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Humboldt-Thrasher Controversy

Thrasher’s 1856 English Edition

In 1856, John S. Thrasher prepared an English translation of Humboldt’s Ensayo politico sobre la Isla de Cuba (1827 Spanish translation). Thrasher’s The Island of Cuba appeared under the imprint of Derby & Jackson in New York. Though he claimed to have kept Humboldt’s text intact, Thrasher had actually made significant changes, omitting Humboldt’s section on slavery and making countless emendations that Humboldt himself saw as “politically motivated”—unlike Humboldt, Thrasher was a supporter of slavery. An annotated facsimile of Thrasher’s 1856 text to be uploaded in this website will indentify for the first time all of his changes.

Humboldt’s Protest to Thrasher’s Edition 

Humboldt’s sentiments in his Political Essay on the Island of Cuba brought him instant fame in U.S. abolitionist circles. In 1856, Humboldt complained in a public letter that John Sidney Thrasher (1817–1879) had suppressed his anti-slavery opinions in The Island of Cuba (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856). The letter was first published in the Berlin newspapwer Berlinische Nachrichten von Staats- und gelehrten Sachen on July 25, 1856. Immediately translated to English, it appeared in numerous newspapers across the U.S., including The New York Herald of August 13, 1856. Thrasher response to Humboldt’s protest note appeared in The New York Herald of August 17, 1856, and New York Daily Times (1851-57) of August 16, 1856.

Humboldt’s copy of Thrasher’s 1856 English translation contains personal notes on the last page. The note at the bottom of the page is by Ortiz.


Humboldt, Alexander von. The Island of Cuba. Translated from the Spanish, with Notes and a Preliminary Essay by J. S. Thrasher. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856.

Humboldt, Alexander von. “The Works of Humboldt and J. S. Thrasher on Cuba.” The New York Herald, August 13, 1856, 8, col. C. (original at the Library of Congress).

Thrasher, John S. “Humboldt and Thrasher in Cuba: To the Editor of the Herald.” The New York Herald, August 17, 1856, 2, col. E. (original at the Library of Congress).

Further Readings

King, Richard C. “John S. Thrasher.” In Handbook of Texas Online, ed. Texas State Historical Association, 1999.

Kutzinski, Vera M. “Translations of Cuba: Fernando Ortiz, Alexander von Humboldt, and the curious case of John Sidney Thrasher.” Atlantic Studies Literary, Cultural and Historical Perspectives 6.3 (2009): 303-26.

Kutzinski, Vera M. “Humboldt’s translator in the context of Cuban history.” Atlantic Studies Literary, Cultural and Historical Perspectives 6.3 (2009): 327-43.

Kutzinski, Vera M. “Alexander von Humboldt’'s transatlantic personae.” Atlantic Studies Literary, Cultural and Historical Perspectives 7.2 (2010): 99-112.

Schwarz, Ingo. “‘Shelter for Reasonable Freedom’ or Cartesian Vortex: Aspects of Alexander von Humboldt’s relation to the United States of America." In Alejandro de Humboldt y el mundo hispánico: La Modernidad y la Independencia americana, ed. Miguel Ángel Puig-Samper, p. 169–82. Madrid: Fundación Histórico Tavera, 2000.

Foner, Philip S. “Alexander von Humboldt on Slavery in America.” Science and Society 47.3 (1983): 330-42.


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