Friday, April 21, 2023

Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, Volume 4 by Alexander von Humboldt

Disorganized and repetitive afterthoughts
Alexander von Humboldt
In the midst of his exploratory expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804, Prussian scientist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt spent a year in Mexico. His Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, published in 1811, is the detailed summation of his researches in that nation, which at the time also included parts of what are now California and the Southwestern United States. Also in 1811, an English translation of the Political Essay was published in London in five volumes. Because Volume 5 is a thin book of maps and charts, Volume 4 is really the conclusion of Humboldt’s essay on Mexico. Far from a crucial capstone to the work, however, this fourth volume of the Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain is less interesting or necessary than the previous three installments.

The phrase “Political Essay” is really not an accurate description of Humboldt’s study. This is really a comprehensive geographic overview of Mexico encompassing many natural and social sciences. In Volume 3, Humboldt mostly discussed the natural resources of Mexico. He begins Volume 4 by discussing transportation—the roads and ports of Mexico—to explain how those resources are exported to the rest of the world. This opening section is really the only original information in the fourth volume. Everything else seems redundant from previous works. After discussing Mexico’s main seaports of Veracruz and Acapulco, Humboldt then goes into an extensive discussion of the country’s tropical diseases, mainly yellow fever and the “black vomit.” Then, based on detailed statistical research, Humboldt estimates the amount of specie (coinage) circulating in Mexico, and the total monetary value of the nation’s trade in imports and exports. These are topics that Humboldt already discussed at length in previous books. All monetary values are expressed in piastres, which I believe is the Spanish coin of the time (other nations have also had coins called piastres), so today’s reader can only get a general relative idea of the amounts being discussed.

The text of the book is interspersed with many tables, which are a convenient relief from Humboldt’s data-heavy paragraph prose. Roughly the second half of Volume 4 is devoted to notes pertaining to subjects discussed in Volumes 1 through 4. One wonders why such a volume would need notes, since the main text of the book is so minutely specific in its presentation of data that it reads like notes anyway. The answer is likely that these notes present data that Humboldt compiled after the first three volumes were already in the process of publication. Only the most specialized historians will find these notes useful. To the general reader they just seem like digressions and afterthoughts.

In total, The Political Essay on New Spain really is an impressive, monumental work. The book is a pioneering masterpiece of what geographers today would call area studies. It serves as a detailed time capsule of the state of Spanish America at the dawn of the nineteenth century. That said, Volume 4 is the least vital piece of that grand design. Even the most ardent admirers of Humboldt and the most avid scholars of Mexican history are likely to find the volume a disorganized and repetitive mess.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon and leave me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment