The value of seeking to record and describe in detail what he saw.

Alexander von Humboldt’s journey to becoming the preeminent scientist of his day had many possible starting points. But July 16,1799, the day that he, a Prussian naturalist, and his friend Aimé Bonpland, a French botanist, disembarked from the Pizarro in the South American city of Cumaná, capital of Nueva Andalucía, is as good as any. From Europe, the explorers carried the finest scientific equipment available and something even more valuable: Spanish passports. A boon rarely awarded to foreigners, the documents assured them safe passage through Spain’s New World viceroyalties and allowed them to “make astronomical observations, measure the height of mountains, collect whatever grew on the ground, and carry out any task that might advance the Sciences.” Crucially, the imprimatur of the Spanish government also guaranteed the support of local officials for a scientific adventure that would take Humboldt and Bonpland through what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and Cuba. What they learned about the physical landscapes, peoples, and economies of Spanish America, especially the little studied interior of South America, advanced the world’s knowledge of the region and transformed how Europeans perceived the New World. When Humboldt landed in South America, he was twenty-nine and had already made a name for himself through his geology and botany writings. Well educated and well connected, the young aristocrat traveled in the same intellectual circles as Schiller, Goethe, and Moses Mendelssohn. Humboldt and his older brother, Wilhelm, studied at the University of Göttingen, and, before joining the Prussian Department of Mines, the younger Humboldt trained at the Freiberg School of Mines in Saxony. Humboldt tried for two years to join a government-sponsored research expedition. Opportunity after opportunity fell through, and travel became harder to arrange as Napoleon Bonaparte’s grasp on the Continent tightened.Finally, in March 1799, Humboldt convinced Spain’s monarchs to allow him—using his own money—to explore their colonies. Their permission launched the first inland exploration of South America since La Condamine’s. “I shall try to find out how the forces of nature interreact upon one another and how the geographic environment influences plant and animal life. In other words, I must find out about the unity of nature.” In Cuba, Humboldt wrote prolifically about the condition of slaves on the island and sought to demonstrate that slavery could not be justified even on economic grounds. “Slavery is possibly the greatest evil ever to have afflicted humanity, no matter if one focuses on the individual slave ripped from his family in the country of his birth and thrown into the hold of a slave ship or considers him as part of the herd of black men penned up in the Antilles.” Humboldt called for a gradual end to slavery and suggested that laws be enacted to equalize the populations of black men and women on sugar plantations and grant freedom to slaves who had served fifteen years. He proposed that profits be shared with slaves to give them an incentive to increase agricultural wealth and that public funds be set aside to buy slaves’ freedom. Humboldt’s ideas so infuriated officials in Havana that they banned his book. (1)

The second came when he witnessed, in the greenhouse of the Botanical Garden of Milan, the cutting of a giant cactus of Peruvian origin, a fact that deeply affected him. The Five Days and the Roman Republic One of the most significant events of his life in Italy was his involvement in the independence process in Milan, from 18 to 22 March 1848, "the five days of Milan". Citizens from all walks of life, united by the libertarian ideal, managed to expel from the city the Austrian occupation troops commanded by Marshal Radetzky. Among the patriots, Antonio Raimondi joined the long list of militants who fought heroically in those terrible and glorious days. Unfortunately the victory did not last long. Disagreements among the patriots, led by Mazzini and Garibaldi, precluded the revolution, and allowed the Austrians to reoccupy Milan that same year.


July 2018