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SIGÜENZA AND THE COMET

[Sigüenza]


Don Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora was one of the most brilliant men of eighteenth-century Mexico. He had joined the Jesuits but had been booted out for repeated violations of curfew. Thereafter, as a lay priest, his income was insecure and he had to scrounge for work to support himself. Consequently he served as almoner for a bishop, book-reviewer for the Inquisition, rector of the Hospital of the Love of God, professor of mathematics at the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, and geographer for King Charles II of Spain.

Before he was seventeen, he had published his first book of poems, Primavera Indiana, in praise of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He would write what was long thought to be Mexico's first novel, Infortunios de Alonso Ramírez (Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez)—although scholars now think it is a work of non-fiction. But Sigüenza would be remembered most for his many books on scientific, philosophical, and historical subjects.

In 1681 alarm ensued when a comet appeared in the northern hemisphere. On this day 25 April 1681, Sigüenza issued a pamphlet to calm superstitious dread. He showed that there was no cause to fear the bright comet.

Sigüenza discussed the comet with a famous missionary priest, Eusebio Kino, who was also keenly interested in astronomy. However, Kino immediately afterward publicly suggested Sigüenza was a dull-wit and declared that comets are obviously bad omens. Kino was more interested in using the phenomenon to encourage conversions than in establishing scientific understanding among the populace. Sigüenza was stung by Kino’s comment because, as a Creole (Mexican-born Spaniard), he knew he did not have the social standing of the European-born Kino.

As the king’s geographer, he prepared a much-copied map of New Spain. In 1693, he surveyed the bay at Pensacola, Florida, in preparation for its settlement; and he conducted the first mass heard in the future city. He also surveyed the mouth of the Mississippi.

Despite his persistent financial woes, Sigüenza collected a large library and many artifacts related to Mexico and its pre-colonial inhabitants. This was a valuable resource which he willed to the College of San Pedro and San Pablo, Mexico City, shortly before his death. He died in great pain and requested an autopsy to ascertain the cause. It showed he had a kidney stone the size of a peach. 

His life and thought exemplified the close interrelationship of church and secular life in seventeenth-century Mexico, and his writings hinted at a growing desire for Mexican independence of colonial rule.

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