Carl Friedrich Philip Von Martius’s Daring Explorations In Brazil

Men undertake explorations and great journeys for many reasons.  Some expeditions–such as those undertaken by Denham, Burton, Burckhardt, and others like them–are primarily focused on expanding geographical knowledge, commercial information, and ethnographic data.  Others, such as those of Humboldt, Rondon, Lewis and Clark, and von Barth, are more interested in the collection of scientific information about the natural world.  The Brazilian explorations of Carl Friedrich von Martius falls into the latter category.

Like so many of the explorers celebrated in these pages, his name has today receded into an undeserved obscurity.  But when we weigh the balance of what he achieved, together with a sober assessment of the personal risks he took, we must rank him among the greatest and most productive of the explorers of the South American continent.  He was born in the Bavarian city of Erlangen in 1794 to a middle-class, academic family.  The wonders of the natural world seduced him at an early age, and he spent countless hours wandering through the Bavarian countryside as a boy, observing the wealth of plant and vegetable life there.  He graduated from Erlangen University in 1814–so turbulent a year in European politics–with a specialization in botany, and a few years later won a commission from Maximilian I Joseph, the Bavarian king, to conduct a scientific expedition in Brazil with fellow explorer Johann Baptist von Spix.

Title page of von Martius’s “Travels in Brazil”

Thus the stage was set for an incredible odyssey of exploration and discovery of one of the world’s richest and most diverse natural habitats, the Amazonian region and its tributaries.  The plan was to travel north from the city of Rio de Janeiro, and then move gradually into the Amazonian basin.  Their first focus was on the areas around Rio de Janeiro state and Sao Paolo; and once they had gotten acclimated to the country, they widened their scope of coverage to include Minas Gerais.  From there they moved into the Amazon region during the years 1818–1820.  The account of their travels, published in London in 1824 under the title Travels in Brazil in the Years 1817-1820, is a wealth of environmental information about Brazil; but I also found it fascinating as a window on what the country was like in the early 19th century.

Portuguese edition of one of von Martius’s treatises on Brazilian plant life

Some of the asides that von Martius makes about Brazil are amusing even today.  Consider his assessment of the character of the typical “Paulista” (resident of Sao Paolo):

This rude character is, however, now softened, and the Paulista enjoys, throughout Brazil, the reputation of great frankness, undaunted courage, and a romantic love of adventures and dangers. It is true, that in conjunction with these commendable qualities, a propensity to anger and revenge, pride, and stubbornness have remained in his character, and he is therefore feared by his neighbours: the stranger, however, sees in this haughty manner, only earnestness and an independent spirit; in his good-natured frankness and hospitality, an amiable feature; in his industry, the activity that marks the inhabitants of a temperate zone; and has less occasion than his neighbours to become acquainted with his faults. The only excuse for his pride is, that he can boast of having a claim, through the actions of his forefathers, to this new continent, which the settlers from Europe cannot adduce.  There is no manner of doubt that the first comers contracted frequent marriages with the neighbouring Indians; and the complexion and physiognomy of the people indicate this mixture here, more than in the other cities of Brazil, for instance, in Maranhao and Bahia…

In general, the principal characteristics of the Paulistas are a lofty, at the same time broad make, strongly marked features, expressive of a bold independent spirit, hazel eyes (they are very rarely blue) full of fire and ardour, thick black smooth hair, muscular make, firmness, and vivacity in their motions. They are justly considered as the strongest, most healthy and active inhabitants of Brazil. The strength with which they tame unbroke horses, and catch the wild cattle by means of the noose, is as surprising as the ease with which they endure continued labour and fatigue, hunger and thirst, cold and heat, wet, and privations of all kinds. In their expeditions on the inland rivers to Cujaba and Matto-grosso, they display
now, as formerly, the greatest boldness and perseverance in dangers and hardships of every description ; and an unconquerable love of travelling still impels them to leave their country. [p. 24]

Equally amusing is this description of dancing that von Martius observed while journeying from Sao Joao de Ypanema to the city of Villa Rica:

The Brazilian is of a lively disposition, and fond of pleasure. Almost everywhere, when we arrived in the evening, we were saluted with the sound of the guitar (viola), accompanied by singing or dancing. At Estiva, a solitary farm-house, with fine extensive campos bounded in the distance by mountains, the inhabitants were dancing the baducca; they scarcely learnt the arrival of foreign travellers when they invited us to be witnesses of their festival.  The baducca is danced by one man and one woman, who, snapping their fingers with the most extravagant motions and attitudes, dance sometimes towards and sometimes from each other. The principal charm of this dance, in the opinion of the Brazilians, consists in rotations and contortions of the hips, in which they are almost as expert as the East Indian jugglers. It sometimes lasts for several hours together without interruption, alternately accompanied with the monotonous notes of the guitar, or with extempore singing ; or popular songs, the words of which are in character with its rudeness; the male dancers are sometimes dressed in women’s clothes.  Notwithstanding its indecency, this dance is common throughout Brazil, and the property of the lower classes, who cannot be induced, even by ecclesiastical prohibitions, to give it up.  [p. 132]

Even in those days, travelers could observe distinct differences between the peoples of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, and Minas Gerais.  Here our studious German scientist records (with unintentional humor) the distinct character of the “typical” mineiro (inhabitant of Minas Gerais):

However singular it appears, it is yet certain and observed by every traveller, that the inhabitants of Minas are entirely different both in character and person from those of the other capitanias, and particularly from the Paulistas.  The Mineiro has in general a slender lean figure, narrow breast, long neck, oblong face, black lively eyes, and black hair on the head and breast; he has naturally a noble pride, and some thing very delicate, obliging, and sensible in his outward behaviour; he is very temperate and seems particularly to be fond of a romantic way of life. In all these features, he much more resembles the lively Pernambucan, than the gloomy Paulista. Like the former, he seems to have a certain predilection for foreign productions and dress. Like the Englishman, the Mineiro is very fond of clean linen and white garments, particularly on holidays. His usual national costume differs from that of the Paulista. [p. 168]

What is incredible about the travels of von Martius and Spix is that they never seem to have gotten sick once during their forays into the Amazon.  If they did, von Martius does not dwell on it in his writings; there is hardly a word at all about the malaria that he almost certainly must have been exposed to at every step of his journey.  Perhaps his expert knowledge of plants, and his willingness to listen to the Indians, gave him some knowledge of medicinal remedies for local diseases.  Whatever the reason, his experience stands in stark contrast to the dangers faced by explorers in Africa and the Middle East, many of which perished from exposure to diseases that they had no resistance to.

Indeed, von Martius seems to have lived a charmed life.  On his return to Bavaria in 1820, he was appointed to be the director of the Munich Botanical Gardens, and in 1826 became a full professor of botany at Munich University.  He later published a vividly illustrated compendium of botanical information entitled Historia Naturalis Palmarum, as well as a number of other scientific works.  He was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1837.  This was not a man content to spend his life hiding in a laboratory or a botanical garden; he undertook arduous journeys into remote regions to expand the scope of human knowledge.  This is a scientist whom we cannot fail to admire; he charted his own course, made his preparations, and plunged forward with the same zeal that has characterized the best spirits in the history of man’s quest for knowledge.  He knew what his purpose in life was, and he had faith in himself and his mission.


Read more about the great achievements of intrepid men in Thirty-Seven: