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Review Endeavour Vol.27 No.

3 September 2003 117

An herbal El Dorado: the quest for

botanical wealth in the Spanish Empire
Paula De Vos
History Department, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego, CA 92182-8147, USA

Few historians of science would associate the Spanish Spanish Empire is not entirely inaccurate. There is no
Empire with scientific innovation. However, recent denying the importance of silver production for Spain
research is increasingly demonstrating the Crown’s throughout the colonial period, and its impact on various
strong commitment to scientific research, particularly scientific fields. However, the emphasis on silver obfuscates
in the areas of botany, natural history and medicine. a very vigorous imperial program of research into the
Although this commitment began in the 16th century, it natural history, botany and medicine of the Americas that
reached full development in the 18th, when Enlighten- began almost immediately upon contact. In fact, recent work
ment ideals led to growing interest in exploiting natural in the history of science in the Spanish Empire is beginning
resources in the New World. Interest in new resources, to reveal a much more complex picture of a Spanish Crown
which offered alternatives to silver and traditional cash committed to the support of science, especially in the 18th
crops, focused largely on medicinal herbs indigenous to century. In the context of the Enlightenment, economic,
the Americas. Herbs that provided ‘miracle cures’ for political and intellectual priorities converged in Spain to
age-old diseases would bring both material and moral make the discovery of ‘new’ and ‘useful’ plants a primary goal
wealth to the Crown, and were thus pursued vigorously for imperial statesmen and scientists alike. The result was
throughout Spanish America. The result was a search the search for a new kind of ‘herbal’ El Dorado, which held
for an ‘herbal’ El Dorado, reminiscent of 16th-century the promise of financial gain, but also of heightened national
expeditions in search of a mythical land of gold – only prestige and the moral rewards that went along with using
in this case, medicine, not metal, was the goal. science, according to the Spanish Crown, for the benefit of
Visions of the Spanish Empire often evoke the image of a
corrupt and unwieldy bureaucracy struggling unsuccess- The riches of natural history
fully to control greedy and cruel conquistadors whose only The basis for this search for an herbal El Dorado had its roots
aim was to find gold and silver in the New World. The in Spain’s earliest colonial efforts, but did not come to full
legends of El Dorado led more than one conquistador to fruition until the time of the Enlightenment. The fact that
risk life, limb and personal fortune to leave the relative Columbus’s venture was founded on a desire to get to eastern
safety of the American coastline and travel inland in
search of a mythical land of gold (Fig. 1). Despite the
promise of Inca temples literally covered in gold (Fig. 2), it
was soon clear that silver, not gold, was to be the
conquistadors’ ‘reward,’ as they saw it, for conquest and
native conversion. Major silver deposits were discovered in
the 1540s, and by the 1590s, the Spanish fleet system was
carrying millions of pesos’ worth of silver to Spain every
year. The Spanish Crown put considerable resources into
insuring the production and safe shipment of this precious
cargo through research into mining technology, purifi-
cation techniques, navigation, cartography and naval
weaponry [1]. It is silver, then, that has dominated much
of the political, economic and scientific history of the
Spanish Empire. It is to silver that historians attributed
Spain’s spectacular rise to power in the 16th century and
its equally ignominious decline in the 17th, as silver
receipts began to diminish [2]. It was also silver that
provided the motivation for any scientific or technological
innovation that took place in the Spanish Empire.
This traditional view of science and technology in the

Corresponding author: Paula De Vos ( Fig. 1. Detail of Sir Walter Raleigh’s map of the legendary gold country El Dorado. 0160-9327/$ - see front matter q 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/S0160-9327(03)00109-1
118 Review Endeavour Vol.27 No.3 September 2003

Fig. 2. (a) Theodore de Bry’s woodcut and (b) a Colombian votive gift in the form of a raft, both depicting ‘El Dorado’.

spices meant that spices continued to be a high priority, even economic theory and policy in the Spanish Empire. Greater
after it was clear that Columbus had not landed in Asia. The emphasis on free trade and entrepreneurial activity
search for spices was a significant factor in the search for convinced Crown and colonist alike of the need for a more
New World drugs as well, for most of them also served as open trade policy, as seen in the 1778 decree of comercio libre
medicines. In fact, spices were medicinal staples in the early- (free trade) between Spanish and Spanish American ports
modern European pharmacopoeia, used for all sorts of cures [7]. The growing importance of botany and natural history
including stomach ache, diarrhoea, colds and even epilepsy. combined with a developing entrepreneurial spirit in the
From the first decades of the 16th century the desire to find search for new products to cultivate and sell on an
new spice medicines led to exploration of and experimen- increasingly global market. Although all natural history
tation with indigenous ‘balsams’, peppers and cinnamon in products had intrinsic value as ‘curiosities’, the ‘useful’ ones,
the circum-Caribbean [3]. From that time as well, Spanish those with commercial potential, were the most sought after.
chroniclers produced voluminous natural histories of the Cash crops of natural dyes, spices and medicines offered new
Indies and popular medical books describing American economic alternatives to the traditional tobacco, cacao and
drugs [4]. Research into the natural history and medicinal sugar. In this way, agriculture and agronomy became foci of
plants of the Americas resulted not only from individual Crown goals: to find and cultivate new cash crops in Spain’s
initiative but also from state direction. Spanish monarchs overseas realms would come to be a significant factor in
such as Philip II (1556–1598) organized a series of Spain’s economic goals – a far cry from the image of a
investigations into New World plants, animals, climate bureaucracy and a colonial populace focused exclusively on
and geography and established botanical gardens and the extraction of mineral wealth.
natural history cabinets to house their findings [5]. In this way, natural history and botany became pivotal
However substantial these early efforts, it was not until sciences in the pursuit of colonial wealth, well deserving of
the 18th century that they reached full fruition. Under the the full support of the Spanish Crown. Bureaucrats,
influence of Enlightenment ideals, the Spanish ruling botanists and naturalists alike recognized the financial
dynasty of the Bourbons set about establishing a series of riches to be gained from a ‘scientific’ inquiry into the
political, social and economic reforms in Spain and botanical specimens of the Spanish viceroyalties. In 1774,
Spanish America. Designed to combat a generally per- the economist and statesman Pedro Rodriguez de Campo-
ceived ‘decline’, these reforms included an even greater manes advocated the study of natural history, going so far as
commitment to scientific pursuits [6]. Natural history and to suggest that a prize be offered to anyone who found new
botany were an important part of that commitment, as and innovative uses for plants [8]. The director of the Royal
they in particular enjoyed a heightened popularity Botanical Garden in Madrid, Casimiro Gómez Ortega (Fig.
throughout the 18th century. 3), wished to capitalize on the possibility of circumventing
The publication of Carl Linneus’s System of Nature (1737) Spain’s dependence on the Eastern spice trade when he
helped to both systematize and simplify plant classification, urged collectors, doctors and pharmacists in 1785 to ‘use the
making it accessible to both expert and layperson. Cabinets notions of botany…to explore the properties and virtues of
of curiosity, popular since the Renaissance, were increas- plants in order to determine if one might be able to replace
ingly augmented by objects from all over the world. expensive foreign…spices with those that are grown
Institutional support transformed these private pursuits domestically.’ [9] Even more important, however, was the
to public ones, raising them to professional status: botanical notion that plants, unlike metals, represented a perpetual
gardens, natural history museums, and university chairs of source of income because they could reproduce themselves.
botany and natural history appeared in most major According to Gómez Ortega, ‘Minerals cannot be reproduced;
European cities, and in Mexico and Peru as well. neither can mineral wealth be propagated. The vegetal
Enlightenment ideals also had a profound effect on treasures of America, once acquired, can multiply to
Review Endeavour Vol.27 No.3 September 2003 119

was also author of Elemental Course in Theoretical and

Practical Botany (1785), which was translated into Italian
(1788), and of Instruction Concerning the Transport of
Plants from America to Spain, which he wished to be
translated into English and French, since ‘my friends in
London and Paris, with whom I have been corresponding,
wish me to have it done in the name of the common good.’
[14] Gómez Ortega himself also translated several
botanical and agricultural works into Spanish, including
those of Linneus.
The Spanish counterpart to Joseph Banks, Gómez
Ortega was utterly convinced of the exquisite riches to
be found in the American kingdoms. Although he never
traveled there himself, he spent his career advocating for
the collection, cultivation and dissemination of knowledge
about useful plants from the New World. As part of a larger
wave of European scientific expeditions sent all over the
Fig. 3. Signature of Casimiro Gómez Ortega.
globe – the voyages of James Cook, Louis Bougainville and
Alexander von Humboldt are famous examples – the
infinity.’ [10] In 1777, the Mexican naturalist José Alzate y Spanish organized them as well, a fact that has received
Ramı́rez proclaimed to his literate countrymen the fact that little attention from historians of science. Over the course
‘At first glance, natural history does not seem to present the of the 18th century, the Spanish Crown funded no less than
means for building one’s fortune; but…those who have eight natural history expeditions to North and South
experienced its capabilities [know that] it produces an America and the Philippines, and sent out dozens of royal
inexhaustible flow of wealth.’ [11] orders to colonial administrators requesting the collection
The message was clear: those most capable of recognizing and remittance of exotic and useful specimens [15]. In
the value and harnessing the power of America’s natural 1777, Gómez Ortega voiced his strong support of these
resources would be rewarded with unimaginable wealth – collecting missions by declaring:
and that wealth might come from the least obvious places.
I am of the firm persuasion that if a peaceful and wise
king influenced by learned and intelligent advisors
Science and Spanish prestige orders the examination of the natural productions of
The potential for financial gain through the study of natural this Peninsula and of his vast overseas dominions; that
history and botany was thus clear to Spanish statesmen and twelve naturalists accompanied by as many chemists and
scientists alike and undoubtedly provided strong motivation mineralogists dispersed throughout these areas, will
for its support. Yet financial wealth was not the only goal: through their pilgrimages produce benefits that are
political considerations of Spain’s position vis-à-vis its incomparably greater than could one hundred thousand
soldiers. [16]
European neighbors certainly played a role in funding
scientific research. A commitment to natural history, botany These words indicate a new idea behind the concepts of
and medicine would add to Spain’s prestige and insure it a imperialism and conquest. The Spanish military expeditions
position in the cosmopolitan intellectual world of the of the 16th century and the quest for new territory had
‘Republic of Letters’. Spanish statesmen, anxious to counter transformed into scientific collecting expeditions and a quest
assumptions of Spanish backwardness, orthodoxy and for knowledge. The knowledge gained in these expeditions
decline, wished to present themselves as modern and would lead not to exploitation of new territory, but in the
forward-thinking – in a word, enlightened. spirit of the Enlightenment would lead to exploitation of
These sentiments were embodied in the person of resources hitherto unknown in Spain. These resources
Casimiro Gómez Ortega, pharmacist, botanist, director would bring incomparably greater riches than before,
of the Royal Botanical Garden and chief organizer of the because they could be cultivated and perpetuated in an
Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain in the 1780s. unending cycle of supply and demand. And unlike the
Gómez Ortega was consciously and conscientiously cos- conquistadors, whose cruelty had been well publicized, the
mopolitan. As an enthusiastic supporter of the Linnean naturalists would bring a prestige to the Crown based upon
system, he promoted that author’s work throughout Spain the indisputable value of scientific knowledge, untainted by
and the Empire. He had visited the Royal Botanical the Black Legend. In this scenario, the naturalist, not the
Gardens in Paris, Oxford and Chelsea and was a member conquistador or the pirate, was the hero; although according
of the Royal Society and the Linnean Society of London, to Gómez Ortega, he was ‘humble and simple, like nature
the Academy of Sciences in Paris, and many others. He itself,’ his collections and publications would bring both
also carried on a lively correspondence with members of honor and glory to his country [17].
these organizations, including Joseph Banks [12]. Under
his direction, the Botanical Garden of Madrid regularly Miracle medicines
sent seeds of ‘exotic’ plants to gardens in London, Given the growing recognition of the economic and political
Edinburgh, Paris, Florence, Turin, Parma, Zurich, advantages offinding ‘useful’ plants, it is no surprise that the
Amsterdam, The Hague and Leiden [13]. Gómez Ortega search for herbal medicines would become a focus of Crown
120 Review Endeavour Vol.27 No.3 September 2003

goals. The discovery of these medicines had several prag- medicine. The Council of the Indies arranged for two large
matic functions that would aid in furthering imperial aims. bottles of the Choch Tree powder to be sent to Madrid right
Their cultivation and exportation would not only provide away. Once arrived, the bottles were remitted to Doctor
much-needed funds for the Royal Treasury, but would Joseph Lafarga of the hospital that served the royal court in
restore pride and prestige to the Spanish Crown and provide San Lorenzo del Escorial. The doctor tested the powder by
means for further conquest. As British, Portuguese, Dutch, administering it to a total of 28 patients who were ill with the
French and Spanish imperialists alike attempted to expand fevers and who had been treated with quinine, to no avail.
settlement into the interior of their far-flung empires, they According to Lafarga, the Choch powder was a great success:
faced the continual barrier of the one thing that would not of the 28 people treated with Choch, 21 had been cured. Not
yield to force of arms, no matter how cruelly imposed – only was it more effective than quinine, but it was also much
disease, which only medicines and medical innovation could easier on the body, ‘moving sweat, urine, and saliva, gently,
cure. In addition to these factors was one final incentive – a without harming the patient.’ In a resounding affirmation of
moral one, based on the fact that new medicines would help his admiration of this new drug, it was Lafarga’s final
humanity in general. Medicines were thus the vehicle par judgement that
excellence for providing both the material wealth of If these powders are capable of being grown in Spain in
commerce and the moral riches associated with curing the large numbers so that they can be widely used, it appears
sick. What better way to justify imperial domination of the to me that these results will be very favorable, and that
Americas than to prove that in these vast territories lay their discovery will be a new find of the greatest
riches greater than any amount of silver or gold? Medicines consideration and estimation for medicine.
that could cure syphilis, malaria, pleurisy and epidemic Another ‘great find’ for medicine appeared in 1791 when
disease; that served as antidotes to any poison; that could aid an army officer in Havana was moved ‘by humanitarian
in childbirth, breast feeding and miscarriage: these could rid sentiment’ to notify His Majesty of something ‘very useful to
society once and for all of the most feared conditions that the preservation of [our] species’: a cure for smallpox used by
shortened life expectancy, limited birthrates and, at the very the indigenous people of Cuba [20]. The cure consisted of a
least, led to paralysis, chronic fevers and disfiguring scars. certain ‘Herb N.’ that entirely healed smallpox sores, no
The explosive potential of new medicines, particularly matter how severe or advanced the disease. Herb N. was
‘miracle’ drugs to cure major epidemic diseases led to a prepared by boiling it in a large quantity of water, which then
wholesale pursuit throughout the Americas of indigenous served as a bath for the patient. The patient bathed in the
plants that was supported, directed and organized by the infusions three times a day ‘until the pox have swelled up.’
Crown. In addition to the scientific expeditions, the Council The herb itself was placed directly over the sores, after which
of the Indies sent out order after order to administrators in the humor causing the disease would dissipate rapidly. The
Spanish America requesting them to send to Madrid officer could attest personally to the efficacy of Herb N. His
‘medicinal herbs, roots and seeds,…and descriptions of son Ramón had been afflicted by smallpox and was
their uses.’ [18] Responses to these orders poured in from all ‘practically dead’ when he was told of the remedy. After
over Spanish America. Throughout the 1770s and 1780s, bathing in the herb for only a few days, his son had emerged
hundreds of medicines arrived from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto ‘perfectly cured.’ Without casting doubt on the officer’s
Rico, Santo Domingo, Peru and Louisiana, and from present- commitment to the good of humanity, the fact that the herb’s
day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina and Chile. name was concealed does suggest that he was aware of its
These medicines represented an impressive array of economic potential and did not want any competitors to
indigenous ‘folk’ remedies for a wide range of afflictions, collect it before he did.
from headaches to bladder stones and menstrual problems. That the search for miracle cures had turned into an
However, the medicines that received the most attention 18th-century version of a search for a medicinal El Dorado
from were those purported to cure epidemic diseases. Thus, a that would make the discoverer rich and famous is evident,
veritable scramble to find ‘miracle cures’ broke out among finally, in a poignant letter by the Franciscan leader of the
bureaucrats and various amateurs in Spanish America who collecting mission in Guatemala, Friar José Antonio
hoped to receive fame and fortune in return for their finds. Goscoechea. The search for miracle cures, like earlier
The intention of finding miracle cures was not lost on the searches for the mythical El Dorado, often turned up fakes.
colonial subjects who were doing the collecting. As notices of In 1785, Friar José commiserated with members of the
folk medicines began to reach Madrid, so too did notices of Council of the Indies that
miraculous drugs that cured any number of serious diseases. Your Excellencies must feel every day the tedium,
Such was the case with a drug sent to Madrid in 1778 from drudgery, and vexation caused for you by people who are
Yucatán that reputedly cured malaria. This drug was a forever sending one drug or another, and in this way
powder made from the bark of the Choch Tree, and had been counting on getting promotions and making a fortune. [21]
discovered by a local surgeon. Having completed ‘a very The friar’s complaint reveals some of the difficulties
careful mechanical analysis’ of the tree’s bark, the surgeon involved in collecting efforts, but more importantly it
found that it was ‘powerfully absorbent for the acids which demonstrates that these efforts were taking place on a
produce the fermentation…causing intermittent fevers relatively large scale, and were geared towards the discovery
[malaria].’ [19] A possible cure for malaria was extremely of ‘miracle drugs’ that could provide the finder with great
significant, not only because the disease had plagued riches, much like the earlier promise of finding El Dorado.
colonizers for centuries, but also because its most promising Unfortunately for our purposes, it is unclear exactly what
cure to date, quinine, was another example of a miracle happened with each of these drugs. Gómez Ortega had great
Review Endeavour Vol.27 No.3 September 2003 121

Indias, Sevilla (AGI/S), Contratacion, 928, N. 18, f. 1, Santo Domingo,

868,L. 3, f. 5r., and Santo Domingo, 868, L. 4, f. 29r
4 For an overview of natural histories of Spanish America by 16th-
century chroniclers, see Esteve Barba, F. (1992) Historiografı́a
Indiana, Editorial Gredos, S.A., Madrid; and Gerbi, A. (1985) Nature
in the New World: From Christopher Columbus to Gonzalo Fernández
de Oviedo (Jeremy Moyle, trans.) University of Pittsburgh Press,
Pittsburgh, USA. An early and well-known medical book on American
medicinal herbs was written by Nicholas Monardes in 1545. See
Monardes, N. (1988) Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de
nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven de medicina, Facsimile of 1574
Seville edition, Padilla Libros, Seville
5 Several works have come out recently that emphasize Philip II’s
commitment to science, including Martinez Ruiz, E., ed. (1999) Felipe
II, la ciencia y la tecnica. Actas Editoriales, Madrid; Campos y
Fernandez de Sevilla, F.J., ed. (1992) La Ciencia en el Escorial, San
Lorenzo de El Escorial; and Goodman, D. (1988) Power and Penury,
Cambridge University Press
6 See Herr, R. (1958) The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain,
Princeton University Press, ch. 3
7 See Fisher, J. (1997) The Economic Aspects of Spanish Imperialism in
America, 1492–1810, Liverpool University Press
8 Bleichmar, D. Painting as exporation: visualizing nature in eight-
eenth-century colonial science, unpublished
9 Gómez Ortega, C. (1785) Curso elemental de botanica. Parte Teórica,
Capı́tulo 6, p. 154
10 AGI/S Indiferente, L., 1544. Informes de Don Casimiro de Ortega
sobre el sistema o modo de estampar al natural las Plantas, como
presentó Don Celedonio de Arce. Letter from Casimiro Gómez Ortega
to José de Gálvez, 10 February 1779
11 Newberry Library, Ayer Collection, MS 1301, Alzate y Ramı́rez, J. (1777)
Memoria Sobre la Naturaleza, Cultivo, y Beneficio de la Grana, f. 2v
12 For a biography of Gómez Ortega, see Puerto Sarmiento, F. (1992)
Ciencia de camara: Casimiro Gómez Ortega (1741–1818) el cientifico
cortesano, CSIC, Madrid. Whereas Puerto Sarmiento contends (pp. 97–
Fig. 4. Gómez Ortega’s ‘Tabasco pepper’.
102) that Gómez Ortega’s membership in so many different academies
indicated his lack of depth and direction as a serious botanist, I would
plans for them, and arranged for the testing and chemical argue to the contrary, that it demonstrates his participation in the
European Republic of Letters. This participation was crucial to the
analysis of several of these herbs, including a ‘Tabasco development not only of Gómez Ortega’s intellect and career, but of
Pepper’, which he was sure would overtake the Eastern Spanish imperial science in general in the late 18th century
trade in cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in one fell swoop 13 There are too many archival examples to cite here, but a few
(Fig. 4) [22]. What may have become a strong tradition in representative documents are: Archivo del Real Jardin Botanico de
Spain of tropical medicine research, however, was halted by Madrid (A.R.J.B.M.) I, 3, 6, 14; I, 3, 6, 15; and, I, 4, 1, 9
14 AGI/S Indiferente, L. 1544. Informes de Don Casimiro de Ortega sobre
several factors. Spain’s chronic lack of development in el sistema o modo de estampar al natural las Plantas, como presentó
industry and manufacture made it impossible for these Don Celedonio de Arce. Letter from Casimiro Gómez Ortega to José de
projects to flourish on a large scale, particularly after the Gálvez, 10 February, 1779
Napoleonic takeover of Spain in 1808 and the subsequent 15 Bleichmar, D. op. cit. Engstrand, I. (1981) Spanish Scientists in the
New World, University of Washington Press, Seattle, USA make up the
decades of devastating turmoil in the Spanish–American
few historians writing in English about the 18th-century Spanish
wars of independence. Nevertheless, there is much value in scientific expeditions
knowing Crown intentions. Whilst many of the new breed of 16 AGI/S Indiferente, L. 1544. Expediente sobre el fomento, el comerico,
fortune hunter naturalists were undoubtedly guided by y cultivo de la Pimienta de Tabasco, o Malagueta. Letter from Casimiro
more parochial and personal aims, the administrators who Gómez Ortega to José de Gálvez, 23 February, 1777
17 AGI/S Indiferente, L. 1544. Informes de Don Casimiro de Ortega sobre
received the fruits of their labor had a larger vision in mind – el sistema o modo de estampar al natural las Plantas, como presentó
as they saw it, that of an enlightened Spain whose imperial Don Celedonio de Arce. Letter from Casimiro Gómez Ortega to José de
efforts, particularly in the area of science, would not only fill Gálvez, 10 February 1779
its coffers, but be a benefit to all of humanity. 18 AGI/S Indiferente, L. 1549. Compendio de las noticias que S.M. por su
Real Ordén de 20 de Octubre proximo pasado ordena que se puntualisen
References para el completo conocimiento de la Geografı́a, Fı́sica, Antiguedades,
1 See, for example, Cipolla, C. (1965) Guns and Sails in the Early Phase Mineralogı́a y Metalurgı́a de este Reyno de Nueva España, f. 4. 23
of European Expansion, Collins; and Parry, J.H. (1963) The Age of January 1777
Reconnaissance, University of California Press, Berkeley 19 AGI/S Indiferente, L. 1553. Letter from Bartolomé Goujoun, 12
2 For a general history of the ‘rise and fall’ of Spain in the 16th and 17th February 1778
centuries, see Lynch, J. (1991) Spain 1516–1598 and The Hispanic 20 AGI/S Indiferente, L. 1553. Letter from Don Juan Bautista Prats, 31
World in Crisis and Change, 1598 –1700, Blackwell and various works January, 1791
by John Elliott 21 AGI/S Indiferente, L. 1550. Letter from Fray José Antonio Goscoechea
3 Barrera, A. (2001) Local herbs, global medicines: commerce, knowl- to José de Gálvez, 15 June, 1785
edge and commodities in Spanish America. In Merchants and Marvels: 22 AGI/S Indiferente, L. 1544. Expediente sobre el fomento, el comercio,
Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe (Smith, P. and y cultivo de la Pimienta de Tabasco, o Malagueta. Letter from Casimiro
Findlen P., eds), Routledge. Other sources are Archivo General de Gómez Ortega to José de Gálvez, 23 February, 1777