The German Romantic Alexander von Humboldt was the most important European scientist to travel in Spanish America in the colonial period. His works
introduced generations of Europeans to Latin America.
Born to a noble Prussian family in 1769, Humboldt was educated at two of Germany’s leading institutions, the University of Gttingen and the Mining
College of Freiberg. Humboldt desired to travel. He was frustrated in his hope to accompany Napoleon Bonaparte in his invasion of Egypt, so he and his
friend Aim Bonpland, a French botanist, planned an expedition to Spanish America. This presented many difficulties. Spain was at war with Britain, and
the Spanish government, was notoriously jealous of its extensive American holdings. Although Spain had sent out a number of scientific expeditions,
including that of Francisco Hernndez in 1571 and the Royal Botanical Expedition of 1787 (the latter was a group of scientists with the mission of
cataloging the natural resources of Mexico), much of Spanish America still remained to be systematically examined by European scientists.
With some difficulty, Humboldt managed to obtain a royal commission to collect specimens for the king’s museum and to make geographical and
astronomical observations. Leaving Spain in June 1799, Humboldt’s expedition dodged the British blockade of Spanish ports and survived a shipboard
The expedition landed in Venezuela. From there, Humboldt and Bonpland explored up the Orinoco, finding many new specimens and observing Native
American life. (Humboldt mistrusted the common assumptions of European superiority to Native Americans.) After spending the winter of 1800 1801 in
Cuba where close observation reinforced Humboldt’s hatred of slavery the two set out again, this time along the Andes.
There was much to see in the mountains and adjoining regions. Humboldt greeted America with a rapturous enthusiasm characteristic of the Romantic
period but uncharacteristic of European scientists, many of whom viewed the nature of the New World as innately inferior to that of the Old World.
Humboldt devoted much of his natural history studies to refuting that claim, praising the size, vigor, and activity of New World animals and even such
geological features as volcanoes. His observations of different plants found at different elevations contributed to his later development of plant geography.
He climbed Chimborazo, then thought the highest mountain in the Americas, and observed Inca remains.
The expedition then went to Mexico, where Humboldt enjoyed the company of educated people and indulged his growing interest in pre-Columbian
American history and archaeology. There was less exploration to be done in Mexico than in South America but still plenty to occupy Humboldt’s energies.
He climbed more volcanoes (a major interest of his), visited silver mines and other features of interest, and established the latitude and longitude of many
Mexican locations. Before leaving the country, he declined an offer of a position in the Mexican government.
From Mexico, Humboldt and Bonpland went to the United States by way of Cuba. In the United States, Humboldt was treated as a scientific celebrity and
admitted to the American Philosophical Society. He visited Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and discussed the future of the Americas with Jefferson and
other American statesmen, returning to Europe in 1804.
The scientific fruits of Humboldt’s and Bonpland’s expeditions in South America and Mexico were enormous. They discovered and collected thousands of
species, and Humboldt produced the first accurate maps of the continent, with the aid of the state-of-the-art instruments he brought from Europe.
Humboldt’s publications also laid the foundations for the study of pre-Columbian America, the greatness of which he brought to European attention. The
years following his return to Europe were marked by a steady stream of publications. Humboldt wanted to disseminate what he had learned of the
Americas in Europe, and he was also financially pinched, as the Humboldt family lands suffered greatly during the Napoleonic wars.
The bulk of Humboldt’s labors went into the vast, thirty-volume report on his travels in Spanish America. On specific parts of this work, he had the
collaboration of other scientists, including Bonpland and the German astronomer Jabbo Oltmanns. But most of it was Humboldt’s, including three of the
most celebrated sections, the single-volume Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807), which set forth his theories on the influence of height, latitude,
temperature, and rainfall on the distribution of plants; the four-volume Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (1811), the first elaborate and
accurate statistical and geographical description of Mexico; and the seven-volume Personal Narrative (1815 1826), which recounted Humboldt’s
experiences from 1799 to 1804. Charles Darwin found the Personal Narrative an inspiration in his own scientific journey to South America.
The German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt explored the Spanish colonies of South and Central America from 1799 to 1804. He collected
large quantities of data and specimens indicative of the flora, fauna, geology, climate, and ethnography. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania)
William E. Burns
See also: Exploration; Germans.
Crosland, Maurice. The Society of Arcuiel: A View of French Science at the Time of Napoleon I. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.
De Terra, Helmut. Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt, 1769 1859. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
Gerbi, Antonello. The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750 1900. Revised and enlarged edition, translated by Jeremy Moyle. Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.Alexander Von Humboldt 1769-1859 German Photograph by Everett Ltf
Humboldt, Alexander von 1769–1859 Photo Gallery
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by … Ltf
Explore (The story of one of the world’s greatest Explorers … Ltf
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