Who Was Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt?

David McCullough’s inspiring book — Brave Companions – Portraits in History— shines a light on an amazing scientist and explorer, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt [Baron von Humboldt to his friends]. When McCullough writes, ” … like Halley’s comet or the white whale or other such natural phenomena dear to the nineteenth century, he would be remembered by all who saw him for the rest of their days,” this is what he meant; a recap of FWHAFvH’s life mixed with McCullough descriptions in quotes:

  • 1769 – Born in Berlin – “… he was a baron in about the way some Southerners are colonels”
  • During his youth, developed a penchant for collecting and labeling plants, shells, and insects.
  • With the purpose of preparing himself for a distinctive calling as a scientific explorer, he studied commerce, foreign languages, geology, anatomy, astrology and the use of scientific instruments.
  • 1790 – Published treatise on scientific excursion taken up the Rhine.
  • 1792 – Appointed government inspector of mines in Prussia [Berlin].
  • 1793 – Published research on the vegetation of the mines of Freiberg.
  • 1795 – Made a geological and botanical tour through Switzerland and Italy.
  • 1796 – Upon the death of his mother [father had died in 1779], his inheritance gave him “the means to do whatever he wished.”
  • 1797 – Published research on experiments on the phenomena of muscular irritability.
  • 1798 – Set to be part of Captain Nicolas Baudin’s proposed voyage of circumnavigation leaving from Paris, however the expedition was canceled.
  • 1799 – Humboldt left Paris for Marseille with Aimé Bonpland, the designated botanist of the frustrated expedition, hoping to join Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt. However, they could not find transportation.
  • 1799 – Arrived in Madrid, where the unexpected patronage of the minister Don Mariano Luis de Urquijo convinced them to make Spanish America the scene of their explorations.
  • 1799 – During an audience with King Charles IV, an expedition, to be paid for by Humboldt, was immediately and unexpectedly sanctioned.

You can just feel McCullough’s excitement [and your own I would hope] as he describes the amazing chain of events:

… Humboldt and Bonpland departed from La Coruña, Spain, in June 1799, on a Spanish frigate, slipping past a British blockade in the dark of night, in the midst of a storm, and carrying with him a unique document from the Spanish government. He and Bonpland had been granted complete freedom to explore — for scientific purposes — any or all of Spain’s largely unexplored American colonies; to make astronomical observations, maps; to collect; to go wherever they wished, speak to whomever they wished. The whole arrangement was quite unprecedented (prior to this Spain had rigorously denied any such travels by foreigners), and it had come about quite by chance.

Fast forward five years. The 34 year old German arrives at the White House to meet a fan, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had just purchased a large part of the North American continent from Napoleon the previous year, and had just sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to investigate — whose journey McCullough notes, “could not compare to Humboldt’s in scientific consequence” — Jefferson was not alone in his admiration, the list would come to include John James Audubon, Simón Bolívar, Charles Darwin etc.

What happened next? What did Humboldt and Bonpland see? McCullough again on how it began, it would end in Havana in 1804:

They landed [in New Granada or Venezuela], bag and baggage, on July 16, 1799. Their gear included forty-odd scientific instruments, the most versatile and finest available at the time and just the sort of thing Thomas Jefferson would have found fascinating. Included were a tiny, two-inch sextant, compasses, a microscope , barometers and thermometers that had been standardized with those of the Paris observatory before departure, three different kinds of electrometers, a device for measuring the specific gravity of seawater, telescopes, a theodolite, a Leyden jar, an instrument by which the blueness of the sky could be determined, a large and cumbersome magnetometer, and a rain gauge. Their excitement was enormous. No botanist, no naturalist or scientist of any kind, had ever been there before them. Everything was new, even the stars in the sky. “We are here in a divine country,” Humboldt wrote to his brother. “What trees! Coconut trees, fifty to sixty feet high, Poinciana pulcherrima, with a foot-high bouquet of magnificent, bright-red flowers; pisang and a host of trees with enormous leaves and scented flowers, as big as the palm of a hand, of which we knew nothing … And what colors in birds, fish, even crayfish (sky blue and yellow)! we rush around like the demented; in the first three days we were quite unable to classify anything; we pick up one object to throw it away for the next. Bonpland keeps telling me that he will go mad if the wonders do not cease soon.”

What happened in Havana? This from the Wikipedia page:

Humboldt is considered to be the “second discoverer of Cuba” due to all the scientific and social research he conducted on this Spanish colony. During an initial three-month stay at Havana, his first tasks were to properly survey that city and the nearby towns of Guanabacoa, Regla and Bejucal. He befriended Cuban landowner and thinker Francisco Arrango y Parreño; together they visited the Guines area in south Havana, the valleys of Matanzas Province, and the Valley of the Sugar Mills in Trinidad. Those three areas were, at the time, the first frontier of sugar production in the island. During those trips, Humboldt collected statistical information on Cuba’s population, production, technology and trade, and with Arrango, made suggestions for enhancing them. He predicted that the agricultural and commercial potential of Cuba was huge and could be vastly improved with proper leadership in the future. After traveling to America, Humboldt returned to Cuba for a second, shorter stay in April 1804. During this time he socialized with his scientific and landowner friends, conducted mineralogical surveys and finished his vast collection of the island’s flora and fauna.

Geez, I’m happy when I get to bike ride in the mornings.

About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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