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Creation and Destruction in the Americas of Alexander von Humboldt

Humboldt in Berlin in 1807, pen and ink

“Without a diversity of opinions, the discovery of truth is impossible.”
-Alexander von Humboldt, 1828

Alexander von Humboldt crawled on all fours along a sharp ridge that ascends like a black stripe above the snow towards the peak of Chimborazo. Known locally as the “cuchilla,” or knife edge, the ridge narrowed to as little as 8 to 10 inches. One foot infected from chigger bites, hands bleeding from sharp rocks, gums bleeding and occasionally vomiting from the altitude, he pressed onwards and upwards. Still accompanied by three of his companions, the crew had left behind their pack animals at 13,500 feet. All but one of the local porters refused to climb past 15,600. The rock was getting crumblier. “Even the mountain vultures and flying insects rarely find their way up into these thin layers of air,” Humboldt noted. And only then, he added, “propelled up involuntarily by the air currents.”

Humboldt’s crew hauled scientific instruments on their treacherous ascent in order to take barometric readings and collect air samples. A device known as a cyanometer measured the intensity of the sky. They calculated altitude by the time for water to boil. They estimated humidity by the change in a length of hair.

The travelers approached within a little over a thousand feet from Chimborazo’s peak when they hit an impasse. The sun had melted the ice in the deep crevasse ahead, making the remainder of the ascent impossible. Taking out his barometer one last time, Humboldt measured their altitude. At 19,413 feet, they stood higher than any human had ever ascended.

isothermal map by W.C. Woodbridge, based on Humboldt's research
Isothermal map based on Humboldt’s research by W.C. Woodbridge 1823 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Everything is Connected

The treacherous ascent up Chimborazo made Humboldt second-guess the value of mountain climbing. But this climb was more than a personal conquest. According to biographer Andrea Wulf, it was a “botanical journey that moved from the Equator towards the poles- with the whole plant world seemingly layered on top of each other as the vegetation zones ascended the mountain.”

By climbing upwards in altitude, Humboldt noticed ecological similarities with regions thousands of miles away. For instance, he found a moss in the Andes that resembled a species from forests in Germany.

Unlike his predecessor Carl Linnaeus, Humboldt was less interested in classifying nature than in understanding how everything was connected. His ascent helped him formalize the novel concept of isotherms, which he documented in his 1817 treatise, On the Isothermal Lines and the Distribution of Heat on the Earth. Isotherms, or map lines that connect zones of similar climate across latitude and across altitude, helped advance planetary consciousness.

Thanks, But…

“Ask any schoolboy who Humboldt is,” wrote a New England journalist in 1860, “and the answer will be given.” Largely forgotten today, Humboldt still may have more things named after him than anyone else. A penguin, a sea on the moon, multiple towns and cities and counties all bear his name. While flattered by the recognition, he noted the absurdity of it all. When a river in Nevada took his name, Humboldt joked that he was 350 miles long and full of fish. Observing his name applied to the Humboldt Current off the west coast of South America, he protested. Fishing boys on the coast, he pointed out, knew about the ocean current centuries before he documented his scientific measurements.

It’s possible that Humboldt would have objected to a park in Chicago taking his name ten years after his death. The city wasn’t yet on the map when he visited the United States.

But, his ascent to fame in the early- to mid- 19th century was unstoppable.

One Hundred Years of Science Dude

“A far harder-working man than any with hammer in hand,” recalled Professor Francis Lieber in New York. A man with a “broad, generous nature” who “hated all slavery, mental, spiritual, physical,” according to Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier in Boston. Lieber credited Alexander von Humboldt with developing a “comprehensive view of [nature] in connection with Man and the movements of society with language, economy and exchange, institutions and architecture.” Whittier remembered him as “only intolerant of intolerance.”

September 14th, 1869 marked the 100th birthday of the Prussian philosopher and “great man of science.” New York observed the occasion with a morning procession, an afternoon statue unveiling, and an evening torchlight procession. 15,000 cigar manufacturers, clothing-cutters, singers, and laborers from every industry joined in the torchlight procession in New York. Other celebrations took place in Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Baltimore, Wheeling, Berlin, Melbourne, and Buenos Aires.

Alexander von Humboldt in Humboldt Park, Chicago

Humboldt in the Park

Humboldt’s name stamp on a northwest side Chicago park required some luck. His birthday centennial coincided with 1869 legislation passed by the State of Illinois to create the West Park System. This plan included a 200 acre park on the northwest side initially known as North Park. The surrounding neighborhood happened to be largely German near the time when Germany was incorporating Prussia. These neighborhood German-Americans, proud of their hero, successfully lobbied to change the name of North Park to Humboldt Park.

Then in 1892 the city added a bronze statue of Humboldt to Humboldt Park. The unveiling ceremony drew some 20,000 spectators.

A Bronze Legacy in the Age of Chloride

During the Gilded Age, powerful constituencies in Chicago across the country installed statues of their favorite heroes in public places. Many of these “heroes” were total douchebags. Some were at least partial douchebags. Often the assessment of douchebaggery depends on who you ask.

Humboldt had the luck of being in the right place at the right time on the right side of power. Inheriting a family fortune following his mother’s death in 1796. This provided him the freedom to forge his career on his own terms by funding his own travels.

To gain permission to travel to Spain’s colonies in 1799, he aligned himself with King Carlos IV. Decades later, his journey across the Siberian Highway was funded by Tsar Nicholas.

But Humboldt ultimately became alarmed by colonial powers’ relentless thirst for information on where to find gems and metals in South America. The Russian Tsar, he noticed, was primarily only interested in using Humboldt to locate gold and platinum mines. Much like the knife edge ridge on Chimborazo, balancing cooperation with European powers with his own pursuit of science was tricky.

Historian Aaron Sachs points out that Humboldt’s maps, censuses, and surveys of natural resources “could easily be used by European powers to further the taming of distant lands and peoples.” But, he ultimately defends Humboldt’s legacy, suggesting his work provides the basis for a “healthy post-colonial environmentalism.”

Mine Inspection with Some Plants on the Side

Prior to inheriting his family fortune, Humboldt’s pragmatically began his career as a mine inspector. Excelling at this, he carved out time to thoroughly document the vegetation of the mines he surveyed. Publishing his botanical research, he earned the attention of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who would become a lifelong friend. Carlos IV also read his work and became convinced that Humboldt could be a useful means of collecting American flora for his royal garden.

Humboldt, in turn, relied on Carlos IV for access to Latin America in his epic journey from 1799 to 1804. Maintaining the “passionate disinterest of a natural philosopher who wanted to understand everything,” Humboldt’s travels expanded his understanding of both nature and the horrors of imperialism.

Portrait of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church, who was inspired by Humboldt
“The Heart of the Andes” by Frederic Edwin Church 1859 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons). Church was inspired by Alexander von Humboldt and coincidentally unveiled this painting on the day that news of his death reached the newspapers

Plant Collection with a Unified Theory of Nature on the Side

During his voyage, Humboldt collected plants, seeds, rocks, and animals as promised for Carlos IV. At the same time, he measured the height of mountains and sampled temperatures and barometric pressure and magnetic forces. Gradually he would find it more interesting to study the geographical relationships of plants than to discover new species. While compiling detailed observations, he built an understanding of how “all forces of nature are interlaced and interwoven.”

Biting the Hand That Fed Him

Upon returning to Europe, Humboldt published an epic seven-volume travelogue that would catapult him to fame. Titled Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctal Regions of a New Continent, these works surveyed both nature and society in the Spanish colonies.

Humboldt recounted that Spain had been “one of the most polished nations of Europe” with art and literature. He expected that a “general improvement of manners would be the natural consequence of this noble awakening of the mind.” But he saw no purity in their motives:

“If the Spaniards visited its shores, it was only to procure, either by violence or exchange, slaves, pearls, grains of gold, and dye-woods; and endeavours were made to ennoble the motives of this insatiable avarice by the pretence of enthusiastic zeal in the cause of religion.”

Humboldt was referring to past centuries here. But he was also quite clear that this dynamic persisted. “Wherever the thirst of wealth has introduced the abuse of power, the nations of Europe, at every period of their history, have displayed the same character.” As a modern-day example, he referenced European abuse of power on the western coast of Africa,” masked only by “more humane legislation.”

In the so-called “New” World, bloodshed had subsided since the Age of Discovery, with Spanish warriors replaced by missionaries. But Humboldt was horrified by how missionaries treated indigenous populations. He noticed that indigenous people lost their “vigour of character and that natural vivacity which in every state of society are the noble fruits of independence.” If the natives seemed passive or ignorant, this was a result of colonial rules forcing obedience.

A Call for Self-Determination

The “very idea of a colony is immoral,” Humboldt wrote in his diary.

In Personal Narrative, he recognized that Cubans devoted so much of their land to producing sugar for the colonizing powers that their livelihood depended on importing expensive food they otherwise could’ve grown themselves.

The scarcity of necessary articles of subsistence characterizes a part of the tropical climates, where the imprudent activity of Europeans has inverted the order of nature: it will diminish in proportion as the inhabitants, more enlightened respecting their true interests, and discouraged by the low price of colonial produce, will vary the cultivation, and give free scope to all the branches of rural economy. The principles of that narrow policy which guides the government of very small islands, inhabited by men who desert the soil whenever they are sufficiently enriched, cannot be applicable to a country of an extent nearly equal to that of England, covered with populous cities, and where the inhabitants, established from father to son during ages, far from regarding themselves as strangers to the American soil, cherish it as their own country.

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799-1804 by Alexander Von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland, Volume III, Chapter XXVII, p. 264

This problem of forced dependence could only be resolved by self-determination for the Spanish colonies, Humboldt believed. But he worried that they weren’t ready for revolution just yet. Inter-racial conflict sowed by colonial powers might make it impossible for them to unite against them. Simón Bolívar confidently disagreed, and the rest is history.

Explorer Non Grata

Throughout his career Humboldt tried to navigate a fine line between civility with the powerful and speaking truth to power. He didn’t always succeed in speaking truth to power. As critics note, Humboldt failed to directly confront Thomas Jefferson about slavery when the opportunity arose.

But Humboldt ultimately faced consequences for the times that he did openly criticize imperial powers. Aspiring to climb and survey the world’s highest mountains, he visited London to lobby for passage to the HImalayas. Negotations went in circles, and he was never able to go. Wulf speculates that the East India Company blocked him, fearing that he’d highlight their exploitative practices in the region.

“Nothing in my life has filled me with a more intense regret,” Humboldt lamented.

Buffon the Buffoon

Humboldt railed against the more obvious inhumanities of slavery and mistreatment of indigenous people. But his belief in the equality of races, documented in his epic Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, extended far beyond this. In this work, he “repel[ed] the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men” and endorsed his brother Wilhelm’s call for “the reciprocal understanding of foreign languages.” Some nations were “more highly civilized” than others, he believed, but “none in themselves nobler than others.”

These views contrasted starkly with the popular European perception of the Americas shaped largely by French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Buffon had never visited the Americas. But he labeled the region a “New World,” as if it hadn’t existed prior to its discovery by Europeans. Humboldt acknowledged differences in civilizational progress in terms of establishing peace and reliable sustenance. But he also believed portrayals of the inferiority of indigenous people only gained traction because they “flattered the vanity of Europeans.”

Humboldt and Bonpland at the foot of Chimborazo
“Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo volcano” by Friedrich Georg Weitsch 1810 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Elevating Indigenous Wisdom

Beyond paying lip service to racial equality, Humboldt demonstrated a track record for highlighting indigenous wisdom where he found it. In Peru and Mexico, Humboldt unearthed the ruins of great civilizations that demonstrated complex civilizations existing prior to Spanish conquest. Missionaries often buried remnants of these civilizations, and in the case of stone Incan highways scavenged them to build cathedrals.

Humboldt also relied on indigenous people for his research. He noticed some natives could distinguish trees by the taste of their bark alone. To his untrained tongue, all tree bark tasted about the same.

According to Aaron Sachs, Humboldt came across natives who “could cure fevers with roots and leaves; they could distinguish the water- by flavor alone- of several different rivers; and they could navigate rapids, thick jungles, dusty plains seemingly devoid of any landmarks, with startling accuracy.”

Thoughtfully, Humboldt reframed European impressions of indigenous people. Where Europeans perceived them as lazy, he speculated that indigenous people in turn perceived Europeans as too hurried, perhaps “chased by demons.”

Lake Valencia, where Alexander von Humboldt witnessed environmental consequences to deforestation
“Lake Valencia” by Anton Goering 1873 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Environmental Destruction

Euro-chasing demons aside, philosophers such as Aristole, Linnaeus, Bacon, and Descartes predominantly all subscribed to a divine belief that nature existed to benefit man. Rejecting these philosophers, Humboldt instead embraced his friend Goethe’s view. Goethe believed that in mechanical systems the parts shaped the whole, but in organic systems the whole shaped the parts.

This difference in defining how man relates to nature was dangerous, Humboldt learned. During his travels to Lake Valencia, Humboldt observed how tree clearance by early colonists ruined agricultural land:

“By felling trees that cover the tops and sides of mountains men everywhere have ensured two calamities at the same time for the future: lack of fuel, and scarcity of water. Trees, by the nature of their perspiration, and the radiation from their leaves in a cloudless sky, surround themselves with an atmosphere that is constantly cool and misty. They affect the amount of springs by sheltering the soil from the sun’s direct actions and reducing the rainwater’s evaporation. When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by European planters, with imprudent haste, the springs dry up completely, or merely trickle.”

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799-1804 by Alexander Von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland

In the Orinoco rainforest, Humboldt documented Spanish missionaries decimating turtle populations by overharvesting their eggs for oil. In Mexico, he witnessed dramatic deforestation caused by the smelting of silver. Again he contrasted this behavior with the environmental stewardship of supposedly “savage” indigenous tribes, who “had no other worship than that of the powers of nature.”

Humboldt saw recurring patterns of colonial hubris leading to environmental destruction everywhere he traveled. If humanity ever visited distant planets, he feared, we’d bring our “lethal mixture of vice, arrogance and ignorance with us.”

The Riches to Rags Tale of the Father of Environmentalism

Humboldt’s devotion to publishing his writings quickly depleted his inheritance. To make ends meet he continued in the employment of Wilhelm IV’s court in Berlin until the age of 87. Much of his time was devoted to chatting with the King. In much of his spare time he responded to thousands of letters in correspondence he received each year.

But Humboldt’s books and ideas were wildly popular and influential. Inspired by Humboldt’s ideas, Simón Bolívar vowed to plant one million trees in the liberated South America, establishing forest preserves throughout. Darwin, Thoreau, Muir, and countless other naturalists devoured Humboldt’s works. Each of them stood on Humboldt’s shoulders to advance environmentalism in their time.

In the Web of Time

Earlier in his career, Humboldt expressed hope for peace, stability, and environmental stewardship in the wake of colonial destruction.

I also venture to hope, once peace has been established, that this work may contribute to a new social order. If some of these pages are rescued from oblivion, those who live on the banks of the Orinoco or Atabapo may see cities enriched by commerce and fertile fields cultivated by free men on the very spot where during my travels I saw impenetrable jungle and flooded lands.

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799-1804 by Alexander Von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland, introduction

Over time this optimism faded. He witnessed France’s decline into autocracy under Bonoparte. Bolivar, he noticed with alarm, had become a dictator. In his native Prussia, a successful revolution failed at establishing a constitution. Increasingly withdrawing from politics, he continued focusing on science.

Just two days before his death in 1859, Humboldt published the fifth volume of Cosmos. In it, he asserted an agnostic view towards the progress of civilization in his time:

The progress of cosmical knowledge was purchased by all the violence and all the horrors which conquerors, the so-called extenders of civilisation, spread over the earth. Yet it would be an indiscreet and rash boldness which, in the interrupted history of the development of humanity, should venture to decide dogmatically on the balance of good or ill. It is not for men to pronounce judgment on events which, slowly prepared in the web of time, belong but partially to the age in which we place them.

Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe by Alexander von Humboldt
“Humboldt in his library in his apartment” by Eduard Hildebrandt (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The featured image at the top of this article is “Alexander von Humboldt in Berlin 1807″ by Frédéric Christophe de Houdetot (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

Recommended Reading

Following is a short list of some of the most compelling and informative works about Humboldt I came across in researching this article.

A Scientist’s Mind, a Poet’s Soul (The New Atlantis, 2021) – Free online article that’s a solid orientation to Alexander von Humboldt.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Andrea Wulf, 2015) – Well-researched and highly readable biography of Humboldt and his influence on society. Amongst other sources, Wulf incorporates insights from Humboldt’s personal letters, translated from the original German.

The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt (Andrea Wulf and Lillian Melcher, 2019) – Graphic novel adaptation of Wulf’s biography of Humboldt.

The Ultimate “Other”: Post-Colonialism and Alexander von Humboldt’s Ecological Relationship with Nature (Aaron Sachs, History and Theory, Theme Issue 42 December 2003, 111-135) – Amongst a deep body of work in the scholarly debate on Humboldt’s legacy, this seemed to me to be the most thoughtful and balanced assessment of Humboldt’s ultimate impact on indigenous lives and the environment in the “New” World. Commendably, Sachs has painstakingly translated many of Humboldt’s diaries and letters from German to English.

Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctal Regions of the New Continent (Alexander von Humboldt) Humboldt’s writing, perhaps due in part to Goethe’s influence, tends to be highly readable and poetic considering the work’s topic and age. This is an abridged version of Humboldt’s firsthand account of his travels in Latin America from 1799-1804. Various free versions of the three-volume English-language edition are available on Google Books.

Recommended Listening

Alexander von Humboldt (Omnibus podcast)

Andrea Wulf on the Invention of Nature, Part 1: Humboldt’s Naturegemälde (Complexity podcast)

Andrea Wulf on the Invention of Nature, Part 2: Humboldt’s Dangerous Idea (Complexity podcast) (Complexity podcast)

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