Friday, September 6, 2019

A Life in Shadow: Aimé Bonpland in Southern South America, 1817–1858 by Stephen Bell

Humboldt’s sidekick no more
Aimé Bonpland is best known for having accompanied explorer Alexander von Humboldt on his expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804. While many narratives of that journey relegate Bonpland to a “sidekick” role, he was a distinguished scientist in his own right. Following their monumental expedition, Humboldt never again ventured to the Americas, but Bonpland did return to South America in 1817 and lived there until his death in 1858. Bonpland was a world-renowned botanist, but he was also a physician who practiced medicine in order to finance his botanical research. During his four decades in South America, Bonpland moved around between Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil and conducted scientific expeditions in the Río de la Plata region. He spent much effort trying to establish profitable agricultural enterprises in the production of maté (a tea-like beverage), tobacco, and wool from merino sheep. Many of his endeavors were thwarted by political turmoil, and he was even imprisoned by the dictator of Paraguay for nine years. In his 2010 book, A Life in Shadow, Stephen Bell tells the story of those years in Bonpland’s life and sheds light on his unsung scientific achievements.

This book is aimed squarely at an academic audience and will likely appeal primarily to scholars of Latin American history. Bell assumes a great deal of prior knowledge on the geography and history of South America, and in particular the various revolutions and rebellions that took place during Bonpland’s tenure there. Researchers who want to know where Bonpland was on a given date and what he was doing there will find this book a treasure trove of data. It often reads, however, like a history of Bonpland’s correspondence rather than a narrative of his life. General readers approaching this book from an interest in Humboldt, hoping to find stories of geographical and scientific exploration, may be disappointed by the fact that Bell chooses to focus more on Bonpland’s political and economic activities. In the process, the scope of Bonpland’s scientific research somehow gets lost. Bell states, for example, that in 1849, “Bonpland identified plant species more rapidly than at any other part of his southern South American residence,” yet none of those species are named, and the reader remains largely clueless as to the range or importance of Bonpland’s botanical discoveries. Instead, Bell chooses to focus intently on Bonpland’s work with maté, merino sheep, tobacco, and to a lesser extent, tea.

If ever a book needed a map it’s this one. One map of vegetation zones is included, but it really could have used an overall political map of the regions, cities, and rivers that Bonpland frequented. A chronology of Bonpland’s life, or at least of his post-Humboldt career, would also have been helpful. Though the wide range of Bonpland’s polymathic interests and activities is staggering, it seems that almost every project he undertook remained unfinished. Bell explains that this was largely due to political instability in the regions in which Bonpland worked. The constant jumping back and forth between uncompleted projects makes it difficult to get any overall sense of the trajectory of Bonpland’s career or the significance of his accomplishments.

Bell set out to write the most comprehensive account of Bonpland’s life and career in South America, and in that he has no doubt succeeded, judging by the wealth of information contained in this book. A Life in Shadow will prove valuable to scholars of Latin American history, but nonacademic readers looking for an accessible overview of Bonpland’s life and work may find that Bell’s data-intensive study makes it hard to see the forest for the trees.

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