Latin America’s upper classes generally have been depicted as oriented toward the humanities, the arts, and politics, and lacking in interest in the practical—in science, technology, industry and commerce.1 While these assertions have considerable merit, it should be noted that there is a contrary current in the upper-class culture of Latin America. One striking expression of this countervailing tendency is the pattern of study of Latin American youths enrolled in foreign universities. While North Americans venture abroad on Fulbrights to study such themes as French attitudes toward Faulkner or the treatment of light in Renaissance paintings, Latin Americans studying abroad have dedicated themselves overwhelmingly to scientific and technical fields. This pattern, familiar in the twentieth century, was already apparent in the middle of the nineteenth, when study in Europe and the United States first began to come into vogue among the Latin American upper classes.

One index of a growing Latin interest in technical study after the middle of the nineteenth century can be found in the records of New York state’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Before 1847, during Rensselaer’s first quarter-century of existence, not one Latin American attended the institution. But in the twenty-five years between 1850 and 1875 some 90 youths from the Hispanic world studied there, accounting for more than 10 percent of the graduates. In the next decade (1875-85) another sixty Latins attended Rensselaer, making up slightly more than 9 percent of the student body (see table I).

After 1850 young Latin Americans were carried abroad by the swelling current of foreign trade, which both increased contact with foreign lands and gave the upper class the cash needed to support overseas education. Political developments also affected the pattern of overseas education. Often an upper-class youth would study abroad because his parents were in political exile or because they wished to extricate him from dangerous political currents in his native land.

As the Rensselaer records suggest, New Granada (Colombia, after 1863) was not among the foremost in sending students abroad for technical study. New Granada lacked the economic conditions which helped to promote foreign contacts in some other Latin American countries. Unlike Brazil or Argentina or Cuba, its foreign trade was relatively insignificant. And, unlike Mexico, Peru or Chile, its mountainous interior offered no spectacular mineral resources inviting foreign investments and railroad building. But in its own lesser way, New Granada also felt the quickening pulse of international commerce in the middle of the nineteenth century. Even though in fewer numbers, New Granadan youths also went abroad to study technical subjects. The following essay treats the motivations and attitudes prompting the first efforts to give New Granadan upper-class youths a practical education in the “developed” countries of the Western world, and also discusses the results of these efforts. Undoubtedly many aspects of the New Granadan case are peculiar to that country; nevertheless it may yield some insights which are of general applicability.


In New Granada, as in other countries in Latin America, the commercial expansion of the middle of the nineteenth century played an important part in turning the eyes of the upper class abroad. Between the beginning of the 1840s and the latter half of the 1850s, the average annual value of exports from New Granada tripled.2 New Granadan newspapers in the latter half of the 1840s began to run regular price quotations on commodities in domestic trade, and in the second half of the 1850s reports on foreign markets became common. From about 1845 onward articles on economic topics—principally on export agriculture and comunications development in support of international trade—at least partially displaced political commentaries in the country’s newspapers. Increasing numbers of the upper class journeyed to Manchester and New York on business as well as to Paris and Rome for edification. Curiosity stirred about new techniques in mining and agriculture, and interest in learning the English language and Anglo-American commercial practices became quite marked.

Aside from the stimulus of international trade, upper-class attitudes, reminiscent of the Spanish Bourbons, promoted technical education in foreign lands. Upper-class Colombians, in particular political conservatives, wanted both to contain disorder and to catch up economically with the more modern European powers. Technical education, they believed, was the key to both these aims. Practically-trained men could work with greater profit, and profit would make them hard-working, orderly, moral. Colombian conservatives hoped to use technical training to make all in their society, among both the upper and lower classes, more productive. They were particularly concerned, of course, to inculcate practical knowledge and positive attitudes toward work in their own sons.

To a general concern for social order and economic productivity another element was added in the 1840s—the desire for political order. The men who governed New Granada between 1837 and 1849 felt threatened by growing numbers of young law graduates with political ambitions. Established lawyer-politicians began to blame the country’s political instability, as well as its economic backwardness, on an excessive number of lawyers. After the liberal rebellion of 1839-41, Mariano Ospina, Minister of the Interior during the presidency of General Pedro Alcántara Herrán (1841-45), argued that young lawyers, unable to obtain the government posts they desired, were likely to “afflict their families, torment themselves and disturb the country.”3 Through most of the 1840s it was dogma among the ruling elite in Bogotá that a surplus of professionals, particularly lawyers, prompted a “desire for novelties, to find by means of political disturbances the posts others occupy.” Because of the excess of lawyers, “everyone is preoccupied with politics, with new systems, new constitutions, while no one directs his attention to agriculture, to mining, to any kind of industry. . .”4 Without any apparent sense of irony or embarrassment, the entrenched lawyer-bureaucrats and politicians in Bogotá urged the younger generation to turn away from the careers they themselves had followed and to take up more useful private pursuits.

Such a reorientation had been advocated by many of the Ministers of the Interior of the early republican era—by José Manuel Restrepo (1821-30), Lino de Pombo (1833-38), General Pedro Alcántara Herrén (1838-39), as well as Ospina. Ospina in 1842 implemented their aims by establishing more rigorous, centrally-determined standards for higher education as a means of professional birth control. Through more elaborate science requirements as prerequisites for the study of law, Ospina hoped simultaneously to acquaint the upper classes with practical scientific knowledge and to discourage them from pursuing the traditional university degrees.

Ospina’s program was largely a failure. Since the science courses acted as barriers to the traditionally-sanctioned law degrees, Ospina’s reforms stirred widespread resistance to the science requirements and to his centrally-controlled educational system as a whole. At the end of the 1840s liberals joined with some conservatives in a series of measures which dismantled Ospina’s centralized system.5 Removal of degree requirements in 1850, along with the financial weakness of the government, brought a general decline of secondary education, to the dismay of many conservatives and some liberals.

Contemporaneous with the collapse of the centrally-controlled system of higher education, conservatives faced an even graver crisis in the liberals’ capture of the national administration in 1849. The expulsion of the Jesuits and violent attacks upon the property and persons of conservatives contributed to the godos’ alarm. When the conservatives failed in rebellion in 1851, many were forced to flee or chose voluntarily to go into exile. Others who remained in New Granada sent their sons abroad to save them from contamination by the political fever raging in the country and to turn their attention to more practical pursuits.

The children of conservatives were by no means the only New Granadans who studied in Europe or the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. As Jaime Jaramillo Uribe has pointed out, upper-class liberals as well as conservatives saw the English and Anglo-American bourgeoisie as an ideal after which they wished to model themselves and their sons.6 Elements in both parties wanted to turn upper-class interest from partisan politics to the dominant passion of the Anglo-Saxons, economic enterprise. Accordingly, both groups were represented among those who studied abroad. For political reasons, however, conservatives tended to predominate among the first wave of students in the 1850s.

Mariano Ospina well expressed a typical conservative attitude at the end of 1850, when he urged a friend to send his son to a Jesuit school in Jamaica or to one in the United States, so that he would be well trained to become an “industrialist.” If the child stayed in New Granada, he surely would enter politics, which would “become worse and worse in this country.”

Our colegios, all of them, have the very grave defect of inoculating the youth with political spirit, and as politics is the devourer of wealth, it would be said that a youth who can count on some capital to begin to work . . . is incapacitated . . . by the studies of our colegios . . ..

Ospina went on to suggest that in a school in England or Germany, a youth would acquire habits and ideas of order, economy, and work. He himself would not entrust his son to the politicized schools of Bogotá. “It seems to me that a youth leaves none of our colegios with a desire to work,” he concluded, “but rather all want to . . . become poets, public writers, representatives and presidents, all occupations of little profit.”7

Practicality was the watchword for the many upper-class parents who sent their sons abroad between 1850 and 1870. The principal concern was that the youths learn something of profit to their families, and, by extension, to the nation. The most articulate conservative leaders were opposed to the idea of travel as mere enjoyment; at least for their sons it was only justifiable as training. Upper-class Colombians wanted their progeny to learn applied or applicable sciences, useful languages, the practice of commerce, and beyond such specific skills, the habit of work and other Anglo-American economic virtues.

The emphasis upon practicality was such that some parents cautioned their sons against the temptation of studying the pure sciences. They should stick instead to that which was immediately and obviously applicable. Mariano Ospina, writing instructions to his sons Tulio and Pedro Nel in 1877, expressed this view quite strongly. In two or three years of “serious and continuous study” they could make themselves civil or mining engineers. But they were not to take up “the most over-refined” aspects of analytical mechanics or higher mathematics, devoting themselves preferentially “to that which is applicable in practice and attempting to acquire the knowledge of those who are called mechanical engineers.” Ospina went on to warn specifically against the study of those sciences which were intellectually “very attractive, but not very profitable,” like botany, zoology, and astronomy.8

Mariano Ospina also warned his sons to stay away from novels and verse. If they were to advance in the applied sciences, it was necessary to renounce fine literature, “which takes up time and tires the mind without profit.”9 Ospina enjoined his son Pedro Nel not to write poetry or even to write elegantly, but rather to prefer a “noble simplicity of expression, which produces thought with clarity and precision.”10 In this pronounced concern for practicality and self-discipline, not only in economic action but even in personal style, there is more than a hint of the attitudes commonly associated with the Protestant bourgeoisie.

The fathers’ desire for practical training often went beyond the idea of learning technical subjects in the classroom. Many wished their sons particularly to acquire experience in merchants’ houses, shops and factories in the United States. This concern was well expressed in a letter of Pastor Ospina, regarding the education of his son Sebastián:

My object in sending him to that country is that he learn some branches [of knowledge] which may be useful in this one. But most especially I desire that he learn mechanics and machinery, not so much theoretically as practically and in the part of most immediate application to our necessities . . .

Pastor Ospina’s intention was not for his son to obtain a degree as a mechanical engineer, but rather to achieve a practical capacity in the field. He suggested that his son study mathematics, mechanics and hydraulics for a tew months, in which he would learn enough of the theory, and thereafter “dedicate himself exclusively to practice.” He asked that his son be placed as an apprentice in a shop where machines were “made or used,” in a mill, sawmill, or some other mechanical establishment. And if this were impossible, he should be put in a commercial house. Accordingly, Sebastián Ospina was placed in a large plant manufacturing machinery in Paterson, New Jersey.11

Although they did not articulate it in precisely these words, a number of upper-class Colombians viewed study abroad, particularly in the United States or England, not simply as a formal educational process, but even more as a means of immersing their children in a technical culture so evidently lacking in Colombia.

Many upper-class fathers, in fact, dispensed entirely with formal schooling in their projects for education abroad. Often youths would be sent to New York, or more commonly to England (where it was easier to get a position) to obtain clerking jobs in which they might gain valuable commercial experience.12 The Colombian fathers did not expect these clerking jobs to pay salaries; the value lay in the mercantile education.13

Some of the boys sent for commercial training were, of course, the sons of merchants. But it is striking how many lawyer-politicians put their boys to practical studies of commerce. Rufino Cuervo—landowner and lawyer, at various times Rector of the National University, Supreme Court justice, Vice-President of the republic, and one of Bogotá’s leading literati—sent his eldest son to England to learn the commercial ropes. Manuel María Mallarino, a lawyer-politician and landowner from the Cauca valley, attempted to put his sons into a merchant’s house in New York between 1855 and 1857, the very years in which as Vice-President he was governing New Granada. Many other lawyers and landowners, less famous but nevertheless respected members of the aristocracy, did the same.14 These lawyer-politicians, without explicitly denigrating their own careers, nevertheless were trying to push their sons down a path they themselves had not taken. José Manuel Restrepo, who served as a government administrator and fed at the public trough continuously from 1821 to 1860, sent his son Manuel to England to “complete his practical mercantile education” with the comment that he “never [had] thought that his children should five off of public offices which only produce a scarce subsistence, and salaries which always are expended in their totality.”15

The desire of the conservative political elite to convert itself from sterile careers in politics to profitable ones in commerce went beyond efforts of the fathers to steer their sons away from error. A number of out-of-power politicians turned to commerce themselves, and some of them went through the same training process they expected of teenagers. José Eusebio Caro, dismissed from his post as auditor of the republic, in 1850 went into exile in New York City, where at the age of 34 he enthusiastically prepared himself for a new career in commerce. After devoting six months to the study of English, he began to work without pay as a bookkeeper for a New York merchant house. Caro waxed lyrical about the advantages of his new position, in which he could learn English and commercial practices free of charge while simultaneously developing invaluable business contacts.16

Concern for practicality was one factor which determined many upper-class fathers to send their sons to the United States rather than to Europe. In the minds of some, Europe was identified with luxury and consumption while the United States, the new rising industrial power, was associated with enterprise and production. José Eusebio Caro, conservative poet-politician, might be repelled by the North Americans’ lack of grace, but he stayed in the United States because it was the land of opportunity. He resisted traveling to Europe because he could not see any business profit in it, and he did not want to “ruin myself seeing parks, zoological gardens and military reviews in Paris.”17


Some insight into the careers of the Colombian youths who studied in the United States can be garnered from the papers of General Pedro Alcántara Herrán, who lived near New York City as New Granada’s ambassador (1847-49, 1855-62) and as a commission merchant (1850-55). During the 1850s and 1860s Herrán served as guardian for some four dozen young Colombians who studied principally in New York State and Connecticut.18

The youths whom Herrán supervised cannot be taken as a completely representative sample of all Colombians studying abroad. As he was a conservative general and a politician from Bogotá, most of the boys were the sons of conservative politicians, military men, or bogotanos. His services, first extended to political friends at their request, became more or less public in character after November, 1851, when he put out a circular advertising his availability as an educational agent in the United States.

The Herrán clients who can be identified were primarily lawyers and politicians (12) and merchant-capitalists (11). Five were landowners or landowner-politicians, and three were military men or military-politicians.19 In accord with this pattern, the youths came mainly from places involved in foreign trade or otherwise affected by foreign influences. Of 43 youths whose origins can be identified, 20 were from Bogotá, 10 from the Caribbean coast (including Panama), and 9 from the antioqueño commercial centers of Medellín and Antioquia. Only three of the fathers lived in interior towns which could not be classified as commercial centers.20

Although the parents wanted their sons to absorb Anglo-American practicality, they also were concerned that the youths not lose their Roman Catholic faith. Some specified that the boys be put in Catholic institutions.21 Accordingly, Herrán at first placed most of his charges in the grammar school of St. John’s (Fordham), a Jesuit school. Some of his wards, however, considered the Jesuit discipline too severe; others were distracted from their studies by the diversions of New York City. Herrán therefore constantly experimented with new institutions. By 1851, he was sending many of his wards to Protestant or secular institutions, and he came to prefer Protestant schools in small towns in New York state and Connecticut to Catholic ones in New York City. Though Herrán used eighteen different private schools, most of them not Catholic, in only one case did religious belief or practice become a problem.22

In the first years of Herrán’s guardianship, Granadan parents had almost no knowledge of American educational institutions. Consequently they left the choice of schools and colleges, and in some cases even of their sons’ courses of study, to his judgment. Herrán’s procedure was to place the youths in a private school to learn English, French, mathematics, physics, and bookkeeping. Those who presented disciplinary problems Herrán attempted to send back to their parents. Those who were merely dull, or whose parents had specifically ordained a commercial career, were directed to train for commerce. The best students were encouraged to go on to American universities to study chemistry, mineralogy, agriculture, and civil or mechanical engineering.

While Herrán seemingly found no preparatory school entirely satisfactory, he discovered a place for good students at the university level in science. In 1850-51 Brown University, under the leadership of Francis Wayland, instituted a new program emphasizing applied science. One of Herrán’s charges was among the first to seize upon this opportunity, in March of 1852, studying engineering with William A. Norton at Brown. But during the summer of 1852 the Brown program began to crumble, as Norton and John A. Porter, his colleague in applied chemistry, left for Yale. Herrán’s protégé, like many of the other science students in Providence, immediately followed them to New Haven.23 After 1852, Yale’s scientific school was the institution General Herrán most favored, sending four of his wards there before 1859. Yale undeniably was a good choice in these years.

During the 1850s, as a few Colombian parents began to acquire some information about American institutions, they expressed more precise desires about the placement of their sons. A merchant in the Magdalena river port of Honda in 1856 asked that his two sons be sent to Yale, the one to study “mineralogical chemistry,” the other engineering, with Benjamin Silliman, “the celebrated professor of natural sciences and mathematics.” Though the Honda merchant was misinformed as to what Silliman taught, bits of information evidently were seeping into the Colombian interior.24 In a similar case two important New Granadan politicians in 1855 and 1856 sought unsuccessfully to place their sons in the United States Military Academy, which was well known for its excellence in engineering, but which also had not accepted a foreign student for more than three decades.25

By the end of the 1860s Colombians were beginning to show considerable sophistication in their choices of institutions. In 1869 the first Colombian graduated from Rensselaer; between 1877 and 1886 five others studied there. José María Villa, from the small town of Sopetrán, Antioquia, graduated from the Stevens Institute in 1878, only eight years after it was founded as the United States’ first institution specializing in mechanical engineering. At about the same time two sons of Mariano Ospina Rodríguez took their degrees in mining engineering and metallurgy at the University of California at Berkeley, also less than a decade old. They were followed by various antioqueños interested in mining. Similarly, Colombians in the 1870s and 1880s were studying mining engineering at Columbia, the first American institution to develop this speciality.26

With the definitive establishment of the Sociedad Colombiana de Ingenieros in 1887, a steady flow of information on North American technical schools was made available by the society’s monthly, the Anales de Ingeniería. The journal’s editors kept their readers up to date on new ideas about technical education under discussion in the United States. The journal made frequent mention of the established American schools, such as West Point, Rensselaer, and Stevens, and carried descriptions of other institutions, such as Purdue, as they began to become significant. Any substantial change in the curriculum or facilities of a leading institute like Stevens or the founding of a new engineering school, such as the “Polytechnic School of Terre Haute, Indiana,” was duly noted in the pages of the Anales. The journal also showed some awareness of the careers of American, as well as European, scientists.27

Ironically, at about the time American institutions were beginning to develop real strength in technical fields and were becoming known in New Granada, as well as the rest of Latin America, General Herrán became convinced that they were inferior to European ones. Despite the recent development of “special schools” of engineering at Harvard and Yale, he believed instruction in engineering still to be better in France. His growing objections to American colleges, however, were based at least as much on moral grounds as on technical ones. By 1855 he had concluded that the “control and discipline of the European colleges is preferable to that observed in this country,” where students of engineering in the “principal colleges” lived off campus, without institutional supervision. Herrán by 1856 was declaring flatly that he was “every day more disgusted with the secondary and primary schools of the United States: all are humbug.” Accordingly he began to advise parents to send their sons to Europe for technical training.28

Some of Herrán’s friends followed his advice. But Colombians by no means gave up on the United States. They continued to be fascinated by the American industrial plant and to believe they could learn something from it.29 And Colombian youths continued to attend American institutions in ever greater numbers.


While many upper-class Colombians sent their sons to the United States because they identified it with practicality, others turned to Europe because of its established scientific superiority. From the beginning of the republican era Granadans had looked to the Continent in general and to Paris in particular as the mecca of the natural sciences. One of New Granada’s first students abroad, Joaquín Acosta, had carried on his studies in Paris between 1827 and 1830, returning there to continue his work between 1845 and 1849.30 Colombia’s scientific eminences of succeeding generations also gravitated to the Continent, and particularly to Paris. After 1850 Colombians began to look to Paris not only for scientific enlightenment but also for technical instruction. A number of men who had done some work in engineering, either in the United States or in Colombia, attended one or another of the special schools of engineering in France.31

While the pre-eminence of France in academic science and civil engineering was generally recognized, it was not necessarily the best place for on-the-job studies of industrial technique. Some young Colombians were sent to Germany and Belgium to gain practical knowledge of mining and manufacturing. In the 1850s Tyrell Moore, a British mining engineer long resident in Antioquia, began to urge rich antioqueños not to send their sons to Bogotá or to Paris, where they were unlikely to receive a practical education, but rather to Saxony or Hungary; there they could learn the mining and metallurgy which were of fundamental importance to Antioquia.32 Moore himself took several young antioqueños, including Santiago Ospina Barrientos (son of Mariano Ospina Rodríguez), with him to study metallurgy and mining technology at the mining academy of Freiberg.33

A convenient complementarity existed between the strength of Germany and Belgium in mining and industrial technology and that of Paris in academic science and engineering. Some Colombians took advantage of their proximity by studying pure sciences in Paris and industrial technique in Germany or Belgium. Pedro Nel Ospina, after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, as a mining engineer in 1879, spent two years studying mining technique in Freiberg and analytic chemistry in Paris.34

Some Granadan aristocrats are known to have studied medicine, math and engineering in British schools in the 1840s and 1850s.35 But English universities, being considerably behind the Continental institutions, attracted fewer Colombian students of science and technology than French and German ones. On the other hand, England— as the world’s leading commercial nation—was preferred as a place for practical education in commerce.


The results of the nineteenth-century experiments in foreign training must be judged in terms of the parents’ aims and in the context of contemporary educational patterns. A number of upper-class fathers never intended that their sons take degrees. For their purposes it was enough that the boys learn something practical—some English, mathematics, bookkeeping, perhaps some technical trade. Frequently, because of the high cost of maintaining a son abroad (triple the expense of a New Granadan colegio), fathers planned only a year’s dip in the pragmatic North American environment. Others with grander plans soon found they could not afford more than a year. It is not surprising then that most of the Colombians in the United States before 1865 carried on only preparatory studies.

The few who entered college did rather well by the standards of the time. During a considerable part of the nineteenth century most technical fields had not reached the stage of professional development in which degrees were required. Many North American students therefore did not bother to finish the four-year course. Fragmentary evidence suggests that Colombian, as well as other Latin American, students finished their courses at least as often as their North American peers. Of nine Colombians at Yale, six graduated, five in engineering, one in medicine. Of Herrán’s charges who attended any American college, 58 per cent finished. More broadly, the 90 students from the Hispanic world at Rensselaer before 1874 finished at a higher rate than that for all students. If one sets aside Cubans and Puerto Ricans, the Latin rate of finishing at Rensselaer was above 50 per cent whereas the general rate was 35 per cent.36

The long-term fruits of the Herrán experiment fell far short of spectacular. Only a few of the Herrán group attained any eminence, and none of these ever became quite as important as his father. In evaluating the performance of the group as a whole, however, it should be remembered that, while some were sent to study in the United States because they seemed particularly apt, some others were upper-class youths whose parents or guardians hoped might be reformed by foreign study.

In general, Colombian investments in foreign study produced their best return in the areas of commerce and medicine. A number of those who studied commercial practices in England or the United States later became important business leaders. Some were among the founders of banks and other new financial institutions, and others fostered the building of railroads and introduced innovations in advertising.37 Often, however, it is hard to attribute business leadership directly to the influence of foreign experience. The role of these individuals may as well be ascribed to the same family wealth and position which permitted foreign study in the first place.

In medicine a high return was made likely by the fact that most who studied abroad did so on their own initiative, usually after they had already manifested a strong professional commitment, not only in a Colombian university degree but also in some medical practice in their native land.38

Colombian social traditions and the state of the Colombian economy, however, also had a good deal to do with the relative success of commercial and medical studies. Both were well-established and respected professions and offered notable financial returns and an assured position of high status in society. This was much less true of the newer profession of engineering, which offered some social respect, but for some time no very clear financial and career opportunities.

Of the Colombians whose engineering studies were conducted abroad in the 1850s and 1860s, a few had quite productive careers. The most notable were those of Manuel H. Peña and Juan Nepomuceno González Vásquez, whose studies at Bogotá’s military school of 1848-54 and in Paris were followed by many years of service in railroad construction. For a number of other able foreign-educated men of this generation, however, the field of their labors lay in academic mathematics rather than in practical engineering applications. Rafael Nieto Paris, educated at Boston University in the latter part of the 1850s, did some railroad and other engineering work. But his rather creative career was mostly devoted to mathematical theory and the invention of scientific devices.

Of eighteen in the Herrán group whose later careers are known, only four became practicing engineers, and these did not work full-time. One was active in road construction during the 1850s. Two others, Rafael Arboleda Mosquera and Eugenio J. Gómez, participated in the building of Colombian railroads. And several of these engineers had equally or more active careers in literature. politics or education.39

A number who studied for engineering or other practical careers were drawn some distance from their intended paths. The traditional fields of literature and education attracted some. Of the Herrán group, three became known as literati, six as educators. The adoption of these careers represents a thwarting of their fathers’ intentions—to keep their sons away from politics and literature and to suppress the traditional inclination toward genteel abstraction from mundane affairs. Nevertheless, the students who took up careers in education may be considered to have paid off as investments in social overhead capital. As active participants in the efforts to build the national university, and the school system as a whole in the period after 1868, they made some contribution to the future development of the country.40

Some of the more able Colombians educated abroad in scientific studies remained in Bogotá for only a few years, and then returned to the research facilities and the scientific community which Europe offered. Ezequiel Uricoechea, who graduated from Yale in medicine in 1852, and then went on to study in Europe, returned to Colombia in 1857 for about ten years. In that period he served for a time as professor of chemistry and mineralogy, founded a Sociedad de Naturalistas Neo-Granadinos, and in 1867 briefly filled the post of Director of Public Instruction. In 1868, however, he returned to Europe, where in 1878 he became a professor of Arabic at the University of Brussels. In 1880 he died in Beirut while on a research expedition. This was an extreme case of nineteenth-century brain drain, but it was not a completely isolated one. José G. Triana, New Granada’s most dedicated botanist of the second half of the nineteenth century, was trained in Bogotá but spent more than two-thirds of his productive years in Europe (1857-1889). Admittedly Triana devoted much of his thirty-two year stay to the study of New Granadan plants. But, like other Colombians of the era, he undoubtedly was captivated by Europe’s cultural possibilities, including association with renowned scientists and membership in European scientific societies.41

In contrast with some of the Colombians who turned to academic science, those who took up the practice of engineering showed surprisingly little tendency to be drawn into foreign careers. Young Colombians who had studied engineering in the United States or Europe often stayed abroad for a year, either to get valuable experience on public works in the advanced countries, or, as was often the case, because civil war and economic paralysis had eliminated any immediate possibility of exercising their profession in their native land. But the Colombian engineers eventually came home.42

Finding few opportunities to use their training, New Granada’s first foreign-educated engineers diverted their energies into other channels. José María Mosquera, who studied engineering in England in the 1840s, found on his return to Popayán that he could find employment only in architecture, “the only specialty which at that time offered a field for work in this environment.” His only notable works, as a result, were churches.43

Along with Colombia’s economic stagnation, the country’s agitated politics hampered the pursuit of careers in engineering, in at least three ways. The unconstant policies of the two parties undermined large-scale projects which might have employed engineers. Engineers of both political tendencies found themselves drawn into the violent conflicts of the era. And partisan politics sometimes caused certain engineers, particularly those of conservative affiliation, to be denied government jobs.

The damaging effects of Colombia’s mercurial policies are reflected in the career of Rafael Espinosa Escallón. After graduating as an engineer in 1853, he had to struggle to find work in New Granada. With Herrán’s support, in 1855-56 he obtained a job clearing the Canal del Dique connecting Cartagena and the Magdalena river. The project, however, proved beyond the resources of the Compañía del Canal de Cartagena; Espinosa ended up jobless and unpaid for his labors. In 1857 he worked on various roads from the eastern highlands to the Magdalena, but Colombia’s political vagaries undermined these projects. After a series of such disappointments Espinosa gave up the practice of engineering, taking refuge in university teaching.44

Some young engineers could not resist the siren song of the violent politics of the era. Isidoro Plata, a young liberal with a B.S. from the Yale Scientific School (1856), spent the early 1860s in General Mosquera’s military campaign against the conservatives.45 Five, and possibly six, of those eighteen Herrán protégés about whose careers something is known were active in politics. Two of the brightest hopes— Uladislao Vásquez and Sebastián Ospina—died fighting for the conservative cause in the civil war of 1876-77.46

Foreign-trained conservatives found it particularly hard to obtain government appointments during the period of liberal dominance from 1861 to 1880. José Cornelio Borda, member of a notable conservative family, studied engineering in Paris. When the conservatives held the government in Bogotá (1857-61), he returned to New Granada and was made Director of the National Observatory. But then came the liberal revolution of 1859-63, in which he tenaciously served the conservative cause as an artillery instructor and staff officer. After the war, when the liberals re-established their hegemony, Borda found it necessary to move to the conservative stronghold in Antioquia, where he obtained employment as a professor of physics in the state’s colegio. Borda soon traveled to Lima, where in the defense of the port of Callao against the Spanish fleet he was killed by an exploding artillery shell.47

In general the mid-century efforts to bring technology and practicality to Colombia through foreign education were less successful than their sponsors had hoped. At least between 1850 and 1870, sporadically-functioning domestic institutions for technical education appear to have been more fruitful. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the factors operating in the selection of youths for foreign study were primarily, 1.) the wealth of the family; 2.) the desire of the parents; and 3.) (particularly between 1850 and 1870) the political situation. The aptitudes or interests of the youths being sent abroad were probably less important considerations. In the case of domestic technical schools, on the other hand, aptitude probably played a somewhat greater role in the selection of students. The Colegio Militar which functioned in Bogotá between 1848 and 1854, a rather effective seminary of engineers and science teachers, also operated on ascriptive principles to some degree, in that the sons of heroes of the Independence were given preference in admission. But places were also held for one scholarship student from each province, and these boys seem often to have been selected for their aptitude. A similar system operated when the military school was briefly revived in 1866-67 and when scholarships were provided for technical studies in the National University (1868-1874).

Political factors also appear to have favored the students in Colombian schools over those who had gone abroad, particularly between 1850 and 1870. Most of those who studied in foreign lands in these years were conservatives, while the liberals controlled the national government between 1849 and 1854 and again from 1861 to 1880. Many of those who studied abroad, therefore, had little chance of appointment to official engineering and teaching positions. In addition, and perhaps as important, the national congress, in founding the Bogotá military school in 1847, had promised preference in government technical and teaching appointments to alumni of the Colegio Militar. Whether in honor of this commitment or because of the political affiliations and connections of the alumni, the graduates of the military school did predominate overwhelmingly in those technical jobs which the government might confer.

After 1870 the conditions determining study abroad and its possible fruits became more favorable, and the return was better. The country’s politics stabilized in some respects after 1864, with the conservatives becoming increasingly secure in regional power bases in Antioquia and elsewhere. Thus there was a tendency to send youths abroad less for political reasons than because of demonstrated aptitude or interest. In addition, as the Colombian system of higher education became more developed, particularly from 1867 onward, Colombian students went abroad with better scientific and technical preparation. Because of both their improved preparation and their demonstrated aptitude, their studies in foreign countries began at more advanced levels, and they tended more to obtain engineering degrees. On their return to Colombia they also were more likely to find jobs as engineers, as the national economy began to present new opportunities for technical achievement. Between 1850 and 1870 almost no railroad construction occurred on the Colombian mainland; in the 1870s the first tentative steps were taken, and the 1880s marked the beginning of widespread railroad building across the country. The 1870s and 1880s also brought a new vogue for iron bridges constructed according to current engineering principles. There was increased activity in the building of cart-roads, in the erection and operation of iron and steel mills, in hydraulic and sanitation engineering, and ultimately in gas and electricity. While all of these developments offered a broader field for Colombian engineers, the multiplication of technical schools—in the National University in Bogotá, in the University of Antioquia and mining school in Medellín, in the University of Cauca in Popayán—also provided new opportunities for science teachers. In the new era between 1870 and 1900, Colombian engineers were by no means fully employed in their profession. Nevertheless, in this more favorable environment all engineers, no matter what their political affiliation or whether they were educated abroad, were embraced as agents of national development.


An elaborate statement of tile prevailing view appears in Seymour Martin Lipset, “Values, Education, and Entrepreneurship,” in Lipset and Aldo Solari (eds.), Elites in Latin America (New York, 1967), pp. 1-21.


Colombian trade data are now summarized most accessibly in William Paul McGreevey, An Economic History of Colombia, 1843-1930 (Cambridge, England, 1971), pp. 35-37, 99, 102.


Mariano Ospina, Memoria de lo interior i relaciones exteriores, 1842 (Bogotá, 1942), pp. 45-46.


“Instrucción pública,” El Día, Bogotá, January 30, 1842.


Ospina’s program and its destruction are more fully described in John Lane Young, “University Reform in New Granada, 1820-1850,” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1970.


Jaime Jaramillo Uribe, El pensamiento colombiano en el siglo XIX (Bogotá, 1964), pp. 22-24, 36-40 passim.


As quoted in Estanislao Gómez Barrientos, Don Mariano Ospina y su época (2 vols., Medellín, 1913), II, 179.


Estanislao Gómez Barrientos, “Mariano Ospina R.,” in Rafael M. Mesa Ortiz (ed.), Colombianos ilustres (5 vols., Bogotá and Ibagué, 1916-29), IV, 176.


Ibid., p. 177.


Ibid., pp. 174-175.


Pastor Ospina to General Pedro A. Herrán, Cartagena, February 27, 1862 and July 31, 1862, and P. A. Herrán to Pastor Ospina, New York, Oct. 17 and 26, 1862, in Academia Colombiana de Historia, Bogotá, Archivo Herrán (hereafter AH), correspondencia, Ospina, II, typescript, pp. 40-41, 135-136, 143.


Herrán to M. M. Mallarino, September 3, 1855, in AH, Libro copiador, no. 1, 1854-55, fol. 429; Adolfo Harker Mutis, Mis recuerdos (Bogotá, 1954), pp. 15-23.


Nicolás Tanco A. to José Eusebio Caro, Habana, August 29, 1852, in José Eusebio Caro, Epistolario (Bogotá, 1953), p. 441; Inocencio Vargas, Bogotá, to Santamaría & Cía., Liverpool, Sept. 25, 1857, in Inocencio Vargas é hijos Papers, Bogotá, 1856-57, fol. 443.


Angel and Rufino José Cuervo, Vida de Rufino Cuervo y noticias de su época (2 vols., Bogotá, 1946), II, 164; Herrán to Mallarino, Sept. 3, 1855, AH, Libro copiador, no. 1, 1854-55 fol. 429.


José Manuel Restrepo, Autobiografía. Apuntamientos sobre la emigración de 1816, e indices del “Diario Político” (Bogotá, 1957), p. 42.


Caro, Epistolario, pp. 133, 138-39, 158-59.


Ibid., p. 209. See also p. 144.


Data on these students has been developed primarily from AH, Rejistro de correspondencia, 1850-53; Rejistro de cartas escritas a los jóvenes que están a mi cargo y a sus padres, 1853; Copiador de cartas no. 1, 1854-55; and Libro copiador no. 2, 1856-57.


The problem of determining the occupations of members of the upper class in the nineteenth century is difficult, not only because of the sparseness of data on some individuals, but also because there was little specialization of function. The men are here categorized according to their dominant occupations.


As in the case of occupation, some individuals’ places of residence are hard to specify. Many of the people listed as provincials spent some time in the Congress in Bogotá.


J. D. Pumarejo to P. A. Herrán, Valledupar, December 21, 1847, in AH, correspondencia, letra P.


AH, Rejistro de correspondencia, 1850-53, letters to R. E. Rice, Stamford, August 10 and 25, 1852, and to Eugenio Uribe, Medellín, November 21, 1852.


Herrán to Rafael Espinosa, March 8, March 24, and Nov. 6, 1852, in AH, Rejistro de correspondencia, 1850-53. On W. A. Norton and J. A. Porter at Brown and Yale, see Russell H. Chittenden, History of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, 1846-1922 (2 vols., New Haven, 1928), I, 55-61.


Luis M. Silvestre to Herrán, Honda, January 9, 1856, AH, correspondencia, letra S. fols. 35-36. The then-celebrated Silliman (Benjamin, Sr.) had retired, and both he and his son, who was teaching at Yale in 1856, taught chemistry and geology, not math or engineering. (Chittenden, History of the Sheffield Scientific School, I, 28-30, 45-46, 63.)


Herrán to M. M. Mallarino, February 5 and February 22, 1856, and to Justo Arosemena, December 19, 1856, in AH, Libro copiador, no. 2, 1856-57, fols. 74-76, 120-122, 549.


Semi-Centennial Catalogue—. Rensselaer, p. 31, passim; Nason (ed.), Biographical Record, pp. 394, 448-548, 474-483; Joaquín Ospina, Diccionario biográfico y bibliográfico de Colombia (3 vols., Bogotá, 1927; 1937-39), III, 430-431, 965-966; Monte A. Calvert, The Mechanical Engineer in America, 1830-1910 (Baltimore, 1967), p. 49; Emilio Robledo, La vida del general Pedro Nel Ospina (Medellín, 1959), pp. 33, 45-47; Anales de Ingeniería, 5:57 (April, 1892), 279-283, and 5:58 (May, 1892), 320.


Anales de Ingeniería, 1:8 (March 1, 1888), 225; 3:28 (November 1, 1889), 99-100, 127; 3:36 (July, 1890), 403; 5:57 (April, 1892), 284-286.


Herrán to Eugenio M. Uribe, September 3, 1855, and to M. M. Mallarino, October 4, 1855, in AH, Libro copiador, no. 1, 1854-55, fols. 431, 483; and Herrán to Mallarino, October 1, 1856, AH, Libro copiador, no. 2, 1856-57, fol. 238 vta.


Anales de Ingeniería, 12:140 (November, 1901), 98-99; 13:158 (April, 1906), 292.


Soledad Acosta de Samper, Biografía del General Joaquín Acosta (Bogotá, 1901), pp. 205-229, 436-456.


Anales de Ingeniería, 12:139 (October, 1901), 69; 14:165-166 (November-December, 1906), 135; 18:211-212 (September-October, 1910), 119.


Emiro Kastos, “Estudios industriales. La minería en Antioquia,” El Pueblo, Medellín, September 6, 1855.


Gómez Barrientos, Don Mariano Ospina, II, 423, 425.


Robledo, Vida del General Pedro Nel Ospina, pp. 46-47.


Gustavo Arboleda, Diccionario biográfico y genealógico del antiguo departamento del Cauca (Bogotá, 1962), pp. 278-279, 295.


Students from South America at Rensselaer had a significantly higher rate of finishing than those from the Caribbean area. The low rate of finishing for Cubans and and Mexicans may be attributable to political events at home. Possibly greater difficulty and cost of transportation operated as factors selecting more qualified students in South American countries. Or possibly parents in distant lands, considering the greater psychological effort and cost involved in sending their sons, were more likely to demand a higher return on their investment, namely the degree.

Latin American students at Rensselaer (1850-1874)*
Caribbean and Meso-American studentsSouth American students
Cubans 16 38 Brazilians 
Puerto Ricans New Granadans 
Mexicans Ecuadorians 
Costa Ricans 0
   Chileans 1
 18 47  12 10 
Latin American students at Rensselaer (1850-1874)*
Caribbean and Meso-American studentsSouth American students
Cubans 16 38 Brazilians 
Puerto Ricans New Granadans 
Mexicans Ecuadorians 
Costa Ricans 0
   Chileans 1
 18 47  12 10 

Based on data in Proceedings of the Semi-Centennial . . . Rensselaer, pp. 14-66, 83.


Papel Periódico Ilustrado, May 5, 1883, p. 251, and May 25, 1883, pp. 293-94; Colombia Ilustrada, July 20, 1889, p. 94; October 15, 1889, p. 134.


Papel Periódico Ilustrado, January 1, 1884, pp. 118-121; January 15, 1884; p. 134; April 22, 1884, pp. 246-249; Colombia Ilustrada, October 22, 1890, pp. 258-259, 264-267.


Adolfo Dollero, Cultura colombiana (Bogotá, 1930), pp. 127, 131, 138, 505; Ospina, Diccionario, II, 153.


Cases of Juan David Herrera, Víctor Mallarino, Venancio González Manrique, Fidel Pombo, Tomas Herrán. Ibid., 620-621; 627-628; Doliera, Cultura colombiana, pp. 81, 127, 138, 341; Anales de la Universidad, 3:13 (January, 1870), 179-184, and 5:25 (January-March, 1871), 13-26; Anales de la Instrucción Pública, 1:1 (September, 1880) 52-54, 63, 67, 72; Anales de Ingeniería, 1:1 (August 1, 1887), 27; Gómez Barrientos, Don Mariano Ospina, I, 236.


Dollero, Cultura colombiana, pp. 118-119, 120-121.


Careers of Rafael Arboleda, Alejandro Manrique C., Fidel Pombo, Juan Nepomuceno González Vásquez, Pedro Sosa. Ospina, Diccionario, I, 153, 300-301; Anales de Ingeniería, 2:19 (February 1, 1889); 10:121 (September, 1898), 256-279; 12:137 (August, 1901), 4-8; 18:211-12 (September-October, 1910), 119-26.


Arboleda, Diccionario, p. 295.


AH, Libro copiador no. 1, 1854-55, fol. 538; AH, Libro copiador no. 2, 1856-57, fol. 553; “Boletín industrial,” El Tiempo, August 11 and November 3, 1857; Anales de Ingeniería, 1:1 (August 1, 1887), 27.


Cordóvez Moure, Reminiscencias, pp. 782, 1055.


Robledo, Vida del General Pedro Nel Ospina, p. 43; Ospina, Diccionario, III, 180-182.


Ibid., I, 300-301; Boletín de Historia y Antigüedades, 7:82 (March, 1912), 647-649, and 32:363-364 (January-February, 1945), 19-62.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern University.