MARIE DE LA CONDAMINE
Born: 28 Jan 1701 in Paris, France
Died: 4 Feb 1774 in Paris, France
(Scientist and Adventurer)
The first scientist to travel through Amazonia. He was sent to South America in 1735 by
the French Academy of Sciences to calculate the diameter of the Earth at the equator
Charles Marie de la Condamine was the first Frenchman scientist to travel through Amazonia. He was sent to South America in 1735 by the French Academy of Sciences to calculate the diameter of the Earth at the equator. On the way home to France, he traveled down the Amazon river and wrote many notes about the strange animals, plans, and customs of native Indians that he encountered along the way. His stories of electric eels, strange new plants and drugs, and exotic Indians caused great interest throughout Europe.
In the 18th and 19th
centuries, early scientists were unsatisfied with traditional explanations,
which explained everything in religious terms, or by ancient superstitions.
Instead, the scientists were determined to study and to find out for themselves
how our world works. They invented what we call “scientific method”.
This is the way that scientists investigate and learn things – gathering
information through careful observation and experiments, and recording
everything that they see.
Charles-Marie La Condamine studied at the Jesuit
College of Louis-le-Grand in Paris. There he was taught mathematics by Père Louis Castel.
On leaving the College he decided to take up a military career and, when war
broke out with Spain he joined the army. He distinguished himself with his
bravery at the siege of Rosas in 1719 but decided that army life did not suit
At this point La
Condamine made contact with scientists in Paris and became a member of
the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1730. The quite life in Paris did not suit
him either and he sailed on a voyage to Algiers, Alexandria, Palestine, Cyprus
and Constantinople (now Istanbul) where he spent five months. On his return to
Paris he published mathematical and physical observations of his voyage.
The Académie Royale was impressed and sent him on an expedition to
The Académie Royale was impressed and sent him on an expedition toPeru. In April 1735 La Condamine set out on the expedition to Peru to measure the length of a degree of meridian at the equator. Bouguer was a member of the same expedition and its third scientific member was the leader of the expedition Louis Godin. The three finished their journey by different routes, La Condamine going overland from Manta, the other two sailing to Quito where they joined up.
The three were soon involved in disagreements. Godin began to work on his own while La Condamine worked with Bouguer. In 1741 Bouguer discovered a small error in their joint measurements and these two fell out when Bouguer refused to allow La Condamine to recheck the results. Now all three made independent measurements, the work being completed in 1743. The three returned by different routes.
In 1743, eight years after setting out from France, La Condamine began his return journey, which included a four-month raft journey down the Amazon River. His was the first scientific account of the Amazon, which he published as Journal du voyage fait par ordre du roi a l'équateur (1751). However, before he returned to France he planned one more adventure. Having heard of the wonders of the Amazon, La Condamine decided that he wanted to see it for himself. Therefore his route home would involve crossing the Andes, descending the great river down to the Atlantic coast, and then catching a ship to France by way of Cayenne in French Guiana. Accompanying La Condamine on this journey would be his friend, the hospitable and adventure-seeking Don Pedro Maldonado.
journey down the river was much easier than it had been for earlier travelers such as
de Teixeira thanks to Missions which had been established along the
river by Jesuit priests. The travelers were able to receive food, lodging,
maps, canoes and canoeists, and plenty of advice and other information along the
way. This help meant that La Condamine and Maldonado had little to worry about
in terms of their basic necessities – and freeing the scientifically-minded travelers
to observe, measure, and record everything along the way. La
Condamine's description of the Indians' lifestyle and of their hunting and
fishing techniques is especially valuable, as it gives us another record of
Indian cultures now lost to us. He was particularly interested in the Indians'
knowledge of the plants and animals around them.
Condamine noted that some Indians fished by sprinkling a fine powder (extracted
from local plants) onto the surface of the water. The powder would fall down
into the water, causing the fish below to become groggy and rise to the surface.
The stunned fish could then easily be scooped up by waiting Indians. Indian
hunters often used arrows tipped with a powerful poison called curare. Even
though the poison quickly killed the animal shot with it, it did not affect the
Indians who ate the meat taken from the animal. The Indians had also discovered
that if any of them received a curare wound (either accidentally from their own
arrows, or in battle with a hostile tribe) they could cure the wound by applying
salt or sugar, which counteracted the curare so that they did not die.
La Condamine marveled at the secrets about the plants and animals that he
learned from the Indians, he was not impressed with the Indians themselves. He
could not understand the Indians' who worked only as hard as they needed to, and
spent most of their time relaxing or playing games. He couldn't understand the
Indians' lack of foresight, seeing the Indians feast on enormous meals when food
was bountiful then starve when it was scarce. The forest and rivers readily
provided most of the things that they needed, so that the Indians had no need to
work very hard. They had also learnt that trying to preserve food (without the
aid of refrigerators) was useless in that hot tropical environment because the
hot moist atmosphere caused food to spoil or rot very quickly – therefore it
was best to eat the food when it was fresh then wait for the next hunt or
harvest (because there was no winter, food could be harvested all year round).
La Condamine reached Cayenne on his journey home and spent five months there where he
experiments on the variation of weights at different latitudes.
By February 1745 La Condamine was back in
Paris after his ten-year journey. He returned with many notes about the strange animals, plants, and customs of native Indians that he
encountered along the way. His stories of electric eels, strange new plants and
drugs, and exotic Indians caused great interest throughout Europe.
He gave 200 natural history specimens and works of art to Buffon.
Y Laissus writing in says:
The last survivor of the expedition, La
Condamine, who was a less
gifted astronomer than Godin and a less reliable mathematician than Bouguer
often received the major part of the credit, probably because of his amiable
nature and his talent as a writer.
La Condamine was a close friend of Maupertuis for many years. He spent much effort in the last part of his life campaigning for inoculation against smallpox. His passion on this topic was partly due to the fact that he had suffered from smallpox as a child.
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