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Carlos IV, we hardly knew ye

6 August 2016

In updating Gods, Gachupine, and Gringos, I’ve had to rethink some of my opinions.  I was too dismissive of Carlos IV in my first edition, describing him a a particularly clueless monarch.  While he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, whether by accident or design, he managed to have a huge impact on culture and science that needs to be mentioned. 

A draft from GGG, the reboot:

Carlos IV and family, 1800.  Franciso Goya.

Carlos IV and family, 1800. Franciso Goya.

Carlos the First gave México a Spanish government and instituted effective rule. Carlos the Second was an incompetent, but the bureaucracy was able to survive. Carlos the Third reorganized México, sending both Viceroy Bucarelli and Inspector Galvez to reorganize the colony. The reign of Carlos IV would mark the end of Spain’s dominance in the America.

The Spanish Empire was at its greatest extent during his reign, and Mexican cultural activity was at its height. The sheer size of the realm when Carlos came to the throne was still uncertain. The Malspina Expedition of 1789-1791 attempted to get some sense of what exactly was out there. As much concerned with discovering where the exact boundaries of the Empire were as anything, the expedition included a cadre of scientists, looking first for whatever natural resources might have been overlooked, who, in the course of things, discovered numerous new plant and animal species both in the Americas and in the Pacific. Hearing rumors from the Spanish Ambassdor to Moscow about Russian colonies somewhere north of New Spain, a side expedition was launched from Acapulco to find out what the Russians were up to in the Americas. Alaska turned out to be much further north of California than anyone realized, and the Russian fur trading posts were no threat, but the expedition did map the north Pacific, brought back samples of plants and animals unknown to science at the time, and… at least the first scientific mention of a man-like hairy creature the indigenious Alaskans said was sighted now and again, but greatly to be feared. Although he didn’t take the stories seriously, we have the expedition’s science officer, Moziño Suárez, to thank (or blame) for first describing the mysterious Sasquatch or Big Foot.

Alexander Douglas Studio

Alexander Douglas Studio

While the Malspina Expedition of 1794-98 expanded our knowledge of geography and biology, a smaller expedition of 1799 had a much greater impact on science, and on México itself. Aboard the Pizzaro was a young Prussian nobleman and geologist, who had been thwarted in his attempts to join a French expedition the previous year, Alexander von Humbolt.

Humbolt’s voyages throughout Spanish-America would turn out to be one of the most important contributions to science, and to our general understanding of the world ever. Although a geologist, between Humboldt and his assistant, Aimée Bonpland, their research laid the foundations for all modern earth sciences, biology (including theories later refined by Charles Darwin) and ecology. As well as studies of economics, anthropology, and political science he committed to paper during his stay in México City in 1803. His Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain , published just as México achieved independence would have a profound impact on the furture nation, mostly because when it was published in 18091, it opened the eyes of business interests in Europe and the new United States to the natural wealth of México specifically and Latin America in general.

1803 was also the year Carlos sent out an new expedition of conquest … but, not, like those of Isabella, of people or territory. The Balmis Expedition had one mission… to conquer smallpox. The deadly disease that had started the holocaust in the Americas at the time of the Conquest was still the world’s worst disease, and was devastating the colonies. One of Carlos’ America’s adviser, José Flores, a doctor from Chiapas, suggested not only inoculating the army ( George Washington had tried to have all Continental soldiers inoculated during the American Revolution, and Carlos’ orders to inoculate his own army was a relatively simple matter of giving an order) but of inoculating as many people in the Empire as possible.

balmis_historia-256x180Carlos signed his decree on 28 June 1802. It gave Dr. Francisco Xavier Balmis absolute authority, putting not just a single ship under his command, but ordering all civil, military and clerical officials throughout the Spanish Empire to obey the doctor’s orders. With no way to keep the vaccine fresh available at the time, the crew included 22 Spanish orphans under the care of the only woman on the voyage, Isabel de Zenada y Gomez. Her job was to vaccinate the children one by one. Smallpox vaccine is another disease, cowpox, that raises a small blister but is otherwise harmless. As each child became infected, pus from the infection was used to inoculate the next child, and so on. ho, one by one, were vaccinated, the harmless infection that then resulted passed to the next child and so on.

Although smallpox itself would not be completely eradicated until the 1970s, the Balmis expedition was the world’s first public health campaign, and was largely successful in reducing smallpox outbreaks to an occasional, but still to be dreaded, regional problem, instead of a chronic one throughout the world.


Carlos was honored by the “City of Palaces” (as Humboldt described México City) with a monumental sculpture … considered one of the greatest of its kind ever… designed by Manuel Tolsa, the architect and artist responsible for many of those palaces that grace central México City today. Unusually for a statue commemorating a king, Carlos is not carrying a sword, but a roll of paper… his decree authorizing the Balmis Expedition. Despite everything that would go wrong during his reign, and the contempt the Mexicans would feel towards Carlos (the only thing that saved the statue from being destroyed after independence was fondness for the horse on which Carlos sits. The model for the horse, at any rate, was a particularly handsome Mexican horse), the King does deserve credit for doing a few worthwhile things during his otherwise disastrous reign.

1 Although a German, Humboldt wrote in French (possibly influenced by his close relationship with Bonpladt, who today is assumed to have been his lover, as well as his scientific partner), had been translated into English in 1816 … while México was still in the middle of its own war of Independence.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 6 August 2016 8:11 pm

    Very interesting Rich… I have to forward this to Gringos in the dark about past world history…many thanks, keep up the good work.

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