Sketches of New Spain

An extraordinary year in the life of a gifted and adventurous scientist

For devotees of the brilliant and largely forgotten 19th-century explorer, naturalist and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the past year has been something of a bonanza. First came 2016’s The Invention of Nature: Alex­ander von Humboldt’s New World, the excellent biography by Andrea Wulf, which won the coveted £25,000 Royal Society prize in Britain for the best science book of the year, and in Canada was shortlisted for the $75,000 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature. Now along comes Myron Echenberg’s insightful Humboldt’s Mexico: In the Footsteps of the Illustrious German Scientific Traveller, a historical and cultural travelogue and guide to his trips to Mexico from 1803 to 1804. As Echenberg explains, Wulf has given English-speaking readers the best biography to date of the intrepid German scientist. Her book is a thrilling study about a polymath who has more things named after him than anyone who has ever lived, including an ocean current, a six-foot squid and a breed of penguin.

But Wulf devoted only a page or two to Humboldt’s formative and implausibly fruitful year-long Mexican adventures. In Humboldt’s Mexico, Echen­berg plunges into the lifetime of scientific studies that Humboldt packed into that single daunting year. More than that, Echenberg’s treatise involved travelling in Humboldt’s footsteps—in itself a daunting experience.

Humboldt became a major figure in the classical period of physical geography and biogeography—areas of science now included in earth sciences and ecology. Interested in terrestrial magnetism, he contributed significantly to the progress of this science, and was a pioneer in the fields of climatology, meteorology and isoline cartography. He invented weather maps showing isotherms and isobars. He was also the first to observe reverse polarity and to discover a decrease in the planet’s magnetic force from the poles to the Equator. And with his book Kosmos he made a valuable contribution to the popularization of science.

Echenberg sketches these accomplishments as well as Humboldt’s unremarkable early life. A sickly child and poor student, he was the less promising younger brother of the dazzlingly brilliant Wilhelm von Humboldt, who would go on to be a liberal politician and philosopher. Alexander followed futile studies in economics at the University of Frankfurt with a little engineering training in Berlin. Restless and uneasy, he suddenly became passionately interested in botany and began to collect specimens in the surroundings of Berlin. He learned to classify them, but soon dreamed of journeys to more exotic lands. A year at the University of Göttingen drew him further into science, and he became particularly interested in mineralogy and geology. He joined the School of Mines in Freiberg after two years and, without any degree, joined the mining department of the Prussian government, which sent him to the remote Fichtel Mountains. Here Humboldt came into his own, supervising mining activities and establishing with his own funds a school for young ­miners.

While there his conviction grew that his real yearning was for scientific exploration. He resigned his post in 1797 and, with single-minded determination, acquired a thorough ­knowledge of geodetic, meteorological and geomagnetic measurements. The upheavals caused by the Napoleonic Wars prevented him from being sent on scientific expeditions but, refusing to be deterred, he finally obtained permission from the Spanish government to visit the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. At the time, these colonies were only accessible to Spanish officials and the Roman Catholic mission, and were therefore completely shut off from the outside world. Humboldt’s social standing and his access to the Spanish prime minister got him the royal permit from the king that he needed. The considerable estate he had inherited from his mother also helped, as he financed his entire expedition out of his own pocket.

In the summer of 1799, Humboldt and the French botanist Aimé Bonpland left Marseille and would spend the next five years in Central and South America covering more than 9,650 kilometres on foot, horseback and in canoes. It was a time of great physical exertion and serious deprivation. They travelled from Caracas, through tributaries of the Orinoco River, proving along the way that the Casiquiare River formed a connection between the vast river systems of the Orinoco and the Amazon. For months Humboldt and Bonpland endured intensely humid heat and trudged through dense tropical jungle tormented by swarms of mosquitoes. Insects and rain destroyed their meagre provisions, and they were reduced to surviving on cacao beans and river water. Nevertheless they survived the resulting fevers, buoyed by their discoveries, observations and collections of unknown plants. After a short stay in Cuba they returned to explore the Andes, Peru and the volcanic peaks of Ecuador without oxygen or mountaineering equipment. Humboldt was the first to attribute mountain sickness, from which they suffered, to lack of oxygen. They also studied the ocean current that would be named after Humboldt (now called the Peru Current) on the west coast of South America. Not surprisingly, on arriving in Quito after their travels, they were enthusiastically received by the viceroy of Spain.

In early 1803, Humboldt and Bonpland teamed up with the Ecuadorian adventurer Charles Montúfar and sailed from Guayaquil in Ecuador to Mexico in what was to be a long and harrowing voyage. They arrived in Acapulco in March 1803 and did not leave Veracruz until March 1804. They spent 350 days in Mexico and it is this last year of Humboldt’s five-year adventure that is the subject of Echenberg’s book—and it is a fascinating work, part history, part travelogue, and always highly readable and informative.

A great deal has been written about Alexander von Humboldt in virtually every European language. He left more than 30 volumes of publications, as well as diaries and literally thousands of letters, yet, as Echenberg explains, few informed readers associate him with Mexican science and travel. Even scholars specializing in Mexico have, in most cases, only read excerpts of Humboldt’s writings, culling his work for their own purposes.

Echenberg, a professor emeritus in history and classical studies at McGill University, has used his considerable scholastic skills in illuminating this fertile period of Humboldt’s life. Of the many scattered and opaque writings by Humboldt on Mexico, Echenberg’s research, which has obviously been wide and thorough, has been concentrated on two works: Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain and Tagebücher, translations of Humboldt’s confidential diaries and notebooks, held in the Berlin State Library, which contain everything from measurements and scientific observations to his political and personal reflections.

Humboldt’s Mexico has a carefully mapped structure, driven perhaps by a desire to avoid a singular Great White Man historical narrative. Echenberg explains that the odd-numbered chapters describe the cities and regions Humboldt visited, beginning with a first chapter on Acapulco and ending with Chapter 21 on Veracruz. The even-numbered chapters reflect on aspects of Humboldt’s passage and meditate on his journey within the broader context of Mexican history and culture, taking in everything from Diego Rivera’s paintings a hundred years later to the impact of smallpox and yellow fever on Mexico.

Humboldt’s Mexico describes the explorers’ arrival in Acapulco, “the place of broken reeds,” on March 23, their gruelling journey to Mexico City climbing through the rugged Sierra Madre Mountains, through Chilpancingo and the heart of Guerrero, to the silver mining towns of Taxco and Guanajuato, and on to the fertile Cuernavaca valley before finally reaching Mexico City, where after struggling with changing temperatures, high altitude and difficult roads, Humboldt stayed for seven months making brief excursions to the surrounding towns. The snow-capped volcanoes Popocetépetl and Iztaccihuatl provided majestic vistas. While in Mexico City, Echenberg notes, Humboldt dedicated long hours to the study of pre-Hispanic art and culture and, although not a historian, he was the first to see the continuity of pre-Columbian history to include the governmental systems of the Aztecs and Incas not as exotic entities but as significant contributors to the cultural past.

Echenberg also reveals that Humboldt, although careful to endorse the Spanish crown as his sponsor, was critical that centuries of Spanish colonial rule had victimized descendants of the Aztecs and mismanaged a potentially glorious “New Spain.” Given access to colonial archives Humboldt was able to release hitherto confidential economic and geographic data in his later writings.

Mining, being a particular area of Humboldt’s expertise and training, was one of the main reasons he was granted a licence to enter Mexico, and he dutifully visited and reported all his findings. He visited Pachuca and Real de Monte, north of Mexico, stayed a month in Guanajuato, and visited the fabulously wealthy Valenciana mine. The importance of these natural resources to the economy of New Spain would occupy a great deal of Humboldt’s Political Essay. It drew attention to the immense natural resources of Mexico, so much so that eventually it caused wild speculation and an investment bubble that burst in 1830, ruining many and bringing some unjustified discredit to Humboldt’s reputation. Mines and mountains were also Humboldt’s passion and he climbed the snow-capped Nevado de Toluca, 4,680 metres above sea level.

The scope and range of Echenberg’s scholarship are impressive. Humboldt’s Mexico is as complete a scientific travelogue as one could hope to find on a gifted and adventurous scientist. His influence on scholars of his time was immense, although some sought to denigrate his achievements, and he has come under some criticism in more recent decades. Echenberg quotes Mary Louise Pratt of New York University as saying, in her 1992 Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, that “Humboldt imposed a western rationalist model on indigenous American peoples and cultures that deprived them of their originality and autonomy.” And the author addresses criticisms made by Mexican historians such as José Iturriaga de la Fuente, who has stated boldly that Humboldt’s loyalties lay with “opponents of Mexican liberalism and progress,” and Juan A. Ortega y Medina, who argued in 1960 that “Humboldt paved the way for expansionists in the United States who coveted Mexican land and resources.”

Humboldt’s admirers, including Echenberg, are nevertheless legion, and he inspired a variety of figures—including Simón Bolívar, who was as much influenced by Humboldt’s mysticism as by his science, as well as the great Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez, who in One Hundred Years of Solitude has the dying Melquiades say “equinox, equinox, equinox” and the name of Alexander von Humboldt, suggesting that “he is there at the dawn of modern history when a new collective theory begins.”

One other thing Echenberg does is tactfully explain the issues of privacy and sexuality as they relate to Alexander von Humboldt as well as his openly promiscuous but happily married brother Wilhelm, who achieved equal fame in his profession. The brothers remained close throughout their lives and Alexander went to extreme lengths to hide any details of their personal lives in his writings. While Wilhelm enjoyed what today we would call an “open marriage,” Alexander showed a clear preference for the company of males and never married.

Humboldt was only 34 years old when he returned to Paris. He had indeed accomplished more than can have been imagined in such a brief time, and his writings were a revelation to thousands of readers, with his influence expanding with successive publications. Myron Echenberg’s lustrous book should take Humboldt’s work and ideas to a whole new generation of readers.