Soledad Acosta de Samper (1833-1913) was one of the most renowned South American writers of the 19th century and critical to the construction of gendered notions of national identity in South America. She worked as a translator, journalist, and author and spent much of her life traveling between Colombia, Peru, and Europe. What is most notable about her, however, was her work as scientist, historian and novelist, writing more 45 historical and costumbrista novels. However, her writings on plants, food, and science have largely been underexplored.
Acosta’s father, the historian, scientist, and patriot of independence Joaquín Acosta, influenced her interests in history and science. The two shared deep curiosity in charting a range of scientific and historical topics related to the natural history of Colombia. While serving in the Colombian army, the senior Acosta conducted a scientific, territorial survey of New Granada. In the 1840s, he explored the western regions from Antioquia to Anserma, writing on a wide range of topics that included topography, natural history, and the native peoples. Acosta and the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt maintained a long-term relationship, largely emanating from their mutual interest in mining in the Choco.
In Conversaciones y lecturas familiares of 1896, Soledad Acosta demonstrated her passion for and knowledge of botany by detailing the medical and alimentary uses of plants and exploring the native and imported flora of Colombia. As an adaptation of the Victorian educational Self Help genre, Acosta’s text is intended for women and it makes use of fiction to present readings and lessons in a rural setting. It is rooted in Colombia’s countryside. Acosta’s story takes place on a plantation where the landowning family entertains visits from a botanist and a priest who give lessons to the family’s children about science and religion. Some of the apprentices were young women who, under the tutelage of the male expert, engage in direct contact with scientific knowledge. During their walks on Sunday afternoons, they opened books from which they quote, and they repeat lessons from previous days. They also listened to and interact with topics such as the routes of tea from Asia to Europe, the origin of spices like pepper, vanilla, cinnamon or nutmeg, the importance of climate in the Andes for the cultivation of potato and maize, and the life and contributions of Carl Linnaeus and his Systema Naturae. Moreover, their “conversations and readings” feature female scientists in Great Britain and the United States– Mariana North and Febe Lankester, among others–as sources of inspiration for young Colombian women (Briggs 140). Many of these passages were previously published in her journal El domingo de la familia Cristiana as articles under a section titled “Botanical Notions.”
Acosta’s exploration of botany can be seen as a result of a period in the early 19th century when the topic was thought to be a suitable study for young women in the higher social classes. Across Europe and the United States, botany was taught in schools and it became an amateur avocation. As Ann Shteir has noted: “The simplicity of the Linnaean sexual system for naming and classifying plants” encourage women to collect, draw, study, and teach their children about flowers and vegetables (Shteir 29). British female writers including Elizabeth and Mary Fitton, Maria Elizabeth Jackson, Jane Marcet, and Priscilla Wakefield wrote books to introduce young women to the study of botany (Rudolph 1346). However, unlike Soledad Acosta, few women became professional botanists and institutions, in their attempt to “modernize” botany as a science at the end of the century, started excluding women from the field.
Acosta favored women’s connection to science over a more domestic approach to studying foodstuff, unlike her contemporary Argentine writer Juana Manuela Gorriti. In 1890, Gorriti published Cocina ecléctica, a recipe book compiled from contributors—many of them celebrated women writers themselves—across Latin America and overseas. They shared family, regional, and European dishes creating a Pan-American community through food. Although Acosta included recipes in her journal La Familia, her goal was to educate women as housewives beyond the practical understanding of food manipulation, through the principles of science that are not from personal or anecdotal experience. It was, though, a restricted project, since it does not include lower-class women who, in Conversaciones y lecturas, are presented as servants, always preparing ajiaco and other regional plates while the landowners’ daughters immerse in botany.
What is noteworthy is that Acosta’s references to vegetal foods and medicines did not incorporate South American indigenous culinary or healing practices. At a time when the continent was trying to “civilize” itself by following European patterns, her approach to plants through science represented a desired connection with “progress.” Although female cooks and healers were traditionally a mainstay of health in communities around the world, women with such skills, especially healers, were feared and perceived as witches or monsters. Therefore, Acosta’s botanical discourse to refer to natural foodstuff and remedies can be seen as a gendered strategy to write and publish from a safe and acceptable space. Soledad Acosta shows the importance of women’s education in science was a key aspect in the construction of a modern national identity of South American citizens.
Acosta de Samper, Soledad. Complete works available at the recently inaugurated Soledad Acosta de Samper Digital Library (National Library of Colombia and Universidad de los Andes): http://soledadacosta.uniandes.edu.co
Alzate, Carolina. Soledad Acosta de Samper y el discurso letrado de género: 1853-1881. Iberoamericana, 2015.
Austin, Elisabeth. “Reading and Writing Juana Manuela Gorriti’s Cocina ecléctica: Modeling Multiplicity in Nineteenth-Century Domestic Narrative.” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, vol. 12, 2008, pp. 31-44.
Briggs, Ronald. The Moral Electricity Nineteenth-Century Nation Building and the Latin American Intellectual Tradition.
Burke, Janet and Ted Humphrey. “Soledad Acosta de Samper.” Nineteenth-Century Nation Building and the Latin American Intellectual Tradition. pp. 268-74.
Corpas, Isabel. Me he decidido a escribir todos los días: una biografía de Soledad Acosta de Samper, 1833-1913. Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 2018.
Leitner, Ulrike. “Sobre ríos y canales – Aspectos geográficos y cartográficos en el legado de Humboldt.”
http://www.hin-online.de/index.php/hin/rt/printerFriendly/251/466 Accessed on November 23, 2019.
Rudolph, Emanuel D. “Women in Nineteenth Century American Botany; A Generally Unrecognized Constituency.” American Journal of Botany, vol. 69, no. 8, Sep., 1982, pp. 1346-55.
Shteir, Ann B. “Gender and “Modern” Botany in Victorian England.” Osiris, vol. 12, Women, Gender, and Science: New Directions, 1997, pp. 29-38.