The man behind the name
Alexander von Humboldt ( 17691859) is one of those treasures that time forgot. And yet, primarily in the 19th century, which is really not so very long ago, and well within the reach of documented history, Humboldt was almost a household name in the English- speaking world, parts of Latin America and Europe. This German scientist, explorer, writer, naturalist, anthropologist and geographer was so idolised that even Charles Darwin described him as the greatest scientific traveller who had ever lived.
In fact, his name lives on. In many parts of North and South
America and other parts of the world, Humboldt’s name is still to be found in towns and rivers, as well as sundry geographical landmarks, hundreds of species of plants and over 100 animal species. Consider, for instance, the Humboldt glacier in Greenland, an asteroid named after Humboldt and, more famously, the cold Humboldt Current off the coast of Peru and Chile. A simple Google search reveals all this, and even the fact that there is an area called Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.
Curiously though, not many people, including members of his own fraternity, seem to remember the man behind the name. And that is why Andrea Wulf ’ s beautifully conceived and written book is so important. However, it isn’t as if others haven’t tried to revive Humboldt’s legacy. In 2007, Aaron Sachs published The Humboldt Current, an expository
study of Humboldt’s enor- mous influence on the history of America as well as on its philosophers and historians, via the travels of four other explorers. The book was a valiant attempt to establish Humboldt’s dearest principle – that of a connective chain that unites all humankind and its various surroundings.
Much like Sachs, Wulf, too, creates a book that blends narrative and interpretation. However, because her canvas is larger, and her book is directly concerned with the man himself, the read is a more enriching one. As Wulf perceptively points out, “It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared”. In a nutshell, that is what has happened to the world’s memories of Humboldt. His fantastic discoveries no longer seem so amazing in the context of modern science, perhaps, and that is a big reason why his contributions have remained unnoticed by modern generations.
So the challenge that Wulf takes on is to make Humboldt relevant again, basing her saga on Humboldt’s epic journey to the Americas in 1799, a journey that was no less momentous than Darwin’s legendary voyage on HMS Beagle in 1831. Humboldt’s companion on his journey was Aimé Bonpland. Thanks to some fortuitous funding by the Bourbon monarchy of Spain, whose interests in the New World were largely commercial, Humboldt and Bonpland finally set sail for South America, stopping for six days on the island of Tenerife, where Humboldt climbed the Teide Volcano, and landed in modern- day Venezuela in July.
Without rambling about Humboldt’s many astonishing exploits on this journey, most of which Wulf captures in the book, suffice to say that among his achievements was the first ever map of the Upper Orinoco river’s union with a tributary of the Amazon, a geographical feat that upset all contemporary perceptions and forced a re- look at the spread of the Amazon river system.
The duo’s journey lasted almost nine months and covered approximately 1,300km and broke so much new ground that the achievement is almost incomprehensible today, not to mention the different climatic regions it encompassed. Wulf ’ s book also mentions a terrific earthquake during which Humboldt serenely took measurements and made notes, too immersed in his interests to fear death. Also, during his time in Venezuela, Humboldt probably became the first direct proponent of conservation when he correlated the falling levels of Lake Valencia to the felling of trees and explained why trees were so important for our ecosystem.
In the midst of all this, we get constant glimpses of Humboldt the man, sharp of mind and tongue, immensely driven, the multi- disciplinarian who tried to combine various branches of scientific knowledge, the loner who clearly loved the company of men, and who probably sought to assuage his social isolation owing to his sexual preferences through constant – and dangerous – physical travel.
( Extreme left) A painting of Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Stiele; ( Alongside) A map tracing Humboldt’s expedition across continents