Friday, November 19, 2021

Travels to Oaxaca by Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville

Biological espionage in New Spain
Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville (1739-1780) was a French botanist and physician. In 1776 he came up with a plan to venture into Mexico to steal samples of the cochineal insect, valued for its production of a vibrant red dye, and its natural habitat and food source the nopal cactus. Thiéry de Menonville hoped to then transplant these natural resources to French colonies in the Caribbean, thus breaking the Spanish monopoly on the cochineal’s carmine dye. Because such biological and mineral treasures were so closely guarded in the American colonies, the French and other foreigners were not allowed into the territories of New Spain without obtaining rarely granted passports for each checkpoint in their journey. Unable to obtain the proper papers to venture beyond the coastal city of Veracruz, Thiéry de Menonville embarked on a clandestine journey to Oaxaca, home of the cochineal, thus making his foray into Southern Mexico a hazardous spy mission.

In 1787, Thiéry de Menonville published his scientific text Traité de la Culture du Nopal, et de l’Education de la Cochenille dans les Colonies Françaises de l’Amerique, which included the narrative of his Voyage a Guaxaca as an introduction. The Voyage portion of this book was then translated into English and published in 1812 as a chapter in A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels to All Parts of the World, Volume 13 (pages 753 to 876), edited by John Pinkerton. Whether published in French or in English, these early editions are quite phonetically inventive in their spellings of Mexican place names, and the species names of plants are sometimes vague and outdated. It helps to have some prior knowledge of Mexican geography because today’s reader must frequently employ educated guesses in order to determine to where and what Thiéry de Menonville is referring.

I’ve traveled to many of the places Thiéry de Menonville discusses in this book, so it was very interesting to read about what Veracruz, Orizaba, and Oaxaca were like two centuries earlier. As I recall, the trip to Oaxaca was rough even by bus, and this account reveals it was quite an adventure making the journey by foot and horse when the land was even wilder and more sparsely populated. Though Thiéry de Menonville is forced to rough it in some harsh conditions, he seems to have an unlimited supply of gold and silver in his pockets, which comes in handy when wrangling over the purchase of horses, mules, or ship fare to transport his botanical specimens.

As a storyteller, Thiéry de Menonville is an entertaining raconteur. His writing reveals him to be quite arrogant, and not surprisingly he considers France the greatest nation in the world. He never passes up an opportunity to rip on the Spanish, whom he denigrates for their idleness, lack of culture (compared to Paris), and what he sees as poor management of their New World colonies. He expresses more respect for the Indigenous inhabitants of Mexico because as a botanist he admires their waste-not-want-not approach to utilizing nature’s bounty. As one might expect in an 18th-century text, the author does engage in some unfortunate racial profiling of the Black and Native populations, but only briefly, and his criticisms are more the insults of a disgruntled traveler than racial slurs. One aspect of Mexico that pleased Thiéry de Menonville very much is its natural beauty and diversity. When he describes the animals and plants that he encounters, his joy of discovery is infectious, making this a very interesting read for anyone interested in the early scientific exploration of the Americas.

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