José de Viera y Clavijo, a man with a quest for life
Throughout the last year of 2013, various events were held to mark the bicentenary of the death of one of the most important figures in the history of the Canary Islands, José de Viera y Clavijo (1731-1813).
Viera y Clavijo is most known today for his role as an historian and his work “Noticias de la Historia General de las Islas Canarias” in which the illustrious son of Realejos addressed various themes.
During 2013, especially in Los Realejos, it was intended to break away from the traditional vision of Viera and his historical and philological studies. Thus, we were able to observe a man who was interested in botany, agricu-lture, astronomy, geology and so on.
In the field of nature, above all, his contribution through the “Diccionario de Historia Natural de las Islas Canarias” was highlighted, a monumental work in which he presented meticulous descriptions of diverse plant species.
This work can be regarded as a synthesis of the existing information in relation to three grand kingdoms, with the author showing great clarify, accuracy and simplicity and bringing together more than 1,000 names.
Viera also wrote “La Boda de las Plantas” (1806) which comprised of 47 octava real stanzas and led to the book being widely considered as didactic poetry. The introduc-tion in prose describes the flora and exposes a series of features.
Another of his books along these themes was “Librito de la doctrina rural”, written this time in dialogue and consisting of 26 sections. This joined other works such as “Tratado de la barrilla dispuesto” (1810), also written in dialogue form.
The contribution Viera made in the field of nature is, without a doubt, important and his legacy as the first Canary naturalist led to the genre of plants known as Vieraea, as well as the Botanical Gardens of Gran Canaria in his name amonst other distinctions.
Viera also had great importance in other fields, such as agriculture. He gained a wealth of knowledge and was always keen to transmit this to young farmers. In his work “Diccionario de la Historia Natural de las Islas Canarias”, he collected a range of information relating to various products and highlighted their properties and the way they should be cultivated.
Viera’s work in relation to agriculture should be taken with a hint of caution as it did have some errors and should therefore be approached with a critical eye but on the other hand, Viera knew a great deal about the rural world and left us with valuable knowledge.
Viera also paid attention to astronomy, good examples of his work being ” (1807) where, through 79 questions, he explained a number of facts and curiosities relating to astronomy.
In 1764, he highlighted the need for an observatory and proposed the Altavista refuge as a site. Viera also reported on and described the presence of the aurora borealis in the city of La Laguna on January 18, 1770.
Another object of Viera’s studies was chemistry. He followed this especially in Paris where he could attend numerous conferences and made his first contacts with science in 1777 when he attended a course in experimental physics with the professor, Sigaud de la Fond and chemistry with sage. It’s important to clarify that such a science began to develop in the 18th century, with Lavoissier being a reference point in this field of work.
Viera’s greatest contribution in the world of chemistry corresponded to his studies of the waters of the earth, as well as the waters of Telde. He also investigated the waters of Moreles natural spring in Gran Canaria.
In the case of “agua de Teror”, we know he went direct to the source and conducted a number of experiements, observing its colour, taste and smell. He also tested the temperature and published various conclusions. He conducted a series of studies about water but not from a bacterial point of view as we know today.
In short, it’s important to recognise the work developed by Viera in the world of chemistry as known in that era.
Viera also moved in the field of geology with the likes of figures such as Buffon and his work “Teoría de la Tierra” of 1779 in which he calculated the age of the earth as 79,000 years. It was a time when geology was being introduced to the world and accepted. It was also the era of James Hooten and his theory of “deep time” in which he advocated that the earth was much older and his explanation about catastrophes and their relation to the history of the planet.
Viera’s own geological theories appear in “Noticias General de las Islas Canarias” as well as in his “Diccionario de Historia Natural”.
Viera maintained that the Canary Islands would become part of the rest of the Atlantic and were not simply about volcanic eruptions. He advocated that volcanoes were destructive elements of the land although today we are mindful that although they can destroy, they are builders too.
Of the many fields Viera tackled during his life, we can perhaps try just one but he gives a shining example of what a person with great knowledge can do, covering many disciplines and becoming one of the axis of Canary culture.