Royal Botanical Expedition

Date: 1764
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


This drawing of Cinchona Peruviana, the plant used to make quinine, was sent to Carolus Linnaeus (the Swedish father of taxonomy) by Jose Celestino Mutis (1732-1808), a Spanish botanist and mathematician who spent most of his professional career in Nueva Granada (modern day Colombia). Mutis, the "Oracle of New Granada," is most famous for conceiving and leading Spain's Royal Botanical Expedition (1783-1816), a project that sought to classify and illustrate every Colombian plant in an effort to identify and reproduce botanical resources.

According to historian Daniela Bleichmar, the Colombians who painted the plants collected by Mutis's team were practicing a distinctly Latin American style of illustration that aimed at clarity and practicality. These painters strayed from European tropes because botanical expertise had come to be counted among the useful arts, those which directly benefited humanity. Mutis' team of illustrators thought that realistic depictions would prove more useful than the European style of naturalistic verisimilitude (Bleichmar 2006). Although the stress was on useful knowledge of plants, the study was performed for academic reasons and the improvement of Spanish botany.

Yet historian Antonio Lafuente found that creoles in New Granada, most notably the scientist Francisco Jose de Caldas, were unhappy with Mutis and the general approach to science that he represented. Following Mutis' death in1808, creole scientists criticized his emphasis on merely classifying and illustrating plants because it did nothing to improve life in New Granada itself. Caldas believed that science should be a subsidiary of the local state so that knowledge and innovations could serve the needs of local society. Creole intellectuals also thought Mutis should have consulted more with indigenous herbalists so that European classification systems and American knowledge could be merged to improve the practice of medicine, a quintessential useful art (Lafuente 2000).

The scientific expeditions launched by Spain's Bourbon kings in the late eighteenth century were driven by the search for new sources of revenue, the broad goal of benefiting humanity in general (and thus legitimizing colonial rule), and the ideals of the Enlightenment. Intentionally or not, projects like the Royal Botanical Expedition promulgated enlightened principles in the New World. Ironically, the Spanish crown hoped to use modern science to strengthen its overseas empire, but the ideas brought to Mexico and South America by men like Mutis actually worked to encourage the independence movement.

Reference: Bleichmar, Daniela. "Painting as Exploration: Visualizing Nature in Eighteenth Century Colonial Science." In Colonial Latin American Review, vol. 15, no. 1 (June 2006), pp. 81-104. 

Lafuente, Antonio. "Enlightenment in an Imperial Context: Local Science in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Hispanic World." In Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000), pp. 155-173.

CITATION: Cinchona Peruviana. Photograph of Watercolour sent by Mutis to Linnaieus. 24 September 1764. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. M0001350.