Botanical expeditions were not without their share of drama and deceit—personal, political, and professional. Spain's Royal Botanical Expedition to Chile and Peru (1777–1788) was led by Spanish naturalists Hipólito Ruiz López (1754–1840) and Jóse Antonio Pavón (1754–1814). The expedition also included Joseph Dombey (1742–1794), French botanist for the Jardin du Roi, the botanical gardens of the French kings. The Spanish authorities made Dombey agree not to publish any of his collections from the expedition until the Spanish had returned and the material could be equally and fairly divided. Dombey accepted the terms, even providing Ruiz and Pavón with copies of all his drawings and descriptions when he left the expedition early in 1785 to return to Madrid. However, in 1786, rough seas off the coast of Chile led to the loss of all of Ruiz and Pavón’s expedition specimens and the delay of Dombey receiving his boxes. The Spanish wanted to ensure they would have material to show for their expedition, inclement weather or not, and intended to divvy up Dombey’s specimens.
Dombey believed he had already fulfilled his obligations to Spain by providing Pavón and Ruiz with copies of all his specimen descriptions and drawings, and was quite upset at having his work kept from him. He protested, feeling that he would be doing a disservice to France if he gave over more specimens. Dombey only received his materials when, compelled by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, he reconfirmed the agreement not to publishing anything until Ruiz and Pavón returned.
Back home in France, Dombey kept his word and did not publish any work related to the expedition. Unhappy with the situation, however, he transferred his collection to Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon and director of the Jardin du Roi for most of the eighteenth century. Leclerc in turn gave the collection to Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle (1746–1800), and told him to commission drawings of and to describe the most interesting plants, and to publish a catalogue immediately. L’Héritier was a wealthy member of the Academie des Sciences, a self-taught botanist, and had already—with the French authorities’ blessings—secured drawings and made engravings of the Peruvian plants that Dombey had sent to France earlier in the expedition, leading to the publication of Stirpes novae (1784–1785). L’Héritier enlisted the botanical illustrator Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759–1840) to draw the plates for Stirpes novae as well as the plates to accompany the new publication. L’Héritier even sent a bold letter to Ruiz and Pavón on March 9, 1786, requesting that they keep him updated on their future New World discoveries and send any descriptions and illustrations of Peruvian fruit for him to add to Dombey’s work. When Spanish authorities protested, L’Héritier retreated to England with his wife and Redouté in tow. He passed Dombey’s herbarium through customs by falsely claiming Joseph Banks, the director of Kew Gardens, had invited him to look at his collection.
L’Héritier managed to insult not only Spanish but also English botanists. After fleeing France to England, he resided in Banks’s home uninvited and damaged specimens in Banks’s collection when he compared them to the Dombey herbarium. This scandal eventually resulted in Sterum anglicum (1788).
Bleichmar, Daniela. Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Petersen, Ronald H. New World Botany: Columbus to Darwin. Ruggell [Liechtenstein]: A. R. G. Gantner Verlag, 2001.
Steele, Arthur R. Flowers for the King: The Expedition of Ruiz and Pavon and the Flora of Peru. Duke Historical Publications. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1964.