Baltasar Manuel Boldo Expedition: A botanist in the service of the Royal Guantánamo Commission (1796-1799)

Purpose: Mapping and drafting a full report on the territories visited: mapping of ports, trade, production, ethnography, details of natural history.

The Royal Guantánamo Commission was created with two specific goals: enabling a navigable canal to be dug between the hills of Güines and Havana, and to establish a stable settlement in the bay from which the Commission took its name. Underlying it were the interests of Havana-resident Joaquín de Santa Cruz y Cárdenas, Count de Mopox, who was at the time the sub-inspector general of the troops on the Island of Cuba, and who sought to use the canal as a means of transporting the wood needed by the Havana arsenal, where it would be used to build warships. The interest was therefore basically military.

The Royal Commission was authorised by the Spanish Crown in August 1796. It comprised Count de Mopox himself, as director; José María de Lanz, who was responsible for reconnoitring Guantánamo bay (but whose delicate health prevented him from taking part in the journey); Agustín de Betancourt, who was in charge of tracing the route of the canal (and who was also unable to take part in the commission, despite his initial interest); the engineers Cipriano Torrezuri and José Martínez, responsible for taking altitude measurements and drawing up plans; the engineer Anastasio Arango, secretary of the Commission, and Bartolomé Sureda, who was given the task of copying the plans and helping in height measurement work (but was also finally unable to join the team who carried out the work in Cuba). The team would soon gain an additional member in the person of the botanist Baltasar Manuel Boldo.

The work entrusted to B.M. Boldo, a medical doctor by profession, and selected to take part in the expedition by the director of the Real Jardín Botánico, Mariano Martínez de Galisonga, was not limited to botanical matters. Rather, at his own request, his work was to include the study of natural products of all types. He was accompanied on the journey by the draughtsman and taxidermist, José Guío Sánchez, a soldier, Francisco Remírez, dedicated to mineralogical studies, and the latter's assistant Félix Bourman.

Agustín Betancourt took care of purchasing instruments and other technical materials, and he set out from the port of La Coruña in June 1797. However, the ship in which he was travelling was captured by a British frigate which confiscated its cargo, including the library and instruments A. Betancourt was taking with him. Thus, neither he nor the essential equipment he was transporting reached Cuba.

The bulk of the expedition had set out from the same port earlier, on 3 December 1796. And, although their crossing was not without its difficulties, they reached Guantánamo Bay in early February 1797. During the first few months the Royal Commission occupied itself with studying the bay, including the systems necessary to defend the harbour and suitable sites to locate the settlement. They finally chose two sites. Following an inspection of Guantánamo and the necessary reorganisation of the team of engineers (in view of the absences), the expedition set out for the interior of the island; Francisco Remírez and his assistant headed towards Holguín to study the gold mines there; B.M. Boldo and J. Guío crossed the island, to reach Havana, accompanying the group led by Count de Mopox

F. Ramírez soon concluded his mineralogical work, as is corroborated by his correspondnece with Christian Herrgen, a lecturer at the Real Estudio de Mineralogía de Madrid; his assistant, F. Bourman, returned to Spain, while F. Ramírez addressed an issue of vital importance to the island's trade: sugar production. F. Ramírez's attitude hints at the hidden interest of the local "sugarocracy" in the Royal Commission.

B.M. Boldo's arrival in Havana led to an unexpected meeting with some of the members of the Expedition led by Martín Sessé, who were exploring the territory; the two groups worked together from June 1797 onwards. The relationship between the two groups of explorers was not as smooth as might have been hoped, however, partly as a result of the fact that Martín Sessé sought to take the limelight, to the extent that he claimed some of the work done by members of the Royal Guantánamo Commission as his own. The links between the two teams enabled two new members to join Count de Mopox's Royal Commission. These were a Cuban doctor, José Estévez, subsidised by the Sociedad Patriótica de La Habana, who joined B.M. Boldo's group after it reached the capital, and the painter Atanasio Echevarría, who left M. Sessé's group in mid October 1797.

The Royal Commission to Guantánamo sent numerous seeds and other items of botanical material to the Real Jardín Botánico, and there are records of plantings in Madrid of batches sent by J. Guío, between 1798 and 1804, and by B.M. Boldo, in 1799. Some of the results of B.M. Boldo's botanical work were published in Havana, including a small work entitled  Balthasar Manuel Boldo (…) in Insula Cubensem nunc legatus… (Havana: Typographia Curiae Episcopalis, 1798) and notes in the Havana newspaper, following meteorological notes taken during a short stay in Baltimore. 

B.M. Boldo died in Havana on 30 July 1799. Count de Mopox then appointed J. Estévez to take charge of the work on Cuban nature carried out by the Royal Commission, urging him to travel to Spain with the results. J. Estévez returned with the remainder of the members of the Royal Commission in April 1802, except F. Remírez, who remained on the island due to illness and died shortly after.

The Royal Commission's findings were presented by Count de Mopox to Pedro Cevallos, Minister of State, who ordered the botanical materials (dried plants, manuscripts and drawings) be submitted to the Real Jardín Botánico, whose director at the time was Antonio José Cavanilles. These materials are still kept at the RJB. The work on zoology and mineralogy, together with all the other reports prepared by the Royal Commission's members, were submitted to the Depósito Hidrográfico. Part of this legacy is kept today in the Museo Naval de Madrid (Madrid Naval Museum) although the whereabouts of much, unfortunately, is unknown.

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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