Antonio Parra Callado was a prominent naturalist from Tavira, Portugal, born on June 25, 1739. Not much is known of his youth, except that he enlisted in the Spanish army as a soldier in the Infantry Regiment of Mallorca and that he worked as a sailor. In 1763, he traveled to Cuba, probably with the troops of Ambrosio Funes de Villalpando, Count of Ricla, who arrived in Havana that year after the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty marked the moment when the English returned Havana to the Spanish in exchange for Florida.
Arrival in Cuba
Shortly after his arrival, he graduated from the army and married Catarina Gertrudis Muñoz, with whom he had several children. After the death of his wife in 1776, he remarried in 1784 to María Blaza del Río, a native of San Agustín de La Florida, although it is not known that they had children together.
From 1763 to 1787, Parra collected and dissected marine animal species using a method of his invention. To exhibit his specimens, he had bases and furniture built from precious woods from Cuba, forming a natural history cabinet in his house in Old Havana. There, in addition to the stuffed samples, he exhibited live animals, including monkeys and alligators.
The Natural History Cabinet of Madrid
Impressed by his work, José Clavijo, director of the Cabinet of Natural History of Madrid, encouraged Parra to continue his collection and proposed to the king that he buy it. Thus, Parra traveled to Madrid in 1788 with some samples and a book he had published in Havana a year earlier. This book, the Description of different pieces of natural history , is considered the first scientific work published in Cuba. It was illustrated and illuminated by Parra’s son, Manuel Antonio, and describes several representatives of the fauna of the region, including one of the first descriptions of ciguatera, a toxicosis produced by the ingestion of certain fish and mollusks.
Upon his return to Cuba, Parra continued his work and sent live Cuban seeds and plants to Madrid between 1790 and 1792 with the intention of acclimatizing them in the Botanical Gardens of Madrid and Aranjuez. In 1793, Parra traveled to Spain with his whole family and deposited his collections in the Cabinet of Natural History in Madrid, which had been acquired by both Charles III and his successor, Charles IV.
Despite his contributions to science, Antonio Parra Callado faced difficulties in obtaining a naturalist position in Madrid for himself and two of his sons, as well as a free piece of land in Havana to devote himself to agriculture. Both requests were denied. After this, no more is known about his life. However, his legacy lives on in his extensive work in natural history, which contributed significantly to the scientific knowledge of the time.