Photo: The Atlantic retrieved
Filled with a thirst for exploration and knowledge that would never be quenched during his long and extraordinary career, Berlin-born scientist Alexander von Humboldt always wanted to travel to the Tropic. He fulfilled his dream as an adult, in a Spanish colony that was about to set out on a violent process of change: the General Captaincy of Venezuela.
The trip Humboldt made in 1799 would change his life and the history of science, leaving a lasting mark in the country.
Humboldt and his expedition partner, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, arrived in Cumaná, Eastern Venezuela, on July 16th, 1799, and they remained here until November 24th, 1800, when they sailed to Cuba. They stayed in the island for about three months and traveled to Cartagena, where they arrived in March 1801; then they went to Bogota and explored the Andes down to Quito, following to Cajamarca (Peru), eventually reaching Acapulco. In August, 1804, they returned to Europe and, in Paris, they started writing.
Five years of traveling through America were enough to collect abundant scientific material to write an essential book: “Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America”
Five years of traveling through America were enough to collect abundant scientific material to write an essential book: “Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America,” published between 1816 and 1831, in thirteen volumes.
Humboldt made the first known annotation about the effects of human action on the climate, by documenting the consequences of colonial agricultural practices in Lake Valencia. He started a theory of natural equivalents that would become the first global environmental philosophy, seeing the planet as a whole.
But his book is also a treasure for researchers on America, and Venezuela in particular. Humboldt’s main contributions reside in his records of flora, fauna, minerals, geography, soils, atmospheric phenomena and social observations.
In Venezuela, he went from Cumana, to Araya, Caripe, Cueva del Guácharo, Higuerote, La Guaira, Caracas (where he was received with honors by Captain General Manuel de Guevara y Vasconcelos), the Avila, the Tuy River valleys and the Aragua valleys, Antimano, La Victoria, Maracay, Guacara, Valencia, Las Trincheras, Puerto Cabello, Calabozo and San Fernando de Atabapo towards the Orinoco, up to San Carlos de Río Negro. Then, El Pao, Barcelona and back to Cumana, where he and Bonpland left for Cuba. They stayed in Venezuela for one year, four months and eight days.
Humboldt didn’t return to America, but his figure will always be great in Venezuela, among other things because of what he said about Caracas: “I think there’s a marked tendency to the profound study of sciences in Mexico and Santa Fe de Bogota; greater study of literature and as much as an ardent and active imagination can indulge in Quito and Lima; more understanding about the political relations of nations, broader views on the status of the colonies and cities, in Havana and Caracas.”
It’s not strange, then, that the spark of liberty was first lit in Venezuela. “Despite the increased black population,” Humboldt wrote, “Havana and Caracas are seemingly closer to Cadiz and the United States than any other part of the New World.” We’ve read this before: the European air of Caracas, its strange metropolitan sense. He also observed that the city’s inhabitants were inclined to music: “I noticed in several families in Caracas a taste for instruction, knowledge of the French and Italian literary masterworks, a considerable predilection for music, which is successfully cultivated and serves, as cultivating arts always does, to bring the various social classes together.”
Humboldt wrote, “Havana and Caracas are seemingly closer to Cadiz and the United States than any other part of the New World.”
Although Humboldt and Bonpland were in Caracas in 1800, his book mentions the earthquake of 1812, so he was writing from memory several years later and does this with such accuracy that it’s obvious that he had access to direct sources. According to his estimates, the city had between 40,000 and 50,000 inhabitants by then. It’s also worth noting that Humboldt and his partner were naturalists, and most of their observations belong to that specialty, not urbanism, although they did have sociological understanding.
The two months they spent in Caracas weren’t in vain. Humboldt made friends with Simón Bolívar and he’d have great influence on him with his unprecedented perspective on America.