dimanche 13 mars 2011

A Life in Shadow: Aimé Bonpland in Southern South America, 1817-1858 Stephen Bell, Stanford University Press 2010 Leo Corry, Tel-Aviv University. For

A Life in Shadow: Aimé Bonpland in Southern South America, 1817-1858

Stephen Bell, Stanford University Press 2010
Leo Corry, Tel-Aviv University. Forthcoming in EIAL (2011)


In his 2006 world best-seller, Measuring the World, German author Daniel Kehlmann
confronts two main characters: mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and naturalist
Alexander von Humboldt. Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858), Humboldt’s companion
throughout the famous journey to equinoctial America, is portrayed as his sidekick, at
best. In the 1974 emblematic novel Yo, el Supremo, by Paraguayan Augusto Roa
Bastos, Bonpland, who had been imprisoned for most of the decade of the 1820s by
the despotic Dr. Francia, plays an important role in the plot, as he does in numerous
books, plays, and even films, originating in Latin America. This difference is
indicative of how Bonpland’s memory has been preserved in various ways in the
Latin American context, and has been essentially forgotten, or at least highly
underestimated, in other contexts.

One recent reaction to this situation has come in the way of a recently published
novel, "Mémoires d’un mort, le voyage sans retour d’Aimé Bonpland, explorateur
rochelais", by Eric Courthes,


where the dead Bonpland retells the story of his own life.

Born himself in La Rochelle area, Courthes complains about the continued oblivion
into which Bonpland fell in his native Europe: “Pese a que hubiera sido amante y
jardinero de Joséphine de Beauharnais, a pesar de todas las plantas que descubrió y
que mandó al Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle en Francia, hasta el final de su vida, de su
famosísima expedición del Orinoco al Amazonas con Alejandro de Humboldt, de su
intromisión en todos los asuntos políticos y bélicos de la Guerra Grande en la
Argentina, de sus innumerables amores, viajes, empresas, de su dedicación
filantrópica al prójimo y sobre todo a sus pacientes, a lo largo de su vida, Amado
Bonpland en La Rochela queda olvidado.”1

Stephen Bell has been motivated perhaps by a similar concern about the way in which
the figure of Bonpland has passed into history, especially in circles outside Latin
America, but his way to deal with this concern in the book under review here is
strictly scholarly: “However great the temptations and appeal of creative writing, to
say nothing of film – he states – this study is confined to things seen in the archives.”
And indeed, as the title of the book has it, the life and scientific contribution of Aimé
Bonpland has too often been seen in the shadows of the much more famous German
naturalist whom Bonpland accompanied between 1799 and 1804. Scholarly accounts
of his life after the trip have been scant and incomplete, and indeed highly misguided.
As Bell indicates, the leading theme in the existing literature is that Bonpland, who in
1816 set sail from Le Havre to Argentina never to return to Europe, “met a tragic fate
in South America”. While it is true that the decade of the 1820s was though for
Bonpland, as he spent most of it as a prisoner in Paraguay, referring to the more than
forty years in the Southern part of the continent in these terms alone reflects a mainly
Eurocentric perspective which, when abandoned, helps shedding a completely
different light on an intriguing story full of turns and surprises. Bonpland was by all
1 Eric Courthès, “Amado Bonpland, generador de re-escrituras transgenéricas”, Ateliers du Séminaire
Amérique Latine de l'Université Paris-Sorbonne (2008-2009), n°4. (http://www.crimic.parissorbonne.

means a famous and respected person in America ever since his arrival. He either
corresponded or met with prominent politicians, intellectuals and administrators. He
continued to come up with important scientific work, and to send plant specimens to
Europe, and was involved in important activity related to farming and land
conservation. His extended journeys in the continent offered him a broad view that
allowed him comparisons that few other contemporary observers could afford. His
fame as an explorer was widespread and his company and advice was sought by
younger people with an interest in science.

Bell’s book is a praiseworthy, highly readable, and most welcome account of
Bonpland’s last forty years of life, spent in various places and in different activities in
the southern part of the continent. This account is based on a thorough effort to collect
and systematically analyze, from an original perspective, a wealth of documents that
had remained partially and poorly explored or unattended to thus far.
The six chapters of the book evolve along biographical lines, starting from the
background to Bonpland’s decision to leave Europe and up until the final, still very
active decade of his life. Since returning from his first journey, Bonpland had kept a
lively interest in South-American matters. He was, for instance, an enthusiastic
supporter of Bolívar’s project. The idea of returning was never foreign to his mind,
but the actual decision was precipitated by the circumstances of European politics.
The death in 1814 of Empress Joséphine, under whose sponsorship he had been
working for several years, was a crucial turning point for him, even though it is likely
that when he left Europe in 1816 his did not envision to stay in South America for
good. Bonpland arrived in Buenos Aires with plans for intense scientific activity, but
in the end, the unstable political situation in the region did not allow such plans to
materialize. This led him make new personal connections and to explore new
directions, among which of paramount importance was his visit to the former Jesuit
missions in the Northern part of Argentina by 1921, from which the rest of the story
continues to unfold.

It had been customary in the literature to present Bonpland in his later years (strongly
contrasting them to Humboldt’s) as being spent in “quiet inaction, in the enjoyment of
a life of contemplation”. With Bells’ book in mind, this image cannot be held
anymore. One learns here about how active Bonpland was until the last decade of his
life, and about the wide variety of fields in which he found himself working:
pharmacy, medicine, farming, ranching, advice to politicians, museum development,
collecting plant specimens, etc. Bell presents an intriguing portrait of a bold
personality always willing to cross boundaries: geographical, temporal, social,
institutional, and professional. Although timing was never favorable to him and the
vicissitudes of history always got in his way to fulfilling ambitious plans, the image of
Bonpland that emerges from this account is one of a person ahead of his time in issues
such as the development of sustainable agriculture in its specific geographical context
as well as in more generalized conservational practices.
Bells’ interesting book certainly drags the figure of Bonpland away from the shadows
of history and into the full daylight of historians’ attention. But an additional merit of
the book that must be stressed is that, in doing so, it also illuminates often overlooked,
but highly significant aspects of the social and economic dimensions of the life in
various regions of the Southern part of the continent during the first half of the
nineteenth century. Thus, the book makes recommended reading for an audience that
goes well-beyond those with an interest in the biographical dimensions of a unique
European intellectual with broad domains of activity and deep involvement in
American life, or in the early history of scientific activities in the continent.

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