Aimé Bonpland, explorer and botanist, was born on August 28, 1773 in the village of Saint-Maurice near La Rochelle, France. He was the son of Simon-Jacques Goujaud-Bonpland, a distinguished physician and chief surgeon at La Rochelle hospital, and his wife, Marguerite-Olive de la Coste. Bonpland’s early education was in a local school, and he then, with his brother, Michel Simon, was sent to Paris to study medicine. Along with his medical studies, Bonpland developed a strong interest in natural history, and became acquainted with some of the leading scientists of the period. In botany, he was influenced by the teaching of A.-L. de Jussieu and R. L. Desfontaines. Bonpland was in Paris from 1791 to 1794, and was then called to military service by the French Republic. He served as a naval surgeon at the port of Toulon and completed his tour of duty in 1795, returning to Paris in the same year.
In Paris, Bonpland continued his medical studies, but did not neglect his interests in natural history; at this point in his life, he was uncertain about his future career, but there is little doubt that botanical studies were becoming more important to him than medicine. He had also developed a consuming interest in travel and exploration, which he believed could be the great source of new knowledge in natural history. And then there occurred, in early 1798, the fortuitous meeting with Alexandre Humboldt, who lived in the same hotel, and who, almost immediately, saw in Bonpland a kindred spirit. Their friendship developed rapidly, and they began to plan expeditions to foreign lands; Humboldt once wrote that he had been planning journeys for the sake of natural history since he was eighteen years old.
The great expedition of Bonpland and Humboldt to the New World began in Spain, then at peace with revolutionary France. Humboldt, who was a member of the Prussian nobility and who had an established scientific reputation, was able to convince the Spanish government to authorize an expedition into their colonial territories. These regions of the New World were officially closed to foreigners, but Humboldt found sympathetic officials in Madrid and the scientific expedition, which he personally financed, got underway in June of 1799.
Bonpland and Humboldt spent the years 1799 to 1804 in Central and South America, traveling from Venezuela to Ecuador and Peru and also to Cuba and Mexico. Their years were filled with adventure, privation, and great scientific achievements; for example, they collected some 60,000 plant specimens, most of them found by Bonpland. In addition, the two explorers accumulated an enormous amount of data in zoology, geology, cartography, meteorology, and other sciences. Humboldt studied languages, social and economic conditions, Indian life and customs, and regional histories; their expedition was later described as "the scientific discovery of America."
Back in Europe, the lives of Bonpland and Humboldt took different directions. The latter succeeded in obtaining a pension for Bonpland from the French government and in 1808, the position of botanist to the Empress Josephine. She had a lively interest in horticulture and the garden at Malmaison (her country chateau outside of Paris) became famous. It is described in Bonpland’s Description des plantes rares cultivées à Malmaison et a Navarre (1812-1817). The years at Malmaison and at Navarre in Normandy, interrupted from time to time by botanical excursions in other parts of Europe were, for Bonpland, happy and productive, but ended with the death of Josephine in 1814. He now decided to fulfill an old dream, and return to the New World. He received an invitation from the Argentine Republic to set up residence in Buenos Aires, and left France in 1816 for what would become a permanent absence.
Bonpland’s life in South America was filled with a variety of experiences, most of which he could not have foreseen when he set sail from Le Havre in November of 1816. He spent four years in Buenos Aires teaching, and in medical practice, and then established a successful plantation on the Paraná river. There, he was able to engage in agricultural experiments on a large scale and to develop valuable commercial plants. Unfortunately, his success attracted the attention of Paraguay’s dictator, José Gaspar de Francia, who sent soldiers to destroy the plantation. Bonpland himself was taken prisoner and kept in captivity near Santa Rosa for over seven years. After his release in 1829, he returned to Buenos Aires for a period of several months, and then once more took up the life of a plantation owner. He established two estates, at San Borja in Brazil and at Santa Ana, Argentina; both of these were exceptionally prosperous in the cultivation of citrus and other crops, and in sheep raising. Bonpland became very much a part of his adopted land. As early as 1829, he had abandoned any idea of returning to Europe, and his marriage and children with an Indian woman gave him even stronger ties to South America.
For several years, Bonpland was forgotten in Europe and many believed that he had died at an early age. However, Humboldt and others knew of his existence and he was honored in both France and Germany at the time of his eightieth birthday. The journal Bonplandia was started in Hanover in 1853, and he was decorated by the King of Prussia in 1854. A eulogy for him was read at the
Société de Géographie (Paris) in 1853, and he was named a member of the Academia Caesaro-Leopoldina in Halle in 1857. He died a year later, having been recognized as one of the foremost explorers and scientific plant collectors of the early nineteenth century.
René Bouvier et Edouard Maynial, Aimé Bonpland. 1950.
Adolphe Brunel, Biographie d’Aimé Bonpland. 1871.
Philippe Foucault, Le Pêcheur d’Orchidées. Aimé Bonpland. 1773-1858. 1990.
E. T. Hamy, Aimé Bonpland. Sa vie, son oeuvre, sa correspondance. 1906.
Rogers McVaugh, "The American Collections of Humboldt and Bonpland, as described in the Systema Vegetabilium of Roemer and Schultes". Taxon. v. 4:78-86. 1955.
George Sarton, "Aimé Bonpland". Isis. v. 34:385-399. 1943.
Robert F. Erickson