Monday, January 10, 2022

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799–1804, Volume 3 by Alexander von Humboldt

Even less “personal” than the first two volumes
Alexander von Humboldt
From 1799 to 1804, Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt explored the Americas, gathering multiple volumes worth of geographic and scientific data on the New World’s natural wonders, political systems, and Indigenous cultures. In addition to the scientific texts he published, Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America was to be his chronological first-person account of the journey. In the original French this account occupied seven volumes, the last of which was published in 1829. In English translation, the Personal Narrative was consolidated into three volumes. Volume 1 chronicles the transatlantic voyage of Humboldt and his traveling companion, French botanist Aimé Bonpland, as well as their initial explorations in Venezuela, which are continued in Volume 2. Volume 3 begins in Venezuela before making a side trip to Cuba. In this last installment, Humboldt once again bombards the reader with much fascinating detail, but the third book is not quite as enjoyable a read as the first two volumes.

What’s disappointing about Volume 3 is that it is less of a travelogue and more of a series of essays comprised of after-the-fact research. There are very few first-person instances of “We went here, where we saw this,” and they all occur in the first couple chapters. The centerpiece of this volume is Humboldt’s “Political Essay on the Island of Cuba.” The chapter covers much more than politics, however, as Humboldt describes all geographical aspects of the island nation from topography and meteorology to agriculture, commerce, and ethnography. This is followed by a chapter on “Cuba and the Slave Trade,” in which Humboldt proposes a plan for phasing out slavery on the island. Don’t expect too much inspirational abolitionist rhetoric, however. Most of this chapter reads like a string of statistics on agricultural production, imports, and exports.

The final third of the book is devoted to Humboldt’s “Geognostic Description of South America,” which is basically a detailed catalog of all the mountains, valleys, and plains not only in South America but North America as well. (Humboldt sees the Rocky Mountains, up to Alaska, as an extension of the Andes.) The entirety of this extensive section consists of Humboldt rattling off topographic information that would have been better conveyed by a physical map of the Americas and perhaps some charts or elevation diagrams. Of course, maps were more difficult and expensive to produce and reproduce in those days, so instead the reader gets page after page of prose in which Humboldt names off geographic features and their directional relationship to one another. The explorer’s comprehensive knowledge is admirable, but the text is mind-numbing.

The most egregious fault of the Personal Narrative is its incompleteness. The multi-volume account only covers Humboldt and Bonpland’s travels in Venezuela and Cuba, not their time spent in Colombia, Ecuador, or Mexico (though the latter nation is discussed in Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain). In three lengthy tomes, Humboldt only manages to recount less than half his time spent in the Americas. Nevertheless, Humboldt’s monumental journey was admirably adventurous and yielded a mother lode of valuable scientific information. Any account he left behind is welcome, and those with an interest in the history of science or with fantasies of exotic exploration will experience many vicarious thrills of discovery.

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