Biography of José de Acosta (1540-1600)

Religious, naturalist and Spanish writer born in Medina del Campo (Valladolid) in 1540 and died in Salamanca in 1600. It is known in the Spanish-American historiography as father Acosta.

Born into a family belonging to the then prosperous mercantile bourgeoisie of Medina del Campo, apparently source convert, he/she began his studies at the College of the society of Jesus in the same city, which he/she joined as a novice at the age of twelve. From then on, his training as a Jesuit was developed in various locations, Castilian and Portuguese, culminating a seven-year stay at the University of Alcalá. Ordained in 1566, he/she was Professor in the schools of the company of Ocaña and Plasencia, until in 1572 he/she moved to Peru, as part of the third Jesuit mission to the Viceroyalty. Once the permission, he/she embarked in Sanlúcar de Barrameda 8 of June 1571 with direction to the West Indies and reached its destination, Lima, in April of 1572. Their major occupations were, of course, the religious, and they played an important role as head of the Jesuits in the Viceroyalty (first was Inspector of schools of the Jesuits and later provincial of the order). His work forced him to make several trips between 1573 and 1578 by these territories, which visited several cities such as Arequipa, Cusco, Chuquisaca, Juli, La Paz and Potosí. In 1580, he/she wanted to return to Spain, probably for health reasons, but not split until may or June 1586, in principle bound to Mexico, to ship in March from 1587 to the peninsula, where he/she arrived in September. He/She spent the rest of his life to religious work and write. He/She was the first Jesuit which taught theology at the University of Salamanca in 1588.

Between 1575 and 1576, Acosta wrote his missionary treatise De procuranda Indorum salute, he/she put a kind of preface on the American nature entitled De natura Novi Orbis. Both texts were printed together in Salamanca the year 1588. The second of them, partially rewritten and translated into Spanish, happened shortly after to become the two initial "books" of the natural and moral history of the Indies, whose first edition appeared at Seville in 1590. The Treaty has seven "books", the first four dedicated to the "natural history" and the last three the "moral story", i.e., "traditions and facts of the Indians". To write it, Acosta used the observations that had been gathering for more than two decades in America, as well as materials from writings of other authors, including the Juan de Tovar about Mexico and Juan Polo Ondegardo and Luis Capoche on Peru.

At the end of the 16th century, it was evident that the knowledge of American nature had spilled the interpretative possibilities of the traditional knowledge. It needed to "give reason" of the multitude of news provided by a century of descriptive studies. This task was performed with great height by José de Acosta in his natural and moral history of the Indies (1590).

In the "Proem to the reader", Acosta explicitly warns that its purpose is not to offer a new descriptive exhibit: "new world and West Indies are written by many authors several books and relationships, in which give news of the new and strange things that those parts have been discovered... But so far I have not seen author try to declare the causes and reason for such news and curiosities of nature, nor to make speech or Inquisition in this part". Rather than draw on the approach of Pliny, as they had done, inter alia, Fernández de Oviedo and Hernández, was based in the Aristotelian tradition, but without submitting to the authority of Aristotle or any other classical author at all. It used the facts provided by the experience to deny the traditional doctrines and substantiate his own, so his repeated criticisms are not mere corrections of detail, but the consequence of an ambitious methodological stance: "look carefully the principles [of the ancient] where might be mistake and deception. First we will say what is the truth, as experience has shown it; and then we will try, but it's very hard business, to give the reason in accordance with good philosophy."

To "systematic reason" for "new features and quirks of American nature", Acosta cominenza with "heaven, temperament and the ORB room" and, then, is "what elements and mixed natural, which are metals, plants and animals, seems notable in the Indies".

One of the issues studied more carefully is the set of climatic conditions that make the "torrid zone" habitable. Consifdera the mistakes that led "the old thing have no doubt that the torrid inhabitable and, against the traditional idea of area scorched and dry, completely lack of water and vegetation, says that" is humedisima and that in this ancient lured much "and that"has plenty of water and pastures, though Aristotle to deny it"." Explains that "it is not too hot, but moderately hot", because the heat "is tuned with the crowd of rains and the brevity of the days", "fresh wind" and other causes, "especially in the vicinity of the ocean sea". It also analyzes the action of the heat of the Sun in "rising waters" and devotes a chapter to the reason why "the Highlands are colder", another theme that rebuts the Aristotelian doctrines.

The most famous part of the work is devoted to the origin of native Americans and animals existing in the new world. Acosta discards Atlantis as a "fine fable" and considers false and based on "very light guesses" the view that Indians come from Jews. You have in account that "the Indians usually have their origin" and devotes a chapter to detail the difficulties facing the study of the subject. Carefully examines the possibilities of that man and animals have come to America by sea, well sailing, well "cast of storm, against their will" and, in the case of animals, swimming or flying. He/She concludes that "it is more in accordance with good reason thinking that they came by land", both the "early settlers of Indias", as "beasts and cattle". Concludes that "is a great guess for me to think to the new world, which we call pigs, is not entirely diviso and away from other ORB." And I have to say my opinion, for me days has the one land and the other somewhere together and continue, or at least ahead and much allegan. So far, at least, there is no certainty of the contrary. Because the Arctic pole, called North, is not known and discovered the entire length of the land... "Returning to the other pole of the South, there is no man who knows where to land that is in the other band of the Strait of Magellan".

The geographical distribution of animals and plants is another topic of great relief in the work of Acosta. Distinguishes three main groups in human beings existing in the new world: the "which have been carried by Spaniards, who in the Indies of the same species that in Europe" and their own"pigs". This last group is, logically, which poses greater problems. In the chapter entitled "How possible in animal pig" that does not exist anywhere else in the world, says that "is a matter that I had puzzled much time". Seriously discusses the differences between the American and the European and warns that "who put only via accidental differences intends to save the spread of Indian animals and reduce them to Europe [species], shall take charge that bad could get out of it". It deals with the great diversity of the fauna and the flora of different parts of America, especially emphasizing the contrast between the continent and the Islands. Note also that some domestic animals brought by the Spaniards "have made mountaineers and cruel" and "increased in large abundance".

It also tries to "declare the causes and reason" many other issues, including the tides and currents, winds, "diversity day" in relation to meridians, volcanoes and earthquakes.

All this should not make forget the richness of the descriptive content of the natural and moral history of the Indies. For example, his "fourth book" includes seventeen chapters on the American plant world, in which Acosta quotes Nicolás Monardes several times, referring to his treatise dealing with the American medicinal plants: "there are a thousand things of these [medicines] simple... as well applied and time do not have them by less efficiency than the drugs that come from the East"", as you can understand what Monardes has written". On the other hand, his relationship with Felipe II, to whom he/she dedicated Natura Novi Orbis, allowed him to meet directly, not only the history of the plants of new Spain, Francisco Hernández, but the selection that made Nardo Antonio Recchi commissioned by the monarch: "this matter of pigs, and liquor plants and other medicinal things, Dr. Francisco Hernández made a distinguished workSpecial Commission of her Majesty, making natural paint all plants of Indies, which they say go to thousand and two hundred and claim have cost this work more than sixty thousand Ducats, which made one as Doctor Nardo Antonio, extract Italian physician, with great curiosity. These books and works I refer to which more often and accurately wishes to know of Indian plants, mostly for purposes of medicine".

Apart from the species common to the old and new world, such as coconut, banana and squash the genus Lagenaria, and "which have been from Spain to India", the aforementioned chapters try to hundreds of American plants. Most had already been given to know in Europe, mainly by the earliest and Spanish descriptions or the work of Monardes. However, there are several not described therein, among which are that Acosta called "sapodilla" (Achras sapota l.), "Castor" (Argemone mexicana l.), "almond of Chachapoyas" (Caryocar sp.), "floripondio" (Datura arborea l.), "Indian ebony" (Diospyros ebenaster Retz.), "strawberries of Chile" (Fragaria chiloensis (l.)) Duch.), "high shank" (Guadua SP.), "nutsedge" (Jubaea spectabilis H. B. K.), "queñua" (Polylepis spp.), "capuli" (Prunus capuli CAV.), "icho" (Stipa SP.) and "totora" (Typha domingensis Pers.). Acosta was also among the first naturalists who tried the Lycopersicum esculentum Mill. ("tomato") and Phaseolus lunatus l. ("Lima beans").

The influence of the work of Acosta was extraordinary. It had numerous editions in latin, German, Dutch, French, English and Italian, in addition to those, hiding the name of Acosta, published the Bry in the ninth volume of his series Americae story, destined to the Protestant world. The first translation appeared in Venice (1596), poured into Italian by Giovanni Paolo Galluci, translation which was reprinted in 1608. The French of Robert Regnault was published on nine occasions between 1598 and 1621 and Edward Grimstone crisp, in complex 1604.mas was the publishing history of the work of Acosta in the Netherlands and the German-speaking world. In 1596, was reissued in Colonia De natura Novi orbis, in accordance with the text of 1588, followed by promulgatione Evangelii. Bound also to Catholic environments, it was translated into German and printed independently in the same colony (1598 and 1600) and in Oberursel (1605). However, the main vehicle of the broadcast in Central Europe of the full text of the natural and moral history of the Indies was the Dutch version of Jan Huygen van Linschoten. It was published in Harlem the year 1598, i.e. in the Protestant atmosphere of the Netherlands, already independent of the Crown of the Habsburgs, who were beginning their overseas business expansion. Linschoten was the first Dutchman who gathered and published materials on the East and West Indies. His first trip to the India was made in 1593, accompanying the Portuguese viceroy of Goa. A year later formed part of the expedition of Willem Barentsz to find a passage to the Indies by the North and also took part in that was launched in 1596 with the same object. Their publications began in the latter date with two texts, usually bound together, they were printed in Amsterdam. The first of these, Reys-gheschrift vande navigatien der Portugaloysers in Guide, deals, as well as Portuguese journeys to the East Indies, from those made to China, "the coast of Brazil" and "vast territory of the Spanish Indies called the Antilles". The second, Beschryvinghe van de gantsche custe van Guinea, not limited to a description of the coast of Guinea, as indicated by its title, since it also includes that of "Cape of San Agustín, in Brazil" and another brief on "West Indies". Both were reprinted in English, latin, German, English and French, added in most of the editions with notes of Paludanus, that this included the description of the American nardo Seville naturalist Simón de Tovarhad sent him. The two texts of Linschoten were included in the India Orientalis series published by the Publisher Theodor de Bry and his sons in German and Latin, occupying the greater part of its third volume (1599 and 1601). It is consistent with his biography Linschoten to translate the Treaty of Acosta. Besides being reprinted in Amsterdam in 1624, his Dutch version was retraducida into German by J. Humberger and, again, from German to latin, bound for America series published by Bry, parallel to the one dedicated to the East. These indirect translations appeared in its ninth volume (1601 and 1602), while recorded the name of Acosta, and, on the other hand, the twelfth volume included a kind of summary, titled Paralipomena Americae. It is shocking that a plagiarism of a Spanish Jesuit Treaty was the only major text of natural history in a series aimed at the Protestant world and prominent instrument of the so-called "black legend" antiespanola.

The prestige of the natural and moral history of the Indies in the scientific world was immediate and lasting. Suffice it to recall, as significant milestones, that Francis Bacon used it widely in their history naturalis et experimentalis (1622) and Alexander von Humboldt called it in Kosmos (1845-1862) of masterly study of the new world and Foundation of modern Geophysics, when contemporary science started to research into new so-called issues that Acosta had been addressed. As said J. H. Elliott, "until they have been published in Spanish, in 1590, the great natural and moral history of the Indies, José de Acosta, not triumphantly culminated the process of integrating the American world in the general context of European thought... the synthesis of Acosta was the culmination of a century of effort".

Related topics

Indian historians and chroniclers.

Conquest of America.



DE LEÓN, Juan: Natural history and morality of the Indies, which covers notable things in the sky and elements, metals, plants, and animals dellas: and rites, and ceremonies, laws, and Government, and wars of the Indians, Seville. (Seville, 1590). In 1604 had already been translated into Italian, German, French, Dutch, latin and English, which assured him a wide dissemination. The first two chapters were originally written in latin as the prologue to another work, De natura novi orbis... and then translated into Spanish by the own Acosta.


O´GORMAN, Ed-World: history... (Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1840, pp.) VII - LXXXV). The natural and moral history of the Indies has been reprinted three times with introductory studies of historical character.MATEOS, Francisco: Personality and writings of the father José de Acosta, works of the father José de Acosta. (Madrid, Atlas, 1954, pp.) VII - XLIX).BEDDALL Barbara: Father José de Acosta and place of his natural and moral history of the Indies, in the History of Science, history... (Valencia, Valencia Cultural, 1877, pp. 12-97). These studies include, respectively, the intellectual aspects, religious and scientific work of Acosta.alvarez LOPEZ, Enrique: natural philosophy in father José de Acosta. (Revista de Indias 4, 1943, pp. 305-322).AGUIRRE, e.: An evolutionary hypothesis in the 16th century. Father José de Acosta, S. I., and the origin of the American species. (Ed. Arbor, 1957, 36 pp. 176-187).JARCHO, Saul: Origin of of American Indians as Suggested by friar Joseph de Acosta (1589) (Ed. Isis, 1959, 50 pp.) 430-438.LOPEZ PIÑERO, J. M. & López TERRADA, M. L. The plants in the natural and moral history of the Indies, José de Acosta. In: The influence Spanish in the introduction in Europe of the American plants, 1493-1623, (Institute of documentary studies and historical science, 1997, pp. 126-134).