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date: 30 June 2022

Natural History, Exploration, and Landscape in 19th-Century Chilelocked

Natural History, Exploration, and Landscape in 19th-Century Chilelocked

  • Patience SchellPatience SchellUniversity of Aberdeen

Summary

In the early 19th century, in recently independent Chile, a symbiosis emerged between various governments, on the one hand, and Chilean and foreign naturalists, on the other, who all realized that there was much to learn about Chile scientifically, and that this scientific knowledge had a range of uses. This joint interest resulted in state-sponsored projects and private trips that included mapping, investigating Chile’s natural resources, and gathering flora and fauna for cataloguing, collecting, and exchanging. Traveling naturalists, government-sponsored surveyors, amateur enthusiasts, and foreign visitors journeyed through Chile by foot, mule, horse, boat, and, eventually, train, heading north and south, to the mountains, plains, desert, and coast, in small and large groups, appropriating local knowledge, gathering materials, taking measurements, and writing letters, reports, and books on what they found, who they met, and what opportunities these regions offered. These trips contributed to the development of museums and collections in Chile and beyond, and to the discipline of natural history in Chile. Moreover, the circulation of objects and publications, not just in Chile but transnationally, brought Chile’s flora, fauna, and geography to greater international awareness and also into scientific discussions.

This natural history work also contributed to cultural change and territorial expansion, generating ideas about territories as hospitable or hostile, dreary or picturesque, offering opportunity or being without development potential. As these naturalists and explorers built on each other’s opinions, they created an accepted narrative about particular landscapes and geographies that moved into other arenas. In the 1840s and 1850s, one of these narratives was that the southern region of the indigenous Mapuche people, militarily occupied and incorporated into Chile (1860–1883), was both a landscape of impenetrable forests and constant rain and a picturesque landscape of fertile opportunity for Chilean national development, presuming the “right” settlers could be attracted. Meanwhile, the arid north, including the Atacama Desert, over which Chile went to war with Bolivia and Peru (the War of the Pacific, 1879–1884), was depicted as hostile, monotonous, and dangerous, with little aesthetic merit, but also as a region that offered opportunities through its mineral wealth. The snow-capped Andes and fertile valleys of central Chile, in which the capital Santiago and the main port city of Valparaíso are located, became landscapes that represented the nation. Thus, naturalists contributed to greater scientific knowledge about Chile, building collections and inserting new flora, fauna, and geography into global scientific debates, while also creating draft meanings about particular landscapes and regions that spread well beyond natural history.

Subjects

  • History of Southern Spanish America
  • 1824–c. 1880
  • Environmental History

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