Monday, July 26, 2021

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, Volume 2 by Alexander von Humboldt

From the Orinoco to the Amazon and back
Alexander von Humboldt
Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to the New World from 1799 to 1804 was a landmark event not only for the history of scientific exploration but also for the nascent genre of nature writing. Humboldt’s journey to Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and Mexico yielded at least 30 volumes of published findings. Most of these books were specialized tomes on botany, zoology, mineralogy, or cultural geography. His Personal Narrative, however, was intended to be the all-encompassing account of the expedition for general readers. In this three-volume work, Humboldt combines copious scientific data with personal reflections on his travels, including numerous diversions into a variety of fields that represent his staggeringly broad range of interests and expertise.

Though the first volume of the Personal Narrative was a fascinating read, the second volume is more enjoyable, for a few reasons. One is that the entire narrative takes place in Venezuela, since the previous volume already covered the journey to get there. Also, the events related in Volume 2 are unified by a single compelling mission. Humboldt and his traveling companion, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, set out to investigate the rumor of a natural canal, the Casiquiare, that connects the watersheds of the Orinoco and Amazon river basins. The pair traveled 1,725 miles to establish the veracity of this unique geographical feature. In addition, Humboldt’s writing in this second volume is more accessible than that of Volume 1. His prose reads less like a string of empirical data and more like a series of scientific travel essays.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Humboldt production without multiple asides into topics that interest him, often resulting in digressions within digressions. Humboldt, the ultimate generalist, left no field of study untouched in his explorations. He was an expert not only in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, but also in geography, meteorology, astronomy, anthropology, linguistics, and the politics and history of South America. The vast range of subjects he pontificates upon include the influence of physical geography on the worldwide development of agriculture, a tree that produces a milk-like sap, the results of his extensive (and dangerous) experiments with electric eels, the unjust treatment of the Indigenous population by the Spanish missionaries, the chemical properties that determine the different colors of water in various rivers and lakes, the history of cannibalism, the truth behind the rumors of a tribe of women warriors (from which the Amazon river gets its name), and one of Humboldt’s favorite subjects, people who eat dirt (a practice more widespread than you’d think). In all cases Humboldt compares his observations in Venezuela with phenomena he has witnessed and studied throughout the world.

One taxing aspect of the Personal Narrative is that much of Humboldt’s text is devoted to geographical information that could better be conveyed through maps—the direction of mountain ranges, the tributaries of rivers, and so forth. The reader spends a great deal of time wading through a jumble of place names and compass points. Perhaps the original editions of the three volumes included a map or two, but you won’t find them in the public domain versions that you can now download for free. If Humboldt didn’t provide maps, he should have, and if he did, then much of his descriptive text is redundant. Even so, Volume 2 of the Personal Narrative is still a wonderful, intellectually stimulating thrill ride through the sun-drenched plains and dense jungles of South America, with one of history’s great polymaths as your enlightened tour guide.

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