1816: Francisco Jose de Caldas, wise person

Colombia polymath Francisco Jose de Caldas was shot on this date in 1816 during the Spanish commander Pablo Morillo‘s decimation of rebellious intelligentsia in separatist New Granada.

While Europe was mired in the Napoleonic Wars, those United Provinces of New Granada — roughly modern Colombia, which remembers its short-lived New Granada predecessor as la Patria Boba, the Foolish Fatherland — had asserted their independence. As we have detailed previously, it was Morillo who arrived from the mother country to disabuse them of this dream. Morillo did it with such a flair for the merciless that he earned the nickname El Pacificador.

Morillo conquered Bogota by May 1816 and for the rest of the year put large numbers of the pro-breakaway intelligentsia to political trials in an apparent attempt to cripple any future independence movements. (It didn’t work; during this very period, future liberator Simon Bolivar was making his first landings in Venezuela.)

A history by Jose Manuel Restrepo, a political figure of New Granada who was fortunate enough to escape the crackdown, lamented the fate of the men with whom he had once dreamed the dream.

for the space of six months, scarcely a week passed without the execution, in Santa Fe or the provinces, of three, four, or more individuals, shot as traitors. Thus perished the persons of the greatest wisdom, the most virtuous and wealthy, in New-Granada. The object which Morillo had in view, was to extinguish intelligence, remove men of influence, and destroy property, so that, in future, there should be none capable of originating or directing another revolution. New-Granada has deplored, and will for a long time deplore, among other illustrious victims, the loss of Doctors Camilo Torres, Joaquin Camacho, Jose Gregorio and Frutos Gutierrez, Crisanto Valenzuela, Miguel Pombo, Jorge Lozano, Francisco Antonio Ulloa, and Manuel Torices; and of military men, general Custodio Rovira, Libario Mejia, and the engineer Francisco Jose de Caldas. The murder of this celebrated mathematician and philosopher, was a piece of wanton cruelty on the part of Morillo. The exact sciences lost much by his premature death; and the geography of New-Granda especially, retrograded beyond measure, by the loss of the precious works which he had nearly perfected.

The spirit of these dark days is summarized by a reply Morillo supposedly made to petitions for him to spare the wise Caldas: “Spain does not need wise people.”

Present-day Colombia memorializes Francisco Jose de Caldas in the name of a department and numerous public monuments. (He also used to be on the 20-peso note when such a thing existed. Colombia’s smallest paper bill today is 1,000 pesos.)


Statue of Caldas on Bogota’s Plaza de Caldas. (cc) image from Mauromed.