Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain
The Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain (Spanish: Expedición Botánica al Virreinato de Nueva España) was a scientific expedition that took place in the territories of New Spain between 1787 and 1803.
It was sanctioned in 1786 by King Charles III of Spain who approved the allotment of financial resources, and headed by Martín Sessé y Lacasta, who led a team of botanists selected by the director of the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Juan Bautista Muñoz, cosmographer of the New World, who was entrusted with the task of classifying the different academic works left behind by the expelled Jesuits, finds in the library of the Colegio Imperial de Madrid parts of the original manuscripts from the Francisco Hernández Expedition of 1570–1577. When José de Gálvez learned about the findings commended Casimiro Gómez Ortega, with the updating and publication of the manuscripts.
At the same time, Martín Sessé, a Spanish physician employed by the Real Jardín Botánico who was established in Mexico, wrote to Gómez Ortega suggesting the realization of a "Botanical Expedition" that was to serve two purposes: first to classify the natural resources of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and second to implement new health procedures and education in the colonial territories.
Both circumstances seemed to have convinced the king, who on 20 March 1787 issued a royal decree authorizing the expedition and providing the funds needed.
Preparation for the expedition began in 1787 with a series of trips by Sessé to Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, where earlier expeditions had taken place, in order to gather information from the experiences of other scientific teams. He also collaborated in some of he studies being carried out at the time in some of those places, such as in the research for a treatment of a parasitic illness in Cuba.
Back in the mainland Sessé was joined by several Spanish botanists and scientist including Vicente Cervantes Botany professor in New Spain, José Longinos Martínez from the Museum of Natural History, Juan Diego del Castillo pharmacist and botanist, José Maldonado, and José Mariano Mociño. Among the painters and illustrators who joined the expedition were Juan de la Cerda, and Atanasio Echeverría who later had the genus Echeveria named after him.
During the first year the members of the expedition only made short journeys into the countryside besides assisting in the creation of Mexico's Botanical Garden, on March 27, 1788. On May of the same year the team began exploring the areas of Cuernavaca, Tixtla, Chilpanzingo and Acapulco, among others.
During 1790 the team explored large areas of the territories that comprised New Spain, crossing Michoacán, Sonora and Apatzingan. When they reached Guadalajara, the group split in two, with Mociño, del Castillo and Echeverría heading for Aguas Calientes, via Álamos and Tarahumara, while Sessé traveled to the same destination via an alternative route crossing Sinaloa. When they regrouped in Aguas Calientes in 1792 they were made aware of a Royal provision ordering them to travel to Nootka Island, which at the time was under litigation between Spain and Great Britain. All explorers set route for the northwest coast, except Juan del Castillo who died from scurvy on 1793, shortly after having finished writing Plantas descritas en el viaje de Acapulco.
After returning from Nootka the expeditionary efforts focused on the southern territories. They were explored by two teams, one lead by Mociño that explored Mixteca and the Tabasco coast, and the other by Sessé that headed for Jalapa and Guaztuco. The two groups reunited in Córdoba, continue to Veracruz and returned to Mexico City via Tehuantepec and Tabasco.
On March 1794 Sessé was granted permission to extend the expedition in order to further explore Central America, specially Guatemala, Cuba, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico. The expedition again split into two teams with Sessé and Echeverría going to Cuba, while Mociño, de la Cerda, del Villar and others went to Guatemala.
Sessé was finally ordered to conclude their studies and return to Spain, but it took another two years to compile and classify all the material collected during the different explorations, approximately 1335 drawings and 3500 species (200 new genera and 2500 species new to science). The members of the exploration finally returned to Spain at different times during 1803.
During the years following their return to Spain Sessé and Mociño published a few medical works that covered political topics, such as Sessé's writings on the eradication of the yellow fever, prevalent in Southern Spain in 1804, pointing out to environmental and hygiene conditions that had been disregarded until then.
However, due to different political upheavals in Spain during the 19th century, the bulk of the expedition work was not published until the 1880s. Botanists like Cavanilles, Lagasca, Gómez Ortega, Decandolle and others published new species based on Sessé and Mociño's plants and drawings. Other manuscripts from the expedition were published in Mexico on different editions between 1893 and 1994.
Both Sessé and Mociño were promoted to the Real Academia de Medicina de Madrid, in 1805. Sessé died on 4 October 1808 and Mociño a few years later. From 1811 he was in charge of reviewing the materials from the expedition, but in 1812 he had to flee Spain, taking refuge in Montpellier where he contacted A. De Candolle, to whom he entrusted the manuscripts and drawings of "Flora Mejicana". When Mociño returned to Spain, his health had already deteriorated, and he died on 19 May 1820. Vicente Cervantes remained in Mexico City until his death on 26 July 1829.
Many of the collected plants, seeds, drawings and engravings ended up in the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid, where today they share the available space with other plants collected during other Spanish scientific expeditions.
- Montero, José (1990). Los virreyes españoles en América. Mitre. p. 93. ISBN 84-7652-070-0.
- González Bueno, Antonio. Rodríguez Nozal, Raúl (2000). Plantas americanas para la España ilustrada. Editorial Complutense. p. 7. ISBN 84-89784-95-7.
- H. W. Engstrand, Iris (1981). Spanish scientists in the New World. The eighteenth-century expeditions. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press. p. 325.
- Sessé and Mociño Herbarium at the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid