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 on Félix de Azara

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).