When we think of explorers in the early 1800s, we often think of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery. They were amazing, however, there was another pair of explorers who explored the rivers, lands and people of South America. Alexander von Humboldt and his assistant Aime Bonpland left Europe in 1799, a few years before Lewis and Clark and for five years, explored the territories that would one day be Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba and Mexico.
Humboldt’s goal was to find the interconnectedness of everything – an ambitious goal! Humboldt and Bonpland gathered information in the fields of geology, anthropology, climatology, zoology, plant geography, terrestrial magnetism, oceanography, mineralogy, ethnography and political economy (Humboldt, ix). They carried and constantly used forty-two different scientific instruments to allow them to observe any and all things they encountered. “They took with them . . . books, chronometers, telescopes, sextants, theodolites, quadrants, a dipping needle, compasses, a magnetometer, a pendulum, several barometers, thermometers, hygrometers, electrometers, a cynometer (for measuring the blueness of the sky), eudiometers (for measuring the quantity of oxygen in the atmosphere), and apparatus to determine the temperature at which water boils at different altitudes, a rain gauge, and galvanic batteries” (Humboldt, xxiii) – quite a unique packing list.
Humboldt not only studied nature but the different languages, cultures and societies he encountered. When he returned, he could discuss in great detail the advancements of the Pre-Columbian culture, its hieroglyphics, pyramids, gardens and calendars and was an advocate to preserve the native languages he came across.
Humboldt and Bonpland struggled through many experiences along the rivers of South America and at times were “caught in flash floods; abandoned by their guides; stalked by jaguars, stung by electric eels; prostrated by fever, fatigue, diarrhea and dehydration; bereft of all food; and simply, hopelessly lost” (Sachs, 61).
As they traveled down the Orinoco River, they battled mosquitoes. Here these maddening insects were so thick that Humboldt could not take astronomical readings to tell exactly where they were. The mosquitoes covered the explorers’ faces and hands, stung them through their clothes and found their way into their noses and mouths. To get a reprieve from these small tormentors, Humboldt slept on boulders in the middle of a raging river, rubbed himself with crocodile fat, buried himself in the dirt, and even sat in a smoking clay oven. Near the end of their journey on the Orinoco River, Humboldt’s canoe had worn so thin from hitting against rocks in the water and portages, that they had to be extremely careful to keep it intact.
Throughout this entire treacherous journey, Humboldt delighted in the wide variety of plants, animals and cultures and kept copious notes as well as detailed illustrations. “Everything is interrelated,” Humboldt continually stated.
I am amazed at all Humboldt accomplished in his life and impressed with his desire to learn all he could about literally everything. He only had twenty-four hours in each of his days, yet his passion to learn seemed to somehow magically expand time for him.