Female Eyes on South America: Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (1822–1907)

A Journey in Brazil in 1865–66

September 26, 2017

Women traveler artists and naturalists who journeyed to Latin America and the Caribbean in the 17th to 19th centuries were more common than one might suppose. As with their male counterparts, the promise of adventure and discovery made their voyages compelling, and economic and social privilege eased the way, but the women who traveled were in some ways more intrepid and determined, as they needed to push against societal norms of what was appropriate behavior for their sex in order to gain the credence and freedom needed to do the work they chose for themselves. In a series of four texts, of which the third is published here, Dr. Katherine Manthorne sheds light on some of these women traveler artists who succeeded in following their vision.

Carleton Watkins, Portrait of Louis Agassiz, San Francisco, c. 1870. Albumen print, cabinet card


Alexander von Humboldt had been the guiding spirit of Latin American exploration for the first half of the nineteenth century, fueled by his extensive travels between 1799 and 1804 and the massive outpouring of publications that followed. Upon his death in 1859 the mantle of the great universal scientist passed to Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-born naturalist who in 1847 emigrated to the United States, where Harvard University immediately created a professorship for him. By 1859 the university began construction on a Museum of Comparative Zoology that was to stand as a monument to Agassiz’s vision of natural history. But just as he was at the peak of his reputation and powers, a revolution erupted in the scientific world. Charles Darwin published his book Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) putting forth his controversial theory of evolution. That theory was diametrically opposed to Agassiz’s view that nothing but divine handiwork could explain the existence of the organic world. The lines were drawn, and in an effort to save his reputation Agassiz embarked on an expedition to secure evidence to disprove Darwin. So while Darwin remained ensconced in his English country house for the rest of his days, Agassiz—at age sixty-five—departed for Brazil on one of the most fantastic adventures of his already remarkable career. The object of his quest was to study the fish population of the Amazon, which he believed would help counter the claims of the evolutionists. At his side during the year-and-a-half expedition, helping to gather data, organize shipboard lectures and record their experiences for posterity, was his wife and collaborator Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, whom he had wed in 1850.

Portrait of Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, date and photographer unknown

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (nee Cabot) grew up in Boston in the 1820s and 1830s, where her travels were restricted to the family’s summer home in Nahant, fourteen miles away on the north shore of Massachusetts. Yet between 1865 and 1872 she traveled down the Amazon, circumnavigated the globe, and wrote best-selling travelogues of both expeditions. Born at a time when girls were educated at home, she helped to ensure that women could receive a degree from Harvard University and served as the first president of Radcliffe College.  A proto-feminist, she wrote closely observed descriptions of the women living in Amazonia in 1865 that have provided anthropologists with rare insights into their cultures. And yet, the book she authored almost entirely—entitled A Journey in Brazil—bore the by-line “Professor and Mrs. Louis Agassiz,” and during her husband’s lifetime she always put his career before hers. This woman of such contradictions and accomplishments transformed an expedition ostensibly aimed at documenting the Amazon’s fish population into one of the most readable and multifaceted nineteenth century travel books to South America.

Although she did not sketch the pictures that appear in the volume, as the primary author of the book Elizabeth Agassiz was tasked with rounding up and selecting the imagery for illustration. She played a key role in shaping the visual record of the expedition and orchestrating the relationship between the text and images. The illustrations were woodcuts after photographs and watercolors the pair had acquired on-site, some of them reproduced as full-page images on glossy paper inserted between the pages and others as small vignettes embedded within the text.

Side View of the Alley of Palms, Illustration from A Journey in Brazil, after a photograph by Messrs. Stahl & Wahnschaffe

On April 1, 1865, just days before the U.S. Civil War came to an end, Louis and Elizabeth Agassiz and their party of twelve assistants departed for Brazil, the entire expedition underwritten by Boston businessman Nathaniel Thayer. The party landed in Rio de Janeiro, where their three-month stay included a number of meetings with Dom Pedro II. The young emperor extended them every hospitality, including the use of a steamer for their Amazon voyage and the assistance of a native engineer, Major Coutinho, whom Agassiz called “my good genius.” To accomplish their mission in the seventeen allotted months, they divided into smaller parties and headed for the various tributaries of the vast Amazonian system. While the majority of contemporary women travelers confined themselves to Rio de Janeiro and other coastal cities, Elizabeth Agassiz actually penetrated deep into the heart of the continent, keeping a journal as she went.  Her notes became the basis for the book, co-authored with her husband, A Journey in Brazil, which was widely appreciated for its ability to make science both understandable and enjoyable. While in the capital they ascended Corcovado peak, observed the progress of railroad construction, and visited the Botanical Gardens, which boasted “one feature as unique as it is beautiful, in its long avenue of palms, some eighty feet in height.” (p. 61) Since words were inadequate to convey “the architectural beauty of this colonnade of palms,” she included two illustrations including Side View of the Alley of Palms.” This woodcut was made after a photograph by Messrs. Stahl & Wahnschaffe, imperial photographers to Dom Pedro II in Rio de Janeiro.

Martin Johnson Heade, Sunset: A Scene in Brazil (1864–65). Oil on canvas. 48.9 x 86.4 cm

Elizabeth and Louis Agassiz’s journey to Brazil (1865–66) followed closely on the heels of the artist Martin Johnson Heade’s trip there in 1863–64. Both the Agassizes and Heade returned to Latin America: the Agassizes on the Hassler Expedition in 1871, and Heade to Nicaragua and Colombia in 1866 and Jamaica in 1870. They may well have become acquainted before traveling abroad, in Nahant on the Massachusetts coast, where Elizabeth’s family had a summer home and Heade painted the shoreline and nearby marshes. The network of connections between the Agassizes and Heade regarding Brazil included the explorers Johann Baptist von Spix and Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, two Bavarian scientists whose Travels in Brazil in the Years 1817–1820 impacted their interest in that country. A missionary in Brazil, Rev. James Cooley Fletcher, recorded his observations in Brazil and the Brazilians (1857), which provided another point of contact between them. Fletcher undoubtedly played a role in stimulating Heade’s initial interest in the region, and made some preliminary inquiries there for Agassiz. “When I was about starting on one of my visits to South America,” Heade later recalled, “Prof. Agassiz requested me to procure for him from 50 to 100 eggs of hummingbirds, to be used for scientific purposes.” He was, however, unable to fulfill the request, for Agassiz was “apparently ignorant of the fact that one of their nests is seldom found, even in South America, where they are most numerous.” Most important, perhaps, was the connection through their interest in landscape art—one of the few pleasures Elizabeth and Louis Agassiz pursued outside work. The couple apparently had some familiarity with Heade’s paintings, as critic Henry Tuckerman suggested:

Several fine pictures of tropical scenery have attracted much attention; one in particular, rich with South American vegetation, and singularly true to nature in atmosphere and general effect, was the subject of high encomium on the part of the returned Amazon explorers—Agassiz included.

Heade’s Sunset: A Scene in Brazil of 1864–65 could very well have been among the pictures that Elizabeth and Louis Agassiz compared to their own observations of Brazil and praised accordingly.

Auguste Morisot, Vieja Loca (Pterophyllum altum Pellegrin) (1886)

“The origin of life is the great question of the day,” Elizabeth Agassiz declared in her text. Indeed, their decision to pursue this inquiry in South America was based on the need to return to the part of the world where Darwin’s own conclusions on the origin of species had been reached. Just as Darwin had studied the finches, tortoises, and other species on the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, so Agassiz set as his goal nothing less than the documentation of the entire fish population of the River Amazon.

Comparison between Agassiz’s account of their Brazilian journey and Auguste Morisot’s documentation of Venezuela’s Orinoco River in 1886–87 is fruitful. Both faced the impossible challenge of trying to convey vast waterways. One of the largest rivers in South America, the 1,700 mile long Orinoco, begins in the Parima Mountains of the Guiana Highlands and flows through rainforest, flooded forest, grassland and a wide delta into the Atlantic Ocean. As expedition artist, Morisot’s task was to record the flora, fauna, people, and landscapes he encountered there. He kept both a written diary and a field book full of sketches, sometimes documenting distinct species, and at other times landscapes that provide general impressions. Twenty years after Agassiz’s artist Jacques Burkhardt struggled to collect and record all the fishes of the Amazon, Morisot, in a parallel effort, created delicate watercolors of the fish he observed on the Orinoco such as his Vieja Loca (Pterophyllum altum Pellegrin).

Cocoeiro Palm, Frontispiece of A Journey to Brazil, after a photograph by G. Leuzinger. Woodcut

Elizabeth and Louis Agassiz were well aware of the potential of photography for their endeavors. They strove to obtain prints of flora, fauna, native peoples, and landscape from a variety of sources. Walter Hunnewell, one of the expedition’s Harvard student volunteers, had outfitted himself with the most current photographic equipment and attempted to document their findings. “Mr. Hunnewell is studying at a photographical establishment,” Elizabeth Agassiz reported just after their arrival in Rio de Janeiro, “fitting himself to assist Mr. Agassiz in this way when we are beyond the reach of professional artists.” She selected a number of photographs to be made into woodcuts to illustrate their book, many the work of G[eorge] Leuzinger who ran a studio in Rio specializing in photographs of local scenery taken by his staff and sold to foreign visitors. “Leuzinger’s admirable photographs of the scenery about the Corcovado, as well as from Petropolis, the Organ Mountains, and the neighborhood of Rio generally, may now be had in the print-shops of Boston and New York,” the author explained. This woodcut of the Cocoeiro Palm was done after a photograph from the firm of the Swiss-born Georg Leuzinger. He had settled in Rio de Janeiro initially as a businessman and in 1865 opened his Officina Photográphica, where he employed several photographers. Cocoeiro Palm is one of a number palm trees illustrated in the book—all done after Leuzinger’s photographs—indicating a popular interest in the variety of palms native to the country.

Marc Ferrez, Tijuca Falls (c. 1885). Vintage photographic print. 39.4 x 27.9 cm

Marc Ferrez was among the aspiring local photographers apprenticed to Leuzinger, and may well have been the creator of some of the photographs acquired by the Agassizes. Working closely with Dom Pedro II and exhibiting his work at most of the international expositions of the late nineteenth century, he became one of Brazil’s most renowned photographers. He ranged widely, documenting the country’s rising industrial progress as well as its natural wonders in works such as Tijuca Falls.[1]

Fazenda de Santa Anna in Minas Geraës, Illustration from A Journey in Brazil, from a photograph by Senhor Machado

Elizabeth and Louis Agassiz were invited to the Fazenda da Fortaleza de Santa Anna, one of the most modern of the many coffee plantations in the state of Minas Gerais. Coffee production was a major economic force in Brazil at the time, and the U.S. one of its biggest customers, so readers would have been eager for insights into its production:

The house itself… makes a part of a succession of low white buildings, enclosing an oblong square divided into neat lots, destined for the drying of coffee… all the property which is not forest is devoted to coffee, covering the hillsides for miles around. The seed is planted in nurseries especially prepared, where it undergoes its first year’s growth. It is then transplanted to its permanent home, and begins to bear in about three years… and even to yield two crops or more annually, for thirty years in succession. (pp. 112–13)

She also raised ecological concerns, for the cultivation of coffee required the destruction of vast extents of the Atlantic forest. Her host was among the more conservation-minded among the plantation owners:

He wishes not only to preserve the wood on his own estate, and to show that agriculture need not be cultivated at the expense of taste and beauty, but to remind his country people also, that, extensive as are the forests, they will not last forever…

Finally she turned her attention to the people who did the labor: “The negroes, men and women, were scattered about the plantations with broad, shallow trays… strapped to their shoulders and supported at their waists.” (p.114) Nowhere, however, does she mention that this was a force of slave labor, and that slavery was still legal (and would be until 1889) in Brazil.

Mina Negress, Illustration from A Journey in Brazil, after a photograph by Messrs. Stahl & Wahnschaffe

Eager to observe the Afro-Brazilian population, Elizabeth Agassiz accompanied her husband to Rio de Janeiro’s markets:

… for the pleasure of seeing the fresh loads of oranges, flowers, and vegetables, and of watching the picturesque negro groups selling their wares or sitting about in knots to gossip. We have already learned that the fine-looking athletic negroes of a nobler type, at least physically, than those we see in the states, are the so-called Mina negroes, from the province of Mina, in Western Africa. They are a very powerful-looking race, and the women especially are finely made and have quite a dignified presence.

As usual, her focus was the women.  But unlike many travelers who made sweeping generalizations about foreign populations, she took some trouble to identify them by region or heritage and to note their distinctive behavior and attire, visible in the illustration she chose to accompany her text:

The women always wear a high muslin turban, and a long, bright shawl, either crossed on the breast and thrown carelessly over the shoulder, or, if the day be chilly, drawn closely around them, their arms hidden in the folds…. The Mina negress is almost invariably remarkable for her beautiful hand and arm. She seems to be conscious of this, and usually wears close-fitting bracelets at the wrist, made of some bright-colored beads, which set off the form of the hand and are exceedingly becoming on her dark, shining skin. (pp. 83–85)

“These negroes are Mohammedans,” she noted, “and are said to remain faithful to their prophet, though surrounded by the observances of the Catholic Church.” (p.85)

Mundurucu Indian (Female), Illustration from A Journey in Brazil, after a photograph by Dr. Gustavo, of Manaos. Woodcut

After several months in the capital they set off to explore the river. When Elizabeth wasn’t sitting on deck taking notes on the day’s collection of specimens, she was observing the human life along the banks of the river. On their travels down the Amazon she wrote detailed accounts of the women she encountered, which are invaluable since she was one of the few travelers to record the everyday life of the female population. “The life of the Indian woman,” she wrote, “seems enviable in comparison to that of the Brazilian lady in the Amazonian town.” (p.269).  Like most travelers, she was simultaneously repelled and fascinated by open female nudity and the tattoos covering their bodies. Illustrating a female Mundurucu Indian, she explained in the text:

In the women the mask of tattooing covers only the lowest part of the face, the upper part being free, with the exception of a line across the nose and eyes. Her chin and neck are ornamented… (pp. 314–315)

Her Western concept of beauty often clashed with the realities she found here, which prevented her from describing Indian women as physically attractive, even though she found much to admire in their character and behavior.

The Thayer Expedition coincided with the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–70), the bloodiest conflict in Latin American history fought between Paraguay and the allied countries of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. With a large percentage of the male population conscripted into the army, the Indian and mestizo women of Amazonia occupied positions of leadership traditionally occupied by men. An extended stay at a particular location enabled her to develop some degree of intimacy with the women, with whom she communicated either directly in Portuguese or through a translator. Her entry for October 29, 1865 is one of the most remarkable in the travelogue for the insights it contains into their circumstances during the war:

… the women said the forest was very sad now because their men had all been taken as recruits, or were seeking safety in the woods. The old Senhora told me a sad story of the brutality exercised in recruiting the Indians…. These women said that all the work of the sitios—the making of farinha, the fishing, the turtle-hunting—was stopped for want of hands. The appearance of things certainly confirms this, for we scarcely see any men in the villages, and the canoes we meet are rowed by women. (p.269)

Her account is full of admiring commentary about the responsibility and independence these women demonstrated. But as witness to Brazil’s efforts to shape itself into a modern nation, Elizabeth Agassiz knew full well that, as women did in the U.S., indigenous women in Brazil occupied an extremely marginal position.

Select Bibliography of Sources

Agassiz, Professor and Mrs. Louis, A Journey in Brazil. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1909; first edition, 1867.

Hahner, June E., ed. Women through Women’s Eeys: Latin American Women in 19th Century Travel Accounts. Wilmington, Del.: S.R. Books, 1998.

Irmscher, Christopher. Louis Agassiz. Creator of American Science. Oston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Manthorne, Katherine, ed. Traveler Artists: Landscapes of Latin America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection. Seattle, WA: Marquand Press, 2015.

Manthorne, Katherine. Tropical Renaissance. North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839-1879. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Vinente dos Santos, Fabiane. “Gold earrings, calico skirts: mages of women and their role in their project to civilize the Amazon, as observed by Elizabeth Agassiz in A Journey in Brazil: 1865-1866,” História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos v. 12 (April 2005)