Spix, Johann Baptist Ritter von

At a Glance:

Biologist

Nationality:

German

Bird Names: 5

Region Studied:

Brazil

Johann Baptist von Spix [link]

Content note: this profile includes discussion of kidnapping, slavery, murder, and scientific racism, and includes quotes from the subject that are extremely racist towards Indigenous people.

The Birds:

Spix’s Guan (Penelope jacquacu)

Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii)

Spix’s Spinetail (Synallaxis spixi)

Spix’s Warbling Antbird (Hypocnemis striata)

Spix’s Woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus spixii)

Spix’s Macaw [link]
Spix’s Warbling Antbird [link]
Spix’s Guan [link]

The Name:

There had been expectations for explorers heading to parts unknown firmly established long before Johann Baptist Ritter von Spix (1781-1826) arrived in Brazil in 1817. There would be the specimens of plants and animals unknown to Europe, of course, and naturally the book, the more richly illustrated the better, detailing their clearly heroic exploits. But darker precedents had also been long ago set; precedents Spix was more than eager to follow.

Brazil had been, as a Portuguese colony, mostly closed to scientists. However, it had been granted status as a kingdom, and Spix, along with his fellow Bavarian Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, quickly took up the opportunity to set out exploring. They were particularly interested in the Indigenous peoples of the area– Spix, like many naturalists of the time, was obsessed with characterizing the skulls of people from different races, in order to “scientifically” classify them. He was successful in acquiring at least one skull from an Aimoré man, although by what means is unclear. He at least seems to have been horrified by another European in the area who ordered an Indigenous child kidnapped in order to kill him and take his skull; it was only when the European in question decided he liked the child that he decided to keep him as a slave rather than killing him. Even so, it’s highly probable that the skull Spix procured had unsavory origins itself, even if he didn’t kill someone for it. Spix and Martius didn’t object to the kidnapping Indigenous children on principle, though– which leads to the most disturbing part of their journey.

We do not know the true names of the two children (below) who Spix and Martius bought and took back to Germany. They weren’t the only children the pair kidnapped or enslaved in the course of their journey; they were just the ones who survived the journey to Europe. Some record their names as Juri and Miranha, but it seems that these were most likely the names of their tribes. They were baptized as Johannes and Isabella, respectively, and taken back to Germany to be educated. Like their names, their ages are unknown. Most estimates put them around 14, but they may have been as young as eight.

The boy stolen by Spix and Martius, called either Juri or Johannes. [link]
The girl enslaved by Spix and Martius, called either Miranha or Isabella. [link]

This wasn’t an unusual practice at the time– far from it. Indigenous bodies, either alive or dead, were a subject of fascination for Europeans at the time. Countless people were taken from their homes in the Americas, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere, and either subjected to attempts to “civilize” them, exhibited in grotesque “human zoos”, or some combination of the two. Most died, and in death were usually subject to further insult as they were dissected and displayed to a curious public.

The girl– usually called Miranha in accounts, as it seems like the less egregious option than the name she was given when she was baptized, likely without understanding what was going on– was supposedly part of a barter of axes and knifes for tribal artifacts and children orchestrated by Martius. However, Martius is not a very reliable reporter, frequently changing his story over the years. By the time he recounted the incident in 1831, Spix had been dead of a tropical disease he’d also brought back from his travels for half a decade and thus was unavailable for any comment. We have even less information on how Juri ended up with the pair. All that is certain is that they were taken from their homes, never to return. Juri died first, only months after arriving in Germany. Miranha followed soon. By some small mercy, it seems that they were given a proper burial, rather than turned into macabre specimens of a museum.

Spix is, even by the standards of 19th century travelogues, shockingly racist. To him and Martius, most of the Indigenous people they encounter are cannibals and savages, incapable of a full range of emotions. In one appalling but characteristic passage, they write:

“The temperament of the Indian is almost wholly undeveloped, and appears as phlegm. All the powers of the soul, nay, even the more refined pleasures of the senses, seem to be in a state of lethargy. Without reflection on the whole of the creation, or the causes and internal connection of things, they live with their faculties directed only at self-preservation. They scarcely distinguish the past and future, and hence they never provide for the following day. Strangers to complaisance, gratitude, friendship, humility, ambition, and, in general, to all delicate and noble emotions which adorn human society; obtuse, reserved, sunk in indifference to every thing, the Indian employs nothing but his naturally acute senses, his cunning, and his retentive memory, and that only in war or hunting, his chief occupations.”

Travels in Brazil, p 241 [link]

Occasionally you may hear an argument that early European anthropologists, such as Spix, were driven by curiosity about other parts of humanity. Sure, this argument goes, we consider their methods reprehensible today; but they just wanted to know more about their fellow humans, and we shouldn’t judge their curiosity by our modern standards. Perhaps that was true for some of these explorers; personally, I’ve seen few such examples in the course of this project. But even if that were possibly the case for a handful of them, it emphatically is not for Spix. Spix wasn’t driven by a curiosity about his fellow humans, because he simply did not see the Indigenous people he encountered as truly human. At best they may be made into the mold of Europeans, as was attempted with Miranha and Juri; but even then, they were an experiment. It didn’t matter that of the unknown number of children Spix and Martius captured, most died before even leaving Brazil, and the rest soon after, as they were not truly human in their eyes.

The illustrations we have of Juri and Miranha are haunting. It’s impossible to look at them without feeling caught up in Juri’s confident stare at the artist, laced with just a hint of adolescent insecurity, or Miranha’s sad and thoughtful gaze, refusing to meet the viewer’s eye in favor of a point somewhere in the distance. They feel so alive, so real– yet the person who depicted them did not believe they were truly capable of emotion. It’s hard to take someone like Spix seriously as an observer of the natural world, when he willfully refused to see what was right in front of them.

J.F. McLaughlin

Spix’s Woodcreeper [link]
Spix’s Spinetail [link]

Sources:

Bieber, Judy. 2006. Of cannibals and Frenchmen: the production of ethnographic knowledge in early nineteenth-century Brazil. Interletras 1(5). pp. 1-21. [link]

Eramo, Stefano, De Carolis, Carlo, Pagano, Stefano 2014. Johann Baptist Spix and the “lingula mandibularis”. Journal of the History of Dentistry. 62(3). pp. 116-122. [link]

Schönitzer, Klaus. 2014. From the New to the Old World: two indigenous children brought back to Germany by Johann Baptist Spix and Carl Friedrich Philipp Martius. [link]

von Spix, Johann Baptist Ritter, and von Martius, Karl Friederich Philipp. 1824. Travels in Brazil, in the years 1817-1820 undertaken by command of his majesty the king of Bavaria. [link]