Monday, 9 June 2014

Francisco Antonio Zea: Dead and Buried in Bath, England

This is the story of an obsession which, if it has not consumed me, has provided an alternative focus for my existence, for the last 5 years. Sometimes with intensity, more often with a distanced, languid concern, I have been on the trail of Francisco Antonio Zea. This has gone on for so long now that when we walk past a cemetery my youngest daughter instinctively asks 'Are we looking for Francisco Antonio Zea again?' And the answer is usually, 'Yes'.

Engraving of F.A. Zea by W.T. Fry from 1822
Francisco Antonio Zea was the first vice-president of Colombia, the civilian constitutionalist to Simon Bolivar's military general. In 1819 he was named in the role by the Congress of Angostura, widely respected as an Enlightenment man. During the colonial period he had travelled widely from his origins in Antioquia, and had directed Madrid's Botanical Gardens. In 1820 he was designated as Colombia's Plenipotentiary Minister to France and Great Britain, with instructions to negotiation recognition of Colombia's independence, and to secure financial loans to support the new republic's efforts to gain control of its territory.

Zea negotiated a massive, £2 million loan in 1822 with the house of Herrings, Graham and Powles, at a rate of 6%. Subsequent politicians suggested that this was not a good deal for Colombia, and that it left the new republic saddled with debts from its very origins.

Royal Mineral Water Hospital, Bath
Very soon after signing the loan, and sending details back to Bolivar in Colombia, Zea became ill. He travelled from London to Bath in the west of England, and took up residence in the Royal York Hotel. His intention was to take the waters, and gradually recuperate away from the stresses of his diplomatic role. He died on 28 November 1822 in the Hotel. All biographies of Francisco Antonio Zea, including his wikipedia page, affirm that he was buried in Bath Abbey on 4 December.

When I was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Bristol in 2005, one of the first things I planned to do was to visit the grave of Francisco Antonio Zea. The UK doesn't have too many historians of Colombia, and not many of us are based in the West Country. I appreciated that visiting Zea's grave might be a specialist interest. Anyway, for one reason or another it took me a couple of years before I made it into Bath Abbey. I walked around the aisles, spotted plaques and monuments to numerous dignitaries, presumed I had missed it, and left it at that.

Bath Abbey photographed by a non-professional photographer

In autumn 2011 I decided to find the grave and take a picture. I'd just started the Bolivarian Times project that got this blog running in the first place, and a post on Zea seemed obvious given he was so close to home. I went to the Abbey, spoke to some of the guides, and asked them where Zea was.


'Francisco Antonio Zea, the vice-president of Colombia'

Nothing. Lists of plaques and monuments were consulted. Zea did not appear.

Confused, I perused the walls and floors looking for a forgotten mark, a broken name that might have been his. But it was true. There was no commemoration of Francisco Antonio Zea in Bath Abbey.

It was obvious, then. He was not buried there. That was when my theorising began.

The first thought was to check elsewhere in Bath. Perhaps there had been an error in transcription, and that he was actually buried in one of the other cemeteries. This seemed like a good avenue to explore, and a fine way to get to know Bath a little better. So while I was working on a part-time contract, I spent several mornings with my youngest daughter getting the train from Bristol Temple Meads to Bath Spa, and cycling or walking to a new cemetery, and wandering around looking at gravestones. Aged 3, she got very good at identifying the letter Z on a gravestone (mainly they were Elizas). Aged 4, she helped me enter into conversation with gravediggers and gardeners, who joined us in our quest. We discovered earth worms, saw squirrels and ate picnics. We took breaks in parks and played on swings.

Francisco Antonio Zea-Estatua-Medellin.JPG
Statue of Zea in his native Medellin, from 

During this period, which lasted 14 months, I developed some conspiracy theories. These were encouraged by the several trips I made to Colombia in these years researching my book The Struggle for Power in Post-Independence Colombia and Venezuela (Palgrave MacMillan 2013). Though Zea did not feature much in the book, many of its protagonists were his relatives, neighbours and friends. Did he have a secret history than none of them knew about?

The first of my conspiracy theories was that Zea had committed suicide when he realised the disastrous conditions of his loan, and that this explained why he was not buried in the Abbey (as suicides did not tend to be buried in sacred ground). I disregarded an even more outlandish thought, which was that the non-appearance of his grave, despite press reports of the burial, meant that he might have faked his own death and run off into anonymity with a substantial swath of the loan money. The second reached the same conclusion by virtue of Zea's Catholicism, or even his Jewish ancestry. A third possible explanation, like the previous two entirely lacking in evidence to support it, was that he had been buried in a cemetery that was hit by bombs in the Second World War, and his gravestone had been exploded. (The gravedigger in one cemetery showed us instances where this had happened, and the dates of Zea's burial did seem to fit with the right area). We visited around ten cemeteries and burial grounds, in addition to more churches than I care to remember. All to no avail. I asked Mauricio Rodriguez, at the time Colombian Ambassador to Britain, if he had visited Zea's grave in Bath, but he did not know of it, and refused to entertain any of my theorising. In the new Bath Abbey cemetery high up on a hill overlooking the city, we found a monument to a British officer who served in Spanish wars of independence. My younger son caught a tick, which could only be removed with some difficulty. My children began to doubt the existence of Francisco Antonio Zea.

I did not. But it was clearly time to stop walking and hoping to just bump into Zea.

In April 2014, my youngest daughter and I returned to Bath on the train. Instead of seeking green spaces and masonry, we headed straight for the Bath Record Office, located in the basement of the grand Council buildings. I had called ahead, and emailed, a couple of days in advance. This was the first time in my career as a historian that a research trip has resembled an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? I fear it may be the last. Documents from the collections that the archivists had known would interest me were laid out on the table already when I arrived. They were laid out on the table already when I arrived. This never happens. My documents have tended to be missing, presumed lost, and entailed a great deal of persistence, resilience and detective work in catalogues and conversations with archivists in order to locate them. The Bath Record Office was henceforth one of my favourite archives ever.

From a photocopy of the Bath Abbey Burial Register Entries, I learned that Francisco Antonio Zea 'diplomat, botanist, vice-president of Colombia' did indeed die in 'York House' aged 51 on 28 November 1822, and was buried in Bath Abbey on 4 December the same year.

That was it. Definitive proof. Story over?

Not by any means.

I'll finish the story, with an account of what we found in Bath Abbey, in a future post.