The Genius Of Alexander Von Humboldt, Latin America’s “Second Columbus”

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt
Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt (Joseph Karl Steiler)

(Editors Note: This is the first post in a new series on great figures of Latin American history. It presents men and women whose destinies were forged in the lands charted by Columbus, and who ended up playing key roles in the still-unfolding drama of “the other America.”)


The Humboldt Current. Humboldt’s penguin. Humboldt Peak. The Rio Humboldt. Humboldt Falls. Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Humboldt Glacier. Humboldt’s lily. Humboldt limestone. Humboldt Counties—four of them—together with some 20 towns named Humboldt from Saskatchewan to Patagonia. Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

The German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, it would appear, is inescapable. Wherever you go, not just in Latin America but the United States and Europe as well, there he is. His name graces mountain ranges, ocean streams, plants, animals, minerals, ships, marshes, waterfalls, and asteroids. There are Humboldt orchids, bays, and forests, Humboldt squids, skunks, and schools. No other individual, of any era, has had a comparable number of places and things named after him—some one thousand in all, by some counts.

Strange, then, that almost no one today should remember who he was.

It wasn’t always so. In his day, von Humboldt was the scientist’s equivalent of a rock star, an astonishing feat for an intellectual whose erudition bordered on the superhuman and whose frenetic studies left him almost no energies for a personal life (his contemporaries found him curiously indifferent to women).

His books, which stretched to hundreds of volumes, were so popular that fanatical readers would bribe dealers to secure copies hot off the presses. His friends included countless luminaries of his age, among them J.W. von Goethe, Simón Bolívar, and Thomas Jefferson, who called him “the most important scientist whom I have met.” The English Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge thrilled to his concept of nature and worked it into their poems; Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “a university, a whole French Academy, traveled in his shoes.” Citing his five-year, all-encompassing voyage to Latin America, none other than Charles Darwin called him “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived,” adding that he could never have shipped out on his own tour of the New World (or written On the Origin of Species) without him.

Above all, it was von Humboldt who single-handedly put South America on the map (literally: he was a skilled cartographer) for Western readers. With travel narratives that told of volcanoes and canals, flora and fauna unknown to even the region’s Spanish owners, he shed a vivid light on a previously dark continent, winning laurels from the newspapers of his day as a “second Columbus.” In the process, he developed a whole tool-kit of concepts—ecosystems, climatic zones, plant geography, isothermal lines—that today are common currency even for non-scientists.

Who was this intellectual omnivore, this near-forgotten investigator who, by looking closely at a little spot of Spanish-American soil, changed first Europe, and ultimately the scientific culture of all the world?

Men like von Humboldt, of whom Goethe said: “Spending a day with him is like living several years…He showers us with true treasures.”

Tegel Palace, Berlin
Humboldt family estate (photo credit: Lienhard Schulz)

Attending to Little Things

The grown-ups always laughed when they called him “the little apothecary.” But for young Alexander, the joke was a source of pride.

Pride, also happiness, for even as a seven-year-old boy, von Humboldt had a deep love for nature’s minutiae. As he roamed the hills surrounding the family’s Prussian estate of Tegel, collecting and labeling his specimens of plants, shells, and insects, he took what was indeed an apothecary’s interest in their qualities.

He would say later in life, “Our imagination is struck only by what is great, but the lover of science should attend equally to little things.”

Little things these might have been, but the young von Humboldt’s curiosity about them was very big. So big, that when Goethe visited the family home and quizzed the junge about botany, he left mightily impressed by the boy’s learning. The poet—himself an amateur scientist of no mean achievement—told Alexander von Humboldt, Sr., that his son had a distinct talent for investigation, and should be encouraged. Unfortunately, the father died a year later, and von Humboldt’s cold, emotionally distant mother, wanting to see her offspring in a civil-service career, pushed him to study finance at the University of Frankfurt, a subject he found uncongenial in the extreme.

He didn’t stick at it long. With the mania for maximizing his time that would characterize his entire life, von Humboldt quickly transferred to Göttingen University, where he met George Foster, a naturalist who had been with Captain James Cook on his second voyage, and with whom he made his own virgin excursion in 1790. That trip took him to England, France, and the Netherlands, and led to an early treatise on the minerology of the Rhine River.

The voyage also confirmed what von Humboldt had always known: he wanted to travel and explore the earth.

“I felt,” he later said, “an ardent desire to travel into distant regions, seldom visited by Europeans.”

Das Wunderkind

With said goal firmly in mind, he set about ravenously ingesting all the knowledge he would need to become a scientific explorer, with courses in commerce, languages, astronomy, geology, anatomy, and the use of scientific instruments, eventually graduating from the Freiberg School of Mines in 1792.

It next fell to him to work. Contracted as a mining inspector in Bayreuth, he somehow found time to improve the miners’ educational and working conditions while also improving industrial output. Science continued to be his focus, however, and a publication of his on subterranean vegetation presently caught the notice of Goethe, who remembered him from Tegel and invited the wunderkind to Jena, where he hoped to discuss electricity and its effects on muscle reflexes. Soon the youth was holding his own—more than holding his own, actually instructing and encouraging—in the Weimar circle that included minds the stature of Herder and Schiller. In one Frankenstein-like moment, he and the author of Faust isolated themselves in the tower at Jena University to perform anatomical experiments on the corpses of a farmer and his wife who’d been struck by lightning.

In 1796, von Humboldt’s mother died. Stern and unforgiving, she was unmourned by her two sons, neither of whom attended the funeral. But the inheritance she left would alter Alexander’s life permanently.

Alexander von Humboldt's American Expedition 1799-1804
American Expedition 1799-1804

Setting Sail

Von Humboldt once joked that the vast windfall he received upon his mother’s death would allow him to “have his nose, mouth, and ears gilded.” Questionable adornments aside, the liberty it bought had huge ramifications for Latin America.

Immediately, the young investigator started looking for a voyage to take him to see the world. The destination didn’t matter, so long as it was far away, and wild, and rich in natural phenomena. Some French expeditions to North Africa looked promising, but fell through at the last minute due to the Napoleonic wars then roiling Europe. In 1797, however, von Humboldt and the French botanist Aimé Bonpland crossed on foot from France into Spain, where King Carlos IV surprised them by pledging his full support. The two men were given unqualified permission to visit any part of Spanish America they chose, as well as passports that were in effect a personal introduction from the crown.

Why the royal generosity? The Spanish Bourbons, it turned out, were anxiously playing catch-up with the rest of Europe, which was in the full flower of the Enlightenment. Carlos aimed to promote intellectual exploration as a way of modernizing his backward nation, while also seeking out mineral deposits the madre patria could exploit. Spain had already sent missions to Peru, Colombia, and Mexico to catalog their flora and fauna and assess the economic potential thereof; the richly detailed records the artists and naturalists had brought back made the Bourbons eager to learn more.

Von Humboldt was just what the king had ordered.

On June 5, 1799, then, the scientist finally set sail, on what would become the defining voyage of his life. The goal was to study absolutely everything about Spanish America: atmospheric temperature and pressure, terrestrial magnetism, climate, flora and fauna, ocean currents, rock strata, the whole package. The packet boat he traveled in sat low in the water, loaded down with scientific equipment.

After a brief stopover at Tenerife and a harrowing typhoid scare, von Humboldt and Bonpland finally landed at Cumaná, Venezuela in July. Their odyssey had begun.

Humboldt and Bonpland at the Foot of the Chimborazo Volcano
Humboldt and Aime Bonpland at the Foot of the Chimborazo Volcano (1810)

On the Heights

Very quickly, that odyssey would start to read like pulp adventure fiction. Von Humboldt’s first step was to hire the local Indians to take him in canoes through the crop-growing regions of the Aragua valley. The goal: penetrate the Venezuelan backwater, then link up with the Orinoco River. On route, however, he had a weird feeling he was moving not just ahead in space, but back in time.

The change was striking. From the 18th-century towns along the coast to the remote, primitive tribes of the interior, the explorers seemed to uncover an ancient, more primordial reality. This reality included some of Venezuela’s most bizarre natural formations: caves with a labyrinth of echoing “salons,” a viscid lake of asphalt that stretched over 1,000 acres. The high point of their jaunt was the discovery of the Casiquiare Canal, the only natural waterway on earth to connect two major river systems—in this case, the Amazon and the Orinoco. Equally marvelous were the electric eels, whose corpses gave von Humboldt shocks even while being carved up on his dissecting table.

From Venezuela, the expedition made a detour to Cuba, where von Humboldt surveyed the town of Havana and visited key sugar-producing areas (his verdict: Cuba had vast commercial and agricultural potential, should its rulers ever get their act together).

Next it was back to the mainland, where von Humboldt had one of his greatest triumphs, one he would recount with a swell of pride all his life. With no climbing equipment whatsoever, with shoes that were shredded by jagged rocks and visibility at zero from the fog, he and Bonpland scaled the peak of Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador, at 20,565 feet then considered the highest mountain on earth. The two men had to inch along on hands and knees, clinging to ledges that were barely two inches wide, fighting frostbite and hypothermia, all for the sake of measuring air pressure and humidity (they also had a “cyanometer” to record the blueness of the sky). There, at a record altitude of 19,286 feet, von Humboldt had an epiphany that would sustain him all the rest of his days, serving as a guiding light for his later investigations: a Romantic vision of nature as one, a living organism where everything was connected.

“[I saw that] in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” he later wrote.

Illustration of the Humboldt Current off the coast of Peru
Humboldt Current

Down to Earth

From such physical and spiritual heights, von Humboldt could only descend. Where he landed was Lima, Peru, and its port city, Callao, where he observed the exportation of mercury—a key ingredient in mining—as well as the fertilizing properties of guano (bird droppings). The latter was introduced into Europe mainly on his recommendation, ushering in the 19th century’s agricultural revolution. In Peru, he also pinpointed the location of the magnetic equator, where the compass needle quivers between north and south poles.

The rest of von Humboldt’s Latin American voyage was less eventful. Traveling from Lima to Guayaquil, he succeeded in measuring the temperature and direction of the cold-water current that glides along Peru’s coast, and that has born his name ever since. In Mexico, he corrected the map coordinates for the city of Acapulco, toured the viceroyalty’s mines and volcanoes, and examined newly discovered pre-Hispanic artifacts, including the Aztec Sunstone and Dresden Codex.

As he set sail, though, from Havana in April 1804, he couldn’t help but feel his most exciting American discoveries were behind him.

Von Humboldt had one more errand before returning to Europe. In June, he stopped over in the fledgling United States, to meet Thomas Jefferson. The president was instantly captivated, inviting the intrepid naturalist to Monticello and asking his help in mapping the newly acquired territories of the Louisiana Purchase.

Enamored of what he saw in Philadelphia and Washington, von Humboldt departed from the New World exuberant. America, he predicted, had great things in its future.

Isothermal Chart
Isothermal Chart by W.C. Woodbridge

A New Concept of Nature

Von Humboldt’s foray into Latin America had a revolutionary impact on European science. Out of it came a host of concepts still fundamental for geologists and botanists today.

Concepts, for example, like isothermal lines, which state that there are bands on the earth’s surface, independent of latitude, where the mean temperature is the same. Thus London, which is as far north as Newfoundland, enjoys the same average warmth as Louisville, Kentucky, which is as far south as Naples.

Or take the case of climate zones. While climbing Chimborazo, von Humboldt noticed that the plant species were stacked atop each other in layers, just as in the Swiss Alps. Tropical palms and orchids sat at the bottom, conifers and oaks in the middle, hardy lichens at the top. By focusing not on their individual taxonomies, but on how they sprang from the conditions around them, von Humboldt was well on his way to our modern sense of ecosystems.

The list of his insights can be extended ad infinitum. He was the first to discover the magnetic equator. He unearthed 2,000 new plant species, at a time when only 6,000 were known. He anticipated Darwin in thinking that warring life forms “limit each other’s numbers” through “long continued struggle” for resources. Continental drift, the extinction of species, even climate change: a whole range of ideas we associate with later thinkers are all anticipated in the great Prussian’s rhapsodic writings.

Von Humboldt’s biographer, Andrea Wulf, puts it succinctly in her magisterial The Invention of Nature:

Humboldt’s books, diaries, and letters reveal a visionary, a thinker far ahead of his time…He revolutionized the way we see the natural world, finding connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own…With his insights, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

Latin America had proved fecund indeed for the little apothecary from Prussia.

To Russia and Beyond

Von Humboldt spent his last half-century, and nearly all his vast fortune, disseminating his knowledge to the public. It appeared in books such as Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent and Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, which became best-sellers in every European language. By 1827, however, his self-publishing had nearly bankrupted him. He was forced to leave his beloved Paris to earn his keep in the Prussian court.

Von Humboldt undertook one final voyage in 1829, to Russia, but it was not a success. He hoped to study the natural environments of the Urals the same way he’d done in Latin America, but the czar’s minions who accompanied him jealously controlled his movements, anxious lest he glimpse the sordid state of Russia’s serfs.

The data he compiled on this trip would have its purpose, however. It provided the basis for his late summa, Kosmos, which appeared in five volumes starting in 1845. The book gave final expression to his idea of the earth as “one great living organism where everything was connected,” as well as his belief that nature must be apprehended through feeling no less than observation.

Von Humboldt in his final years was a tireless humanitarian. He opposed slavery and anti-semitism just as he’d opposed the oppression he’d witnessed in Spain’s colonies. He worked to help talented youth find their way in German society. Dismissing the ethnocentrism of his day, he said, “there are no races nobler than others. All are equally ordained to be free.”

When he died on May 6, 1859, he closed his eyes on that rarest of felicities: a life fully lived.

What any retrospective of Von Humboldt’s career inevitably reveals is one of the great saints of science, a Christ-like soul whose commitment to his investigations was absolute. A titanic intellect, he also enjoyed a physical life more strenuous than most professional sportsmen. Most of all, he was a Romantic, a man profoundly in love with nature, who used up the last drop of his vast potential studying her inner workings.

A late aphorism of his sums up his adventurer’s credo, which is the motto of all true voyagers:

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