José Celestino Mutis in New Granada: A life at the service of an Expedition (1760-1808)

"To collect all the plants and precious bodies the New World produces so as to fill the Royal Garden and Real Gabinete begun in the reign of the previous king with them." The cinchona and Ocotea quixos.

On 7 September 1780 a young surgeon, José Celestino Mutis, set out for New Granada, accompanying the new viceroy, Pedro Messia de la Zerda, as his personal doctor. He set up in the capital of the viceroyalty, Santa Fe de Bogotá, and immediately started to practice medicine in the Americas. However, his scientific activity was not limited to the exercise of the profession he learned at the Royal College of Surgery in his native city of Cádiz. He soon ventured into other areas, and from 1762 onwards he taught mathematics at the Colegio del Rosario in Santa Fe, and a few years later, in 1773, he published his defence of Copernicanism.

His interest in the exploitation of the natural resources of New Granada led him to travel, in 1766, to Cácota de Suratá, in the province of Pamplona, where he decided to bring a silver mine in Montuosa Baja into operation. He returned to Santa Fe in 1770. He renewed his interest in mining in 1777, when he also started running the El Sapo mine in Ibagué.

However, José Celestino Mutis did not limit himself to exploiting mineral resources or disseminating the scientific ideas defended by the European Illustration. His horizons were broader, and he wanted to prepare a complete Natural History of all Spanish America, and he asked for the crown's help to do so on various occasions. His first representation to the Spanish monarch dates from 1763, when he applied for funding to undertake an expedition. However, the king did not reply. Mutis did not give up, however, and a few months later, in 1764, he sent a new petition to Charles III asking for funding for a similar project. Again his request was ignored. He would have to wait almost twenty years before this silence would be turned into the tacit acceptance of an expedition which, in practice, took years to complete. In 1783 the archbishop and viceroy Antonio Caballero y Góngora, a loyal supporter of J.C. Mutis on this and other occasions, proposed to the crown the undertaking of a "Botanical Expedition in the Kingdom of New Granada". On 29 April, before receiving royal assent, J.C. Mutis was travelling, together with other members of the expedition, to La Mesa de Juan Díaz. Thus began the systematic exploration of Mariquita.

The regular contacts between J.C. Mutis and European naturalists were stepped up following the approval of the "Royal Botanical Expedition." In 1784 Mutis was appointed member of the Stockholm Academy of Sciences, correspondent of the Royal Garden in Madrid, and a member of the Royal Academy of Medicine. His news about American plants was well received in Europe, which was eager to learn of new plants. The "Memorial Instructivo y Curioso de la Corte de Madrid" reported his studies on the medicinal utility of certain New Granada plant species, and informed the crown about the possibility of trade in Bogotá tea, whose properties it praised.

However, his main commercial objective was cinchona. On one of his visits to the Sierra de Tena, in 1772 accompanied by Pedro Ugarte, he located a number of cinchona groves which he continued to study over the following years. In May 1793 he began to publish, in the Santa Fé de Bogotá city newspaper, his "Arcano de la Quina" on the subject of cinchona, one of his few publications to appear in print, as his works have to be sought more in the thinking of his school and in the construction of scientific infrastructure than in his written output. In this text, and particularly in his extensive correspondence, he revealed his interest in defending the commercialisation of New Granada's cinchonas, whose quality he praised over other sorts exported from the port of El Callao.

Moreover, it was J.C. Mutis's main concern, unlike that of other expeditions sent from Spain, to obtain the maximum benefit from the resources of the territory in which he worked, not to benefit the factors at the Court, but thinking of the cultural development of the American territory. Only when taking this revolutionary spirit into account is it possible to understand the creation in 1801 of the Sociedad Patriótica de Nuevo Reino de Granada or the start of work building the Santa Fe Astronomical Observatory in 1803. And only thus is it possible to understand his disputes with a group of Spanish courtiers, among whom was C. Gómez Ortega, who were more interested in personal gain than the scientific and intellectual development of the colonies. J.C. Mutis died in Santa Fe de Bogotá on 11 September 1808, two days after writing the will bequeathing his scientific legacy. The most representative part of his effort remained in Colombia, namely his disciples, who were educated in the spirit of liberation that would characterise and distinguish them.

J.C. Mutis sent very little material back to Spain. He always felt that his work should remain in New Granada to teach those who would carry on his work after him. However, the political situation in New Granada in the years after his death would not facilitate the realisation of his wishes. In 1817 General Morillo sent to Spain a large part of the materials confiscated from the members of the botanical expedition, including almost all of the iconographic collection created under his direction. These materials were inventoried on arrival in Madrid and were sent to the Real Jardín Botánico, where they have remained since, except the small part that was sent in 1889 to the Real Academia de la Historia.

Real Jardín Botánico
Real Jardín Botánico, CSIC. Plaza de Murillo, 2. Madrid E-28014 (ESPAÑA). Tel. +34 91 4203017. FAX: +34 91 4200157
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