An excerpt from
The Passage to Cosmos
Alexander von Humboldt
and the Shaping of America
Laura Dassow Walls
John Locke tells us that “in the beginning all the world was America.” In the end, thought the young Humboldt, all the world would be again—an America transformed from place to prophecy, universal freedom restored to humanity through enlightened Republican politics and the spread of science, art, and culture. He was born in the right place and at the right time to imbibe such ideas—Berlin in 1769, to a family of minor Prussian aristocracy loosely attached to the court of King Frederick the Great. Frederick’s rule was in its waning years, and accounts make eighteenth-century Berlin sound unprepossessing enough, yet still, it was here that the king had for some years given refuge to Voltaire, the Enlightenment French philosopher-poet who inspired the rise of European liberal thought. While Enlightenment thinking was hardly mainstream, with the blessings of such a king, liberal ideas circulated widely among the city’s intellectual elite, including the Humboldts. By the time young Alexander was a college student, he made sure to study in Hamburg, the center of Amerikunde (or American studies), where the political events of 1776 were being turned into an ideology that would become a pillar of nineteenth-century German liberalism. During his five years in prerevolutionary Latin America, he often measured the political discourse he encountered against the standard set by Washington and Jefferson, and before he returned to Europe he made a pilgrimage to the United States to meet the heroes of the American Revolution in person. Thus America was on his horizon from the start.
Late in life he returned to the importance of America to the development of the Cosmos: as he wrote, it was the discovery of America that planted the seeds of the Cosmos, for the land Humboldt liked to call the “new continent” opened a new sense “for the appreciation of the grand and the boundless,” making possible “higher views” that would show humanity the interconnections of all phenomena. Columbus himself, wrote Humboldt, understood this, and “on his arrival in a new world and under a new heaven, he examined with care the form of continental masses, the physiognomy of vegetation, the habits of animals, and the distribution of heat and the variations in terrestrial magnetism”—sounding remarkably like Humboldt himself. In their turn, the Spanish writers who followed Columbus opened up important questions still unanswered: the unity of the human race amidst so many variations; the affinities of America’s many languages; the migrations of plants, animals, and nations; the causes of trade winds and ocean currents, volcanoes and earthquakes. Never before, Humboldt wrote, had the sphere of ideas been “so wonderfully enlarged.” Even in his own day three centuries later, such questions could still enlarge the sphere of ideas by embracing the dazzling diversity of humans, animals, plants, and natural phenomena in a single—today one wants to say “ecological”—vision.
Books, journals, and newspapers across the New World hailed Humboldt as “the second Columbus,” the scientific discoverer of America. Partly this was the appeal of coincidence: as his first biographer wondered, who better than Humboldt to write a history of Europe’s fifteenth-century discoveries? “Had he not also gone to sea from Spain as the second discoverer of America, and had he not stood on the same spot where Columbus had landed and taken possession of the new continent?” But there were ideological reasons as well: as Alfred Stillé told the graduating class of Pennsylvania College in 1859 (just before it was renamed Gettysburg College after the Civil War battle), Columbus entering Barcelona in triumph with baskets of gold and jewels and surrounded by captive Indians did not bring gifts nearly so precious as Humboldt: “The one opened to Spain the gates of a new empire, the other revealed to the world the secrets of nature and the laws of the universe.” While the one caused whole nations to be reduced to servitude, the other “paved the way for the revolutions which rendered the nations of South America once more independent.” If Columbus stood for the discovery of riches leading to servitude, Humboldt stood for the discovery of knowledge leading to liberation: even as he had been inspired by the Revolution of 1776, so the next American revolutions were inspired, it was widely agreed, by Humboldt.
Celebrating Humboldt as a “second Columbus” carried darker undertones which the celebrants worked hard to subdue, for as Stillé recalls, the transcendent achievement of Columbus was tainted by the enslavement and genocide of America’s indigenous peoples. Though Stillé followed Washington Irving’s popular biography (and indeed Humboldt himself) in defending the innocence of the Genovese navigator from the crimes unleashed by his discovery, all Anglo-America rose up to condemn the Spanish conquistadors who came afterward. Indeed, the vehemence of the “Black Legend” that had grown up around Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro—conquerors and destroyers of the Aztec and Inca civilizations respectively—was fanned by the guilt of those who spread it. The more bestial was the violence of the Spaniards and the more cruel their monomaniacal demands for gold, the more easily Anglo-Americans could portray themselves by contrast as agents of humanity and reason. Yet it was not an argument that stood up to close scrutiny. Whereas the Spanish government had made at least some attempt to limit and mitigate the enslavement of both Indians and Africans, the British had introduced slavery to their colonies and the Americans were perpetuating it even as they fought their war of “liberation.” And whereas the Spanish had incorporated Indian populations into their colonial administration (and the French had befriended and allied with them), the English had swept them off the map and the U.S. Americans were exiling the remnants to bleak western desert lands. Colonial imperialism had much to answer for, no matter which European nation bore the weaponry.
Humboldt as the “second Columbus” seemed, in an age vexed by imperial anxiety, to redeem all this. He was the “enlightened” discoverer, the anticonquistador, hailing from a weak and fractured nation with no imperial ambitions and celebrated as the center of European learning. He traveled not with armies and weapons but unarmed and alone but for a companion or two, a guide or two, and mules laden with scientific instruments. He took not gold and silver but notes and samples—pebbles and bones, a few flowers and leaves, sketches and astronomical measurements. Of this new and innocent Columbus, all Europe could be proud. As Mary Louise Pratt observes, the naturalist as traveler could both invoke the heroism of the Conquest and provide safe distance from its depredations.
Humboldt was also renowned as the most famous man after Napoleon. The two were exact contemporaries, born the same year, a coincidence that linked them at every birthday memorial. In this pairing, Humboldt continued to represent the antitype to the empire of force and bloodshed. In a poem celebrating “the Napoleon of Science” (written for the Boston Humboldt centennial in 1869), Oliver Wendell Holmes invoked Humboldt’s “bloodless triumphs” that “cost no sufferer’s tear! / Hero of knowledge, be our tribute thine!” Two anecdotes were widely circulated to confirm this ideology of peaceful conquest. In one, Humboldt, laden with awards and adulation after his return from America, was presented at Napoleon’s court. “You collect plants?” asked the emperor. “Yes,” answered Humboldt. “So does my wife,” sneered Napoleon. In another brush with royalty, the young brothers Humboldt were honored in their Berlin home with a visit by Frederick the Great. Of Wilhelm, the elder, the king is said to have asked, “Do you not wish to become a soldier?” “No, Sire,” answered the boy, “I wish to have my career in literature.” Turning to Alexander, the king reminded the eight-year-old of his great namesake, the “earth-conqueror.” “Do you wish to be a conqueror too?” “Yes, Sire,” answered Alexander, “but with my head.”
How was it that, three long centuries after Columbus, America still needed to be conquered by knowledge? Even after so many generations, the New World continents were still largely unknown and unassimilated into Western learning, still seen as a problem and a mystery. As J. H. Elliott pointed out in his classic study, America’s very existence “constituted a challenge to a whole body of traditional assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes.” The newness of the American lands, their flora and fauna and peoples, was so overwhelming that “the mental shutters came down” and Europeans retreated to “the half-light of their traditional mental world.” It did not help that the Spanish colonial government refused to publish the reports and observations that came flooding back across the Atlantic, but buried them in archives, forgotten by their own administrators, while forbidding travelers of other nations from entering Spanish territory. The exception was the first scientific expedition in South America, sponsored by France and led by La Condamine from 1735 to 1744, but he and his men traveled with officials who controlled its every movement. Humboldt was faced with a wall of ignorance in Europe and North America alike of the most basic realities of Spanish America, its peoples, and cities no less than its geology and geography, flora and fauna. Much of his writing is directed against the eighteenth-century French naturalist Buffon, who (from an armchair in Paris) proclaimed authoritatively that New World life was degenerate, its climate hostile, its creatures, including its human creatures, diminished in size and potency. One of Humboldt’s goals in South America was to confirm the existence of the Casiquiare Canal connecting the Orinoco river system with the continental system of the Amazon, a claim made by La Condamine on the basis of South American reports and disputed ever since. On the very eve of Humboldt’s departure, the existence of the Casiquiare was finally and decisively repudiated—on paper—by learned European geographers, even as missionaries and Indians were navigating its waters, as they had been, Humboldt pointed out, for generations.
When Europeans did look at the New World, they tended to see it as the mirror image of themselves, normalizing its alien beings to fit familiar patterns. Anne Bradstreet, the Puritan poet, wrote movingly of hearing nightingales (a British bird) sing in New England; Columbus, facing the Orinoco, located it on the eastern coast of Asia and decoded its meaning in Biblical terms. As Humboldt wrote, the cool evening air, the clarity of the stars, and “the balmy fragrance of flowers, wafted to him by the land breeze—all led him to suppose… that he was approaching the garden of Eden, the sacred abode of our first parents.” The inability to see the New World on its own terms, the need to translate it into the familiar categories of European custom and religion, had serious consequences beyond the irony of Venezuelans barging groceries and mail along an officially nonexistent canal. Indigenous hierarchies were translated into European-style monarchies, so that early Virginians in Jamestown hailed Powhatan as an “emperor,” even arranging a royal state marriage to ally English and Algonquin nations through the wedding of his daughter, “Princess” Pocahontas, to the adventurer John Rolfe (a union from which, in a genealogical fable like that of the Mayflower, untold millions of Americans are descended.) The Christian narrative cast Indians as minions of Satan, or else God’s lost people (perhaps the descendants of a wandering tribe of Israel), justifying on the one hand genocide, on the other the missionary zeal of Christopher “Christ-bearer” Columbus and the Spanish mission system that so successfully “tamed” and clothed South American Indians, teaching them their catechism while denying them their culture. Secular narratives cast the Indians as “barbarians” (using the Greek word for uncouth outsiders, whose language sounded like “bar-bar”), or “savages” more animal than human, to be eliminated by genocide when assimilation failed. Humboldt thus broke with long tradition when he advised that Indian artifacts, however uncouth to European taste, must not be judged by the standards of classical Greece, and that Indian architecture (what little was left) ought to be valued and preserved, not treated as convenient quarries of precut stone ready for assembly into European buildings. Finally, leveling New World forests to recreate Iberian plains and English meadows had had the unintended side-effects of desiccating the climate and eroding the soil needed to grow crops. Was it not possible, Humboldt argued, to imagine America as America, not a diminished Europe? Did it not have its own identity, and should not its peoples be allowed to seek their own destiny?
In pursuing this argument, Humboldt as “second Columbus” discovered for Europe an America to be seen on its own terms, not as an artifact of Europe’s making or an appendage to its power. As he traveled from mission to mission, he sorrowed at the vacant and beaten look of the missionized Indians, and pointed to their unchristianized fellows not as heathen or “savages,” a word he repeatedly rejects, but as “independent” peoples with their own distinctive character, dignity, language, and contribution to the great human story. The Creoles he visited and worked with—the American-born peoples of European descent—were, as he reported, restless and angry under colonial rule, and would soon claim their own independence, their own self-governed political, republican future. If African slaves and the “copper-coloured” races were prevented from full realization of their human rights, they too would rise up and throw off their oppressors, as Tupac Amaru had tried to do in Peru and the slaves had succeeded in doing in Haiti. Everywhere Humboldt went he took the temperature of the social as well as the natural climate, and he found it near the boiling point. The laws of nature, just as Jefferson had said in the Declaration of Independence, would soon assert themselves and right the injustices and imbalances in the political realm. And as for American physical nature, Humboldt found it incalculably grander and more sublime than anything Europe had to offer. Here, man had not everywhere dominated and subdued the wild, nor could he, for the destructive forces of volcanoes and earthquakes and the creative power of tropical heat and light would always make American nature an equal, if not a dominant, partner with human enterprise. As later generations would say of the United States, all America was “Nature’s Nation.”
Thus Humboldt did far more than unlock the closed gates of the Spanish empire; he showed Americans how to imagine themselves as something more than offshoots of European ambition. This is why Humboldt became a culture hero to both Latin and North Americans, from the masses to the intelligentsia. He literally put America on the global map, positioning its history, nations, and resources in relation to the rest of the world, and drawing the detailed and extensive maps by which Americans could find, and know, themselves. He even traced the origin of the very word “America,” hitherto a puzzle, to its source in a German mapmaker in 1507, giving it a genealogy not in Columbus’s tainted legacy but in the relatively innocent explorations of Amerigo Vespucci. It was widely said (though the story may be apocryphal) that when a young Creole named Simón Bolívar met the triumphant Humboldt at a Paris salon in 1804, Bolívar remarked on “the glittering destiny of a South America freed from the yoke of oppression.” Yes, agreed Humboldt—if only someone could be found capable of leading its war for liberation. The rest is, as they say, history: in 1810 Bolívar led the Venezuelan revolution, starting a movement that he carried over the next fifteen years to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia (named in his honor), and that spread to Mexico in 1821.
For their part, U.S. Americans also felt uniquely bonded to Humboldt. When he called himself “half an American,” U.S. Americans were pleased to think he was claiming fellow citizenship in their republic, an interpretation made all the easier by their success in appropriating the term “America,” which covered two continents, for their own nation. As Edward Everett declared, eliding the difference between North and South, “His American voyage—was performed on the soil of this continent.” There was some justice here, for Humboldt did praise the United States as the pattern for humanity’s future and befriended dozens of influential U.S. Americans, starting with President Jefferson. Once the mail steamers from New York to Bremen made travel to Germany routine, it seemed every U.S. traveler on his grand tour stopped in Berlin to visit the aging Humboldt, and of all the foreign students in Berlin at the time of Humboldt’s death, only the U.S. Americans marched in his funeral procession. By then much of their country had been named for Humboldt—towns, counties, rivers, lakes, parks, marshes, caves, forests, eventually a university, and very nearly the entire state of Nevada. Humboldt had aided their “manifest destiny” through his maps and advice, and when the United States invaded Mexico, President Polk’s secretary of war, the historian George Bancroft, was anxious to secure Humboldt’s blessing.
It could even be said that Humboldt was the father of modern America. Mary Louise Pratt, in the single most often cited treatment of Humboldt by a U.S. American, is fascinated to discover that his journey and the monumental volumes of print it produced “laid down the lines for the ideological reinvention of South America” on both sides of the Atlantic. On the European side, Humboldt opened prospects “of vast expansionist possibilities for European capital, technologies, commodities, and systems of knowledge.” On the American side, newly independent Creole elites found in his writings the resources to reinvent themselves, in relation both to Europe and to the “non-European masses they sought to govern.” As Pratt argues, Humboldt’s impact on the public imagination was made less through his technical writings than his popular books, widely read, reviewed, and discussed in journals and periodicals starting in the 1810s: Ansichten der Natur (or Views/Aspects of Nature, first published in 1808 but not translated to English until the third edition of 1849); Vues des Cordillères, et monumens … (Views) (1810, translated 1814); and Relation Historique, the narrative of his American travels (181425, translated as the Personal Narrative between 1818 and 1829 and again in 1852). She could have added his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (180811, trans. 1811), the book that first made Humboldt’s name a household word and that had particular impact on the United States; also the American edition of Political Essay on the Island of Cuba published in 1856 that started a public controversy and played a role in that year’s presidential election, and of course Cosmos, whose multiple volumes flooded the market starting in 1845. In short, from the 1810s through the 1860s a veritable tidal wave of publications made Humboldt a celebrity across Europe and the Americas. As Pratt observes, in these “bold discursive experiments,” Humboldt sought not only to reinvent popular imaginings of America but “of the planet itself,” heading off the emerging split between objective and subjective knowledge, “science and sentiment, information and experience.”
Here Pratt is exactly right: what made Humboldt so enormously attractive, apart from the sheer romance of his travels, was the newness of his approach to narrating those travels. Humboldt blended an Enlightenment-derived certainty in the agency of reason, factuality, and precision with a Romantic’s enthusiasm for feeling and poetry. His views of nature responded deeply to the emotions awakened by each region’s unique natural features, from the brilliant skies of Italy to sublime equatorial mountains, endless barren plains, or the gentle meadows of northern Europe. Yet his richly particularized descriptions vaulted seamlessly from the unique to the generalized, locating individual features in the grand pattern of the planetary whole, and linking the powerful emotions of awe or wonder or delight they evoked to an ever-widening sphere of knowledge. Humboldt’s science had heart. And because in his philosophy humans were an essential part of the Cosmos, his description of America as “Nature’s Nation” never excluded the human, whether the indigenous peoples who were so deeply shaped by their landscape, the Europeans who so variously aided or defeated the land’s potential, or himself, seeing and feeling it all for us, our representative mind and heart. Wherever Humboldt goes in the world he looks for traces of the human: New World nature was exhilarating in its vastness and power, but also, more than once, deeply terrifying, or deadly in its monotony, creating a challenge to his philosophy that Humboldt had to work to overcome. He did not call for mere daredevil explorers who saw wild nature as a stage for their exploits, nor for calculating capitalists who would cut, dig, profit, and run. Such men came, of course—how could he have stopped them?—but what Humboldt did call for were dwellers who would weave the land into their dreams, and artists who would write it and paint it, bringing their experience to those who lived in distant and far different lands.
Thus the New World that Humboldt reinvented for the nineteenth century was indeed “America as Nature,” as Pratt says, but Pratt goes on to insist that Humboldt invented America as “primal” nature, emptied of human history in order, in the classic imperialist mode, to repopulate it with white European systems and goals. Her Humboldt becomes one more “imperial eye,” handmaiden to colonial domination, blind to the Other and full of himself, omniscient and godlike lord of all he surveys. Her highly selective interpretation, driven by a need to privilege binary oppositions rather than pluralistic differentiations, has become canonical in postcolonial studies. The effect has been to silence Humboldt all over again. True, Humboldt cannot step very far outside the networks of colonial power; even his attempts to do so—if one is willing to grant they were more than mere self-delusion—ultimately made it stronger, as the following chapters will show. However, to deny him the agency to recognize, protest, and on occasion even subvert those networks is to deny the moral reach of his arguments—worse, of anyone’s arguments. All argument becomes complicit with merely strategic interest, all agency the passive reproduction of ideology. Unlike Pratt, I do wish to grant active moral agency to Humboldt, and by extension to anyone who, like him, becomes aware they are struggling within, and penetrated by, structures of power. As Edward Said has observed, “American identity is too varied to be a unitary and homogenous thing”—it is, in fact, split “between advocates of a unitary identity and those who see the whole as a complex but not reductively unified one.” In this opposition of “two historiographies, one linear and subsuming, the other contrapuntal and often nomadic,” I would place Humboldt in the latter: for him, intellectual nomad as he was, every situation was the outcome of complex, even contrapuntal, historical experience. His writing anticipates Said’s further insight that “partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic.” Indeed, I take this to be the lesson of Humboldt’s works, starting with the provocative jumble in Vues de Cordillères of empire’s variously refracted and suppressed natural and cultural artifacts.
There were, to be sure, plenty of “imperial eyes” stalking the New World, but Humboldt’s project was different, and that difference matters. To begin with, he lacked imperial sponsorship. While the Spanish passport gave him freedom of access, he repaid this generosity by depositing his collections in Paris and London and Berlin, publishing the results in French and German, disseminating his maps to Spain’s enemies, and inciting its colonial peoples to rebel or at least reform Spain’s endlessly inept and destructive colonial policies. Humboldt was determinedly self-sponsored and independent, grateful for aid but beholden to no one, and he expended every penny of his personal fortune to keep it that way. But perhaps most important, he felt (and that is precisely the right word) that nature without humanity lacked meaning. Far from emptying the landscape of its human presence, it grieved him that Indians, victimized by whites, had fled their homes on the banks of the Orinoco, leaving the river empty of canoes and the jungle canopy unbroken by villages. When he did find Indian villages he delighted to report on their inhabitants: their appearance, thoughts, language, culture, manufactures, history and, most of all, their ingenious deployments of native plants. For every region he visited he described the myriad historical, cultural, and environmental forces that might account for the movements of native peoples, from individuals to entire populations, and his political essays included shrewd analyses of the conflicts of interest between natives, Creoles, and Europeans. For Humboldt, a secular philosopher looking for material causes, discovery of the New World had catalyzed modernity by turning all the globe into a contact zone. From Columbus on, all histories were mingled, all worlds interlinked, all peoples cosmopolitan. For him, “America as Nature” meant nature as an equal partner with human purpose, expressed through science, art, technology, and commerce in a cosmic exchange. In short, Humboldt was a dissident who spoke out, loudly and persistently, against European imperialism and American slavery, and he was both honored and condemned as a dangerous man. Popular adulation, professional reputation, and his dense network of high-placed friends protected him to some extent from Napoleon’s charges of espionage and, later, the insinuations of his enemies at the Berlin court, but his outspokenness against the Spanish government cost him dearly. Never had he thought his travels finished, and his dearest dream was to journey across Asia through the Himalayas to India, whose literature had helped form his philosophy. Year after year he laid plans to open the British Empire to his searching scrutiny, only to be thwarted by the British East India Company, who had no desire to see their own colonial policies made the butt of his next wave of books. Finally, his money spent, all he could manage was a state-sponsored and tightly controlled expedition across Russia, in 1829. “Unfortunately, we are scarce a moment alone,” he complained; “we cannot take a step without being led by the arm like an invalid.” Rendered by then dependent on the king of Prussia for his income, he was increasingly muzzled during the reactionary years which saw European monarchies put down the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848. He withdrew into science, philosophy, and poetry, repressing and even destroying his writings of social protest.
Humboldt was not alone in his outspoken antiimperialist politics. His teachers, friends, and readings came out of what Sankar Muthu has recently identified as a “historically anomalous and understudied episode” in political thinking, namely, a tradition of late-eighteenth-century European intellectuals who attacked not merely the evils of imperialism, but its fundamental assumption of the right to subjugate other peoples. According to Muthu, key leaders of this tradition (Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, Herder—all of critical importance to Humboldt) based their critique on their view of “humanity as cultural agency” rather than an unchanging universal essence. That is, they saw all human beings, including indigenous peoples, as active, independent cultural agents, freely and creatively interacting with their diverse natural environments to generate “a wide plurality of individual and collective ways of life.” Cultural differences were not pathologies or departures from a true way of life but creative adaptations which pointed to “the dignity of a universal, shared humanity as fundamentally intertwined ethical and political commitments.” As Muthu concludes, scholarly views of “the” Enlightenment need to be pluralized in order to do justice to this group of thinkers, whose views were not allowed to enter the mainstream of nineteenth-century political thought. Instead they were “ridiculed and defeated,” and by the early nineteenth century, virtually absent.
Humboldt is clearly part of this dissident and repressed tradition, which seems to have held on far longer in Germany than in western Europe, and Muthu’s attempt to recapture and foreground it helps place Humboldt in relationship to the Enlightenment thought he inherited, and helps account for the peculiar distortions of his work by his followers, who with few exceptions appropriated from him what was ideologically useful for their own projects and ignored or repressed what they found inconvenient. As Aaron Sachs observes repeatedly in his recent book The Humboldt Current, there was a strong “current” of Humboldtian thought in the United States that can be followed throughout the course of the nineteenth century, but the radical social dimension of that thought was seldom assimilated.
Thus in the United States Humboldt becomes variously a colorful explorer, a romantic adventurer, a positivist scientist, an apologist for manifest destiny, a crusader against slavery, an inspiration to the Hudson River school of painters—but less often the radical social reformer who defended the rights of the oppressed. Humboldt had learned to weave society, nature, and culture into a single complex and seamless tapestry, but in his own lifetime that tapestry was unraveled and rewoven into smaller units. He proved too big to swallow whole; a century devoted to dissecting nature had to dissect him too, diminishing the qualities that made him unique, and uniquely productive, among intellectuals. After his death, those who recalled his vision of the whole called it “old-fashioned,” the product of a bygone age when the world was so small that one capacious intellect could still see it end to end, all round. What they missed was the secret of Humboldt’s success: not merely encyclopedic range, but a vision, a method, and a philosophy so generative that it marked not the end of one era but the beginning of another—one not yet born.