ENGLISH EXPLORERS IN COLOMBIA
A number of English traveller and adventurers have visited Colombia across the centuries. Here I reflect on a few of their portrayals of my adopted homeland.
Today is the birthday of English adventurer and comedian, Michael Palin (b. May 5th, 1943). His travel documentaries have been watched and enjoyed all over the world, and it is worth considering what exactly is his unique appeal such that his visits to countries near and far have been enjoyed by so many people and so many cultures.
Could it be that it is because he is The Stereotypical English Adventurer? Dressed always in his uniform of safari beige meets cricket spectator, I wonder if he performs the role of 'Englishman abroad' so perfectly that foreign audiences delight in this meta-exotic caricature of what it feels like to be foreign in a foreign land, trying to make sense of what you see coming from the place or places that made you see things that way.
Palin received a knighthood in the 2019 New Year Honours for services to travel, culture and geography, and visited Colombia arriving on day 211 in order to make Episode 9 of BBC documentary 'Full Circle' in 1992. Here is a clip of his visit to a mountain mine in Coscuez, Boyacá where he encounters 'guaceros' on day 217 of his journey - he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself very much but it may be because he was concerned he might be a target for kidnap to ransom:
The first thing I notice is the way the entire experience is described as dangerous in various ways. He arrives in Boyacá by helicopter, stating that overland travel is impossible due to guerilla combat. Admittedly, the (ongoing) armed conflict was playing out in a different way in the early 1990s, but I make this point because when I consider other English travellers to Colombia in my article here, I would like to compare and contrast their descriptions across the ages.
Another English documentary film maker to Colombia was travel journalist Jack Pizzey, whose BBC2 series 'Sweat of the Sun, Tears of the Moon' aired in 1985. (Pizzey married a woman from Medellín with whom he had a daughter but who he later divorced, and neither ended up living in Colombia.) I was unable to find a link to this documentary online - although it can be purchased on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/SWEAT-TEARS-MOON-Jack-PIZZEY/dp/B000XCZ1VI. Pizzey's commentary offers the perspective that "Colombia is writ-large", i.e. The Archetype for the whole of Latin America. Her beauty is overwhelming. Her problems are overwhelming.
More recently, Simon Reeve, the BBC's younger and floppier-haired incarnation of Palin, visited Colombia wearing a Palestinian scarf for 'Colombia with Simon Reeve' in 2017. Only three seconds into the trailer one notices that the word 'cocaine' is mentioned. Five seconds in and we are presented with the image of a woman weeping. I do not really know what to say about these superficial kinds of representations of Colombia from the BBC. I tend to think that the appetite for narcopornography has infected the broadcaster and her competitors unconsciously, so that the narrative of 'poor Colombia and her drug problem - but oh - it's getting better there now, isn't it?' has become the dominant foreign voice on Colombia and her political situation. I find it boring and patronizing, and refuse to repeat it.
Now let's compare this to other kinds of visitors from distant centuries. People who didn't just come to Colombia for a few weeks but people who settled here, either for years or permanently. These persons were coming to Colombia largely to do business or diplomatic relations (if they are not the same thing), the main reason for travel to Colombia from England in the 19th century (unless you were a mercenary soldier). Here we have one of artist and violinist Henry "Enrique" Price's depiction's of Antioquia in 1852; he had married a Colombian lady called Elisa Castello and relocated to Colombia to live in 1841 where he co-founded the Sociedad Filarmónica de Bogotá and its Escuela de Música:
Price painted a great many watercolors of his new country, and especially Antioquia, including this one of El Peñol. I enjoy Price's paintings very much, because I find them extremely authentic and oddly similar to the Colombia and Antioquia I inhabit nearly two hundred years later, but I always find his proportions peculiar - in fact his sizing issues only add to my enjoyment of his postcards. His subjects are people of all social classes and races, and include scenes both in and out of doors:
Also offering his vision of Colombia was Edward Walhouse Mark. Born in Málaga, Spain in 1817, Edward was the son of a British man in charge of British governmental business interests. In 1843, following in his father's footsteps, he arrived in Santa Marta, Colombia to assume the role of British Consul. Between 1846 and 1857, he was promoted to the role of British Consul for Bogotá, but died after spending thirteen years living in Colombia in Norwood, South London. This watercolor of the Cascada de Boquerón in San Francisco, Antioquia, was painted in 1846:
Edward "Eduardo" Mark painted many important works which tell us about peasant and artisan life and culture during 19th century Colombia. Like many foreigners 'accepted' by the local population, his name was changed by locals to be more hispanic, and so easier to pronounce.
Perhaps few Colombians or people of other nationalities realize that the 10,000 COP bank note in Colombia depicts Guaduas as painted by Edward Mark...
For those who are able to read Spanish, I recommend the following article regarding Edward Walhouse Mark and Colombian bank notes: http://www.mascoleccionismo.com/el-arte-en-los-billetes-colombianos/. The original work is held at Bogotá's Banco de la Republica art gallery: http://www.banrepcultural.org/coleccion-de-arte-banco-de-la-republica/obra/guaduas
James Henderson, British Consul to Bogotá between 1823 and 1829 depicted his Colombia mainly in correspondence to dignitaries and family back in England. Initially arriving in Colombia against his wishes (he had initially wanted to go to Argentina), he fell in love with the country, and formed a close friendship with General José María Córdova, who later became engaged to be married to his daughter, Frances "Fanny" Henderson. In 1829, the family were forced to leave Colombia following Córdova's assassination in the Battle of Santuario, Antioquia by Irish mercenary Rupert Hand due to a plot organized by Daniel O'Leary on orders from Simón Bolívar. This murder represents what is arguably the first Social Leader Murder in Colombia, a topic very relevant to the ongoing fragile political situation we face as Colombians. In this surviving document held in the British Archives at Kew Gardens, London, England, we can see Henderson absolutely fascinated by recording the temperature at different times of day using a thermometer:
One wonders whether a native Colombian would have found their own hourly differences in temperature as interesting as a foreigner! As an English person, it is hard to convince Colombians who have never been to England just how grim and horrible English weather can be, therefore it is not surprising to me that Henderson was so fascinated by the variations in weather in Colombia both regionally and moment by moment throughout the day. It was not long before Henderson found himself embroiled in the political conflict; his papers contain threats and slander made against him as evidence of what took place under Simón Bolívar's government:
Also an author of 'A history of the Brazil; comprising its geography, commerce, colonization, aboriginal inhabitants, &c. &c. &c.' Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London (1821), Henderson returned to Colombia as British Consul to Cartagena after the death of Bolívar. Amongst his papers are a number of sketches, including this one of a shell:
Readers may at this point rightly ask - but what about female English travelers to Colombia? Well, the BBC does not seem to have given much of a voice to contemporary female traveller to Colombia, however in the 19th century, Mary English (yes, that really was her surname), arrived in Bogotá with her husband at the time, James Towers English, who had been responsible for raising mercenaries to form the British Legion under the command of Simon Bolívar during the wars of dependence. She not only nursed sick and wounded soldiers, but reviewed the troops and befriended Bolívar. Here we see a posy of flowers Mary English gifted to Bólivar which he treasured and kept:
When her husband died in 1819, Mary English chose to stay in South America. Her letters back to England were reported in the London Weekly Dispatch and the Morning Chronicle. In 1822, she attempted to return to England, but was unable to adjust back to life in her former country, and so returned to Colombia as the commercial representative of the bankers Herring and Richardson. In 1827 she married William Greenup and purchased a cacao plantation. More can be read about Mary's life here on the British Library Blog: https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2015/02/mary-english-adventurer-and-businesswoman-in-colombia.html. In this 1818 painting at London's National Portrait Gallery, we can see Mary Richardson portrayed in fine clothing and 'exotic' silk turban, typical of a foreign society woman in the Caribbean at that time period:
My final thought considering all the persons I have mentioned here, is how little and how much Colombia has really changed. Last week, I had a car accident in a very rural part of Antioquia, and found myself stranded in the middle of nowhere in a thunderstorm. Perhaps for the first time, I experienced the emotions I see in Michael Palin in the 1990s. "I'm in real danger," I thought, my heart pounding. "I'm a woman alone sitting in a car in the jungle and I cannot get out of because the door is smashed in and I am forced into a mountain on the other side, trapped." My car had been hit head-on by a man carrying gas bottles, and as I waited for the police to arrive in my car, he paced up and down outside my window, unnerving me. It did cross my mind, as I sat clutching a postcard gifted to me for my protection of the Virgin María of Santiago de Arma de Rionegro - 'what am I doing here, in this country? Am I out of my depth?' Perhaps Mary English and Fanny Henderson had the same fear. But the truth is, this thought never stays in my heart very long. Colombia gets inside of you and whatever the risks - whether they were those of the 19th century or those of the 20th and 21st centuries, for us English who live and build our lives in Colombia, we just keep trying to document the beauty and the soul of this country in our own era.
Of course nowadays, most travelers to Colombia mainly post their visions of the country on their Instagram accounts. My own can be found here: