A “Nonsensical Notebook”: Curiosidades de la montaña by Manuel María Albis

Oprime aqui para leer el articulo en Español.

By Felipe Martínez Pinzón

The 19th century continues to live within us in many ways. One of those ways is the presence of national typologies in our imagination. Cowboys, gauchos, harvesters and horsemen make up a portfolio of picturesque images that have found their way into movies, posters or publicity images for agro-exports such as the figure of Juan Valdés. To revisit these typologies is also to ask oneself why some of them have accumulated more symbolic power than others. The notebook of the priest Manuel María Albis is an incursion into a portfolio of discarded, uncomfortable typologies that did not serve the nation—or the shapers of 19th-century nationalism— for the creation of an image of a modern community. Why? The notebook that I propose to recuperate in these few pages restores to us communities that have no clear heirs, the communities  of rochela, of shattered zones (to use Yale political scientist James C. Scott’s term), made up of deserters, indigenous communities and runaway slaves, who existed in the nooks and crannies or frontiers of a state that pressured its subjects into fleeing. My fascination with this text sprung from the same impulse to question how and why and with what agenda the collective self-portraits of a nation were constructed through the form of typologies.  

Curiosidades de la montaña y médico en casa (Curiosidades) by Manuel María Albis (1823-¿?) is a fascinating book for those of us interested in the history and literature about the Amazon. However, its author, a Colombian priest and traveler, is still relatively unknown in Latin American historiography. Thanks to the small, but important, bibliography about him, in this short text, I wish to reintroduce the figure of Albis, as well as his only known work.  Curiosidades is one of the few texts about Caquetá in the Colombian northwest Amazon region in the mid-19th century. His work is also extremely important in reflecting on plurilinguistic shatter zones without filtering them through the lens of national or European travelers.   These “shatter zones” are plurilinguistic and pluricultural spaces characterized by “geographical inaccessibility and enormous diversity of tongues and cultures,” according to James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2009).

Only one edition exists of Albis’ book. It is a valuable bilingual Italian-Spanish edition, prepared by Alberto Guaraldo in 1991 in Turín, Italy, where part of the Codazzi archives are located, and where this manuscript was found. Another edition exists, but it is only a partial one, and subordinate to the materials produced by the Chorographic Commission. It forms part of the important compilation by Camilo Domínguez Ossa, Augusto Gómez and Guido Barona of the works of geographer Agostino Codazzi, leader of the Chorographic Commission. In 1855 José María Vergara y Vergara and Evaristo Delgado produced, through rewriting and pruning of Curiosidades, another text—very distinct from the original—entitled Los indios del Andaquí: memorias de un viajero (The Indians of Andaquí: Memories of a Traveler).

Albis himself had little formal education, but perhaps had been trained by the Jesuits. In Curiosidades Albis expresses himself more in the repertoire of 18th-century missionary writing  than that of his contemporary folkorists or sketchers. Born in what is now the department (state) of Huila, parish priest of the village of Garzón, Albis took off toward the Alto Río Caquetá in 1854, as described by the Italian Alberto Guaraldo en I Lunghi Viaggi di un Manoscritto Amazzonico (Turín: Il Segnalibro, 1991), 8-19. The motive for his departure towards these frontier regions——dubbed “the minor Colombia” by  Silvia Benzo, (Curiositá, “Un curioso quaderno”, 21)— are unclear. Relying on the few sources available about his life, it is possible that he fled ecclesiastical discipline and military recruitment. Against Albis’ will, the bishop of the city of Popayan, Manuel María Bueno, Albis’ superior, ordered him to become the diocese priest, which “already ill-matched with the practices of civilization, he preferred to flee from what he called his slavery and take refuge in a village called La Ceja, waiting for the opportune moment to go into the deep forest once again” (José María Gutiérrez de Alba, Diario ilustrado de viaje por Colombia 1871–1873. Bogotá: Villegas Editores, 2012, 280-281).

His refusal to obey his superior’s orders could have placed Albis at risk to be drafted in the 1854 Colombian civil war. He was draft age, more or less thirty years old and living in a conflict-ridden region. Moreover, we know that he had already unfortunate experiences as a recruit in the earlier 1851 civil war (Gutiérrez de Alba, Diario 280).

As a fugitive, Albis would be a deserter, as well as a target as a missionary at the time of government attacks on the missions system, given the final expulsion of the Jesuits from Colombian would be made effective in April 1853. We find Albis in 1854, traveling on the back of porters throughout the Inga populations near the eastern Andean mountain range. 

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Albis con cargueros. “Crédito de las demás…”. Vinagre y cardenillo. En Cusiositá della foresta d”amazzonia e arte di curar senza medico. Edición, traducción y notas Alberto Guaraldo, Torino: Il Segnalibro, 1991.

According to the water colors and reports by the Chorographic Commission (1850-1859)—the most important effort of the 19th century in Colombia to create a map and detail national tribes—in his seventh expedition to Caquetá in 1857, we see Albis as “the priest in Mocoa,” perhaps without any official designation (Agustín Codazzi, Viaje de la Comisión Corográfica por el territorio del Caquetá 1857 [Bogotá: Coama/Fondo FEN/Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi, 237]).

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“Presbítero Manuel María Albis con indios reducidos en Mocoa”. Manuel María Paz. Presbítero Manuel María Albis con indios reducidos en Mocoa. Territorio del Caquetá. 1857 Acuarela sobre Papel. Biblioteca Nacional.


These watercolors bear witness that Albis covered great distances within the northwest Amazon—from the Andean highlands to Mocoa— for a priest who ought to main sedentary in his assigned town.

Perhaps his nomad character merely illustrates the tenuous nature of his tie with his bishop. Originally from Alto Magdalena, Albis surely knew the history of Caquetá as a refuge with little government control, a borderland, like others, which presented a temptation to escape from tax, military or work pressures (Scott 30). A vernacular knowledge should maintain alive those flows between the Magdalena basin and the Amazon in the centuries that elapsed between the forced displacements of indigenous peoples during the Spanish conquest, passing through the colonial routes of runaway slaves to the flight of deserters during the Wars of Independence. These routes were probably in use in the mid-19th century, given the civil wars that bore witness to the fact that “the more a state pressed its subjects, the fewer subjects it had. The frontier underwrote popular freedom,” as Scott observed.

As a result of his journeys,  Albis produced Curiosidades on a notebook made of  handmade paper and written with “salt, vinegar and verdigris.” In the style of missionary memoirs, he catalogs in the notebook the customs, languages, animals and plants of this region. However, before attempting to order this world, he realizes its instability through a practice that is the opposite of that of the sketcher. The manuscript, which was not edited and published until 1991 when Alberto Guaraldo brought it to public light in Italy, narrates in a fragmented style the several trips that Albis made in Caquetá. During these trips, he documented the life of several indigenous and Afro-descendant communities at the same time he was documenting his own experiences in ranges of tone as dissimilar as a humorous or elegiac poems, travel writing, drawing, population charts and glossaries.

From the very first paragraphs, he begins to paint himself as an “anti-hero” or “a poor traveler” at the same time as he characterizes his text as a “nonsensical notebook.” Albis is aware of the precariousness of language, of his body and even of his “civilizing mission” to reduce—put in context and create order out of— the mulitple aspects of life in the borderlands. He does not speak indigenous languages and he does not have access to an infrastructure of cargo boats, maps and informants on which other travelers could rely. Unlike many of them, he confesses his fear of snakes; he is upset by some of the stories he hears, and he is conscious of the difficulty implied of making sense, as a traveler, of local practicess and customs. The awareness of not understanding comes from the fact that he experiences Caquetá as a place distinct from Colombia. To enter into the “mountains” means “to separate oneself from the society of fellow countrymen.”

This foreign space is one in which natural threats abound, but where one does not try to see the world as a mere reflection of one’s own world.  Albis fears the “wild beasts” and the “mud and precipices that await the poor traveler. ” He knows, because he has heard, of the way in which indigenous communities have reacted by using poison darts to confront missionaries who have preceded him.  Because of that, he confesses that he is fearful that “he will be poisoned if he rubs the Indians the wrong way.”

The awareness of  losing one’s sense of body because of sickness or lack of understanding, is an experience often expressed in fear of the other. Albis writes, “he who is not used to seeing or hearing the Indians is frightened by them because they certainly inspire respect  without understanding what they are saying and here one thinks badly of the poor wretch who doesn’t understand a word they say” (Curiosità, 126). This lack of understanding led Albis to compile glossaries. However, in the face of the complexity of the task, he decided to confess his ignorance. In writing a glossary for the“guaque” tongue, Albis soon recognized there was too much of a chasm between this language and the words in Spanish. Before transforming himself into a translator of the shatter zone for the “civilized country”—assimilating them in the process—he was aware of the impossibility of appropriating the difference. Unable to put together a grammar book, he compiled three glossaries for the “guaque,” “coreguaje” and “andaquí” tongues. These short glossaries are a compendium lacking any organization except for Spanish alphabetical order. The glossaries have words beginning with the letter “a” like agua for water and ending with “z” like závalo, the Spanish term (now written with an “s”) for the Latin Prochilodus lineatus. Before providing a method of interaction with the indigenous population, they make us aware of the  what the traveler is lacking. In the area of liquids: water, lemon, orange. In food: hen, sardines, bananas. In clothing: cotton, poncho. Even in bedding: a hammock.

Unlike the compartamentalized knowledge that contemporary sketchers of manners use to divide up the animal and vegetable realms, he sees a cultural landscape where there is a continuum of movement between the human, animal and plants, connected by customs. He draws snakes, bats and birds in movement.  These drawings are accompanied by stories in which these animals employ human practices.  He tells us convincingly, like Miguel and Pedro Mosquera, multilingual Afro-descendants who serve as his guides, that rats transform themselves into bats at night. “Mister [sor] Miguel Mosquera, his wife and family, told me that many times they had seen in the caves of the trees and dry trunks that they have observed that rats turn into bats.” After documenting this “curious novelty,” Albis paints it. Without writing a caption or an explanation, we see in his illustration three bats, with small changes in ink above the head, representations of power to transform into bats. 

Murciélagos. Manuel María Albis. “Murciélagos”. Vinagre y cardenillo. En Cusiositá della foresta d”amazzonia e arte di curar senza medico”. Edición, traducción y notas Alberto Guaraldo. Torino: Il Segnalibro, 1991.


This world in movement can also been seen in the illustration that depicts the bird “Chamón”. 

“Chamón”. Manuel María Albis. “Chamón”. Vinagre y cardenillo. En “Curiositá della foresta d”amazzonia e arte di curar senza medico”. Edición, traducción y notas Alberto Guaraldo, Torino: Il Segnalibro, 1991.


The indigenous people tied up this bird to give to Albis, who cut its wings.  From this moment, Albis began to “investigate the life [of the bird]” talking with “the Indians” (215). As a result of this conversation, we learn that this bird, just like some men, leaves their eggs in the nests of other birds. Once these animals —like children— have grown and “are useful”—that is, ready to work—the parents, like the Chamón bird, return for them. With this anecdote, he shows us how natural history is the history of men and viceversa. Just as the rats/bats or the communites of the shattered zone, the Chamón is in movement —its foot raised and his gaze fixed on us— to show us that life has more sense than the painting (el cuadro) framing the image.

Reading about these beliefs shared among descendants of runaway slaves, outlaws and indigenous people, the shatter zone is presented to us as a space that makes Albis reconsider his repertory of beliefs—he, a priest, who ought to propogate them— in order to incorporate other forms of knowledge. Thus, just as language is not translatable, customs cannot be appropriated. The compilation of human practices that he demonstrates does not allow us to see a surplus economy, but rather represent subsistence practices bases on basic products that are not exportable: obtaining worms, taking care of birds and dogs, activities not intended for accumulation that are physically sterile for the state, as Scott has observed of other communities who lived in the so-called Southeast Asia Massif. Instead of showing, as do the picturesque sketches of manners of time, the transformation of nature into capital through work, in these drawings, it is practically impossible to distinguish what is leisure and what is work. This is the case of paintings made with vegetable colors such as “burning of ants”. 

Manuel María Albis. “Quema de hormigas”. Vinagre y cardenillo. En “Curiositá della foresta d”amazzonia e arte di curar senza medico”. Edición, traducción y notas Alberto Guaraldo, Torino: Il Segnalibro, 1991.

Indigenous woman sucking on dog's nostrils” o “indigenous woman taking care of birds” that document practices that do not create accumulation.

“La india cuida a los pájaros”. Vinagre y cardenillo. En Cusiositá della foresta d”amazzonia e arte di curar senza medico”. Edición, traducción y notas Alberto Guaraldo, Torino: Il Segnalibro, 1991.


Curiosidades shows us how in the shatter zones the conventions of superiority of the traveler are suspended when one goes to live in them: neither Spanish nor translation permit direct access to this world; thus, just as the associations among being sedentary, work and culture are unraveled. But even more important, the genre of picturesque sketches of manners—its relationship with laboral disciplines through typologies— are revealed to us as a precarious repertory that registers a reality that cannot be captured. Finally, Curiosidades is a document that shows us the life of the shatter zone before the rubber boom that would produce the genocide of so many of these communities.


Felipe Martínez-Pinzón is Assistant Profesor of Hispanic Studies at Brown University.


This text is an abridged version of a chapter about this notebook that will be published in the forthcoming book Patricios en contienda: literatura panorámica y representación del pueblo en Colombia, Ecuador y Venezuela (1830-1880) in the NCSRLL series of UNC Press.