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Lilly Library

Studying the Past through Travelers’ Eyes: Adventures and Impressions

By Francisca Leiva Infante, PhD candidate, History Department, Binghamton University; Lilly Library Mendel Fellowship recipient, 2023.

Traveling has always been a fascinating way to explore new places and cultures, and for researchers like myself, it is an excellent tool to understand the past. Travelers’ accounts can bring to life the stories of their adventures and capture their fears and marvels. While their perspectives are subjective and influenced by their own lives and contexts, their experiences are still charming and valuable.

During my dissertation project on the history of Afro-Chileans, I conducted research at the Lilly Library with a focus on understanding the makeup of Chilean society in the early 19th century. While exploring the library, I came across the description and travel collection, which contained firsthand accounts of European and American men and women who journeyed to South America during the 18th and 19th centuries. These fascinating diaries offer a detailed chronicle of the travelers’ experiences in a region that was undergoing significant transformations, with Enlightenment ideas and news from Europe sparking opportunities for profound change.

Isaac Foster Coffin, an American traveler, found himself in Chile during the tumultuous first decades of the 19th century. His diary, which recounts his journey between 1817 and 1819, not only details how his life was affected when he was arrested by the armies loyal to the king but also sheds light on the composition of Chilean society. In particular, he takes note of the beauty of women, stating, “Many of the mestiza women are very beautiful, with their black, big, and bright eyes, and they would pass among us as first-rate brunettes.”

The observations made by Coffin offer a fascinating glimpse into the society and culture of Chile during a time of great transformation. In particular, his commentary on mestiza women sheds light on the racial and ethnic dynamics that were at play during this period. Coffin’s description of the beauty of these women and how they could easily be mistaken for first-rate brunettes speaks to the ways in which European beauty standards were influencing perceptions of beauty in Chilean society. It highlights the complex interplay between cultural influences and local traditions that were shaping the nation’s identity at this time.

John Miers’ Travels in Chile and La Plata: Including Accounts Respecting the Geography, Geology, Statistics, Government, Finances, Agriculture, Manners, and Customs, and the Mining Operations in Chile, offers a detailed and extensive account of the region’s geography, government, and mining operations. However, what sets Miers’ travelogue apart from other travel diaries of the same period is his derogatory descriptions of the people he encountered. Miers frequently used epithets such as “ugly,” “fat,” or “untidy” to describe Chileans, which have puzzled scholars of this type of account. Some authors suggest that Miers’ impressions may have been influenced by his own intentions to justify British expansion into South America. By creating a negative image of the people he encountered, Miers could demonstrate the assumed need for foreign intervention in supposedly abandoned and backward lands. However, the reasons behind Miers’ negative portrayal of Chileans remain a matter of speculation and interpretation.

Plate showing two illustrations: "Method of throwing the Lasso" and "Method of throwing the Bolas." The first image shows two people on horseback roping a horned cow with a lasso. The second image shows two people on horseback roping a horse with the bolas.
John Miers. Travels in Chile and La Plata : Including Accounts Respecting the Geography, Geology, Statistics, Government, Finances, Agriculture, Manners and Customs, and the Mining Operations in Chile… London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1826.
Fold-out map of the city of Santiago, Chile from John Miers' Travels in Chile and La Plata.
John Miers. Travels in Chile and La Plata : Including Accounts Respecting the Geography, Geology, Statistics, Government, Finances, Agriculture, Manners and Customs, and the Mining Operations in Chile… London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1826.

Alexander Caldcleugh’s travelogue provides a stark contrast to John Miers’ derogatory descriptions of Chileans. Caldcleugh, who also traveled through South America in the early 19th century, had a very different perspective on the region’s political and social landscape. In his diary, Travels in South America, During the Years 1819-20-21, he praises the advancements in political matters and the humanitarian notion of legal texts that he witnessed during his travels. Caldcleugh’s diary is particularly noteworthy for its critical stance on the impact of Spanish colonialism on the region. He denounces the backwardness that he believes the colonies had been subjected to under Spanish influence, highlighting the need for progress and reform. His travelogue also provides valuable insights into the lives and customs of the people he encountered, including detailed descriptions of their clothing, food, and religious practices.

Frontispiece depicting "The Usual Walking Costume of Lima," showing two women wearing black dresses with black veils from Alexander Caldcleugh's Travels in South America, During the Years, 1819-20-21.
Alexander Caldcleugh. Travels in South America, During the Years, 1819-20-21: Containing an Account of the Present State of Brazil, Buenos Ayres, and Chile. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1825.

Richard Longeville Vowell, an English naval officer who served in the Chilean army during the years 1821-1829, also wrote a memoir about his adventure in Chile, Memorias de un Oficial de Marina Inglés al Servicio de Chile Durante los Años de 1821-1829. As the name of the book indicates, it is a story of a British sailor who was in the ranks of the Chilean army. This practice was not something exceptional, as many foreigners actively participated in the Latin American independence wars. Vowell himself was also in the armies led by Simón Bolivar.

He narrates the view of a territory lagging behind in development but full of kindness and goodness. One of the things that draws attention is the admiration of the author for social customs and their egalitarian character. For example, Vowell mentions how everyone in houses share the same mate, including the servants. This shows how communal practices were seen as a positive aspect of Chilean society by British travelers, as it promoted a horizontal relationship among all household members.

Vowell’s account is a reminder that travel writing is not monolithic, and that different travelers can have wildly different perspectives on the same culture and customs. His memoir highlights the unique experiences of foreigners who participated in Latin American independence wars, and sheds light on the cultural exchange that occurred during this historical period.

The Lilly Library’s collection of travel accounts provides a rich source of information about the people, landscapes, and social customs of a society beginning its process towards independence. These accounts offer different perspectives and reveal the biases and influences of the travelers who wrote them. Nonetheless, they are invaluable for understanding the past and offer a unique glimpse into the lived experiences of those who ventured into the unknown.

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