Mediterranean Journey (1787)

Maritime Alps, 13 April 1787: "There are no Orange trees after we leave the environs of Nice. We lose the Olive after rising a little above the village of Scarena on Mount Braus, and find it again on the other side a little before we get down to Sospello. But wherever there is soil enough, it is terrassed and in corn. The waste parts are either in two leaved pine and thyme, or of absolutely naked rock. Sospello is on a little torrent called Bevera which runs into the river Roia, at the mouth of which is Ventimiglia. The olive trees on the mountain are now loaded with fruit; while some at Sospella are in blossom. Fire wood here and at Scarena costs 158. the quintal."[1]

This entry appears in the travel journal of Thomas Jefferson, who spent his forty-fourth birthday on the back of a mule. Un-melted snow closed the mountain passes on his route to carriages, so Jefferson stored his phaeton at Nice and repacked his baggage "into portable form for my bat-mule." On that April morning two hundred years ago, he mounted another mule for the ninety-three-mile journey over the Maritime Alps to Italy.

The cause of American commerce had drawn Jefferson eastward from Marseilles and tempted him to join a stream of pack mules on the main road from Nice to Turin. His goal was the rice fields of Italy, where he hoped to discover why Carolina rice was spurned by European consumers. The public purposes of this extension of his journey only increased his pleasure. His progress along the Mediterranean coast had been "a continued rapture," as he reported to the Marquis de Lafayette. The novelty of the plant life and the prospect of improving the condition of his countrymen with new objects of culture magnified the interest he took in his surroundings: "My journey has been a continued feast on objects of agriculture, new to me, and, some of them at least, susceptible of adoption in America."

A traveler in the best Enlightenment tradition, Jefferson had been careful, before leaving Paris, to assemble the tools suitable for an assiduous collector of useful information. When repacking his baggage at Nice for the Alpine journey, he abandoned his copying press, because he intended to write no letters on this side trip. He did include the tape measures he had imported from London and used them to measure mules in Marseilles, cheeses in Rozzano, and Roman bricks in Bordeaux. The portable thermometer he had brought to continue his daily temperature record seems not to have crossed the Alps with him. It may have been damaged after he took his last reading of the three-month tour in Nice on April 12, when the temperature was 55 degrees. He nevertheless continued to record weather conditions, inscribing a nearly unbroken column of "f's" (for "fair") for the rest of his Mediterranean itinerary. Jefferson must have wished for a barometer to calculate altitude, for he was shortly to reach heights he never attained in his own country. After his slow zigzag progress from the sea up the side of Mont Braus on April 13, he reached an elevation of 3,287 feet. The next day at the Col de Tende he broke that record by climbing to 6,145 feet.

Jefferson's bat-mule also carried a pocket reference library on the subject of another transalpine traveler two thousand years earlier. "It gives infinite pleasure to apply one's classical reading on the spot," he later advised a young American on the grand tour. His own baggage contained "some of the writings in which endeavors have been made to investigate the passage of Annibal over the Alps." The exploits of the Carthaghian general had no doubt captured his imagination when he first read Livy as a Virginia schoolboy. Now he was approaching the spot where, in 218 B.C., Hannibal and his motley army of 70,000 mercenaries, an endless baggage train, and 37 elephants, had penetrated the Alpine barrier to their march on Rome-without benefit of roads, maps, or compass. "From a view of the country" Jefferson regretfully concluded that "the descriptions given of his march are not sufficiently particular to enable us at this day even to guess at his tract across the Alps."

Hannibal's exact route is still a matter of conjecture, but there is general agreement that it was over a hundred miles farther north and more than half a mile higher than the Col de Tende, where Jefferson crossed. Even from the wrong pass, however, he was able to "have that view of the plains of the Po, and of Lombardy in general which encouraged the army of Hannibal to surmount the difficulties of their passage."

While Jefferson was making this imaginative excursion into the classical past, his daughter was sending him a flurry of complaints about her struggles with Livy's Latin. "We are always equal to what we undertake with resolution," he reminded her in a reply filled with fatherly advice. Livy's famous account of Hannibal's exhortation to his reluctant troops, including the declaration that "no part of the earth is unclimbable by man," may have been on Jefferson's mind as he urged perseverance. Whether or not Patsy conquered Livy as Hannibal conquered the Alps, Jefferson was not discouraged by his own unsuccessful quest for the route of the invading army. In 1788 he made an even more diligent effort to find a classical reference point. He combed the east bank of the Rhine River in search of the battlefield where, in A.D. 9, the German defeat of the legions of Augustus checked the expansion of the Roman empire. Again, he was more than a hundred miles from the still-disputed site.

Jefferson's daily sight of the plant he saw both in fruit and flower on his birthday must also have evoked visions of the classical age.  The olive tree, ubiquitous in the works of his favorite authors from Homer to Horace, became the leitmotif of his travel journal.  He beheld his first olive groves near Orange, and thereafter, at nearly every stop, he recorded the presence and size of this tree as well as the methods of its culture and the manufacture of its oil. The olive had been "but a shrub" when he first encountered it, but grew progressively larger as he moved eastward along the Mediterranean coast. At Antibes, where he reported trunks six feet in diameter, he no doubt pulled out his tape measure to discover the girth of a particularly colossal tree.

On his arrival in "the country of olives," Jefferson had immediately recognized the virtues of this tree of ancient cultivation. But it was on his winding passage through the Alps that it rose to the top of his personal list of most valuable plants, becoming the production of nature that "contributes the most to the happiness of mankind." As Jefferson and his mule negotiated the thirty-four hairpin bends of the road over Mont Braus on April 13, he absorbed more than magnificent views of snow-covered peaks and mountain torrents. He realized that the olive "gives being to whole villages." He told George Wythe that this tree supported "thousands in among the Alps where there is not soil enough to make bread for a single family."

His Alpine passage also provided insight into the olive's range. Even without his thermometer, considerations of climate dominated Jefferson's daily observations. As he ascended and descended the three mountains of Braus, Brois, and Tende, he noted the appearance and disappearance of nine plants of economic value and was thus able to "form a scale of the tenderer plants, and to arrange them according to their different powers of resisting cold." From the tenderest to the hardiest, he listed the caper, orange, palm, aloe, olive, pomegranate, walnut, fig, and almond. At the end of his journey, by combining his notes on latitude, elevation, and distance from the coast, Jefferson could trace a line across a map of southern France indicating the olive's northern limit. Although he was not aware of it, he had discovered the boundaries of the Mediterranean climate, as the olive is now recognized as marking its extent.

On his return to Paris Jefferson composed a three-page paean to the olive, filled with uncharacteristic exclamation points. "I never had my wishes so kindled for the introduction of any article of new culture into our own country," he wrote in this letter to the South Carolina Society for Promoting Agriculture, the opening act in his self-appointed role as father of the first American olive colony. He dispatched further letters across the Atlantic, calling the olive "the richest gift of heaven," "one of the most precious productions in nature," and "The most interesting plant in existence." He catalogued its virtues. Thanks to its deep tap root, it was naturally efficient: "The happiness of the olive tree is that it interferes with no superficial production." It would be a boon to both the impoverished and the enslaved. Among "the blessings which this tree sheds on the poor" was its ability to make a limited diet wholesome and appetizing, since its oil rendered most vegetables "a proper and codortable nourishment." Jefferson envisioned an olive tree planted for every American slave, so that the ensuing orchards would oust the unhealthful culture of rice, "which sows life and death with almost equal hand." Because of this contemplated benefit, the introduction of the olive assumed for him the dimension of a national duty. It "should be the object of the Carolina patriot."

Three thousand miles away, Jefferson's compatriots responded to his campaign. The agricultural society of South Carolina commissioned him to purchase some young olive trees to commence their plantations and committed funds for further annual shipments. After delays caused by cold weather, the first parcel of olive seedlings finally arrived in Charleston in 1791.

Jefferson, meanwhile, was careful to assure his own annual supply of the precious product of the olive. Olive oil had joined the exclusive company of wine and books as a Jeffersonian "necessary of life." Every year until his death he imported four to five gallons of the "virgin oil of Aix" (a fragment of a French olive oil bottle was recently unearthed in archaeological excavations at Monticello).

In 1800, when he asked himself "whether my country is the better for my having lived at all," Jefferson was still confident of the success of his olive colony. He proceeded to list his services to his nation, placing the introduction of the olive directly after his sweeping revisal of the Virginia laws. Then, thoughts of these hopeful beginnings inspired his famous statement, "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture." By 1804, however, he had received disheartening bulletins from South Carolina and had to admit failure. As he said in 1813, "If any of (the olive trees) still exist, it is merely as a curiousity in their gardens; not a single orchard of them has been planted."

Jefferson blamed the "nonchalace" of the South Carolinians, who had not taken up the plan "with the enthusiasm necessary to give it success." Although a plant that required twenty years to produce its first crop might not have been very appealing to impatient American farmers, it was not lack of enterprise but climate that caused the failure. All subsequent efforts to grow the olive on a commercial scale in South Carolina and Georgia have met with a similar lack of success. Random killing frosts have played their part, but the Southeast is simply too humid for the olive. The American groves that Jefferson envisioned now flourish in California, where the Mediterranean climate makes its one appearance in our continent. In his spring transit through the south of France Jefferson failed to recognize the aridity of its climate. He escaped the droughts of summer, when the vegetation becomes dormant in order to survive. Under the spell of the Mediterranean sun from the moment he arrived, he saw only its benefits: "I am now in the land of corn, wine, oil, and sunshine. What more can one ask of heaven? If I should happen to die at Paris, I will beg of you to send me here, and have me exposed to the sun. I am sure it will bring me to life again." Whereas contemporary travelers, like English agriculturist Arthur Young, had begun to comment on the sterility of Provence, Jefferson in 1787 saw only its richness: "Nothing can be ruder or more savage than the country I am in, as it must have come from the hands of nature; and nothing more rich and variegated in the productions with which art has covered it." He drank up its sunlight, gazed at its ancient architecture, listened to its musical language, consumed its characteristic food and wine, and never tired of rambling through its fields and farms.

Bewitched by his own enchanted passage along the Mediterranean coast, he never recognized that its "superb" climate was fundamentally different from that of the southeastern United States. In 1822 he was still hopeful that grafts from the few surviving trees of his original olive colony would be the source of productive plantations. By this time he had returned to a two-thousand-year-old world. He took great pleasure in exploring again the terrain of the Roman republic, and on his journeys to Poplar Forest he liked to read Cornelius Nepos, whose biographies included that of Hannibal. While Jefferson reviewed "in his dreams the visions of antiquity," a Carthaginian elephant might have strayed into the scene of Pompey's conflict with Caesar and beyond the Pantheon may have stretched the silver-gray olive groves of April 1787.

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on Lucia C. Stanton, Monticello Keepsake, April 12, 1987.

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