Alexander von Humboldt and “Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain”
Ralph Waldo Emerson described Humboldt as “one of those wonders of the world”—a scholar whose interests spanned astronomy, botany, chemistry, economics, geography, geology, physics, politics and zoology; a man who, even today, has more species named after him than any other human.
Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander, Freiherr (baron) von Humboldt, was born September 14, 1769, in Berlin, Prussia [now in Germany] — died May 6, 1859, in Berlin.
His father was an officer in the army of Frederick the Great, and the future King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm II was his godfather. His mother belonged to a family of Huguenots who had left France after Louis XIV’s revocation of religious liberty for Protestants. His older brother became a Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt.
Alexander lived during the “Enlightenment”, surrounded by ideas of equality, justice, reasoning, and freedom of thought. As a child, Alexander had a hobby of collecting and labeling different plants, insects, and shells. He thus earned the affectionate nickname “little apothecary”.
He studied economics at Hamburg and then mining and geology at the School of Mines in Freiberg, Saxony. Humboldt insisted on getting his hands dirty, going down to the mines to examine the minerals and geology. In the evenings he studied natural sciences, botany, and electricity. In 1789 Humboldt wrote “Mineralogic Observations on Several Basalts on the River Rhine.”
Humboldt learned the techniques of scientific observation, plant classification, and precise measurement that he would employ throughout his long and incredibly productive career from expeditions with Johann Forster to France, England, and the Netherlands. After the death of both his parents, he decided to use his inheritance to travel.
In the late 1790s, he managed to obtain a passport to visit the Spanish colonies from King Carlos IV of Spain himself, the king wanted to revitalize the utilization of the natural resources of his colonies. Alexander managed to gain access to the jealously guarded Spanish colonial archives. These colonies were then accessible only to Spanish officials and the Roman Catholic mission. Completely shut off from the outside world, they offered Alexander a great opportunity for scientific research.
South American Expedition.
Humboldt and his friend, the French naturalist Aimé Bonpland, who had served as a surgeon in the French navy, set sail on the frigate Pizarro to South America.
Humboldt and Bonpland spent five years, from 1799 to 1804, in South America, covering more than 6,000 miles (9,650 km) on foot, on horseback, and in canoes. through what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and Cuba.
They braved alligators, giant spiders, jaguars and vicious insects to explore the South American jungles and savanna. They climbed the mountains of the Andes, and reached a height of 19, 286 feet at the Chimborazo mountain in Ecuador where he ascribed mountain sickness to lack of oxygen at great heights. It was a life of great physical exertion and serious deprivation; through dense tropical forests, tormented by clouds of mosquitoes and stifled by the humid heat. Their provisions destroyed by insects and rain, he was reported dead three times.
He also studied the oceanic current off the west coast of South America that was originally named after him but is now known as the Peru Current.
One of his most widely read publications resulting from his travels and investigations in Spanish America was the “Essai politique sur le royaum de la Nouvelle Espagne,” quickly translated to English as “Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain” (1811).
Alexander von Humboldt arrived in New Spain (present-day Mexico) on February 1803 . He could not have imagined the impact Mexico would have on his work, methodology, and publications.
Humboldt described New Spain as a hidden treasure. 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.
After arriving in Acapulco, Humboldt and Bonpland visited the mining towns of Taxco and Cuernavaca. He also spent time at the Valenciana silver mine in Guanajuato, at the time the most important in the Spanish empire. His report on silver mining is a major contribution, and considered the strongest and best informed section of his Political Essay. Humboldt exchanged mining knowledge from experts in Mexico, like Fausto Elhuyar, then head of the General Mining Court in Mexico City, and Andrés Manuel del Río, director of Royal College of Mines, whom Humboldt knew when they were both students in at the School of Mines in Freiberg, Saxony.
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.” like 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.
He declared “no city of the new continent, can display such great and solid scientific establishments as the capital of Mexico”. He pointed to the Royal College of Mines, the Royal Botanical Garden and the Royal Academy of San Carlos as exemplars of a metropolitan capital in touch with the latest developments on the continent and insisting on its modernity. He also recognized important creole intellectuals in Mexico, including José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez, who died in 1799, just before Humboldt’s visit; Miguel Velásquez de León; and Antonio de León y Gama.
In his most celebrated and influential work “Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain” (1811) 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.
Before returning to Europe, in May 1804 Humboldt was welcomed in Philadelphia by Dr. James Woodhouse, Nicholas Collin, and Anthony Fothergill a group of distinguished members of the American Philosophical Society. In these six weeks, Humboldt—met and exchanged ideas about the arts, science, politics, and exploration with influential figures such as President Thomas Jefferson and artist Charles Willson Peale.
Humboldt’s methods of doing science influenced a number of significant U.S. ventures, among them the Wilkes expedition to study the Pacific,Joseph Nicollet’s mapping of the Upper Mississippi, and John Charles Frémont’s explorations of the Rockies and California. At the end of the nineteenth century, John Muir, a great admirer of Humboldt, joined the railroad magnate Edward Harriman’s expedition to study Alaska. Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to the United States started friendships that’d last a lifetime. His friendship with English chemist James Smithson, and with Jefferson, in particular, became one of the most important transatlantic relationships of the Enlightenment.
Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was a German
scientist who made substantial contributions to astronomy, botany, geography geology, meteorology, mineralogy and zoology would seal his credentials as one of the Age of Enlightenment’s brightest minds.
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