The Scientific Commission of the Pacific, the last great adventure of Spain in the New World

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Pedro Choker

Updated:05/16/2020 01: 14h

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After half a century of indolence, in 1862 Queen Elizabeth II hastily ordered, the launch of an expedition to sail the oceans in order to collect information in different areas of knowledge –zoology, botany, biology, archeology and geology–, and also to photograph populations and people.

With this epic an attempt was made to recover the spirit of the Spanish scientific tradition of the late eighteenth century, with figures and expeditions as memorable as those carried out by Sessé and Mociño in New Spain; Hipólito Ruiz and José Pavón in Peru; Celestino Mutis in Nueva Granada or the best known, the one carried out by Bustamante and Malaspina.

It constituted the last attempt to enclose exotic American nature between the showcases of our museums. A desire to find the authentic, to get rid of everyday life and the shadows of vulgarity, an effort to find in wild settings the ideals that had disappeared from the peninsula.

For three years (1862-1865) the commissioners – natural science teachers – toured much of South America, Central America, and California.

The last great overseas company

On August 10, 1862, the one known as «Pacific Scientific Expedition», Under the military command of Rear Admiral Luis H Pinzón and with a meager crew: a schooner (Covadonga) and two frigates (Resolution and Triumph).

The expeditionaries crossed Cape Horn, crossed the Argentine pampas, the Atacama desert, investigated Andean archaeological remains and sent more than eighty-two thousand specimens to Spain, all of them with their corresponding scientific nomenclature.

A journey undoubtedly inspired by the figure of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian explorer, son of romanticism, who scanned the plains, volcanoes and rivers of South America.

On several occasions the expedition was fragmented to make the collection of samples more fruitful. Among the multitude of treasures that were brought to Spain stand out diamonds from Brazil, gold nuggets from California, copper native to the Atacama desert, cinchona bark, anteaters …

Cartoonist, photographer and chronicler

One of the most innovative aspects of the feat was the incorporation of a cartoonist to the expedition –Rafael Castro y Ordóñez-, who also acted as chronicler and photographer.

The truth is that it is unknown if Rafael Castro had knowledge of photography at the time of joining the Pacific Scientific Commission, but we do know that for weeks he received instructions from the most reputed photographer of the time, the British Charles Clifford, based in the Madrid capital.

Chañarcillo train station, in Atacama, Chile, in 1862 – Rafael Castro y Ordóñez

Of the photographs he took, more than half a thousand are currently preserved, where we are shown the people, the cities and the American nature in all its magnificence.

In 1866 an exhibition was held in the Royal Botanical Garden, where thousands of objects brought from the New World were presented, which were later dispersed in various Crown institutions. In this way it became evident, once again, the imbalance between the organizational effort of the expeditions and their scientific results, which were parked in the corner of oblivion.

Far from receiving the laurals for a job well done, the seven original commissioners (Castro y Ordóñez, Almagro, Martínez y Sáez, Isern, Amor, Jiménez de la Espada and Membiela) lost their lives, either during the investigation or as a consequence of the same. Who remembers them now?

M. Jara

Pedro Gargantilla is an internist at the Hospital de El Escorial (Madrid) and the author of several popular books.

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