Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Latin American History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 22 June 2021

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

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

  • Patience SchellPatience SchellUniversity of Aberdeen


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.


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

Despite important antecedents, discourses on landscape in 19th-century Chile began from a moment when there were few useful maps, limited studies of flora, fauna, and natural resources, and little sense of Chile as a whole: the term país (country) could also mean one’s region.1 English visitor John Miers (1789–1879), arriving in Chile in 1818, noted that “Few are to be met with who entertain the most distant ideas of geography, or even the topography of their own country.”2 Yet in these early years after independence, Chile’s leaders recognized the usefulness of scientific knowledge, which offered information, for example, on natural resources and could produce usable maps. At the same time, for naturalists seeking to make their name, Chileans with scientific inclinations, and travelers with scientific interests, Chile offered enticing possibilities because it was so little known and explored scientifically.3

Among the foreign observers in this early period was the British travel writer Maria Graham (1785–1842), whose depictions of Chile’s landscapes emphasized their singular beauty. On a trip from Valparaíso to Santiago Graham mused, “I wonder that I have never heard the beauty of this road praised. [. . .] The undulating valley, called the Caxon [sic] de Zapata, that opened on our reaching the height, its woody glens, and the snowy mountains beyond, formed a very beautiful picture; the sky was serene, and the temperature delightful.”4 Her first view of Santiago was equally stunning, at the intersection of new and old roads at the Cuesta de Prado (see figure 1). “The high hills which surround the city, and the most magnificent range of mountains in the world, the cordillera of the Andes, now capped with snow, shooting into the heavens, with masses of clouds rolling in their dark valleys, presented to me a scene I had never beheld equalled.”5

Figure 1. “From the foot of the Cuesta del Prado” by Maria Graham.

Source: Maria Graham, Journal of a Residence in Chile, 1822, and a Voyage from Chile to Brazil in 1823 (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green and John Murray, 1824). With thanks to the University of Aberdeen Special Collections.

The landscape was not only beautiful; it also had potential for important scientific and economic development if only the right people studied it. In an 1828 article in El Mercurio Chileno, about the travel account of Concepción’s mayor Luis de la Cruz (1768–1828), the author lamented the lack of knowledge about Chile’s natural environment. “The Andes mountain range, this great feature of the New World’s geological physiognomy remains hidden from the eyes of science.”6 But it was not just global science that knew little about Chile. De la Cruz himself noted that, “I am from these places, and [. . .] have 16 years of knowledge of this region, [with its] highly-fertile lands, [but with] so many mines recently discovered, so many mountains, so many hot springs, so many fruits and, finally, new settlers, entire volumes would be necessary to write about it.”7 Entire volumes were on the cards, as this article will discuss.

In another 1828 article, Carlo Bertero (1789–1831), an Italian physician and botanist based in Valparaíso, concurred, arguing that “In this country everything merits the attention of the observer [and] the soil is virgin; all the difficulty is based on acquiring accurate information. . . . A good government could gain utility, through large-scale applications [of scientific information] to the diverse branches of industry and commerce. An isolated individual can only make tentative efforts.”8 Bertero, one of these isolated individuals, returned to this argument when he sent El Mercurio Chileno a list of Chilean plants that he had identified. He prefaced the list, having gone through the (limited from his point of view) existing botanical research on Chile, by noting that, “If it were possible to bring together, in one place, all this knowledge, correcting it and augmenting it with new investigation, there is no doubt that it would be a great service to science and [Chile’s] inhabitants. But such an endeavour is not within the grasp of an individual. Only a government can favour its execution, providing [the person who] was capable of taking responsibility for such a painful task with everything necessary.”9 Bertero’s own tentative efforts were cut short when he disappeared when returning to Chile from a collecting expedition to Tahiti.10 As these two examples indicate, the newspaper El Mercurio Chileno was an early disseminator of natural history work as a way of trying to understand Chile. Its prospectus stated that one of its goals was to “popularize, through this comfortable and simple medium, the ongoing work of reason.”11 In his scholarly edition of the paper, Gabriel Cid has found that about 30 percent of the articles were about scientific themes, amid a mix of literary articles, book reviews, poetry, political economy, and foreign news.12

Another foreigner dazzled by Chile’s beauty and interested in its scientific opportunities was Charles Darwin (1809–1882). Arriving in Valparaíso in 1834 he noted that “the climate [is] quite delicious; the sky so clear & blue, the air so dry & the sun so bright, that all nature seems sparking with life.”13 Visiting Santiago in 1834 he was struck by his first view of the city.

We crossed a low ridge which separates Guitron from the plain on which St Jago stands: the view here was preeminently striking, the dead level surface, covered in parts by woods of Acacia, & with the city in the distance, abutted horizontally against the base of the Andes, their snowy peaks bright with the evening sun.14

He was also flummoxed by his inability to find a map, noting in a letter to the captain of the Beagle Robert FitzRoy (1805–1865) that even in Santiago, “I can by no means procure any sort of Map.”15

The first large-scale successful attempt by the government to address this lacuna in systematic study of Chilean nature came in 1830, when the French emigre naturalist Claudio Gay (1800–1873) was hired to study Chile’s natural environment, geography, commerce, and statistics; to publish his findings as a natural history of Chile; and to set up a museum with the specimens he gathered.16 As Rafael Sagredo Baeza argues, by proposing and signing this contract, at thirty, Gay committed himself to a monumental labor that would take the rest of his life.17 Gay had arrived in Chile just under two years earlier to be a teacher at the Colegio de Santiago, but his plan, with the support of his mentors at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, had always been to use that post as a way to carry out natural history study.18 With this contract, he was now a full-time paid traveling naturalist, collecting and exploring throughout Chile with the material support and authority of the Chilean state behind him.

As Luis Mizón notes, in these first decades after independence there were three geographical foci of Chile: “Coquimbo or the north; Santiago or the center and Concepción, the south.”19 During the second half of the 19th century, the territory classified as the “north” or the “south” became larger, due to the military “Pacification of Araucania,” toward the south, and the War of the Pacific, to the north. In his work, Claudio Gay replicated this division of three broad regions, characterized by the north’s aridity and the south’s damp profusion of forests. The geographic center, with its central valley nestled between the Andes and the coastal range, shown in figure 2, was also the heart of Chile’s commerce and culture, home to both Santiago and Valparaíso.20 Despite these distinctions, Gay found strategies to represent Chile as a coherent space with clear, strong barriers defining its borders: the Atacama Desert, the Pacific Ocean, and the Andes Mountains.21 Thus, exploration and natural history writing were methodologies not just of scientific inquiry but that served as a way to create and develop ideas about Chile and its characteristics, delimiting the landscapes and borders that defined Chile. What landscapes and geographic features were to become archetypal? What meanings and adjectives were attributed to different landscapes? Nineteenth-century naturalists helped pose and answer these questions through their scientific exploration.22

Figure 2. “A race in the hills of Santiago, 1854.”

Source: Claudio Gay, Atlas de la historia física y política de Chile (Paris: En la Imprenta de E. Thunot, 1854). Reproduced on “Memoria Chilena.” With thanks to “Memoria Chilena” and the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

Natural history exploration, and dissemination of the scientific travel writing that resulted, was a form of seeing the territory through its classification, quantification, description, and presentation; this seeing allowed ideas about these places to become part of national discussions and for their redepiction in other media, as well as colonization, settlement, and exploitation. These exploring naturalists processed the land through which they traveled, taking knowledge from local, often indigenous people, creating impressions of the value of the landscape on which governments and individuals acted, and, at the same time, as others have argued, aligning particular territory and landscapes with the idea of “Chile.” While the process of exploration rendered the land scientifically knowable, tamable, and usable for a variety of purposes, that variety of purposes is key in understanding 19th-century natural history in Chile; the landscape was not simply brought into nationalist projects or depicted as rich for exploitation. Some landscapes were rejected as unusable or problematic, and views on landscape changed over time.

The South

In what became Chile’s south and its southern frontier region, landscape views changed dramatically. This region was the territory of the indigenous Mapuche people. José Bengoa describes this region, in the 1840s, as a region in which, from the perspective of the Chilean state, “authority, property, and the original and social status of people was unclear.” Additionally, the area’s population included transient people; fugitives found refuge in the south, bandits found income, and laws seemed to lose their force. As Bengoa argues, the “country of the centre” saw the north as an area of potential mineral wealth but largely ignored the “country of the south” until the middle of the 19th century.23 Even if the Chilean state ignored the region in the first decades after independence, ideas about its “indomitable” Mapuche people and dense forests, dating from the conquest period with the epic poem “La Araucana” by Alonso de Ercilla, framed expectations of the region. In a similar vein, Manual Vicuña Urrutia argues that in the southern territory, where the Mapuche remained unconquered and sovereignty became contested, “one perceives a tension between two wills, the product of the existence of a disputed territory.”24 Richard Francaviglia calls this region Chile’s “real frontier.”25

Gay helped shift attention southward. Writing about the indigenous areas near Valdivia, with their characteristic dense, damp forests, Gay mused, “I could not help but feel that such a beautiful province, so rich in good land and timber, was so uninhabited. If teeming Europe knew of the advantages that such fertile lands could procure, without any doubt, I told myself, many migrants would come to take advantage of the riches that can be extracted with such ease and so little capital.”26 The region was, of course, not uninhabited, but from Gay’s perspective the area had economic potential that only settlers, especially European settlers, could unlock. This call to dispossess the Mapuche of their lands and move new people into the area eventually became government policy. Nonetheless, Claudio Gay’s letters to the commission overseeing his work also attest to challenges of the area. Writing from Valdivia (see figure 3), he noted that he could not make more excursions, “As the rains have been more constant and much more copious, I have been forced, in spite of myself, to be well in my room.” That time confined to his room allowed him to work on his collections.27

Figure 3. “Valdivia.”

Source: Claudio Gay, Atlas de la historia física y política de Chile (Paris: En la Imprenta de E. Thunot, 1854). Reproduced on “Memoria Chilena.” With thanks to “Memoria Chilena” and the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

For Claudio Gay, the south of Chile was also enticing because new discoveries awaited. Gay traveled even further south than the disputed frontier region and Valdivia area, to the island of Chiloé. Zenobio Saldivia Maldonado argues that Chiloé is “doubly relevant” for Gay, both for the botanical and zoological study that it afforded him, but also because he was “one of the few nineteenth-century scientists who perceived Chiloé as a reservoir for the development of national science; that is he conceived the archipelago as a geographic site equivalent to a living laboratory, for observation and for the study and increase of national science.”28

The untamed landscape and the landscape of potential were two sides of the same coin from the early days of state-sponsored and unaffiliated travel. The Polish mineralogist exile Ignacio Domeyko (1808–1889) also extolled the agricultural potential of the southern frontier and urged its settlement also (again ignoring the fact that it was already settled).29 The German painter Carl Alexander Simon (1805–1852) presented this southern landscape as similar to Germany’s landscape and therefore offering benefits to Germanic immigrants.30 Simon believed that Germanic settlers could prosper if they emigrated to an area with similar climatic conditions; a similar landscape would help alleviate homesickness.31 As Marijke van Meurs Valderrama notes, in terms of 19th-century imagery of Chiloé, Simon’s work is significant in part because it augments the range of images in circulation at the time, expanding on the well-studied cases of Gay and Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802–1858), another German landscape painter who spent many years in South America from the 1820s to 1840s.32 Simon’s 1848 observations also indicate that the idea of turning the Southern Mapuche territory into Chile’s “lake district,” as examined in the first half of the 20th century, began sooner.33 Yet interestingly, Simon started making this case before he arrived in Chile and had seen the place for himself, perhaps thinking about what he hoped to find as much (or more than) the reality of the place.

A few years later, in the summer of 1851, Ignacio Domeyko suggested that the region around the Tinguiririca volcano offered a landscape of scientific and aesthetic use. He said that a tributary valley off the Tinguiririca River “offers the visitor more beautiful views, picturesque vegetation, better climate and an easier route than the Tinguiririca [River valley]; it’s a pleasant walk, not only for the geologist and naturalist, but also for tourists who appreciate views and photography.” Shortly thereafter, Domeyko noted that a natural bridge making a waterfall of the Tinguiririca offered a “beautiful landscape scene” but would not be a model for engineers nor would it be a secure way for travelers.34 Thus, the idea that the region had potential as a landscape to view, as well as lands to settle, is evident from this 1851 account.

Accounts like these encouraged the Chilean state’s southern expansion, through the military occupation and conquest of the previously independent Mapuche people. Luiz Mizón notes that political and scientific motivations, along with the need for administrative control and the Catholic Church’s missionary politics, all combined in this project, which also had military goals and benefits.35 Thomas Millar Klubock notes that the conquest, euphemistically known as the “Pacification of Araucania” began with “the line of forts demarcating independent Mapuche territory [that] gradually moved southward from the 1860s to the 1880s.” The military presence was combined with colonization projects, as the Chilean state sought to settle European immigrants in territory that was “more often than not occupied by Mapuche and non-Mapuche campesinos who were unwilling to cede their land to foreign settlers.” At the same time elites, often former military officers, acquired large parcels of land, further complicating the plan to settle foreign immigrants and adding another layer to the conflict over land use and rights.36 José Bengoa helpfully situates this Chilean colonization project in a contemporary international context, in which countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, and Australia, opened “agricultural frontiers.”37

This colonization project reshaped the landscape and land use. Exploitation of the natural resources noted by Gay and Domeyko and patterns of significant ecological damage were also begun in this period. It was Vicente Pérez Rosales (1807–1886) acting as a government colonization agent for the Germanic settlers in the region who “set the pattern for burning forests in southern Chile to clear land for colonization.” Pérez Rosales believed that the dense forests and heavy winter rains were deterrents to foreign settlers and cultivation of cereals. Cutting down the forests would reduce the rainfall and create land for cultivation.38 During one of his early trips, Pérez Rosales instructed his indigenous guide, Pichi-Juan, to “burn the forests between Chanchán and the mountains”; this fire burned for three months. One decade later, the alerce forest (Patagonia Cyprus, Fitzroya cupressoides, trees that are the cousins of California’s redwoods in size and age), between Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas, had been totally burned, deforesting an area measuring approximately 78 miles by two miles in width. By 1873, a congressional commission set up to determine regulations for clearing forests noted that the vast swathes of burned forest had produced something akin to a desert, with reduced rainfall and starved rivers. Half a century after the fire, scrub, bamboo, and blackberries grew around the dead stumps, many more than a meter wide, so that locals called it the “cemetery.”39

Amidst this process, scientific travelers continued to survey, describe, and categorize this southern, contested territory. Francisco Vidal Gormaz (1837–1907), known as the “father of national hydrography,” was part of a new generation of Chilean-trained naturalists/scientists, which, unlike the previous scientific travelers, has only in the early 21st century started to receive recognition by and interest from historians. Vidal Gormaz was the first director of the Oficina Hidrográfica de la Marina (Naval Hydrograhic Office), founded in 1874. He remained in this position until 1891. His government-sponsored work was not only key in the development of coastal charts and inland waterway exploration but also contributed to the fields of meteorology, geography, maritime history, and astronomy.40 Rodrigo Booth and Catalina Valdés argue that Vidal Gormaz’s exploration of and publications about the south, from the 1860s to 1880s, functioned as a bridge between older and newer conceptions of the territory. Vidal Gormaz’s work indicates appreciation of aesthetic qualities, while exhibiting uneasiness about the region. In his 1869 Continuación de los Trabajos de Esploraciones del Río Valdivia, Vidal Gormaz describes the snow-capped volcano Riñihue “drawing itself” over the Riñihue Lake, with its “crystal-clear waters.”41 Gormaz also uses the term “monotony” to describe the western shores of Riñihue, with its “profound silence”; the sound of running water offered the only exception. Thick vegetation covered the shore, giving the lake its overall “sad and forested appearance.” The lake was not only sad but lacking. With only a little evidence of human cultivation, “everything is lacking in the lake: birds and animals seem to have fled from the solitude and isolation of its shores.”42 In another description, Vidal Gormaz described the journey from Huidif to Lago Riñihue noting that once he entered the woods, he could barely make out the path and had to hack his way through with a machete. Here the colliguayes (colliguaja odorifera) fought back; having been chopped by the machete the remaining branch was like a lance, other trees slashed at heads and legs. At the end of such an ordeal someone without exploration “expertise” would come out with their skin and clothing in shreds.43 It was as if the vegetation colluded in making the territory “indomitable.”

Vidal Gormaz noted that industry remained confined to Valdivia, and he did not expect the situation to change while the banks of the Calle-Calle River remained “desolate.” He concluded that “only the development of immigration will make known the beauties and importance of the Calle-Calle River and the province of Valdivia.”44 Thus, Vidal Gormaz’s text reinforced the image of a largely empty area with rich potential for cultivation and new settlers, as well as an area of potential natural beauty. Booth and Valdés argue that “Vidal Gormaz’s narrative and visual work contributed to the redefinition of the aesthetic cannon of Chile’s southern landscape as it was produced precisely in the moment of transit between the perception of an unknown and sublime Nature to the installation of landscape references that gave the measure of beauty.”45

This transition of visual meaning accelerated, as Booth notes, at the end of the 19th century, and especially from the start of the 20th. At that point “the provinces of Arauco, Malleco, Cautín, Valdivia, Osorno and Llanquihue, began to be considered as a symbolic whole in which were contained the best of Chile’s natural beauty” thanks to the coming of tourists whose impressions of the region became spread through a range of media.46 The first tourists arrived as part of José Alfonso’s party (1899), led by an indigenous guide and protected by a soldier, which used mules and horses to navigate 124 miles using a network of personal connections to make up for the lack of tourist infrastructure.47 US president Theodore Roosevelt, who thought the mountains and lakes of the region among the most beautifully anywhere, was another important early tourist.48 By the 1930s, one of the attractions of the rebaptized “Lake District” was that it was “a visit to a domesticated nature that had been recently transformed into a landscape of cultural consumption that fed the curiosity of Chileans.”49 Thus, over the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, the southern forests and lakes of traditional Mapuche lands were rhetorically tamed, coiffed, and re-presented as something special and quintessentially Chilean. But this was a process, as the new idea of beauty coexisted with an older idea of dreary, indomitable landscapes that needed settlers to tame them. Vidal Gormaz, based on observations in July 1869, like Domeyko, Gay, and Simon years earlier, offered suggestions for colonization strategies and locations to settle, as well as incentives to ensure the occupation and incorporation of this territory.50 From early years of exploration of the south, both by Chilean-based or sponsored naturalists as well as from visitors, there is evidence of a conception of a territory with potential for foreign settlers; a territory that could be difficult to move around because of climate, vegetation, lack of infrastructure, and current inhabitants; but also a territory that was rich in potential for scientific exploration and knowledge. Yet this landscape of potential required improvement in order to be transformed into a landscape of beauty and opportunity; that “improvement” meant dispossession for the previous residents, including the Mapuche.

Before turning to ideas about the north, it is important to recognize that Chile had other “souths,” like Chiloé and the southern the tip of the continent, a region over which national authority remained contested in the second half of the 19th century and which remained outside the scope of these 19th-century visions of the “south.”51 There the colonization project, with its genocidal consequences for the indigenous population, happened a few decades later; from the late 1870s the Chilean state began to incorporate the area around Punta Areas, located on the Strait of Magellan, into the national space, favoring foreign ranchers with their sheep stations over indigenous populations, like the Selk’nam, who were hunted, kidnapped, and forced to live in camps where rampant disease had deadly consequences.52

The North

Natural history’s processing of the land, putting it into a scale that could be governed and debated about, did not always paint territories in positive terms, as the depictions of the south have shown. These tendencies were more pronounced for the northern desert regions. From the days of the conquest, as Manuel Vicuña Urrutia argues, the Atacama Desert represented a region lacking, which had “nothing to offer” and was notable only for the dangers of crossing it.53 Francaviglia notes the longevity of this characterization. Conquistadores Pedro de Valdivia (1497–1553) and Diego de Almagro (1475–1538) “appear to be the first to characterize the Atacama as a region with a distinctly barren quality,” and it was dubbed the “despoblado de Atacama” (the “deserted or unpopulated” Atacama), rhetorically erasing, as well, the indigenous inhabitants.54 As Francaviglia argues, this undefined boundary between the Spanish administrations of Peru and Chile meant that despite some Spanish-funded expeditions, “in the [18th-century] literature of exploration, the Atacama Desert remains but a footnote.”55 Moreover, because the Atacama was seen as having “nothing to offer beyond the difficulties of transit,” as Manuel Vicuña Urrutia argues, it remained outside techniques of representation that would have incorporated it into the idea of Chile, even as exploration increased.56 Vicuña Urrutia sums up the experience of 19th-century travelers saying that they “insistently repeated,” explicitly and implicitly, that “nothing altered the monotony of the Atacama Desert” except their trek across it. Only through their actions were there events to report from this vast emptiness.57 Even during the War of the Desert between Chile and Peru and Bolivia, the desert itself “represented the permanent confrontation with the Atacama’s enmity.”58

For Vicuña Urrutia the Atacama’s marginality, from the colonial period until the end of the 19th century, was not just about geographic marginality but also about ways to represent this space as part of the imagined spaces of the colony and, later, new nation. This landscape instead produced a “mix of strangeness and unease,” which defied language and left visitors disoriented.59 For visitors trying to find ways to describe this space other geographies offered some reference points. For liberal historian Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna (1831–1886) the Sahara Desert and deserts in Peru aided understanding, while for naturalist Francisco J. San Ramón (1838–1902), the deserts, canyons, and mountains of northern Mexico and the south-western United States offered a comparison. The vastness of the sea was another way in which San Ramón sought to convey the vastness of this desert.60

The rich material from 19th-century traveler/explorer naturalists thus illustrates the challenges of this geography and of finding language to represent it. In Charles Darwin’s 1839 Journal of Researches (which has become known as The Voyage of the Beagle) he noted about a valley in the Cordillera Maricongo, “The scenery on all sides showed desolation, brightened, and made palpable, by a clear, unclouded sky. Custom excludes the feeling of sublimity, and when this is wanting, such scenery is rather the reverse of interesting.”61 In his diary, on the section of his trip between Guasco and Copiapó, he noted, “I am tired of repeating the epithets barren & sterile.—These words, however, as commonly used, are comparative. I have always applied them to the plains of Patagonia, yet the vegetation . . . is luxuriant compared to anything to be seen here.” The next day he commented, “It is a pity to the sun shining so constantly bright over so useless a country; such shining days ought only to brighten a prospect of fields, cottages & gardens.—”62 As in Vidal Gormaz’s comments about the area around Riñihue Lake, without evidence of activity by (nonindigenous) people, the landscape was a void. That idea of blankness circulated more widely. Herman Melville’s 1854 novella The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles on the Galapagos Islands notes that “On most of the isles where vegetation is found at all, it is more ungrateful than the blankness of Aracama [sic].”63

In the summer 1853–1854, Prussian exile and director of the National Museum, Rodulfo A. Philippi (1808–1904) went to the Atacama under commission by the Chilean government, which was interested in the economic potential of the region, already producing wealth from its guano deposits, and wanting clarity on the issue of the border between Chile and Bolivia, one of the ill-defined borders inherited from the colonial period that only gained strategic significance after independence.64 Philippi noted that the commonly held view was that the more “sterile and distressing” a region was, the more likely it was to contain mineral wealth. But it was also a region of unknowns, seen from the perspective of the center. Preparing to depart from Santiago, Philippi was unable to find anyone with first-hand experience to help him plan (thanks to which he did not know that the desert could be cold, as well as hot, resulting in many frigid nights unable to sleep).65 Philippi’s reports to the Royal Geographical Society in 1855 and in his 1860 book Viage al Desierto de Atacama helped circulate natural history information about the region, while still depicting it in bleak terms. One of the party, Guillermo Döll, and his servant Nuñez, for example, went north from El Cobre, into a region described as “a terrible part of the desert.” When they returned two days later, Döll was “more dead than alive; [reporting that] the tracks were terrible, no water was to be found, their animals gave out, and they had to journey great distances on foot.”66 Landscapes that offered stark desert beauty did not fit into aesthetic analysis. Even the lizards were ugly.67 These landscapes lacked.

Figure 4. “Paposo.”

Source: Rodulfo Philippi, Viage al Desierto de Atacama: Hecho de orden del gobierno de Chile en el verano 1853-54 (Halle: Libreria de Eduardo Anton, 1860). Reproduced on “Memoria Chilena.” With thanks to “Memoria Chilena” and the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

The few more conventionally lovely views were still tainted; near Taltal, on the coast, Philippi recorded seeing the vast Pacific on one side and far into the valley of Taltal on the other. “Nonetheless, one’s spirit has a rather melancholy impression; one can’t make out any vestige of the existence of the human species, can’t see vegetation or animal life. Nature seems a cadaver.”68 Without evidence of human settlement and cultivation, nature was an inert corpse. Yet he also noted, about the area around Paposo on the coast (see figure 4), that a few weeks later the hills were painted in yellow, from the mustard flower, which could be seen from a distance.69 In his 1860 book, despite the grace of flowers in the desert, the desolateness of the landscape quickly comes to the fore. On the train ride from Caldera to Copiapó (see figure 5), Philippi noted that “one cannot image a sadder thing” than the brown, bald hills with their jagged edges.70 Philippi often used the idea of sadness to describe the Atacama; the first use of the term “sad” is in the book’s prologue.71

Figure 5. “Copiapó Plaza.”

Source: Rodulfo Philippi, Viage al Desierto de Atacama: Hecho de orden del gobierno de Chile en el verano 1853–54 (Halle: Libreria de Eduardo Anton, 1860). Reproduced on “Memoria Chilena.” With thanks to “Memoria Chilena” and the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

Nonetheless, the Atacama was also a place of myth and hope; individual and state hopes for mineral wealth were why he and others were in the region. His septuagenarian guide, Digeo Almeida, a prospector, told him about a virtual paradise in the region of Imilac and Aguas Blancas, “a very pleasant alley, full of fig trees . . . called the Lost Valley, discovered by some Argentines, that nobody could find again. The old man has complete faith in this legend.”72 It was also a place of extremes in size, scale, temperature, and bleakness. Philippi told the Royal Geographical Society that

The Desert of Atacama is of greater extent than that of many European kingdoms, and [largely] unpopulated. . . . The only inhabitants are guanacos, vicuñas, viscachas, a species of mouse called ocultas, small doves, small partridges of the cordillera, and lizards. The vegetation, although very scanty, may have some new plants. The surface of the Desert consists, with few exceptions, of enormous piles of stones, gravel, and angular pieces of stone, so sharp that the guanco hunters have to put hide shoes upon the feet of their dogs, to save them from being wounded. . . . It is rarely that picturesque or huge rocks present themselves, and in general it may be said that the whole Desert is very monotonous. . . . The dryness and extraordinary scarcity of rain in this desert portion of the globe is, without doubt, the cause of its sterility. In the town of Atacama sometimes it does not rain for 18 months, and even in the Andes the rains and snows are rare.73

Philippi concluded his 1860 book on the expedition saying that, “My travel account has shown that the Despoblado lacks all resources to make it habitable and that would allow it to be a route of communication and commerce.”74 Darwin, too, had concluded that the “real Desert of Atacama [is] a far worse barrier than the most turbulent sea.”75

Darwin and Philippi’s depictions offered little hope for this arid region, irrespective of the potential mineral wealth. For Philippi, mineral wealth would have to be on an enormous scale to compensate for the logistical difficulties, and expense, of extracting it in such an inhospitable region.76 Yet this condemnation of the desert’s economic potential, amid the challenges to infrastructure and population, did not reduce interest in the region, even as it continued to prompt unease. For José Victorino Lastarria, a liberal author and politician, who had been a deputy for Copiapó and, in 1875 would be elected senator for Coquimbo, the desert was a living (dead?) example of the past, of a primitive time and a time close to creation. Liberal historian Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna’s 1882 Libro de la Plata reproduced those tropes of death and desolation about the northern desert, as the landscape was “always the same eternal, immutable, horrible scene, today like when Almagro and Valdivia crossed it.” But at other points, he also allowed for changing and juxtaposed the past (of 1848) with the present in the 1880s. In that past “the desert that is today explored and populated . . . was the silent land of death. Without water, without verdure, without routes, without horizons, without vestiges of any organic life, even insects . . . that region was the dismal image of chaos.”77

This sense that the desert was a relic of the past emerged in a cultural and scientific context in which geology was still a young science that offered insights into big questions on the origin of the world; the desert was exciting geologically.78 For French geologist Amado Pissis (1812–1889), contracted by the Ministry of the Interior in 1848 to study Chile’s geology and minerals, what most attracted attention especially on his first trip to the central part of the desert was the “nudity and uniformity of this region, the plains and hills [are] covered by a layer of sand or small loose stones.” Additionally, at great distances, one saw enormous rocky structures “in strange forms that appear to be ruins of ancient buildings, with their windows and high, thin spires, that contrast” with the round and more regular shapes of the hills. Pissis repeated how “strange” these rocky structures were in the next sentence.79 Thus, for Pissis, too, the desert remained something that caused uneasy feelings, inaccurate perceptions, and was “strange.”

Despite Philippi’s opinions on the difficulties the region presented, its mineral wealth prompted war between Chile and Bolivia and Peru in 1879. But views of the landscape continued in the same vein. As Manuel Vicuña Urrutia argues, during the War of the Pacific (1879–1884), the desert itself became the enemy for Chilean troops.80 But now that enemy landscape was hiding treasure. An expectation of the desert’s hidden riches combined with an idea of taming the desert as part of a civilizing mission that gave reflected glory to its explorers and to the country willing to undertake this “heroically” difficult task. That civilizing project required a transformation of nature, making it useful for national needs.81 Manuel Vicuña Urrutia argues that the region did not start to be incorporated into the economic imagination of the country until 1870, but it was much later that its landscapes came to represent Chile, as much as the snow-capped volcanos and crystal-clear lakes of the south came to have national meaning.82 The fact that the picturesque or romantic were formed in pastures, fields, and mountains may also help explain the difficulty of coming up with a framework of beauty for these spaces, even as they became more central to the nation and the economy.

Alejandro Bertrand (1854–1942), a geographer and engineer who was head of the mapping section of the Naval Hydrographic Office, was commissioned to “explore” the Atacama by the Ministry of the Interior just after Chile’s war victory. Writing in August of 1884, Bertrand argued that he “had opened the route for others so that special explorers may advance, not so blind, in the vast desert of the Puna, and dedicate themselves to search for the rich minerals that may be locked up under the deceptive and monotonous appearance of the volcanic material that covers it.”83 (At least he knew that the desert would be cold; he noted that a coat and a tent were among his most important pieces of equipment.)84

By the 1880s, Bertrand traveled amid and thanks to evidence of the colonization and settlement of the desert. Traveling by train, he found in Carmen Alto a bustling commercial town.85 Nonetheless, once outside settlements, staring out the train window, there was little to see and the view was tiring. Nothing caught his eye, and the desert illuminated by a strong sun was not a place that “could be called a landscape.”86 Still, by the 1880s Bertrand was able to find a tentative visual language for parts of the desert, for example describing “one of the most picturesque scenes of the trip” along a creek ravine. “A short stretch from Lampazo we saw the first examples of the elephant cactus (cereus atacamensis) that reaches 10 metres in height and one around its diameter. It is a giant cactus that rises, like an Easter candlestick, that branches out as a candelabra with many lights.” Meanwhile, the path became rockier along the edge of the ravine they went down, while the torrent of water rushed by sandy shores ringed with thickets. As they descended the ravine, the vegetation, like wild verbena and lupin, was in flower and scents wafted by them. Next were shrubs in the legume family, with “twisted trunks that lost their paltry size and became trees.” Meanwhile, around them, the mountainous desert was alive, with goat pens on the peaks, and at the bottom of the valley they could hear cows lowing. “Instead of the whistle of the wind through the splits in the rocks, one heard the soft murmuring of the foliage pushed by a breeze” bringing smells of vegetation, which were a relief to the “weary desert traveller[s].”87 With some vegetation and evidence of settlement, the landscape neared picturesque.

Other important travel accounts of this region, which also produced maps, come from Francisco J. San Ramón, born in Copiapó to Argentine exiles. He was “perhaps best known for bringing the Atacama Desert’s mineral resources to the world’s attention.” In 1890, the map made by his “Comisión Exploradora del Desierto de Atacama,” subsequently published in 1892, was presented to the International Congress of Geology, in Washington, DC.88 It was under this commission, as well, that he published in 1896 and 1902 the two-volume Desierto y Cordilleras de Atacama. Yet San Ramón still complained about the sameness of the landscape in the crossing, and the difficulty of passing the time, showing how the region remained a blank space to travel through, a crossing rather like the sea, rather than a Chilean landscape.89

For these later travelers, the idea of the desert as empty, monotonous, and the same still resonated, even as they sought other ways to depict parts of what they experienced. That difficulty of depiction continued into the 20th century. In Rodrigo Booth’s study of the Guía del Veraneante, from the first half of the 20th century, he found that the northern, desert, and semi-arid region remained akin to that “blankness,” lacking tourist sites, infrastructure for tourists, and rail connections. But it was not only accessibility or perceived lack of tourist appeal that kept the area “blank”; until the mid-20th century the landscape of the northern deserts was not considered aesthetically attractive, especially by the Chilean middle class, in contrast to southern lakes, as well as even further southern fjords and glaciers. These southern areas, while also being hard to reach, had a more easily recognizable aesthetic value and the added benefit of categorizing Chile as an exception to Latin American tropicalism.90

While both the north and the south presented challenges and obstacles to natural history exploration and collecting, the characteristics of the vegetation, geography, and moisture and their relationship to ideas about meanings of landscapes shaped how these two broad regions came to be viewed as in or out of Chile’s defining spaces. The north was harder to capture as a national landscape both because its topography did not fit within existing understandings of landscape and because it remained too dangerous to be put into the sublime. Lack was not just how the landscape was seen, but a very real danger facing visitors to the Atacama: there was a lack of water, lack of supplies, lack of knowledge, lack of information about how to survive and, looking around, a lack of evidence of life.

Landscapes in Circulation

These ideas about the meaning of places circulated not just among naturalists, politicians, and intellectuals but moved into other fora, as well. As noted, El Mercurcio Chileno was one such means of circulation. Another important newspaper for the circulation of scientific ideas was El Araucano. Before Gay’s thirty-volume collaborative natural and political history, including his Atlas, started coming out in 1844 (supported by the government and continuing publication until 1871) his accounts and his ideas about Chile circulated through the pages of El Araucano. Gay’s writings in the Araucano offered an early form of armchair tourism (in fact, one of his overseeing committee joined Gay’s travels because his descriptions were so exciting).91 As Rafael Sagredo Baeza argues, Gay’s moving around, and his monumental work, spread ideas about “Chilean” landscapes and started to create an idea and concept of “Chile.” Sagredo Baeza also argues that the images in Gay’s Atlas de la historia física y política de Chile did a great deal to create an “idea” of Chile that gained currency in the last third of the 19th century and contributed to nationalism. Gay’s Atlas also made evident in Chile, for the first time, that images could be a means to disseminate knowledge and ideas about science and society through the representation of places, events, and work. Gay’s Historia Físicia y Política de Chile also included the first presentation of all of Chile in the “Mapa para la inteligencia de la Historia física y política de Chile,” which had been eagerly needed and anticipated by the successive governments.92 These state-sponsored publications began to arrive to his Chilean subscribers, as well as to the government, from 1844 and were incorporated into gift exchanges through the Museo Nacional.93 Paulina Ahumada, however, notes that Gay’s Atlas, despite the attention it has received from historians, at the time of its publication, had a circumscribed circulation because of its cost, its limited publication run, and its topics (See figure 6 for an example of one of the images from the Atlas).94

Figure 6. “Una chingana” depicts a popular tavern with music and multiple national symbols: dancing the cueca, which became Chile’s official national dance in 1979, the Andes of Central Chile, and the Chilean flag.

Source: From Claudio Gay, Atlas de la historia física y política de Chile (Paris: En la Imprenta de E. Thunot, 1854). Reproduced on “Memoria Chilena.” With thanks to “Memoria Chilena” and the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

But these ideas and images circulated to a wider audience through more popular publications, for example the 488-page 1872 publication, Chile ilustrado: Guia descriptive del territorio de Chile, de las capitales de provincia, de los puertos principals, intended for a broad public readership and reissued multiple times.95 Written by Recaredo S. Tornero, with two hundred grabados and ten two-tone lithographs, this book offered readers an overview of Chile’s “material progress.” Chile ilustrado’s bibliography makes evident how natural history publications provided a foundation of sources for depicting and understanding Chile. Ignacio Domeyko’s reports on the coasts and cordillera, Rodulfo Philippi’s visit to the Osorno volcano and geological study of the coastal range, and Claudio Gay’s monumental works, among others, appear in the bibliography of Chile ilustrado.96 Some of Gay images also provided models for Chile ilustrado. The second image in the volume is a “View of Santiago,” which, as Ahumada shows, echoes Gay’s depictions of the same scene (see figure 7).97

Figure 7. “Santiago: A view taken from the Santa Lucía Hill.”

Source: Recaredo S. Tornero, Chile ilustrado: Guía descriptiva del territorio de Chile, de las capitales de provincia, de los puertos principales (Valparaíso: Librería i ajencias del Mercurio, 1872). Reproduced on “Memoria Chilena.” With thanks to “Memoria Chilena” and the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

Chile ilustrado placed the Andes range prominently in the book, as they were the first topographical feature to be discussed, after the general description of Chile’s geography. The Andes were described as offering “an imposing and majestic view. The elevated mountains that form them, full of precipices and always covered by snow, have room at their base for spacious and pleasant valleys watered by the springs that hurry from the high peaks and enclose in their breast invaluable thermal springs of which we will speak later.”98 Tornero’s fertile and friendly description of Chile’s natural features continued with a mention of its many rivers, which ran through forests and “delightful countryside.”99 Chile’s climate was “one of the best in the world,” with its constant gentle temperature.100 Claudio Gay, too, had promoted this idea, in circulation since the exploration and conquest of Pedro de Valdivia, that Chile’s climate was gentle and the “Edenic” country was particularly “privileged by nature.”101 Chile as a “happy copy of Eden” was also proclaimed in the fifth stanza of the updated national anthem, from 1847.102

The wonders of this climate (which Tornero did acknowledge differed somewhat north and south) allowed both tropical and temperate fruits to flourish, and Tornero claimed that Chile had more medicinal plants than other parts of the Americas. Chile even had more and brighter stars than other countries because of its clean atmosphere.103 Tornero concluded that “Chile is one of the countries in the world most richly endowed by nature” for its rich minerals, forests of building wood, fertile soils in largely “virgin” land, and its “benign” and “privileged” climate, which did not allow for poisonous animals and snakes, which were “so abundant in other regions of the Americas.” For Tornero, Chile was a “beautiful country.”104 In this example, natural history exploration and publication contributes to a positive spinning of Chile’s nature.

Just a few years later, in 1875, Chile hosted an international exhibition at which countries from the Americas exhibited, including the United States, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, as well as European countries like Britain, Belgium, and France. An exhibition newspaper ran from September 1875 until January 1876, offering a view of the exhibits but also critical and popular responses to them (see figure 8). This exhibition newspaper, whose collaborators included Alejandro Bertrand, Rodulfo Philippi, Francisco Vidal Gormaz, and Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, offers another example of how ideas about landscape and territory circulated.105

Figure 8. Masthead, El Correo de la Exposición, showing the exhibition hall in Santiago on the left, with the Andes in the background, while the women representing the Americas and Europe hold hands across the Atlantic.

Source: The full digital edition is available via “Memoria Chilena.” With thanks to “Memoria Chilena” and the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

Landscape paintings, for example, offered artistic representations of Chile, although to a skeptical audience. In an article for the Correo de la Exposición, the author notes that visitors to the landscapes muttered that “These are painters who have not learned to draw a figure, and that’s why they paint only barren landscapes and deserts. There’s nothing easier than not doing what one doesn’t know how to do.”106 While audiences may not have seen the point of landscapes without people, the critic was determined to point out the national value in them, because in all of them, “with more and less truth,” according to the artist’s muse,

our southern, rough land always appears fresh and mild, rich in plants like grasses and shrubs, crossed by always-green ridges and hills or traversed by crystal-clear waters that reflect a clement and benign sky. The sweet atmosphere of the summer and autumn afternoons spill their balmy scents over the hills and valleys, while the cold of winter and the spring breezes are felt on the sea and on the water of the lakes or on the herbs of the fields [and these are] all transported onto the painter’s canvas.107

One of the songs composed for the exhibition, Eduardo de la Barra’s “Song to Fraternity in Industry,” proclaims, “Oh! Fatherland, your valleys, your hills, your sea, will be for those free [men] future greatness, a magnificent altar,” offering another example of topographic features gaining national meaning.108

Even in a utility-focused description of the woods of Valdivia in the Correo de la Exposición there was lyricism and a challenge to the views of a naturalist. Guillermo Frick (1813–1905), a German emigre to Valdivia who was a science teacher, composer, engineer, naturalist, and friend to Rodulfo Philippi, noted that the Valdivianos were a little “indignant” regarding Gay’s description of “our trees,” because Gay claimed that Valdivia’s vegetation was “dwarf,” doing “a disservice to our climate and lands.” Frick grumbled that Gay must have been looking at some poor examples in European botanical gardens, not actual Valdivian trees.109 Here the trees that had hemmed Gay in and made movement difficult became objects of aesthetic pleasure. Frick then offered, as an example, a landscape description of the beautiful hazelnut in February, when the foliage was decorated with white flowers and large colored nuts, looking more like cherries. He predicted that when gardening was “more advanced” among Chileans, the hazelnut would take pride of place for its nuts, aesthetic qualities, and the fact that it could be shaped into many forms.110

1875 was also the year Pissis published his Geografía física de la República de Chile and his Atlas de la Geografía física de la República de Chile, the culmination of his state-sponsored work exploring and mapping Chile. He had paid particular attention to the Andes, in his work, in order to establish the highest dividing peaks between Chile and Argentina, and thus the border.111 But Pissis’ representation of the Andes also built on earlier understandings of the mountain range. As Ahumada argues, in Pissis’ Atlas, the Andes were depicted using Charles Darwin’s image of a “great solid wall, surmounted here and there by a tower,” which “made a most complete barrier to the country.” Yet this concept of the Andes was based on the chain’s imposing height in central Chile near the political and economic centers of Santiago and Valparaíso. Amuhada concludes that both Pissis and Gay, in their maps, intentionally made the Andes stand out as a clear barrier and border, even though the multiple chains within the Andes range actually made it much more complicated to determine the border.112


As these examples show, ideas about Chile’s plants, animals, and topography from natural history writing offered information and a way of seeing Chile that could then be used for other purposes. Thus, natural history work, while not without its own perspective, slant, and argument, could also be used by others to make different arguments, or develop arguments, about Chile. This natural history work built on the symbiosis between successive governments and Chilean and foreign naturalists, resulting in state-sponsored projects and private trips exploring north, south, and central Chile, providing material for scientific collections and exchanges. The travel writing, scientific descriptions, and analysis that these naturalists produced contributed to cultural change and territorial expansion, generating ideas about territories as hospitable or hostile, dismal or picturesque, that had afterlife beyond scientific discussions. Naturalists framed the southern region of the indigenous Mapuche as a dreary landscape of forests and showers that offered opportunity for national development if “properly” settled. The north was depicted as monotonous, dangerous, and alien, even if it offered opportunities through its mineral wealth. The imposing snow-capped Andes and fertile valleys of central Chile, in which the capital Santiago and the main port city of Valparaíso are located, represented the heart of the nation. Thus, naturalists contributed to greater scientific knowledge about Chile, while also creating draft meanings about particular landscapes and regions that spread well beyond natural history.

Discussion of the literature

It is worth noting that there are important historiographical works on earlier periods in terms of the history of exploration and collections, including recent research on early collections in Chile.113 Turning to the 19th century, on the role of natural history in constructing national identity, Luis Mizón and Rafael Sagredo Baeza have both made important contributions to this literature, particularly regarding Claudio Gay’s work in creating an image of Chile.114 Fabián Jaksic, Pablo Camus, and Sergio A. Castro, in their Ecología y ciencias naturales: Historia del conocimiento del patrimonio biológico de Chile, offer an overview of the natural sciences in Chile looking for precursors of ecology. They address the work and influence on Chile of prominent foreign naturalists, like Claudio Gay, Rodulfo Philippi, Filiberto Germain, Edwin Reed, and Charles Darwin, through brief biographies and summaries of their contributions.115 Zenobio Saldivia Maldonado also offers an overview of the development of science in 19th-century Chile and specifically the differing approaches and perspectives of Philippi, Domeyko, and Gay.116 For Salvidia Maldonado, moreover, the development of the natural and earth sciences in 19th-century Chile contributed to the “consolidation of the process of political emancipation, and contributed to the ideology of the new republic obtaining social and material progress.”117

Turning to the relationship between natural history and ideas about landscapes, Rodrigo Booth’s work has examined the changing views of southern Chile, and Mapuche territory, ultimately creating a landscape of national identity for touristic consumption.118 Scholarship has also sought to examine developing understandings of Chile’s geography and territory as part of a symbolic version of the nation that could be put to a variety of uses. Amarí Peliowski and Catalina Váldez’s edited volume, Una geografía imaginada: Diez ensayos sobre arte y naturaleza, from 2014, brings together scholarship on this question from the conquest to the recent past.119 In this volume, Fabien Le Bonniec examines how the written depictions of the landscape of the contested southern region contributed to the formation of ideas about the nation and indigenous people. These people were represented as both physically distant, living on the borders of civilization, but also with the potential to be symbolically incorporated into the new nation, “by reason or by force,” the national motto.120 The use of the picturesque has also attracted attention, with Pablo Diener arguing that the concept of the picturesque linked art and scientific exploration in the Americas, which can be seen in the tradition of Alexander von Humboldt, and which he explores in depth through the paintings of Johann Mortiz Rugendas.121 For Gabriel Cid Rodríguez and Jacinta Vergara Brunet, Rugendas’s paintings used Romanticism to depict Chilean landscapes, which also contributed to national identity formation.122

On the Atacama, Manuel Vicuña Urrutia examines the image of the Atacama, from the 16th to the 19th century.123 When Manuel Vicuña Urrutia’s book was published, in 1995, Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt Letelier argued, in the introduction, that the Atacama was doubly a desert because it had been ignored by most historians despite its importance as a historical stage and actor.124 In his 2018 book, Richard V. Francaviglia has also examined the Atacama in the period from the conquest to the early 21st century.125 That imbalance of focus that Jocelyn-Holt noted, with more scholarly work on the southern regions, while diminishing, remains.

The meanings ascribed to the Andes mountain chain have begun to attract scholarly attention. Paulina Ahumada traces particular views of the Andes across the 19th century through texts of scientists, paintings, and a popular geography, pointing out that reproducing particular views of the Andes are cultural and political choices.126 Catalina Valdés argues that the Andes coming to be a national monument was originally due to the work of the naturalists, for whom it was a notable feature, when artists ignored the mountains.127 Other approaches to Chileans’ life outdoors can be found in Luz María Méndez Beltrán’s work on Valparaíso in the 19th century, where she discusses outdoor pastimes. Méndez Beltrán argues that Chileans’ leisure time and daily activities have a long-standing link to the outdoors and the concept of the country’s natural beauty.128 Patience Schell, in her work on the meanings attributed to natural history practices, has also discussed the benefits naturalists attributed to being in the natural world.129

Other histories have sought to understand how ideas and objects moved in Chile’s local, national, and transnational networks, to understand how those networks functioned and to better understand the formation of museums and collections. Schell has argued that affective relationships played a key role in scientific institutions and networks that linked 19th-century Chile to global scientific work through correspondence, exchanges, and visits.130 Stefanie Gänger has studied the collecting communities in 19th- and early 20th-century Chile and Peru, including the collecting and commercial activities of German-speaking settlers, in the second half of the 19th century, settled around Valdivia and Lake Llanquihue.131 Daniela Serra Anguita has examined earlier collecting practices, particularly focused on how Claudio Gay created the Santiago Cabinet of Natural History, from 1830–1842, examining the practices behind the making of the collection and finding previously hidden actors.132 Felipe Vilo Muñoz and Carlos Sanhueza map out Rodulfo Philippi’s networks, as director of the Museo Nacional, as well as the types of interaction within that network, such as object exchange and purchase of collections.133 Sanhueza also explores how Philippi developed international networks through which the Museo Nacional functioned, through its currency of specimens exchange.134 Other histories have shifted focus away from the National Museum to regional museums. Carolina Valenzuela Matus has reconstructed the lost zoological collection of the Museo de Historia Natural de Valparíso, destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1906, using archival traces, finding that the collection increased in part thanks to Chilean naval sailors, as well as foreign donors from Latin America and Europe and exchange networks with other institutions.135 This reconstruction of a lost collection further reminds us that a collection is the tangible result of webs of networks and hierarchies of knowledge exemplified through creation, care, and curation of objects to which meaning is attributed.

Largely missing from this history is sustained focus on the voices, labor, expertise, knowledge acquisition, and experiences of the myriad specialists, technicians, guides, local sages, and laborers who made this natural history work possible. Also missing are the histories of natural history trips told from the point of view of people whose territory and knowledge were ultimately appropriated, particularly indigenous people. These histories are largely still dominated by focus on privileged men, leaving histories yet to be written on who has been left out and obscured in this process. More work on private collections, regional museums, women’s contributions, and the commercial element of this field would also be fruitful areas of inquiry, contributing to and balancing existing histories of circulation and meaning of objects and ideas.

Primary Sources

An important feature of this field in Chilean history is the accessibility of many primary sources, through reeditions, digital resources made available through “Memoria Chilena,” and through new editions of earlier publications. Travel narratives and natural histories offer a first port of call, and many are readily available in digitized versions or new editions. Thus, the travel writing and natural histories of Claudio Gay, Rodulfo Philippi, Charles Darwin, Ignacio Domeyko, Francisco Vidal Gormaz, Francisco San Ramón, and others are readily available.136 Darwin’s publications and many of his letters are also available digitally, through the “Darwin Correspondence Project” and “Darwin Online.”137 The “Biodiversity Heritage Library” also holds digitized versions of published texts relating to Chile’s history, including Gay’s Historia física y política de Chile, and allows searches by author bringing up articles written by or citing relevant figures in publications from a wide geographic range.138 “Memoria Chilena” also holds a digitized edition of the Vida y costumbres de los indígenas araucanos en la segunda mitad del siglo XIX, which is the autobiography of Pascual Coño, a Mapuche lonko (head of several Mapuche communities) offering insight into the life and history of the 19th-century Mapuche.139 Gay’s reports in El Araucano, copies of which are held at the National Library in Santiago, provide vivid accounts of his travels around Chile, while the paper also published selections of international scientific news and expeditions, like Charles Darwin’s Beagle account. Chile ilustrado, which offered a narrative about Chile’s geography for a wider audience, is also available via the “Memoria Chilena” website, as is the 1875 exhibition newspaper, the Correo de la Exposición.

The National Archive in Santiago holds correspondence related to the Museo Nacional, in its Ministry of Education collection, as well as materials related to Francisco Vidal Gormaz and Claudio Gay, each in their own named collection. The Anales de la Universidad de Chile also contains reports from the Museo Nacional, as well as accounts of travel and observations by the community of naturalists linked to Chile, like Domekyo’s geological article on where mastodon fossils were found. The complete run of this journal, founded in 1843, is available digitally in a searchable archive.140 The back catalogue of the Revista Chilena de Historia Natural, founded in 1897 by Carlos Porter who was then director of the Museo de Historia Natural de Valparaíso, is also available digitally, making this journal accessible for scientists and those with an interest in the history of science alike.141 For those interested in Philippi material, it is worth consulting the Museo Nacional material in the National Archive as well as the collection of a part of Philippi’s letters and diaries held in Valdivia, by the Universidad Austral de Chile.

Further Reading

  • Ahumada, Paulina. “Paisaje y nación: La majestuosa montaña en el imaginario del siglo XIX.” In Una geografía imaginada: Diez ensayos sobre arte y naturaleza. Edited by Amarí Peliowski and Catalina Valdés, 113–142. Santiago, Chile: Ediciones Metales Pesados and Ediciones Universidad Alberto Hurtado, 2014.
  • Booth, Rodrigo. ‘“El paisaje aquí tiene un encanto fresco y poético’: Las bellezas del sur de Chile y la construcción de la nación turística.” Revista de Historia Iberoamericana 3, no. 1 (2010): 10–32.
  • Booth, Rodrigo, and Catalina Valdés. “De la naturaleza al paisaje: Los viajes de Francisco Vidal Gormaz en la colonización visual del sur de Chile en el siglo XIX.” Anales del Instituto de Arte Americano e Investigaciones Estéticas “Mario J. Buschiazzo” 46, no. 2 (2016): 199–216.
  • Cid Rodríguez, Gabriel, and Jacinta Vergara Brunet. “Representando la ‘copia feliz del Edén’: Rugendas; Paisaje e identidad nacional en Chile, Siglo XIX.” Revista de Historia Social y de las Mentalidades 15, no. 2 (2011): 109–135.
  • Francaviglia, Richard V. Imagining the Atacama Desert: A Five-Hundred-Year Journey of Discovery. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 2018.
  • Gänger, Stefanie. “Colecciones y estudios de historia natural en las colonias alemanas de Llanquihue y Valdivia, c. 1853–1910.” Historia 396 1 (2011): 77–102.
  • Gänger, Stefanie. Relics of the Past: The Collecting and Study of Pre-Columbian Antiquities in Peru and Chile, 1837–1911. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Jaksic, Fabián M., Pablo Camus, and Sergio A. Castro. Ecología y ciencias naturales: Historia del conocimiento del patrimonio biológico de Chile. Santiago, Chile: Dirección de Bibliotecas, Archivos y Museos, 2012.
  • Mizón, Luis. Claudio Gay y la formación de la identidad cultural chilena. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Universitaria and Centro de Investigaciones Diego Barros Arana, 2001.
  • Muñoz L., Cristian. Francisco San Ramón: Naturalista de Atacama Siglo XIX. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Alicanto Azul, 2014.
  • Sagredo Baeza, Rafael. “El Atlas de Claude Gay y la representación de Chile.” Cahiers de Amériques Latines 43 (2003): 123–142.
  • Sagredo Baeza, Rafael. “Geografía y nación: Claudio Gay y la primera representación cartográfica de Chile.” Estudios Geograficos 70, no. 266 (January-June 2009): 231–267.
  • Sagredo Baeza, Rafael. La ruta de los naturalistas: Las huellas de Gay, Domeyko y Philippi. Santiago, Chile: Patrimonio Cultural de Chile, 2012.
  • Saldivia Maldonado, Zenobio. La vision de la naturaleza en tres científicos del siglo xix en Chile: Gay, Domeyko y Philippi. Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Santiago, 2003.
  • Saldivia Maldonado, Zenobio, Patricio Leyton Alvarado, and Francisco Díaz Cespedes. Una aproximación a las ciencias de la tierra en el Chile decimonónico. Santiago, Chile: Bravo y Allende Editores, 2019.
  • Sanhueza, Carlos. “El Gabiente de Historia Natural de Santiago de Chile (1823–1853).” In Museos al detalle: Colecciones, antiguëdades e historia natural, 1790–1870. Edited by Miruna Achim and Irina Podgorny, 201–218. Rosario, Argentina: Prohistoria Ediciones, 2013.
  • Sanhueza, Carlos. “El Museo Nacional de Chile: Un espacio local desde una red transnacional (1853–1897).” In El carrusel atlántico: Memories y sensibilidades, 1500–1950. Edited by Oscar Álvarez Gila, Alberto Angulo Morales, and Alejandro Cardozo Uzcátegui, 189–217. Caracas and Vitoria-Gasteiz: Editorial Nuevos Aires, 2014.
  • Schell, Patience A. The Sociable Sciences: Darwin and His Contemporaries in Chile. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.
  • Schell, Patience A. “Natural History Values and Meanings in Nineteenth-Century Chile.” Notes and Records 73, no. 1 (February 2019): 101–124.
  • Serra, Daniela. “Minerales y colección en el reino de Chile: El Gabiente de la Real Academia de San Luis, 1790–1810.” Historia Unisinos 23, no. 2 (May-August 2019): 156–166.
  • Valdés E., Catalina. “La medida de lo sublime: La Cordillera de los Andes vista desde Chile durante el siglo XIX.” Concinnitas 2 (2012): 139–168.
  • Valenzuela Mutis, Carolina. “Tras las huellas de los animales: La Sección Zoológica del Museo de Historia Natural de Valparaíso (1898–1906).” Anales del Museo de Historia Natural de Valparaíso 31 (2018): 81–89.
  • Van Meurs Valderrama, Marijke. Carl Alexander Simon en Chiloé, 1852. Santiago, Chile: Gráfica LOM, Ediciones Museo Regional de Ancud, 2016.
  • Vicuña Urrutia, Manuel. La imagen del desierto de Atacama (XXVI-XIX): Del espacio de la disuasión al territorio de los desafíos. Santiago, Chile: Editorial de la Universidad de Santiago de Chile, 1995.