Timber Press, 133 S.W. Second Ave., Suite 450, Portland, OR 97204-3527, 1998. $44.95 in hard cover. 357 pages. ISBN 0-88192-407-5
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In the latter part of the 18th century, the Spanish Empire still included most of South America and parts of Asia and North America. The Spanish appreciated the value of these holdings primarily in terms of mineral wealth, and in order to secure these treasures had established a political system in close alliance with the Catholic Church. What had become apparent was that the west coast of South America also contained a botanical treasure: quinine, the extract from the bark of the cinchona. Disease thwarted development of most of the tropical colonial holdings and quinine was the cure-all.
What other botanical riches were hidden in Chile and Peru? In 1777, King Carlos III of Spain sponsored an 11-year expedition to find out. Hipolito Ruiz was selected because he was the best-prepared Spanish botanist. Two other botanists and two artists accompanied him. Two manuscripts of Ruizís full accounts were discovered in the British Museum during World War II by Jaime Jaramillo-Arango. He combined these with a previously known abbreviated version. The compilation was published in Spanish in 1952. Richard Evans Schultes and Maria Jose Nemry von Thenen de Jaramillo-Arango produced this version in English.
Ruizís journals are accounts of expeditions into areas--best described as environs--for a couple of hundred miles around Lima, Peru and Concepcion, Chile. Exactly where he was and what he saw are somewhat obscured because the names, distances and terminology are not well-defined. Small outposts of 10 to 50 people are delineated, many of which may have been renamed or have disappeared.
The same fate has befallen hundreds of the botanical references; genus and species for many tropicals have changed completely in the past 50 years, eliminating or making less distinguishable many of the names from 200 years ago. The bookís translators acknowledge these problems. A sufficient number of names, however, are recognizable if one is alert.
Over 2,000 plants are described. Of particular interest are the uses that natives made of the plants. Examples included cures for diseases--some evidently caused by spending time in the shade of certain trees--and such substances as aphrodisiacs, dyes, poisons for darts, extracts to ensure menstruation (a form of birth control perhaps?), purgatives and laxatives.
Of particular interest to devotees of cartography will be the 12 maps from the British Museum collection that cover some of the areas visited in Peru.
The story told is one of constant hardship from cold, rain, tropical heat, insects, poisonous or otherwise hostile plants, treacherous trails, repeated loss of collected materials due to calamities that range from sinking boats to fires, and even death of the participants. The journals also present an excellent picture of the life and prejudices of a Spanish intellectual in the 18th century.
If you like plant exploration, I believe you will like this book.