Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, Volume 1 by Alexander von Humboldt

Geographic almanac of Mexico prior to independence
During his landmark expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804, German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt spent a year in Mexico. He passed much of that time conducting research in the archives of Mexico City, which served as his home base of operations in between side trips to visit the country’s mines (one of Humboldt’s areas of expertise). At that time Mexico was the name of the capital city, but the nation, still under Spanish rule, was called New Spain. The territory encompassed not only what is now the nation of Mexico but also large portions of the Southwestern United States, California, and Texas. In 1811, Humboldt published the fruits of his extensive research in his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. First printed in French, it was published later that same year in an English translation by John Black. This London edition was released in five volumes, including four volumes of text and one slim book of maps and illustrations.

The title “Political Essay” is not an accurate description of the book’s contents. It is really a geographic overview of the country utilizing a wide range of scientific and sociological data. Humboldt was the ultimate generalist, and as with every place he traveled he was interested in all aspects of New Spain: its flora, fauna, geology, climate, history, people, culture, governance, and more. Full of statistics and charts as well as Humboldt’s educated perspective on the country, the Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain is an authoritative and insightful almanac of facts and figures on Mexico at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Volume 1 begins with a lengthy “geographical introduction” in which Humboldt elaborates on the making of the maps included in Volume 5. One must admit that this makes for some tedious reading. Humboldt not only explains his own geographical coordinates but also the history of everyone who’s ever taken geographical coordinates in the region. Things get more interesting, however, when he goes into a detailed topographical description of New Spain and the climates of its various biospheres. The most valuable portion of the volume, however, is his discussion of the peoples of Mexico and the living conditions of the various races, classes, and castes of society. This is followed by a more statistical study of the demography of each province or department, and a discussion of the agricultural productions of New Spain. Through the myriad topics investigated, Humboldt not only covers the present state of things but also takes the reader on educational asides into the history of pre-Colombian times and the Spanish conquest.

Those interested in Humboldt’s travels and adventures won’t necessarily enjoy the Political Essay on New Spain. It is heavy on statistics, tables, and coordinates; low on narrative prose. One really needs to have an existing interest in Mexico and its history to fully appreciate this work. While the brutality of the conquistadores is common knowledge, Humboldt’s vividly elucidates the social order that grew out of that conquest as things stood in Mexico just before its War of Independence. At the same time, one can see how the policies of racial inequality and economic disparity established by the Spanish regime would lead to the political corruption of the twentieth century. Humboldt delivers a critical perspective on the oppression and inequality of the era, advocating for Indigenous rights, the abolition of slavery, and governmental reform. In contrast to the prevailing view of New Spain as an uncivilized backwater, Humboldt praises the accomplishments of Mexican scientists and scholars. In keeping with his liberal and republican ideals, Humboldt supported the Latin American independence movements that arose in the decades immediately following the publication of this work. As an important document of this pivotal era, Humboldt’s Political Essay is a must-read for any enthusiast of Mexican history.

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