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The isolated Spanish genius — Myth or reality? Félix de Azara and the birds of Paraguay

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  1. Félix de, Azara, Apuntamientos para la historia natural de los quadrúpedos del Paragüay y Rio de la Plata, 2 vols. Madrid: Impr. de la Viuda de Ibarra, 1802: reprint ed., New York: Arno Press, 1978, I, dedication. The book is cited hereafter as Quadrúpedos. Unfortunately, the “Indice de los quadrúpedos descritos” for volume 2 was omitted in the reprinted one-volume edition.

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  2. Thomas F. Glick and David M. Quinlan, “Félix de Azara: The Myth of the Isolated Genius in Spanish Science,” J. Hist. Biol.8 (1975), 67–83. For recent

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  3. The book is in 3 vols. (Madrid: Impr. de la Viuda de Ibarra, 1802–1805). It is now available in microfiche (but to libraries only and as part of a collection) from the Lost Cause Press, Louisville, Kentucky.

  4. A more complete account of his life may be found in Barbara G. Beddall, “‘Un Naturalista Original’: Don Félix de Azara, 1746–1821,” J. Hist. Biol., 8 (1975), 15–66; see p. 16 n.2 of that article for other references.

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  5. Félix de, Azara, Viajes por la América Meridional, trans. Francisco de las Barras de Aragón (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1923; reprint ed., 1969), p. 43. References here are to the 1969 edition. See also note 7.

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  6. Félix de, Azara, Memoria sobre el estado rural del Rio de la Plata y otros informes (Buenos Aires: Editorial Bajel, 1943). Azara's last official communication from Asunción was dated March 17, 1795 (p. 154), and his first from Buenos Aires July 31, 1796 (p. 181).

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  7. The original Spanish appears to have been lost. A Spanish translation from the French was published in Uruguay in 1845–1846, and a second, translated by Francisco de las Barras de Aragón, was published in Spain in 1923 as Viajes por la América Meridional. The latter does not include either Tadeo Haenke's essay on Cochabamba (see note 76) or the Páxaros. See also Beddall, “Azara,” pp. 16, 22, 38.

  8. In 2 vols., trans. M.-L.-E. Moreau de Saint-Méry (Paris: C. Pougens, 1801).

  9. Félix de, Azara, Viajes por la América Meridional, trans. Francisco de las Barras de Aragón (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1923); p. 131.

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  10. Based on unpublished research by the author.

  11. Based on unpublished research by the author.

  12. Darwin's earliest reference to Azara, probably January 1837, is found on p. 126 of his Red Notebook; see Sandra Herbert ed., The Red Notebook of Charles Darwin (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980), pp. 9–11, 63. For other information on Darwin and Azara see Beddall, “Azara”, pp. 30–32, 45–51, 53, 55.

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  13. Alcide d'Orbigny, Voyage dans l'Amérique Méridionale (Paris: Pitois-Levrault, etc., 1835–1844), IV, pt. 3, i-ii.

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  14. Glick and Quinlan, “Myth,” pp. 68–73.

  15. Félix de Azara, Viajes inéditos de D. Félix de Azara desde Santa-Fe á la Asunción, al interior del Paraguay, y á los pueblos de Misiones, con una noticia preliminar por el general D. Bartolomé Mitre (Buenos Aires: Impr. de Mayo, 1873), p. 248. At the end of November 1787, Azara went hunting with Noseda for a few days.

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  16. Glick and Quinlan, “Myth,” p. 71.

  17. Ibid., p. 72.

  18. Azara, Páxaros, I, iv.

  19. Azara's numbers 14, 21, 26, 56, 101, 111, 115, 319, 333, 378; and 16, 37, 45, 173, 307. Of these, numbers 101, 319, 16, 45, 173 are all type descriptions.

  20. Azara, Páxaros, II, 470, 475; III, 340–341.

  21. Azara, Quadrúpedos, II, 104, 157–158.

  22. Glick and Quinlan, “Myth,” p. 73.

  23. Azara, Quadrúpedos, II, 114, 159. Melo de Portugal's contributions to the Páxaros (II, 424, 473), not mentioned by Glick and Quinlan, were hardly more substantial, nor were those in the “Aves,” I, 76, 93, 96, 100. Of course Azara gave neither English nor Latin names to any of his animals. He did number his animals consecutively in the Quadrúpedos, though not in the Essais.

  24. Glick and Quinlan, “Myth,” pp. 70–71.

  25. Ibid., p. 73. See also Ione S. Wright and Lisa M. Nekhom, Historical Dictionary of Argentina (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978), pp. 519–520.

  26. Boneo “gave” him twelve volumes of the Spanish translation compiled by José Clavijo y Fajardo, vice-director of the Real Gabinete (Azara, Essais, I, xliii–xliv), and Cerviño “lent” him the rest in French, including eighteen volumes on birds (ibid., xliv–xlv; Azara, Páxaros, I, vi). After finishing what became the Essais, Azara read the translated volumes in the original French (Azara, Quadrúpedos, I, vi–vii). From his remarks, and from the footnoted references in the Quadrúpedos and Páxaros, it appears that the French volumes were part of the second edition of Buffon. Glick and Quinlan state that Melo de Portugal also mailed Azara French and Spanish volumes of Buffon (“Myth,” p. 74 and n16), but they have misinterpreted the Spanish: “recibí orden del Virrey para baxar del Paraguay a Buenos Aires: donde se me franqueó una Historia natural” (Quadrúpedos, I, iv–v) means “I received an order from the viceroy to go down from Paraguay to Buenos Aires; where a natural history was sent to me.” Se me franqueó is a passive construction in which the agent is neither named nor implied. If “where he sent me a natural history” had been meant, it would read “donde me franqueó una Historia natural”. “He sent it to me” would read “me la franqueó.” It appears that the French and Spanish volumes referred to on p. v of the Quadrúpedos are those given or lent to Azara by Boneo and Cerviño.

  27. Azara, Páxaros, I, 243–244; II, 222–223, 529–530; III, 49, 311. All except the account of the live common potoo date back to the “Aves”: I, 126; II, 55; I, 213–214, 62. Azara numbered the birds consecutively in the Páxaros, but not in the “Aves.”

  28. Azara, “Aves,” I, 59.

  29. Ibid., p. 62.

  30. Ibid., II, 2; Páxaros, I, 336.

  31. Azara, Quadrúpedos, I, 123–124, 266–267; II, 21–23, 33.

  32. Ibid., II, 55–57.

  33. Félix de Azara, Viajes inéditos de D. Félix de Azara desde Santa-Fe á la Asunción, al interior del Paraguay, y á los pueblos de Misiones, con una noticia preliminar por el general D. Bartolomé Mitre (Buenos Aires: Impr. de Mayo, 1973), pp. 298, 300–301.

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  34. See Rodolfo R. Schuller, Prólogo to Geografisica y esférica de las provincias del Paraguay y Misiones Guaraníes by don Félix de Azara (Montevideo: Talleres A. Barreiro y Ramos, 1904), pp. lxix-lxxii, for Azara's itinerary in the years 1784–1787.

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  35. Félix de, Azara, Viajes inéditos de D. Félix de Azara desde Santa-Fe á la Asunción, al interior del Paraguay, y á los pueblos de Misiones, con una noticia preliminar por el general D. Bartolomé Mitre (Buenos Aires: Impr. de Mayo, 1873), pp. 227–229 [sic]; should read pp. 127–129.

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  36. Félix de Azara, Memoria sobre el estado rural del Rio de la Plata y otros informes (Buenos Aires: Editorial Bajel, 1943). p. 93.

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  37. Félix de Azara, Memoria sobre el estado rural del Rio de la Plata y otros informes (Buenos Aires: Editorial Bajel, 1943). p. 120.

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  38. For biographical details see Carlos E. Corona Baratech, José Nicolás de Azara, un embajador español en Roma (Zaragoza: Institución “Fernando el Católico,” 1948); P. Besques, “La première ambassade de D. José Nicolás de Azara à Paris,” Bull. hispanique, 3 (1901), paged as a separate.

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  39. Carlos E. Corona Baratech, José Nicolás de Azara, un embajador español en Roma (Zaragoza: Institución “Fernando el Católico,” 1948); p. 268.

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  40. Guillermo Bowles, Introducción a la historia natural y a la geografía física de España, 2nd ed. (Madrid: Impr. Real, 1782); 3rd ed. (Madrid: Impr. Real, 1789). “It would have been very difficult to publish [his travels],” wrote José Nicolás in the Prologue (p. 16), “if I, who of course recognized their importance, had not lent him my aid; for he had not reached the stage of possessing the Castilian language to the point that he could do it himself.”

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  41. Enrique Beltrán, “Una polémica sobre Francisco Hernández y su obra en 1785,” Anales de la Sociedad Mexicana de Historia de la Ciencia y de la Tecnología, no. 5 (1979), 49–73. This contains letters from and to José Nicolás about the Hernández manuscript.

  42. George Basalla, “The Spread of Western Science: A Three-Stage Model Describes the Introduction of Modern Science into any Non-European Nation,” Science, 156 (1967), 611–622. I should like to thank Frank N. Egerton for directing my attention to this paper. For other opinions on this point see Glick and Quinlan, “Myth.”

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  43. Barbara G. Beddall, “Scientific Books and Instruments for an Eighteenth-Century Voyage around the World: Antonio Pineda and the Malaspina Expedition,” J. Soc. Bibliog. Nat. Hist., 9 (1979), 95–107; Renée Gicklhorn-Wien, Thaddäus Haenkes Reisen und Arbeiten in Südamerika (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1966), p. 55; Arthur Robert Steele, Flowers for the King: The Expedition of Ruiz and Pavón and the Flora of Peru (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1964), p. 59.

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  44. Félix de Azara, Viajes inéditos de D. Félix de Azara desde Santa-Fe á la Asunción, al interior del Paraguay, y á los pueblos de Misiones, con una noticia preliminar por el general D. Bartolomé Mitre (Buenos Aires: Impr. de Mayo, 1873), p. 44.

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  45. Francisco de las Barras de Aragón, “Una carta de D. Félix de Azara y algunas noticias de sus trabajos, según documentos del Archivo de Indias de Sevilla,” Boletín de la real sociedad española de historia natural, 15 (1915), p. 363. The most nearly comparable case is that of José Celestino Mutis, who was physician to the viceroy of New Granada. More than twenty years of effort went into his attempt to have himself named head of a botanical expedition in Colombia, an aim finally achieved in 1783. But the result was that publication of his Flora did not even begin until 1954. See Steele, Flowers, pp. 44–46.

  46. See Richard Herr, The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958) and Steele, Flowers, which of course emphasizes botany.

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  47. Félix de Azara, Viajes inéditos de D. Félix de Azara desde Santa-Fe á la Asunción, al interior del Paraguay, y á los pueblos de Misiones, con una noticia preliminar por el general D. Bartolomé Mitre (Buenos Aires: Impr. de Mayo, 1873), p. 36 (letter to C.-A. Walckenaer in Paris, July 25, 1805). Azara was not the only one to feel this way. Joseph Dombey, who was part of the Ruiz-Pavón expedition, made virtually the same comment in 1777; see Steele, Flowers, p. 57.

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  48. Charles-Athanase Walckenaer, biographical introduction to Azara's Viajes, p. 28.

  49. On the opposite side, the drawings of Mexican plants by José Mariano Moziño while he was a member of the royal scientific expedition in New Spain “were legally the property of the king of Spain” (Wilfrid Blunt, The Art of Botanical Illustration [London: Collins, 1950], p. 170). For an account of the recent discovery of these and other drawings, now in the possession of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, see the Newsletter of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, no. 11 (August 1981), 6–8.

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  50. José María López Piñero, Ciencia y técnica en la sociedad española de los 08 siglos XVI y XVII (Barcelona: Editorial Labor, 1979), p. 22.

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  51. Basalla, “Western Science,” p. 614. For other comments on the development of science in Spain, in particular in the late eighteenth century, see Barbara G. Beddall, “Essay Review: Spanish Science and the New World,” J. Hist. Biol., 16 (1983), forthcoming (No. 3), which reviews Iris H. W. Engstrand, Spanish Scientists in the New World: The Eighteenth-Century Expeditions (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981).

  52. See López Piñero, Ciencia, where this is clearly brought out.

  53. Basalla, “Western Science,” p. 613.

  54. For details of the museum's history see Agustin J. Barreiro, El Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (Madrid: Instituto de Ciencias Naturales “José de Acosta,” 1944); Azara, Essais, I, pp. xlvi–xlviin; and Steele, Flowers, pp. 39–43.

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  55. The information on this and the following letters (except for Azara's letter of July 13, 1789, see note 58) is taken from Barras de Aragón, “Una carta,” pp. 361–366. A photocopy of the original letter by Alós is in the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin; I disagree with the interpretation of the section of this letter referred to by Glick and Quinlan (“Myth,” p. 75). See also notes 57 and 60.

  56. Azara, “Aves,” I, 84.

  57. See Glick and Quinlan, “Myth,” p. 75, where they incorrectly state that “this collection apparently never reached the museum.” In his prologue to Barreiro, Museo, p. 28, Eduardo Hernández-Pacheco refers to the receipt by the Real Gabinete of “numerous shipments from America, like the collection of the birds of Paraguay sent by D. Félix de Azara,” in apparent reference to this shipment. Barras de Aragón, “Una carta,” p. 361, also reports its receipt.

  58. Barreiro, Museo, p. 36.

  59. Enrique Alvarez López, Félix de Azara, siglo XVIII (Madrid: M. Aguilar, 1935), pp. 54–55. The error in this date was repeated in later publications: Julio César González, “Apuntes bio-bibliográficos de don Félix de Azara,” in Azara, Memoria, p. xcv; Beddall, “Azara,” p. 23, for example.

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  60. Glick and Quinlan, “Myth,” pp. 75–76, have confused the numbers of both birds and shipments. Furthermore, they claim that Clavijo, vice-director of the museum, “threw the entire shipment [of 401 birds] away because he thought the specimens improperly described.” No such statement is to be found anywhere in the source they cite (Barreiro, Museo, p. 36). Indeed (ibid., p. 37), Clavijo expressed his pleasure in reading Azara's work, remarking on how useful it would be when an American ornithology was written and suggesting that Azara be exhorted to continue his ornithological labors.

  61. See note 59.

  62. Azara, “Aves,” I, 22.

  63. Up to this time (according to Azara, Páxaros, I, iv) “the descriptions followed the order of acquisition,” which meant that each new bird had to be compared with all the rest.

  64. Azara, “Aves,” I, 1–2. This section concludes (pp. 3–4) with explanations of Azara's terminology and of his methods of measurement and of marking specimens for shipment.

  65. Ibid., p. 17.

  66. Ibid., p. 66.

  67. Ibid., p. 85.

  68. Ibid., pp. 5–9.

  69. Ibid., p. 8.

  70. Ibid., p. 68.

  71. Ibid., p. 136.

  72. Ibid., p. 160.

  73. Ibid., pp. 118, 146, 179, 187, 192, 210, 212.

  74. Ibid., p. 249.

  75. Ibid., II, 1.

  76. Azara's contact with members of the Malaspina expedition was minimal. The correspondence with Pineda will be discussed below. Although Azara published an account of Cochabamba by Tadeo Haenke, another of the naturalists on the expedition, written after the latter took up residence in South America in 1793 (see Azara, Voyages, II, 380–541), not only did the two men never meet or correspond, but Azara published the manuscript without Haenke's knowledge. This was perhaps an indiscretion, but he feared that otherwise it might not be published (idem, Viajes, p. 52), and in fact it was not published in Spanish until nearly a century later. Azara and José de Bustamante y Guerra, commander of the Atrevida, became friends (ibid., p. 92) after Bustamante's return to South America in 1797 as governor of Uruguay.

  77. Azara, Páxaros, I, v.

  78. Beddall, “Scientific Books and Instruments.”

  79. Ibid., p. 99.

  80. Azara, Páxaros, I, v-vi.

  81. See note 26 for Azara's references to the copies of Buffon that he received.

  82. Azara, Quadrúpedos, I, v-vi; see also Azara, Essais, I, xlv-1.

  83. Azara, Quadrúpedos, I, vi.

  84. Azara, Essais, I, xviii-xix.

  85. Ibid., pp. lxxv-lxxx.

  86. Glick and Quinlan, “Myth,” p. 76; note 23.

  87. Azara, Essais, title page.

  88. José Nicolás de Azara and Bernardo de Iriarte, correspondence on Félix de Azara's work, Azara MSS (no. 20088, packet 2), Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid. Most of the relevant correspondence is from Iriarte to Azara, outlining the possible objections to publication. For further information on this manuscript and the location of copies, see Alvarez López, Azara, pp. 50–52; Julio César González, “Apuntes,” pp. lxxxvii-lxxxviii.

  89. Azara, Quadrúpedos, I, dedication.

  90. See Beddall, “Azara,” pp. 40–45, 51–65.

  91. Azara, Páxaros, I, vii-viii.

  92. Ibid., p. vi.

  93. Such comments are found not only in the introductory statement “De los páxaros en general,” Páxaros, I, 1–12, but scattered through the text. They are briefly summarized in Arara's Viajes, pp. 178–180. See also Beddall, “Azara,” pp. 32–33, 40–41, 43, 64–65.

  94. Azara, Voyages, III, i.

  95. Ibid., 78–79, 122–123; IV, 4, 14–15, 231.

  96. Ibid., III, 427–428.

  97. Ibid., notes on the following pages: III, 416–418; IV, 142–143, 153, 158.

  98. One might ask whether Azara developed the qualities of a genius only after he was sent to South America at the age of 35. This does not seem likely. Rather, as Anthony Storr has remarked: “Erik Erikson, because of his interest in biography, came to realize that human beings, especially if they are men of genius, continue to change and develop throughout their lives,” a remark that would seem to characterize Azara (Times Literary Supplement, October 9, 1981, p. 1178).

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Beddall, B.G. The isolated Spanish genius — Myth or reality? Félix de Azara and the birds of Paraguay. J Hist Biol 16, 225–258 (1983). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00124699

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