I Found It at the JCB

This month

September 2009

A Rotten Dogfish in the Royal College of San Carlos
by Ari Zighelboim

Dogfish in School


Detail from Algemeine Geschichte de Länder und Völker von America , Halle, 1752

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

The document I present here sheds light on the living conditions of a preparatory boarding school in the viceregal capital of Lima. While its contents are seemingly mundane, it also illuminates the general state of higher education in Spanish America in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. It is a manuscript petition, which can be dated to circa 1775, from the students of the Real Convictorio Carolino against their schoolmaster. The viceroy to whom it was directed was Don Manuel de Amat y Junient, a career soldier of the Catalan nobility credited with introducing the values and aesthetics, as well as the corrupt ways and unfulfilled promises, of the Spanish brand of the Enlightenment in Peru during his long government (1761-1776).

The Convictorio Carolino was an elite boarding school created as part of an effort to reform higher education in order to make it more consonant with the needs of the State and the promises of science and technology. In their petition, the unnamed students had little to complain about regarding the curriculum. In fact, the students had probably not yet been exposed to the new program at all. The target of their writ was their conservative schoolmaster and canon of the Lima Cathedral, José de Arquellada, who failed to implement most of the reformed study program.

The students concentrated on matters related to the treatment they received in their petition. Arquellada was a good priest, the students contended, but a bad educator. He was contemptuous, used derisive language against them (e.g., “this one was born to wear a bridle and eat grass”), and failed to recognize their diverse abilities. He assigned rewards according to wanton personal preferences unrelated to the students’ qualities or performance.  Worse still, he meted out punishment arbitrarily and “barbarically,” rather than in wise proportion with comparable rewards. In other words, he was a tyrant–a term the students used liberally and pointedly in their complaint.  The schoolmaster was also venal, as he was involved in, or lent a blind eye to, blatant corruption inside and outside the school. Finally, the students contended, this regime would have the inevitable consequence of reducing the student population, as concerned parents would pull their children out of the school. In sum, employing the language of just government, the complaint was carefully designed to portray Arquellada as an enemy of the King and an obstacle to the fulfillment of His concern for the happiness and development (aumento, “increase”) of the realm.

But the core of the complaint, taking up as much as half its substantial length, was the poor quality and overall scarcity of the food the students were served. In the eyes of the students, the poor food was the result of the rector’s miserliness and meanness, as well as his administrative incompetence. The bread was bad, and the eggs, when available, were rotten and served boiled, rather than fried, to save on lard. Meat was meager, consisting of bones and worthless scraps. The stew, the main meal of the day, was made with bones, lowly native manioc and sweet potatoes, and always hard chickpeas, all deemed undignified and unsubstantial foods. The chicken coops were empty, all the rabbits had died, and the orchard bore at best meager native cherimoyas, succulent peaches and grapes having long disappeared. Not even the teachers got their customary rations of chocolate and yerba mate anymore, and, to get their evening cup of cocoa, the students had to bribe the kitchen staff. The incompetence of Arquellada even caused the hams and sausages accumulated during the previous schoolmaster’s tenure to rot for lack of use, and, rotten and all, he had sent them to the market to sell.

Situated at the very center of the main complaint about food, the worse indignity described took place during Lent, when meat was banned and fish eaten instead. The fish in question was a tollo, or dogfish, a kind of small shark, plentiful in the South Pacific cold waters. Both for its content and its form, the paragraph should be quoted in full:

Esta Quaresma pasada se nos dio un Tollo tan pestilente, y podrido qe sera dificil encontrar otro peor con el fin de dar una mala comida. Nada ai en esto de exajeracion pr qe era tal qe despues de labar lo, y conponerlo estava yncapas no solo de comerse sino aun de olerse, pr lo qe muchos Colejiales estaban con Pañuelos en las Narises en el Tpo qe estava en la mesa, En uno de los patios mas sercanos a la Cosina, y despensa no podian estudiar los Niños// sin astio por la ediondes qe penetrava aun las Pare des, y condusia la Agua de la Asequia. El Despen sero  no obstante su Rustisidad, y humilde condision, y no obstante qe parese pr Rason de estado ser de su facsion, dijo qe si mientras estava el Tollo en su despensa no acababa con su vida se juzgava yn mortal.


This last Lent we were given a Dogfish so pestilent, and rotten that it would be hard to find a worse one with the intent to provide a bad meal. There is no exaggeration here for it was such that after washing it, and gutting it, it was impossible not only to eat it but even to smell it, so that many
Students were covering their noses with handkerchiefs while they were sitting at the table. In one of the courtyards closer to the Kitchen, and pantry the Children could not study without feeling queasy due to the stench that penetrated even the Walls, and was transmitted by the  Water from the drain. The pantry steward, despite his Rusticity, and humble condition, and the fact that for Reason of state he must belong to [the schoolmaster’s] faction, said that if the Dogfish did not end his life while it remained in his pantry he would judge himself to be immortal.

The failure of the schoolmaster was manifold: not only was he incapable of providing healthy food, essential to the students’ physical sustenance; in failing to do so, he was impeding the students’ ability to perform their main duty, to concentrate in their studies. Since eating fish during Lent was the duty of all Catholics, the fish fiasco also had religious ramifications, suggesting that Father Arquellada was failing his students both in their spiritual and physical wellbeing. The message was that the new regime, supposedly based on Reason of State, had not only left unfulfilled its promise of educational reform; it had also proven incapable of maintaining that which was commendable in the old system and still fundamental in the new, the good practice of religion.

The Real Convictorio was founded as a direct consequence of the expulsion of the Society of Jesus in 1767. A substantial part of its funding came from the Jesuit’s disbanded San Martin College, and its building also came from the Society, the extinct Jesuit novitiate of San Antonio Abad, which was renamed and put to new use. The chicken coops and orchards, whose neglectful state under schoolmaster Arquellada the students lamented, had also probably been part of the novitiate. But the Jesuit imprint was not only material. It may also be detected in the skilled rhetoric against tyranny deployed by the students in their petition to the viceroy, even though the teaching of the theses of just tyrannicide and regicide—the brainchildren of early modern Jesuit theologians such as Luis de Molina, Juan de Mariana, and Francisco Suárez—had been explicitly forbidden by a special royal decree in 1767, following the Society’s expulsion.

Arquellada was constantly and negatively compared to the first schoolmaster, the cleric José de Lazo Mogrovejo. Since Lazo’s tenure had only lasted one year, it is reasonable to think that the good conditions alluded to by the students were actually those left by the expelled Jesuits, rather than the work of Lazo. In Arquellada’s defense, the government’s promises of further funding had gone unfulfilled and the school was chronically underfunded. Furthermore, even if the schoolmaster had been keen to implement the government’s reforms, he would have had great difficulty finding teachers capable of teaching the new curriculum, with which most were utterly unfamiliar. Experimental science, another focus of the reforms, was expensive, and the funds required for the importation of the instruments needed to implement the curriculum were never allocated.

The students’ petition essentially asked the viceroy to remove Arquellada from his post. The petition failed in that respect–since Arquellada remained schoolmaster until 1786, more than a decade beyond the estimated date of the petition, when he retired to attend to his canonical duties. Ironically, the petition also failed on another main point. By their display of high rhetorical skills in making their heartfelt petition, the students disproved their contention that they were receiving a poor education.

Ari Zighelboim, Tulane University, was a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library in the spring of 2009.


John Carter Brown Library
Brown University
Box 1894
Providence, Rhode Island 02912
Tel: 401.863.2725
Fax: 401.863.3477

Permissions and Conditions
Join the JCB
About this site

© 2009   •   John Carter Brown Library 
Site maintained at Brown University

John Carter Brown Library John Carter Brown Library Dogfish