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Acosta, Cristóbal

Acosta, Cristóbal

(b. Bõa Ventura, Santo Antão, Cape Verde Islands, ca. 1525; d. La Peña de Tharsis [?], Huelva, Spain, ca. 1594)

natural history, medicine.

Born Christovão da Costa—according to Portuguese usage—Acosta moved to Lisbon and lived in Setúbal and Peniche, but his excellent Spanish and broad education indicate that he studied arts and medicine, most probably in Salamanca. He went to the East Indies before 1550 as a soldier and visited Persia, India, Malaya, and perhaps China. There is record of his actions against the Arabs in Hormuz; against the Abexins near Daman, where he lost two horses in battle; and on the Malabar Coast where he was taken prisoner on the way to Bengal; and of his meetings in Goa with García d’Orta.

Acosta returned to Portugal but soon rejoined his former captain, Luiz de Ataíde, who had been appointed viceroy of India, and landed at Goa in October 1568, a few months after the death of García d’Orta. In 1569 he was appointed physician to the Royal Hospital in Cochin, but by 1571 he was collecting botanical specimens in Tanor, Cranganor, and other parts of India. Luiz de Ataíde ended his term of office in 1572, and Acosta sailed from Cochin back to Lisbon via the Cape of Good Hope. He practiced medicine in Burgos and was that city’s physician and surgeon from 1576 to 1587. After his wife died, he retired to the hermitage of La Peña de Tharsis, which was probably where he died.

Like his other books, Acosta’s Tractado de las drogas, y medicinas de las Indias orientales was written in a fluid and concise style. It offers systematic, firsthand observations of the Oriental drugs and is illustrated by woodcuts made from his own accurate drawings. This book clearly surpasses that of d’Orta, whose contributions Acosta readily acknowledges. His Tratado in loor de las mujeres followed Boccaccio’s work but was not influenced by Espinosa’s Dialogo en laude de las mugeres (1580). His other printed work, Tratado en contra y pro de la vida solitaria, incorporated two other independent treatises, Tratado de la religion y religioso and Collatión á los mohateros, usureros, aparceros, tratantes y seducadores, both moral works. In all, Acosta wrote thirteen work, but the manuscripts of his Discurso del viaje á las Indias orientales y lo que se navega en aquellos mares, Tres diálogos teriacales, and above all his great Tratado de las yerbas, plantas, frutas y animales, asi terrenos como aquatiles que en aquellas partes y en la Persia y en la China hay, no dibujadas al natural hasta agora, are not extant.


Acosta’s first printed book was the Tractado de las drogas, y medicinas de las Indias orientales (Burgos, 1578), trans. into Italian by F. Ziletti (Venice, 1585); into French by A Colin (Lyons, 1602, 1619); and into Latin by C.L.’Ecluse (Antwerp, 1582, 1593, 1605). His two other published books were the Tratado en loor de las mujeres (Venice, 1592) and the Tratado en contra) y pro de la vida solitaria (Venice,1592).

J. Olmedilla y Puig, Estudio histórico de … CristóbalAcosta (Madrid, 1899), is comprehensive and offers two documents on Acosta’s practice in Burgos. Unfortunately, the information that Cristóbal Acosta was born of Jewish parents in Tangier, Ceuta, or Mozambique ca. 1515, was a brother of José Acosta, studied at Coimbra or Burgos, returned from India via Jerusalem, was shipwrecked near Italy, and died in Burgos ca. 1580 is in conflict with the facts.

Francisco Guerra

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