783–1810). Mutis and his patrons envisioned that the expedition would promptly yield useful and valuable information in the form of natural commodities that Spain could use to break the trade monopolies held by European competitors; the naturalist and his team diligently attempted to locate American varieties of cinnamon, tea, pepper, and nutmeg, as well as new types of cinchona, the valuable antimalarial.1

There is no question of Mutis’s genuine interest in economic botany, as his journals and correspondence attest. Nevertheless, he devoted enor-

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