Unsung Heroes of the Enlightenment

By Tarrago, Rafael | Americas (English Edition), January-February 1995 | Go to article overview

Unsung Heroes of the Enlightenment


Tarrago, Rafael, Americas (English Edition)


Long overshadowed by history, scholars and explorers of eighteenth-century Spanish America made significant contributions to world science

"WHAT MAGNIFICENT VEGETATION!" EXCLAIMED GERMAN NATURALIST ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT IN ONE OF HIS FIRST LETTERS HOME AFTER ARRIVING IN VENEZUELA. "WE HAVE BEEN RUNNING LIKE A COUPLE OF FOOLS; FOR THE FIRST THREE DAYS WE COULD SETTLE TO NOTHING. WE WERE ALWAYS LEAVING ONE SUBJECT TO LAY HOLD OF ANOTHER. AIME BONPLAND DECLARES THAT HE SHOULD LOSE HIS SENSE IF THIS STATE OF ECSTASY WERE TO CONTINUE."

HUMBOLDT'S ENTHUSIASTIC PERCEPTIONS, FORMED DURING HIS 1799-1804 EXPEDITION TO NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA WiTH FRENCH SCIENTIST AIME BONPLAND, BECAME THE BASIS OF EUROPE'S FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE NATURAL WORLD IN SPANISH AMERICA. NOT LIMITING HIMSELF TO FLORA AND FAUNA, HUMBOLDT IS ALSO THE SOURCE OF MUCH OF WHAT WE know of scientific and technological thought in the Americas as the age of empire was drawing to a close. From Humboldt, we know that there were thriving scientific institutions in New Spain (present-day Mexico and Central America); that Cuba's Sociedad Patriotica de Amigos del Pais encouraged economic and technological studies in general and those concerning the production and marketing of sugar in particular; and that in the latter part of the eighteenth century the Spanish crown was the most generous sponsor of botanical expeditions. The philanthropy of the Spanish crown moved Humboldt to say that no European government had sacrificed greater sums to advance knowledge. Three botanical expeditions in Peru, New Granada (present-day Colombia), and New Spain were organized under crown auspices during the reigns of Charles III (1759-88) and Charles IV (1788-1808). Botanical gardens were planted in Manila and Mexico City, and in Cuba a commission destined to draw plans for the canal of Los Guines was also assigned to examine the vegetable production of the island.

However, the interest in scientific matters that Humboldt noticed in Lima, Quito, Bogota, Havana, and Mexico City was not a sudden product of the Enlightenment. As far back as the sixteenth century, geographers accompanied viceroys on their expeditions; surveys were taken by royal officials; and university men explored the stars and the medical properties of American plants. In 1639--160 years before Humboldt's arrival--the Peruvian priest Alvaro Alonso Barba published his treatise Arte de los metales, in which he described a process of purification of silver ore by amalgamation that he had developed during experiments in the Potosi mines. His cazo process, in which silver ore and mercury were smelted in a semispheric recipient, or cazo, was faster, although less economical, than the Mexican, or patio method, in which the ore and mercury were mixed in a courtyard. This was the most important discovery in metallurgy during Barba's time.

Carlos de Siguenza y Gongora (1645-1700), professor of sciences and philosophy at the University of Mexico, was named Royal Geographer by King Charles II after he accompanied an expedition to explore the Gulf of Mexico, where his knowledge of mathematics proved useful in the measurement of the depth of its coastline. Excelling in knowledge of astronomy, Siguenza y Gongora was a strong critic of theories that the heavenly bodies could influence human destinies. His Libra astronomica y filosofica (1690) is an extended refutation of popular theories of the time on the relationship between comets and world events, which had been expressed by the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino when he stopped in Mexico City on his way to California. Exchanging his views and observations with scientists in Europe, Siguenza y Gongora used a telescope "of four lenses which, up to now, is the best that has reached this city," in order to make his observations of the comets and eclipses of the sun.

A lesser known scholar, the Limeno Pedro de Peralta y Barnuevo (1663-1743), was a lawyer by training who had a greater interest in mathematics and astronomy than in law. …

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