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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
July 2004
Claudio Gay and his History of Chile:
A traveler's crusade

Chile's Independence and the need to create a new State, led authorities to promote territorial exploration as an impulse for the new nation's identity. That's how, during the decade of 1820, some foreign scientifics arrived to Chile hired by the government. The most remarkable was French naturalist Claudio Gay, with investigations in Natural and Physical Sciences, and History. His Physical and Political History of Chile, a key work published in 30 volumes, mean to him more than forty years of work, and gained him the Chilean nationality.

By Rosario Mena



Since his arrival in the year 1829, French naturalist Claudio Gay began writing what would later become his Physical and Political History of Chile. Its thirty volumes appeared between the years 1844 and 1871, and are a constant reference for the study of Chile during the 19th Century. Gay poured into them the register of his investigations in several areas related to Natural and Social sciences, including drawings that show his true artistic talent. Among his main contributions one counts the foundation of the Statistics Agency, the first to ever collect information of our territory. Claudio Gay's rigorousness, curiosity and enthusiastim iluminated the knowledge of our own natural resources, society and culture. Gay wrote key pages of our History and set the ground for our identity as a nation.

His erudition and brightness gained him the admiration of the most remarkable of his contemporaries. Before his death, Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna was alredy writing his biography. Later, Diego Barros Arana investigated French archives to get information about his life in Europe. A collection of letters written by Gay were collected by Chilean historian Carlos Stuardo Ortiz, who, presented his work results during the sixties. But there was still material to discover: a couple of years ago, historian Luis Mizón found several unpublished writings at the archives of the Scientific and Archeological Studies Society in the French city of Draguignan, where Gay was born.

All these were published in the book Claudio Gay and the formation of the Chilean cultural identity, which registers in eleven volumes the cultural frame in which his work was developed.

A passion for discovery
A lucid and restless mind made Claudio Gay abandon his medical studies in Paris, and start the investigation of Botany and other disciplines then taught at the Sorbonne University. His firsts investigation journeys were done to the Alps. In 1828 he was invited by the Chilean government to study the flora and fauna of our territory, and teach at the new Colegio de Santiago (then in charge of Andrés Bello).

His started his work at the center of the country: he registered the geography, and collected and clasified plants and animal species around Santiago. All these he draw by hand. The times were not free of turmoil, because of tensions between liberals and conservatives that ended up in a civil war.

"I've been living in this city for seven months and have not stopped working on geology, despite my personal business and the profound wars that torment this poor country, all of which have made my trips harder. Nevertheless I have collected a good deal of observations that will help to introduce this region, so little known by naturalists", he wrote to his colleagues in Paris.

The enthusiasm of Minister Diego Portales for his work led to a contract between the government and the scientific for a special journey through Chile, which would last more than ten years. Gay collected information about natural history, geology, zoology and maps. After travelling through the Colchagua province, the mountains, the Tinguiririca volcano and the coast, Gay went on to the Aconcagua valley and stayed in Valparaiso for a while. In 1832 he travelled to the Juan Fernandez archipelago.

Building a history
The information and samples that the scientist collected were State-protected. All of his notes were published at the El Araucano paper. To improve his work, he travelled to France to get more tools and exchange information with European specialists. During 1835 he travelled all through the South of Chile: Valdivia, Osorno, the Llanquihue lake and its surroundings, the Villarica volcano and the Chiloé island, among other places. During the following years, he went to the North and explored the Coquimbo province's interior and coast: the Elqui river, Ovalle and Illapel. Later on, he visited the Maule and Bio-Bio regions.

In 1939, the Minister of Education, Mariano Egaña, gave Gay the assignment of writing a History of Chile. The work combined his scientific rigorousness with his literary talent. When no History book was then giving facts, Gay's work was a key challenge, which the French took with integrity, eventhough Historic investigation and registry were far from his speciality, which was then rooted in Natural Sciences. His historic narrative begins at 15th Century's Spain and follows all the way to the beginning of the Chilean republic, during the 19th Century. His style is that of a chronicle, with a very accurate and independent scientific perspective, rooted on facts and away from personal interpretation. Some resented this, saying the book lacked a political commitment.

In Lima he studied colonial archives, collected documents and got to know the Inca culture of Cuzco, getting in touch with the Indians, making maps and statistic studies. On his return, Gay formed the Natural History Cabinet, in the same building that would later hold the National Library. He then travelled to the Atacama desert, with the assistence of the Polish wise-man Ignacio Domeyko, then living in Coquimbo (and who would later become principal of the Universidad de Chile). At the beginning of 1841, the Araucano paper announced the publising of the book, financed by the government, and with the results of Gay's investigations on Chile's flora, fauna, mineral kingdom, geography and History. The volume included maps and drawings. The Agriculture Society commited itself to the distribution and selling of the books among its members.

A rewarding work
The effort met great success. More than a thousand books were reserved in advance. Some were very simple, with no drawings; others, were luxurious and more expensive. Gay's work gained him the Chilean nationality, besides a money-reward and more resources for new editions. Back in France, he continued ordering the material, completing the information and hiring new professionals for more chapters. The first edition was given directly to the Chilean government in june of 1844. In march, a new edition was already in bookstores of Santiago and Valparaíso.

Nevertheless, some Chilean authorities were not as commited to the promotion of the book, which led to several delays in the selling and completition of new editions. Gay had to write to the president Manuel Montt, who was moved by his words and made sure that new help was given to the French scientist.

By 1855, the work already had 28 volumes: 8 for Botany, 8 for Zoology and 8 for History, plus 2 other for documents and 2 for an Atlas. Later on, Gay would go to write two other volumes just for Agriculture. The total result was 30 volumes. The work was finally finished in 1873, a few months before Gay's death (which ocurred in his native city). A decade earlier, full of energy and interest, Gay had travelled to Chile and visited the Universidad de Chile, took part of several activities at the Instituto Nacional and went to see the coal mine of Lota. His tie to Chile was always tight, specially with his friend Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, who he assisted in his remarkable work as Santiago's mayor.


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