Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

The American Travel Journals

Alexander von Humboldt’s American travel journals are in their entirety a significant monument of both science and literature and have left their mark on the history of science and aesthetics; a monument which can at best be scientifically compared to Charles Darwin’s travel records and his preliminary manuscripts and sketches for On the Origin of Species and at best be literarily compared to Georg Forster’s A Voyage round the World (created on the second Pacific voyage by James Cook) or Giacomo Casanova’s memoirs. Nevertheless, Humboldt’s travel journals are completely unique in this net of large comparisons. The journals are the very core of the Humboldt oeuvre and establish his worldwide and still growing reputation as a scientist, citizen of the world, and guiding intellectual force for the 21st century. Alexander von Humboldt’s world consciousness, which builds cultural bridges, found its first genuine expression in the widely travelled manuscripts of the American travel journals. Alexander von Humboldt will refer to these travel journals in all of his subsequent writings, right up to his Cosmos.

Volume 1: Published (edited by Carmen Götz and Ulrike Leitner)

Dossier "American Travel Journals" in HiN XVI, 31 (2015):

Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

The European Travels

The corpus of the so-called European Travels comprises an unconnected series of excursions from the years 1790-1805, which preceded or directly followed the research trip through the American tropics (1799–1804).

Alexander von Humboldt's first preserved travel journal was written in 1790 during his journey to England, where he was accompanied by Georg Forster. Formally, the English travel journal shows typical signs of a finger exercise in preparing travel notes. However, it already points to the later travel journals, such as those that preceded the American journey.

Between June 1797 and April 1798, Humboldt traveled from Dresden via Prague to Vienna and Salzburg. In the Eastern Alps and the Salzkammergut, he learns how to use his instruments, experiments with chemical procedures, and seeks the advice of experienced researchers and instrument makers

Humboldt had his notes of the trip “De Paris à Toulon” inserted into the volumes of his American travel diaries with the note “Should not be printed”. In its main section, the text offers a multifaceted description of the encounters and hardships on the way through revolutionary France in 1798.

Humboldt's Journal of the Journey through Spain (1799) contains observations, measurements and stations along his route across the Iberian Plateau. Besides the flora, much attention is paid to the carefully documented barometric height measurements.

The records of Humboldt's journey to Italy in 1805 conclude the corpus of European journeys. Humboldt was accompanied to Italy by Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac and Franz August O'Etzel. The route leads first to Rome, where Humboldt's brother Wilhelm is Prussian envoy, and where Leopold von Buch joins the small travel group.

Archive of the BBAW (Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities)

The Russian-Siberian Travel Journals

As is well known, the American journey was a private expedition financed by Humboldt himself. Instead, the Russian-Siberian journey took place on behalf, at the expense, and under the control of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, something Humboldt was constantly very aware of. The then almost sixty-year-old researcher and Prussian chamberlain was bound by contract to refrain from any kind of criticism regarding the Russian social and economic system, let alone open criticism regarding feudalistic structures and serfdom as well as other similar sensitive subjects. During the American journey, Humboldt travelled in a mobile duo of disciplines with Aimé Bonpland and wrote the travel journals by himself. Things were different on his rapid journey through the Russian Empire: besides his servant and factotum Johann Seifert, Humboldt was accompanied by the mineralogist Gustav Rose and the botanist and zoologist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg while enduring the constant company and tailing by Russian officers and adjutants. Rose and Ehrenberg also kept travel journals like Humboldt and subsequently presented publications about the journey, whereby the respective (disciplinary) »responsibilities« of the fellow travellers were clearly and explicitly tailored.

The »Russian-Siberian Travel Journal« therefore has a completely different structure, political and scientific-historical contextualization, intention, and subject matter in comparison to the »American Travel Journal«; the very exclusion of any social criticism as a form of censorship was already in stark contrast to the recordings during the American journey.

Dossier "Humboldt’s Journey to Russia" in HiN VI, 11 (2005):