Antonio Parra, Lámina 71, 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).

In the last three plates pages of the book, Manuel Parra illustrates a black man named Domingo Fernandez who suffered from testicular elephantiasis. The accompanying text describes the size of the ailment in precise detail, including measurements. With this inclusion, Parra inserts the black man into his static analysis of natural history and “seeks to mark the limit of nature with the image of a sick black man, whose bodily deformity is identified with his race” (Pavez Ojeda 2012, 282). Parra includes the man in the book as if to equate his race with bodily deformity, a monstrous aberration that marks the difference between black and white. Aponte’s “book of paintings” represents a radical departure from such an illustration as he insists on the humanity of the African diaspora primarily through the history of the diaspora itself.