Azara, Félix De

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Azara, Félix De

(b. Barbuñales, Huesca, Spain, 18 May 1742; d. Huesca, 20 October 1821)

mathematics, geography, natural history.

Azara was the third son of Alejandro de Azara y Loscertales and Maria de Perera. At the University of Huesca he studied philosophy, arts, and law from 1757 to 1761 and in 1764 became an infantry cadet. The following year he continued his mathematical training in Barcelona, and by 1769, as a second lieutenant, he was assisting in the hydrographic surveys being carried out near Madrid; afterward he taught mathematics in the army until 1774. During the assault on Argel in 1775 he received a serious chest wound.

In 1781 Azara received a commission to establish the frontier between Brazil and the neighboring Spanish colonies. Upon his arrival in Montevideo, Uruguay, he was appointed captain of a frigate by the Spanish viceroy, who then sent him to Rio Grande and later to Asunciò, Paraguay; this was the area Azara was to explore as both a geographer and a naturalist for thirteen years. Félix de Azara never married but, according to Walckenaer, while on his travels he was fond of female company, particularly that of mulattoes.

Between 1784 and 1796 Azara prepared at least fifteen maps of the Brazilian frontier; the Paraná, Pequeri, and Paraguay rivers; and the territory of Mato Grosso, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Buenos Aires. During those years he filled several diaries with accounts of travels in Paraguay and the Buenos Aires viceroyalty, the geography of Paraguay and the Rio de la Plata, and the natural history of the birds and quadrupeds in those areas, relying on direct observation because he was practically without books or reference collections.

Azara returned to Spain in 1801, but soon afterward he moved to Paris, where his brother José Nicolás—a man greatly admired by Napoleon—was the Spanish ambassador. He was welcomed by the French naturalists because his Essais sur l’histoire naturelle des quadrupèdes...du Paraguay had just appeared, but on the death of José Nicolás in 1804 he returned to Madrid. Azara, with his liberal ideas, declined an appointment as viceroy of Mexico, and after 1808 during the Napoleonic War in Spain he was torn between his political and patriotic beliefs. Azara retired to Barbuñales and, as mayor of Huesca, ended his days there.

Azara enlarged natural history by discovering a large number of new species. He also visualized great biological concepts expanded by Cuvier and Darwin, both of whom quoted and accepted his views; for instance, on the variation undergone by horses under domestication.


I. Original Works. Azara’s first published work was Essais scar l’histoire naturelle des quadrupèdes de la province du Paraguay, M. L. E. Moreau de Saint Méry, trans. (Paris, 1801), which shortly afterward was much improved and corrected (Madrid, 1802). Other works by Azara are Apuntamientos para la historia natural de los pájaros del Paraguay y Rio de la Plata (Madrid, 1802); Voyages dans l’Amérique méridionale, C. A. Walckenaer, trans. (Paris, 1809), with notes by Cuvier; Descripción e historia del Paraguay y del Rio de la Plata (Madrid, 1847); and Memorias sobre el estado rural del Rio de la Plata en 1801... (Madrid, 1847), published by his nephew Agustin de Azara. Several other works have subsequently appeared in Madrid and Buenos Aires.

II. Secondary Literature. Both Moreau de Saint Méry’s translation of the Essais (1801) and C. E. Walck enaer’s translation of the botages give details of Azara’s life. An excellent bibliographical survey, including the manuscript material in Madrid, Rome. Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires, is Luis M. de Torres, “Noticias biográficas de D. Félix de Azara y exàmen general de su obra,” in Anales de la Sociedad cientifica argentina, 108 (1929), 177–190. The biography of Azara and a discussion of his role as a precursor of Darwin’s ideas on the origin of species and the hypothesis of Successive creations is E. Ālvarez López, Félix de Azara (Madrid, 1935).

Francisco Guerra

Félix de Azara

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Félix de Azara

Félix de Azara (1746-1821) was a Spanish explorer and naturalist. His scientific work in South America showed a marked advance over that of any predecessor in the regions he visited.

Félix de Azara was a native of Barbuñales in the Spanish province of Huesca. He attended a mathematical school at Barcelona and in 1767 became an army lieutenant with an engineering specialty. In 1775 he took part in the disastrous Spanish attack on Algiers commanded by Alejandro O'Reilly and received a promotion, as well as a severe chest wound.

In 1777 Spain signed the Treaty of San Ildefonso with Portugal, followed by the Peace of El Pardo a year later, by which the two countries agreed that military commissions should survey and determine the joint boundary of their South American possessions. Azara was assigned to the Spanish delegation headed by José Varela y Ulloa. Azara reached Montevideo in 1781 and from Juan José Vértiz, viceroy of Río de la Plata, received further instructions regarding the mission; Azara became its most important member.

Azara remained 20 years in South America and for 14 of these surveyed the boundary as far north as the confluence of the Guapuré and Mamoré rivers. This involved considerable difficulties and frequent encounters with hostile Indians. It may be too much to say that he explored territory previously unvisited by white men, but certainly no such map as he skillfully prepared had ever been made. Azara, always a careful observer interested in nature, took the opportunity to collect biological specimens and make copious notes concerning the wildlife of the tributaries of the Río de la Plata and the Amazon. A Buenos Aires official, Gabriel Avilés del Fierro, confiscated Azara's map and some of the notes and tried to pass them off to the Madrid government as his own work. But Azara had companions on his travels, and too many knew the truth for the imposture to succeed. The explorer, after finishing the boundary work, undertook other missions, all involving exploration of uninviting backlands.

He returned to Spain in 1801 and visited his brother José Nicolás de Azara, the ambassador to France, and in Paris met several distinguished scientists with whom he continued to correspond throughout his life. Félix de Azara next turned to writing of his exploratory and scientific work. His most important publication appeared in France with the title Voyage dans l'Amérique Méridionale depuis 1781 jusqu'en 1801 (1809).

When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, Azara offered his services to José de Palafox, the captain general of Aragon, but these were respectfully declined because of Azara's age. He nevertheless took what part he could in the Spanish resistance and sent a congratulatory message to King Ferdinand VII on his restoration in 1814. From then until his death on Oct. 20, 1821, Azara devoted himself to the agricultural and economic rehabilitation of Aargon from the devastation caused by the recent war.

Further Reading

The best summary of the Azara's life is in Spanish, Enrique Alvarez Lopez, Félix de Azara, Siglo XVIII (1935). The organization of the boundary commission and the division of labor are described in Ricardo Levene, History of Argentina, translated and edited by William Spence Robertson (1937). Brief accounts of Azara's work are found in J. N. L. Baker, A History of Geographical Discovery and Exploration (1931; 2d rev. ed. 1967), and in Paul Russell Cutright, The Great Naturalists Explore South America (1940). □