Francisco Hernandez, Explorer of the Americas Lost in Fantasy
Commissioned by the king of Spain to investigate the flora and fauna of Mexico, he was one of the crucial “inventors” of the New World.
History isn’t always fair. Along with the names we instantly recognize — such as Fernando de Magallanes and Bernal Díaz del Castillo — there are other figures, not less important but unfairly forgotten, and such is the case with Francisco Hernández, a native of Toledo, probably one of the most notable scholars of his time, yet still known by only a few experts.
For the European imagination, the discovery of an entire continent triggered a process that could very well be compared to an expanded consciousness. It’s as if we opened a door in our house where we have always lived but were too afraid to do so, or didn’t even realize it was there, and we discovered a massive, lush garden. That was the American continent for the Europeans in the 15th Century.
Accordingly, the histories of explorers who recorded the marvels of the “New World” are well-known and could even be classified as legendary. Few have been in the enviable situation of encountering something for the first time that a large part of humanity has never seen before, of describing, tasting and smelling it. It’s like feeling something for the first time — the surprise of seeing an unknown animal, the unlikely smell and flavor of a flower or fruit, whose shapes have never been observed, traveling through landscapes you admire for the first time or even dealing with people with a radically different perspective of the world.
Hernández began to stand out when, halfway through the 16th Century, he translated the 37 volumes of Historia natural (Natural History) by Plinio, an effort that earned him recognition and eventually would take him to the court, when in 1565 Felipe II appointed him as the king’s physician. In 1571, and also by the king’s appointment, Hernández led Europe’s first scientific expedition toward the Americas, serving as “general royal physician of our Indies, islands and mainland of the ocean.” For seven years, the scientist traveled through New Spain, along with his son and geographers, painters, botanists and indigenous physicians, and returned with flora and fauna from the region, and, notably, the medicinal properties of the species he observed.
Looking at his annotations, Hernández’s work could be seen as an effort to reinvent reality. A world existed — the Americas — but as we said earlier, for the eyes of the Europeans, it was as if it suddenly arose from nothing, yet it was fully created, like in certain universal folkloric fantasies, in which a character is able to create a palace overnight.
The book La versión abreviada de Nardi Antonio Recchi (The Abbreviated Version of Nardi Antonio Recchi) includes detailed illustrations of plants and animals observed by the doctor and his team. In several cases, the Latin description is crowned with the Náhuatl name of the plant or animal, a peculiar synthesis where the imaginary collides with very heart of scientific methodology through hard-to-pronounce sounds and unknown words.
Accordingly, it’s possible that beyond its historical and scientific value, Hernández’s work is important in another less obvious area but no less decisive. A field that is more or less risky, where there aren’t always material footprints of the effects caused without this undermining its reality: imagination. Mexican historian Edmundo O’Gorman accurately and lucidly called the process in which the European consciousness began to perceive the Americas as “the invention of the Americas.” O’Gorman opposed the word “discovery” that has usually been used to refer to the encounter of both identities; this concept was rather one to evoke the capacities for fantasy. After all, exploration seems to be the action of inventing one’s way, imagining “what could be” of something that already is, inventing a name, even if it already exists. This is exactly what Francisco Hernández did — perhaps as none other did — in La Nueva España.
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