Antonio Parra, Lámina A, Descripción de diferentes piezas de historia natural, las más del ramo marítimo, representadas en setenta y cinco láminas, 1787, engraving


The Portuguese naturalist Antonio Parra (1739-?), compiled Cuba’s first natural history, Descripción de diferentes piezas de historia natural las mas del ramo marítimo. In 1787, he published the book with illustrations by his son Manuel Antonio. We see its first page here. Parra arrived to Havana in 1763 with Spanish infantry as as part of the Crown’s effort to refortify the city after the British invasion the previous year. Parra developed his naturalist leanings in Cuba, undoubtedly influenced by the Spanish Enlightenment interest in the taxonomic categorization of the natural environment and the printing of natural histories. Parra also sold portions of his personal specimen collection, including fish, crustaceans, reptiles, and other fauna, to the Royal Cabinet of Natural History in Madrid (García González 1995, 145). In years that followed, he continued to send living samples of native Cuban flora. Parra also collected and exhibited fish, reptile, and crustacean (among other) specimens in his house at Tejadillo Street 8 within Havana’s city walls. In so doing, he formed a sort of eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosity in the island’s capital (García González 1995, 145)We can see a representation of some of these crustaceans from another page in the natural history.

Interestingly, the first two illustrated pages of Parra’s work perhaps represent how he exhibited these specimens in his home. On the first page, reproduced here, an elaborately carved wooden case with glass panels holds a collection of live crabs with outstretched arms. On the following page, Manuel Parra represents two carved indigenous figures holding a net with fish, atop another elaborately carved table.

The scholar Jorge Pavez Ojeda speculates that Aponte may have carved these pieces for Parra in exchange for a copy of his Descripción de diferentes piezas de historia natural las mas del ramo marítimo, which Spanish colonial officials found in his library. Parra wrote to a Spanish court, Pavez observes, saying that he had purchased caoba woodwork from the country’s best craftsmen (Pavez Ojeda 2012, 280-281). Free men of color dominated this trade, and Aponte had already established himself in the field by this point. It is not unlikely that Aponte carved the pieces, but we have no documentary evidence to support the claim that he did.