Monday, December 5, 2022

Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, Volume 3 by Alexander von Humboldt

In-depth analysis of Mexico’s animal, vegetable, and mineral resources
Alexander von Humboldt
Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt embarked on an intensive scientific expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804. During that extended voyage, he spent a year in Mexico, which at that time comprised most of the Spanish territory known as New Spain. In 1811, after returning to Europe, Humboldt published his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. Later that same year it was published in a five-volume English edition. The title “Political Essay” only tells part of the story. The work is really an exhaustive geographic overview of Mexico encompassing multiple scientific disciplines and the history of the nation. The subject of politics was mostly covered in Volume 1 and somewhat in Volume 2. In Volume 3, Humboldt focuses on the natural resources of Mexico, delivering a scientific and economic examination heavy on statistics.

While Humboldt frequently discusses botanical, zoological, and geological matters throughout his writings on New Spain, here in Volume 3 he concentrates specifically on plants, animals, and minerals that have an economic or utilitarian value. He begins by discussing various plants native to Mexico—such as cocoa, vanilla, and tobacco—and their potential as agricultural exports. He also assesses the success of transplanted foreign crops, such as sugar cane and coffee, in the soil of New Spain. Humboldt then turns to domesticated animals in Mexico, both native and imported, and their prospects as agricultural commodities. The most extensive consideration is granted to the cochineal, an insect domesticated by the Aztec and Maya that yields a valuable red dye.

The vast majority of Volume 3, however, is devoted to an in-depth study of New Spain’s mining industry. Although Humboldt excelled in just about every branch of science, geology was a particular area of expertise for him because he was educated as a mining engineer and oversaw mines in Prussia. Humboldt begins with a long list of where Mexico’s mines are located. Silver is by far the country’s most important mineral export, and gold is also a much sought-after commodity. Humboldt distinguishes the various ores in which these precious metals are found. He then goes into a thorough examination of the methods of amalgamation used to separate the desired metals from the less valuable components of the ore. The level of detail that he goes into amounts to almost a how-to guide for those who happen to have a steady supply of mercury handy. This is interesting but arcane stuff for the nongeologist, and it makes for a difficult read. You really need to know your porphyries from your amygdaloids and your amphiboles from your grauwakke (which I do not). From there, Humboldt spends about a hundred pages on crafting an educated estimate of the total value of silver and gold that Europe has imported from Mexico since Cortez’s conquest. This analysis is heavy on tables and statistics, and naturally all is expressed in European currencies at 1811 exchange rates, so it’s very difficult for the American reader of today to get a handle on the reality and import of his conclusions.

Humboldt’s Political Essay on New Spain is a landmark study in geography and a remarkable work for its day, notable for its interdisciplinary comprehensiveness and its utilization of empirical data and statistics. For the 21st century reader, however, Volume 3 is not one of Humboldt’s more enjoyable books to read. It will only appeal to the most diehard Humboldt enthusiasts, perhaps to geologists, and to those who have an avid interest in Mexico and its history.

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