Humboldt, Alexander von (1769–1859)
Humboldt, Alexander von (1769–1859)
Alexander von Humboldt (b. 14 September 1769; d. 6 May 1859), German scientist and traveler to the New World. Humboldt was born in Berlin into a wealthy family. He attended several German universities and by 1790 had developed a keen interest in botany and obtained a solid introduction to physics and chemistry. A trip to England that year confirmed his interest in nature and a love for foreign travel. Named assistant inspector in the Department of Mines in 1792, Humboldt embarked upon a short-lived bureaucratic career that led him through eastern Europe. The death of his mother in 1796, however, freed him from the necessity of working for a living and allowed him to travel as he chose.
Humboldt was the most illustrious of a number of foreigners who went to the New World in the closing decades of the colonial era. With the permission and recommendation of the Spanish crown, in 1799 he and his traveling companion, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, reached Venezuela and began their five-year voyage through Spanish America. Laden with scientific instruments, they were able, in good Enlightenment fashion, to measure such things as latitude, longitude, temperature, and air pressure, and to illustrate their findings. The volume of data collected was enormous and established Humboldt as a major scholar of international reputation.
Humboldt's journey took him into the interior of Venezuela, to New Granada, Quito, Lima, Cuba, and finally, to New Spain. A keen observer of the landscape and the political, economic, and social conditions of its inhabitants, Humboldt also mingled with the elites in the cities and gained access from royal officials to numerous government documents containing demographic and economic information. Because he was well educated and familiar with current intellectual trends, Humboldt was able to share modern ideas and techniques from Europe with colonial intellectuals and bureaucrats, and thus helped disseminate European knowledge and the belief in material progress throughout the New World. He also commented on hindrances to progress resulting from Spanish fiscal and commercial policy and stimulated creoles to believe that improvement in government was necessary. At the same time, Humboldt accurately observed the state of science in the New World at the end of the colonial period. His conclusions emphasized that modern scientific thought was more widespread in New Spain than in Peru and other parts of South America—and, not surprisingly, that it was more widespread in urban centers than in the provinces.
After returning to Europe, Humboldt wrote about his voyage in major works treasured by both contemporaries and historians. His writings include the Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent … (34 vols., 1805–1834); Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne (3 vols., 1811–1812; a part of the Voyage); Essai politique sur l'île de Cuba (2 vols., 1826); and publications devoted to scientific topics.
The Essai politique … Nouvelle-Espagne included considerable official data made available as a result of Humboldt's royal introduction to colonial officials in New Spain. More important, it had profound political implications because the creole elite believed its descriptions of Mexican wealth and progress meant that Mexico had the resources necessary for an existence independent from Spain.
D. A. Brading, The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State 1492–1867 (1991), chap. 23.
Peggy K. Liss, Atlantic Empires (1983), esp. pp. 182-183.
Alexander Von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, (abridged), translated by John Black, edited by Mary Maples Dunn (1972; repr. 1988).
Fernández Pérez, Joaquín. El descubrimiento de la naturaleza: Humboldt. Madrid: Nivola Libros Ediciones, 2002.
Pérez Mejía, Angela. La geografía de los tiempos difíciles: Escritura de viajes a Sur América durante los procesos de independencia, 1780–1849. Medellín: Editorial Universidad de Antioquia, 2002.
Zea, Leopoldo, and Hernán Taboada. Humboldt y la modernidad. México: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historia: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001.
Mark A. Burkholder