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Celebrating Humboldt: A Universal Scholar in New Spain

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(The following is a post by Maria Thurber, Reference Librarian, Hispanic Division.)

Alexander von Humboldt arrived in New Spain (present-day Mexico) on February 1803 after completing an eventful tour of South America and the Caribbean. Humboldt with Aimé Bonpland, a botanist and the physician for the trip, had already spent a couple of years exploring Venezuela, Cuba, and part of the Andes. With no fixed itinerary, Humboldt sailed with Bonpland from the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador toward New Spain filled with melancholy. The tireless traveler, naturalist, and father of modern geography and ecology wondered if he would ever return to the southern hemisphere to finish mapping its constellations. He could not have imagined the impact Mexico would have on his work, methodology, and publications.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the great naturalist,” engraved by D.J. Pound from a painting by C. Begas. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The voyage to the American continent was strictly scientific. The primary aims were to observe, investigate, research, and record findings to gain knowledge about the natural world. During this period, most expeditions to the “New World” were fueled by the economic interests of European powers as explorers reported on possible profitable gains and use of the land for resource extraction. By funding the expedition himself, Humboldt had liberty to follow his own path free of intrusions or influences and remain true to scientific pursuits.

Alexander von Humboldt was born on September 14, 1769 to a prominent family in Berlin. Growing up, he was constantly compared to his studious older brother Whilhem. Tutors did not consider young Alexander to be a good student or even very smart. He clearly preferred rocks, plants, and insects to books. Despite travelling a bit around Europe after university, any wanderlust plans were placed on hold by his mother’s insistence that Alexander find a dependable job. By 22, Humboldt had finished his studies and started working as a mining inspector for the Prussian government. Even with a traditional civil role, Humboldt found ways to study the natural sciences by exploring the mines and optimizing mining practices with inventions. A secure career in government service came to a halt in 1796 when Humboldt and his brother inherited a large fortune after their mother’s passing. Humboldt quit his job and set out to realize his dreams of traveling and sailing across oceans.

Humboldt described New Spain as a hidden treasure. During the three centuries that Mexico was under Spanish rule, only Spaniards and missionaries of the Catholic Church could visit the colonies. At the time, Europeans knew very little about life in the Americas and could only wonder about its mountains, plants, and animals. Humboldt was the first foreigner to be granted permission by the Spanish crown to travel freely and investigate the colonies.

Humboldt is considered one of the founders of modern geography.
General chart of the kingdom of New Spain betn. parallels of 16 & 38N.  from materials in Mexico at commencement of year of 1804” from the Geography and Map Division depicts some of the vast territories of New Spain, expanding from present-day Mexico to the United States.

After arriving in Acapulco, Humboldt and Bonpland traveled to the towns of Taxco and Cuernavaca before reaching Mexico City. Humboldt felt at home in the great “City of Palaces.” He would even exclaim “no city of the new continent can display such great and solid scientific establishments as the capital of Mexico.” Humboldt was particularly impressed with the museums, universities, and other centers for learning where he met academics, discussed his findings, and learned about New Spain’s ancient civilizations. He learned about codices, ruins, and was immediately curious about pre-Hispanic history.

It was in New Spain that Humboldt began to develop lines of thought that would persist throughout his life’s work. At the time, it was normal for a scholar or scientist to pursue multiple disciplines to make sense of the world. Humboldt followed this model and is often regarded as the last universal scholar. “All is interconnected,” he would write in his travel diary. While observing landscapes, grounded primarily by geological features, he remarked on interactions in nature, especially the inherent interconnectedness of humans, animals, and plants to their ecosystems. These ideologies represent the foundations for the study of ecology, which is another field attributed to Humboldt’s work in New Spain.

Humboldt studied pre-Hispanic treasures such as the Aztec Calendar Stone, which was openly displayed in Mexico City, in order to understand the pre-Columbian world. He believed that these artifacts provided important scientific information and proof of the ancient civilizations grand achievements. “Mexico. Aztec calendar stone Mexico. Court of the museum.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Humboldt departed from New Spain through the eastern port of Veracruz a year later in 1804. Having spent a total of 347 days in what is currently Mexico, Humboldt would dedicate the next 20 years of his life to publishing research and findings related to his journey through the Americas. When Humboldt died in 1869, he was a famed naturalist regarded as the last universal scholar, founder of modern geography and ecology, a relentless traveler, and a life-long student and advocate of the natural world. His publications have greatly influenced research in many fields of study and have gained popularity beyond academic pursuits. Humboldt’s major work is considered to be “Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe” (1848-58), a multi-volume work bringing together research from his entire career. For the Americas, however, his most influential work is “Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain” (1811), a treatise read widely in Mexico and the United States as well as Europe. The work was of such authority that independent Mexico’s first Constitutional Congress in 1824 used Humboldt’s research as an essential source to reorganize the country’s administration.

More resources to learn about Humboldt’s life and travels in the Library:

Andrea Wulf: 2015 National Book Festival – The author discusses “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.”

Alexander von Humboldt and the botanical exploration of the Americas by H. Walter Lack ; [translated from German by Stephen Telfer ; editional direction: Reegan Köster, Julie Kiefer]. Revised edition. Munich : Prestel Publishing, 2018.

Humboldt’s Mexico : in the footsteps of the illustrious german scientific traveller by Myron Echenberg. Montreal & Kingston : McGill-Queen’s Universitry Press, 2017.

México grande / Alexander von Humboldt ; introducción, traducción y notas, Jaime Labastida. Toluca de Lerdo, Estado de México : Fondo Editorial Estado de México, [2016]

Mourning, Celebrating, Revisiting: Alexander von Humboldt in the United States, 1859-2009. Lecture by Andreas Daum on May 06, 2009.

The travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt: being a condensed narrative of his journeys in the equinoctial regions of America, and in Asiatic Russia; together with analyses of his more important investigations by W. Macgillivray. Oliver & Boyd : Edinburgh, 1836.

Contact the Hispanic Division for help in English, Spanish, or Portuguese in person (10 First St. SE, Washington, D.C. Room LJ240), via e-mail [email protected], by phone 202-707-5400, or through our Ask a Librarian service.

Comments (6)

  1. Veracruz is an EASTERN port.

  2. Beautifully done, Dani! Thank you for sharing this map. I’m guessing that “Barra de Santiago” is what we now know as “Brazos Island State Park.” Often times those areas only have the names given to them later by Anglo-Americans, which makes it seem as if their history dates back only to the late 19th century or early (to mid) twentieth century. This area has a history dating back to at least 1519 (and some contend 1499–if you believe Amerigo Vespucci was there).

  3. There is an error in the paragraph which begins with his departure from Mexico in 1804. The port of Veracruz is in Eastern Mexico, not Western.


  4. last para, Veracruz is Mexico’s preeminent EASTERN port. I enjoyed the essay very much. Love to see another on his travels in So. Am.

  5. Wonderful description: we see Humboldt’s name reflected in several place names in the western United States! Hard to even imagine such travels and effort today. BTW: one small typo. I am pretty sure his brother was Wilhelm not Whilhem.

  6. The expedition was purely scientific for Humboldt, but his unfettered access to New Spain, South America, and the Caribe was given by way of rare Spanish passports because Spain planned to use his observations to pursue further extraction of mineral deposits.

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