Death in the afternoon


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Seeds, sex, duels and death: by this point, you might well notice that at Ñan, our editorial staff is quite fond of the stories, intrigue and legends that surround the French Geodesic Mission of the 1730s in Ecuador. It was the first time in colonial history that anyone outside Spain had been let into the Spanish Empire’s dominions to see what exactly was going on. The expedition itself was spiced with countless mishaps, tragedies, sufferings and unusual events all along its journey through the Ecuadorian Andes. And it was in Cuenca, in that colonial city that we can barely imagine today, where the Mission would officially conclude; in fact, fizzle out.

The importance of the French Geodesic Mission on Cuenca’s history cannot be overstated. As
a result of the Mission’s time here, its de facto leader, Charles Marie de La Condamine, was able on his return to Europe to expose the continent’s scientific community to his discoveries regarding quinine, the natural cure for malaria.

Such a cure, when the single most important barrier to European colonial expansion in the Tropics was this debilitating disease, would, many decades later, inevitably make the seed of cascarilla —a regional endemic from which quinine is obtained —one of the hottest items in pharmacology. The demand for the seed created an intertwined relationship between the handful of Cuencano families who monopolized and exported it and the stock markets of the developed world. By
the late 1800s, the financial gains reaped from this commodity alone would help begin the city’s transformation from boondock to boom town.

But the Mission’s visit well over a hundred years before these circumstances, in 1739, was, for other reasons altogether, infamously remembered in its own right.

La Condamine, by the end of his sojourn in Cuenca, was pretty much devastated by the awful results. The Mission to Ecuador seemed to have been completely senseless: another rival mission sent to Lapland had long since measured the curvature of the Earth on an arc of the meridian, proving it was an oblate spheroid (as Newton had posited) and not a perfect sphere. Worst of all, La Condamine led an expedition that ended in the casualties (three dead and two deranged) of five of his original team of 10!

One of the Mission’s darkest hours came in Cuenca. Its official doctor, Jean Senièrgues, a hotheaded, reputedly pretentious, man who inveighed against the country’s conservatives
with progressive French ideals, fell in love with a local socialite, Manuela Quezada. This scandalous affair provoked a duel between him and Quezada’s runaway groom Diego de León (who ended up marrying another woman) to defend her honor. Senièrgues clumsily fell on his head while trying to strike de León during the duel, a source of much amusement in the community.

The not-so-comic ending to his encounter, however, took place one afternoon in San Sebastián Square, when he was beaten and murdered by a mob of angry cuencanos during a street bullfighting event. The rest of the Mission members barely escaped with their lives. According to some, this particular story is the source of the nickname “morlaco” (the bullfighter’s term for the fighting bull) which is what Ecuadorians called Cuencanos, referring to their feisty nature.

La Condamine’s experience of Cuenca only got worse when, some time later, a building collapsed on his draughtsman Monsieur de Morainville… Another one down. Yes, Cuenca signaled the death knell of the Geodesic chapter for La Condamine. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

In the end, of course, history has seen things differently: this inexhaustible expedition set the foundations for the metric system, and La Conda- mine returned home with discoveries (curare, rubber, quinine, etc.) to share among his acade- mic colleagues, discoveries which would eventually change the world, and of course, Cuenca itself.

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