Antonio De Ulloa’s Explorations In South America

Antonio de Ulloa y de la Torre-Giral may have been Spain’s greatest explorer of the eighteenth century.  The hardships he endured certainly merit his inclusion on any list of that century’s great cultivators of geographic knowledge.  He was born in Seville on January 12, 1716; and like many accomplished travelers, he received a thorough education in the traditional disciplines.  He came from a family with a naval tradition, and young Antonio was eager to follow in these footsteps.

After joining the Spanish Royal Navy in 1733, he was provided a unique opportunity:  the chance to participate in a joint French-Spanish expedition to South America for the purpose of measuring some degrees of meridian near the equator.  It was essentially a surveying project to measure degrees of latitude, and the knowledge thereby gained would be used to compose a more accurate idea of the earth’s dimensions.  The expedition came to be known as the French Geodesic Mission.  De Ulloa must have been a man of singular ability to have been entrusted with such a responsibility; and as we will see, the confidence his superiors placed in him was entirely justified.  Once the necessary permissions were secured from Louis XV of France and Philip V of Spain, the expedition headed for Quito, then part of the province of Peru.  De Ulloa would be assisted by another Spaniard, George Juan; and both of them were appointed lieutenants.

In May 1735 the expedition left Spain and reached Cartagena on July 9.  De Ulloa and Juan had been instructed to wait there until the French members of the expedition arrived; but this took much longer than expected.  The French did not appear until November, having been delayed by all the usual encumbrances and impediments of travel in that era.  After November 15, the French-Spanish team headed to Porto Bello in Panama, and then ultimately to Guayaquil, in what is now Ecuador.  As they moved up the River Chagre; and de Ulloa was shocked by the lush vegetation and exotic animals he could see every minute of every day.  They reached the Pacific side of Panama on December 29, where de Ulloa conducted astronomical surveys.  They then set sail from the Pacific to Guayaquil, which was reached on March 25.  They then traveled by river from Guayaquil to Caracol.  This riverine journey was a difficult one; lacking adequate protection against the mosquitoes, they endured constant torture:

We had provided ourselves with quetres and mosquito-cloths; but to very little purpose: the whole day we were  in continual motion to keep them off; but at night our torments were excessive. Our gloves were indeed some defense to our hands, but our faces were entirely exposed; nor were our clothes a sufficient defense for the rest of our bodies, for their stings penetrating through the cloth, caused a very painful and fiery itching.  The most dismal night we spent on this passage, was when we came to an anchor near a large and handsome house, but uninhabited; for we had no sooner seated ourselves in it, than we were attacked on all sides with innumerable swarms of mosquitoes, so that we were so far from  having any rest there, that it was impossible for a person susceptible of feeling to be one moment quiet.

At Caracol they abandoned the river and continued on with pack mules, following the river Ojibar.  By good luck they encountered Indians who were friendly, and who helped them construct shelters at night out of efficient local materials.  By now the expedition was moving into high-altitude areas; the weather became colder, and the terrain more and more mountainous.  De Ulloa was glad they had brought mules, for these animals proved to be most adroit in navigating the precipitous mountain trails.  They eventually reached the province of Chimbo, and were welcomed by a group of Dominican monks; and from here they pressed on through the desert of Chimborazo, where they suffered greatly from the cold and wind.  But they eventually reached Quito–it had taken them about a year–where they were received by the local authority, Don Dioneso de Alzedo y Herrera.

De Ulloa spent the rest of 1736 making observations and measurements near Quito, especially on the plain of Yaruqui.  At some point a decision was made to split the party in two, with De Ulloa and a few men going to the summit of Pichincha, and the other half going to the summit of Pambamarca.  Climbing these mountains proved to be an incredibly difficult task:  they lacked good mountaineering equipment and provisions, and had no defenses against the cold.  But they had a sense of duty, and that was enough:

The wind was often so violent in these regions, that its velocity dazzled the sight, while our fears were increased by the dreadful concussions of the precipice, and by the fall of enormous fragments of rocks. These crashes were the more alarming, as no other noises are heard in these deserts; and during the night our rest, which we so greatly wanted, was frequently disturbed by such sudden sounds. When the weather was any thing fair with us, and the clouds gathered about some of the other mountains which had a connexion with our observations, so that we could not make all the use we desired of this interval of good weather, we left our huts to exercise ourselves, in order to keep us warm…

Our feet were swelled, and so tender that we could not even bear the heat, and walking was attended with great pain. Our hands were covered with chilblains, our lips swelled and chopped, so that every motion, speaking and the like, drew blood; consequently we were obliged to observe a strict taciturnity, and were but little disposed to laugh—an extension of the lips producing fissures, very painful for two or three days together….

Our common food in this inhospitable region was a little boiled rice, with some flesh or fowl, which we procured from Quito; and instead of fluid water, our pot was filled with ice; we had the same resource with regard to what we drank ; and while we were eating every one was obliged to keep his plate over a chafing-dish of coals, to prevent his provisions from freezing. The same was done with regard to the water. At first we imagined that drinking strong liquors would diffuse a heat through the body, and consequently render it less sensible of the painful sharpness of the cold; but, to our surprise, we found no manner of strength in them, nor were they any greater preservative against the cold than common water.

It was only with great persuasion and threats of punishment that De Ulloa could prevent his Indian guides from deserting him.  From 1737 to July 1739 the expedition lived this difficult life; but they accomplished what they had set out to do.  De Ulloa has also been credited with being one of the first observers to write an accurate description of the metal platinum, which he observed in Ecuador.  In 1740, De Ulloa and his George Juan were recalled to Lima by the Spanish viceroy to help prepare defensive works there; war had just broken out between Spain and England and there were fears that the coasts might be raided by the British Navy.  After 1744 it finally became possible for De Ulloa to return to Europe; he and some other men boarded two French ships bound for Brest by way of Cape Horn.  Along the way his ship was diverted to the French settlement of Louisburg in North America; after he arrived the city fell to the British and he was detained.

De Ulloa relates, however, that he was treated with great courtesy by the British, who had a particular admiration for daring explorers and adventurers.  He got along so well with them, in fact, that he decided to go to London.  Martin Folkes, president of the Royal Society, took an interest in him and his work, and was prepared to sponsor him; he was even made a fellow of the Society.  “Actions like these,” says De Ulloa, “convinced me of the sincerity of the English, their candor, their benevolence, and disinterested complaisance.  I observed the tempers, inclinations, particular customs, government, constitution, and policy of this praiseworthy nation, which in its economical conduct and social virtues may be a pattern to those who boast of superior talents to all the rest of mankind.”  Perhaps so, but it seems likely that the British were also eager to gain access to his scientific data and observations, which were of course extremely valuable.

He finally left England in 1746 and made his way to Madrid.  It had been eleven years and two months since he had first departed Spain for South America.  His scientific observations were published in 1748 and he was accorded all due honor by the Spanish crown, and he retained his connection to the navy.  In fact he was appointed governor of Louisiana in 1762, a territory that had recently been conveyed to Spain by France as a consequence of its defeat in the Seven Years’ War.  Things did not work out well for him there, however; the local population of French colonists had no desire to be linked to Spain, and he found it prudent to return home.  His memoirs of his travels in South America were translated into English and entitled A Voyage To South America.  The rest of his life was spent in quiet scholarly pursuits; he died in July 1795 on the Isle of Leon.


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