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JOHANN JACOB VON TSCHUDI (1818-1889)


Johann Jacob von Tschudi was surrounded by nature as a child growing up in the town of Glarus, Switzerland. A member of a distinguished family of statesmen, scholars, merchants, and clergymen, he may have inherited his love of travel and exploration from a sixteenth-century ancestor, the historian and geographer Aegydius Tschudi (“the Swiss Herodotus”). After the death of his father, Tschudi’s mother sold the family business and took her children to Zürich to be educated. In 1834 Tschudi entered the university there, where he was exposed to many new ideas in the field of natural history. He also cultivated a deep and abiding interest in the ancient Indian civilizations of South and Central America.  It was at the University of Neuchâtel, however, that Tschudi had his most formative experience, studying under Louis Agassiz, who went on to become a distinguished paleontologist and geologist at Harvard University. Under Agassiz’s guidance, Tschudi undertook a study of frogs and lizards. The quality of his work led him to be chosen, in 1837, at the age of nineteen, to accompany a ship transporting Swiss-manufactured goods to South America, where he was to gather exotic animals for a new natural history museum in Neuchâtel.  After stopping for several months in Paris to study the city’s rich natural history collections, Tschudi departed for South America in February 1838. His ship, the Edmond, anchored in Chile ninety-nine days later, having endured heavy seas.  Tschudi briefly explored the area around the port of San Carlos before sailing on to Valparaiso. The provincial capital, which had not yet begun to flourish, did not impress him, nor did its zoology.

To make matters worse, Chile had recently gone to war with Bolivia and Peru. When word spread that the Edmond’s captain intended to sell the ship to the Peruvians upon reaching Lima, the Chileans closed the harbor, detaining Tschudi and his shipmates for more than a month.  Finally allowed to continue on their journey, they sailed to the Peruvian port of Callao, where Tschudi began collecting animal specimens, including a penguin that he kept alive and named Pepe, in earnest. “When I was at my meals,” Tschudi later recalled, “[Pepe] regularly placed himself beside my chair, and at night he slept under my bed. When he wished to bathe he went into the kitchen and beat with his bill on an earthen pan until somebody threw water over him, or brought him a vessel full of water for a bath” (Tschudi 1847, 36).  From Callao, Tschudi walked the short distance to Lima, then a city of 53,000.  Among the many sites he visited there were the national library and the museum of natural history, housed in the same building. He reported that the natural history collection, formed in 1826, was underfunded and contained “nothing of scientific value,” differing “little from the collections of curiosities frequently formed by amateurs” (ibid., 57).

It is difficult to determine the precise route that Tschudi took in his explorations, because he tells tales from places he did not personally visit. Although he focused chiefly on coastal Peru and the western slopes of the Andes, most of his bird specimens came from the eastern slope and jungle. Apart from animal and plant life, he studied the history and culture of his own species, becoming fascinated by whatever vestiges he found of Inca civilization. (In 1851, he published the first comprehensive book on Incan archaeology, Antigüedades Peruanas, with the Peruvian scholar Mariano Eduardo de Rivero y Ustáriz.) His interest in modern day Peruvians was more anecdotal. In the account of his journey that he published in 1846 for general readers (translated into English in 1847 as Travels in Peru), he recounted many entertaining stories that range from the sad to the humorous.  In one, he told of being asked for his passport by an Indian official in the mountain town of San Mateo. To his dismay, he discovered he had lost it. “Fortunately I had in my pocket a bit of waste paper, which I had used instead of wadding in loading my gun.  I ventured at all hazards to hand it to the Indian Rejidor, who having unfolded it, stared very gravely at the words Lucia di Lammermoor, which he saw printed in large characters. It was the bill of the opera I had attended a few evenings before my departure from Lima. After examining the bill very attentively, and then scanning me very narrowly, the Rejidor returned the paper, with the observation that the passport was quite correct” (ibid., 191).  While traveling on the coast, Tschudi studied one of the country’s most remarkable (and valuable) natural resources – giant piles of bird droppings (guano), forty feet thick in places. Guano made an excellent fertilizer and was exported as far away as Europe.

A more dignified subject of study was the majestic Andean condor, the largest flying bird in the western hemisphere, with a wingspan of up to thirteen feet. Tschudi dispelled the idea that the bird’s plumage could not be penetrated by a musket ball but admitted that it was a difficult bird to bring down with firearms. Indians, he reported, captured the condor by using special traps or slingshots. One of the most lyric passages in Travels in Peru describes what he called the organista wren (today called the musician wren), a bird known for its enchanting song, which Tschudi claimed signaled an approaching storm.  “The tender, melancholy strains and the singular clearness of the innumerable modulations charm the ear of the astonished traveler, who, as if arrested by an invisible power, stops to listen to the syren, unmindful of the danger of the threatening storm” (ibid., 299). Although a wren was not to blame, Tschudi nearly lost his life in a storm while exploring the Andes. Already suffering from altitude sickness, he was overtaken by a sudden snowstorm.  When the clouds dispersed, the sun’s reflection on the fresh snow was so bright that his eyes became inflamed and began to bleed, a condition known locally as surumpe. Luckily, that night he was able to duck into a cave, which provided shelter while he recovered. He had a rude awakening: “When the dawn of morning appeared, I made an effort to open my eyes, which were closed with coagulated blood. On looking around me I beheld all the horror of my situation.  A human corpse had served for my pillow. Shuddering I went in search of my mule, for I was eager to hurry from this dismal spot; but my misery was not yet at an end.  The poor beast lay dead on the ground; in his ravenous hunger he had eaten of the poisonous garbancillo” (ibid., 251). Later that day Tschudi met two Indians and persuaded them to give him a llama for some tobacco. They helped Tschudi load his gear, and each went his own way.

Tschudi returned to Europe in 1842. In addition to a scholarly account of his discoveries, Untersuchungen über die Fauna Peruana (Studies on the Fauna of Peru), he followed the custom of other explorers and published a travel narrative for general readers. He spent much of the 1840s meeting with other scientists, synthesizing his discoveries, and studying the ornithological collections brought back from Brazil by Johann Natterer. Still fascinated by Incan culture, in 1853 Tschudi published a Quechua-German-Spanish dictionary. In 1857-59, he returned to South America to explore the southern Andes. He was appointed Swiss minister to Brazil, a windfall that, despite its political obligations, gave him opportunities to continue his scientific pursuits. In 1866 he accepted the position of Swiss chargé d’affaires in Vienna; within two years, he had become ambassador. When he retired, in 1882, he settled in Switzerland, where he continued his study of Quechua. (Michael Taylor)