Juan de Cuéllar: naturalista de la Real Compañía de Filipinas (1785-1795)

"To collect all the plants and precious bodies (...) to fill the Garden and the Gabinete de Historia Natural". Study products useful for commerce and industry.

On 10 March 1785 King Charles III signed the letters patent establishing the Real Compañía de Filipinas (Royal Philippine Company). This was a politically backed trading company intended to turn the Philippines into a hub for trade between Asia and America.
The establishment of a trading structure with a permanent base in the Philippines was also intended to boost the exploitation of the territory's natural resources. But this led to the question of what resources the archipelago possessed and which of them could be commercially exploited. To answer these, and other similar questions, shortly after its creation the Company asked the Minister for the Indies, José de Gálvez, for suitable technical personnel to enable it to assess the possibilities of exploiting the Philippines' natural resources. J. Gálvez passed on this request to Casimiro Gómez Ortega, first professor at the Real Jardín Botánico, who put forward Juan de Cuéllar, a chemist, for the task, who at the time was carrying out the border examinations on the items brought back by Joseph Dombey, the French botanist accompanying Hipólito Ruiz and José Pavón on their Expedition to the Viceroyalty of Peru.

In early January 1786, Juan de Cuéllar embarked from Cádiz on board the Águila Imperial, heading for the port of Cavite, having been appointed Royal Botanist and naturalist in the service of the Real Compañía de Filipinas. By early August 1786, J. Cuéllar was in Manila ready to serve in his post as naturalist. His first journeys took him to the region of Laguna de Bay, south of Manila. However, the ongoing conflicts on the island forced him to limit his botanising to the vicinity of the city, where he took an interest in cultivars which the Royal Company found of particular interest: indigo, black pepper, cotton, white mulberry, coffee, cacao, and others. He only left Manila and its surrounding area between March and April 1789, to make a short expedition to the province of Batán.

From the time of his arrival on the Philippine archipelago, Juan de Cuéllar accumulated materials for the collections of the Reales Gabinetes. His first shipment of natural produce from the Philippines (shells, seeds, resins, woods, drawings, minerals and a number of pots with live plants) dated from early 1787. Subsequently he sent back materials assiduously, using the fleet sailing between the Philippines and Spain. These shipments continued, not without some difficulties, up until 1797. The botanical materials collected by J. Cuéllar were somewhat limited, but he made up for this by aquiring all manner of natural curiosities within his reach. It is therefore not unusual to find drawers of Asian products sent to the Reales Gabinetes by him.

A Royal Order issued in late January 1788 reoriented Juan de Cuélla's work towards a more precisely defined goal: promoting the planting of cinnamon and nutmeg in a last attempt to break the Dutch monopoly on trade in these spices. The royal order was motivated by the news of the existence of a cinnamon plantation, reported by Francisco Xavier Salgado, a Spanish landowner, at his estate in Calavang, in the province of Laguna de Bay. J. Cuéllar had himself observed the existence of nutmeg trees in the mountains near Salgado's estate. Both discoveries, if the similarity with the products exported by the Dutch from nearby Ceylon and Banda were confirmed, could considerably strengthen the Real Compañía de Manila's hand, and it did not hesitate to support the naturalist's proposal to attempt to cultivate and study the trees.

However, the cinnamon trees on the Calavang estate did not yield the results hoped for, and the materials sent for study by the Real Botica turned out to be very mucilaginous and lacking in some of the flavour qualities of Dutch cinnamon. Nor did Cuéllar's own efforts in the Malate orchard in the outskirts of Manila, originally set aside for the cultivation of mulberries, or in the small plot of land the Real Compañia owned in Manila, yield the desired results. To acclimatise and encourage the cinnamon trees, the Real Compañía bought land in Tiaong, in the province of Tayabas, where J. Cuéllar planted a thousand cinnamon trees from the Calavang estate. This plantation was also a failure.

During his stay in Manila, Juan de Cuéllar received a visit from the expedition commanded by Alejandro Malaspina. The corvettes Descubierta and Atrevida dropped anchor in Cavite on 24 March 1792. The botanist Antonio Pineda visited the Calavang estate with J. Cuéllar in mid-April. The estate, which was by now famous for its plantations of cinnamon, nutmeg, coffee and other products of commercial interest, was visited again by Tadeo Haenke and Luis Neé in mid-September 1792. The Malaspina expedition set sail from the port of Manila on 15 November. J. Cuéllar, who provided all the information on nature in the Philippines that the members of the expedition asked of him, remained in Manila.

Juan de Cuéllar's efforts to cultivate cinnamon in the Philippines came to nothing, as did his proposal for a botanical expedition throughout the islands or to set up a botanic garden on the land the Real Compañía owned in Malate. A Royal Order dated 19 June 1793 disbanded the governing body of the Real Compañía de Filipinas in Manila. The Company's headquarters Madrid dismissed its employees in Manila on 31 December 1794. Juan de Cuéllar, along with the other employees serving the company in Manila, learned that he had lost his post in June 1795.

He remained in the Philippines until his death. The governor appointed him commissioner of public lighting in Manila, and later superintendent of the cloth factories in the province of Ilocos, where he was also appointed provincial governor. He died there in late 1801.

Real Jardín Botánico
Real Jardín Botánico, CSIC. Plaza de Murillo, 2. Madrid E-28014 (ESPAÑA). Tel. +34 91 4203017. FAX: +34 91 4200157
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