Friday, September 11, 2020

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, Volume 1 by Alexander von Humboldt

Epic travelogue loaded with empirical data
Alexander von Humboldt
Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt achieved worldwide fame for a daring and scientifically fruitful expedition he undertook to the New World from 1799 to 1804. Accompanied by botanist Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt explored portions of Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, where he logged new species of flora and fauna, investigated geological and meteorological phenomena, studied native cultures, and compiled accurate geographic measurements of the region. The discoveries made and data gathered from Humboldt’s American journey yielded at least thirty volumes of published books. While many of these works were written for botanists, geologists, and other specialists, Humboldt devoted three volumes to his Personal Narrative of the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, which was meant to be the catch-all volume aimed at the general reading public. Though hardly light reading for laymen and loaded with arcane findings, the Personal Narrative proved to be a popular travel narrative that influenced many subsequent naturalists including Charles Darwin. Volume 1 covers Humboldt’s ocean voyage to South America, his stops along the way, and part of his time in Venezuela.

If Volume 1 is indicative of the whole, there is nothing particularly “personal” about the Personal Narrative. Humboldt does write this account in the first person, but the text is very heavy on empirical data. Only rarely does Humboldt ever include anything in his narrative that could be considered a personal anecdote. At times, however, Humboldt does insert commentary into the narrative that expresses his personal views on political and social issues, most notably his abhorrence of slavery. Except for such brief editorials, the text is comprised almost entirely of objective observations of nature. Humboldt relates these observations through a combination of beautiful nature writing, such as when he stands on a mountain top gazing at the landscape below, and detailed notations of scientific facts, such as long lists of minerals and plant species or measurements of temperature, barometric pressure, and elevation. Humboldt often compares these findings with other locations in the world that he has studied or to which he has traveled, in an attempt to elicit universal laws governing similar physical and ecological characteristics.

Humboldt also frequently digresses from the travelogue into extended asides in which he discusses at length particular topics of interest to him, such as documented instances of pre-Columbian transatlantic travel, the most efficient methods of processing indigo and tobacco plants, the atmospheric phenomenon of zodiacal light, or the strange case of a Venezuelan father who breastfed his own child. Just as Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle devotes a chapter to the formation of coral reefs, Humboldt in the Personal Narrative theorizes extensively on the formation of volcanoes, the causes of earthquakes, and the relationship between the two. These two travelogues share many of the same merits and faults. Both can be challenging reads for the nonscientist, but both inspire awe and envy for their authors’ adventurous and remarkable journeys.

One really needs to be a botanist and a geologist to understand all of what Humboldt has to say in the Personal Narrative, but for the rest of us it is still enjoyable to vicariously experience the travels and discoveries of this heroic genius. For most readers with a casual interest in Humboldt, however, a modern summary of his journey will suffice. Gerard Helferich’s 2004 book Humboldt’s Cosmos, for example, provides an excellent blow-by-blow summation of Humboldt’s American expedition.

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