Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

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Alexander von Humboldt

American Travel Journal, Vol. I

The first volume of Humboldt's American Travel Journals, which is published here in its entirety for the first time, describes Humboldt's journey from his departure in Spain to his visit to the Canary Islands, his arrival in Cumaná (today Venezuela) and his time there (1799/1800). The multitude of data collected, treatises on plant geography, botany, geosciences, climate, economy and trade, protocols of experiments and on-site encounters, the use of the most modern instruments and mathematical methods of the time not only show the tireless researcher Humboldt and his typical way of organising knowledge, but are also of great value for biodiversity and climate research today.

Edited by Carmen Götz and Ulrike Leitner

Introducing the edition
Biblioteka Jagiellońska, Krakow (Manuscript Department)

Edition

Alexander von Humboldt

Isle de Cube. Antilles en général

On 37 pages and attached notes, Alexander von Humboldt wrote down insights into slavery and outlined analyses on the economy, population, society, and politics. The journal fragment comes from his second stay in Cuba in 1804. It marks the beginning of Humboldt’s intensive examination of slavery, a human question that occupied him until the end of his life. These notes are presented here for the first time in a scholarly edition.

Edited by Ulrike Leitner, Piotr Tylus and Michael Zeuske

Introducing the edition
Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

Edition

Alexander von Humboldt

American Travel Journal, Vol. II and VI

Humboldt's Journal II and VI contains very heterogeneous topics tied together. The volume – a kind of “Varia” of the expedition years – includes among others the description of the journey from Paris to Marseille and Toulon (1798), the Expedition from Cumanà to Caripe (1799), the visit of the famous Humboldt Guácharo cave, astronomical observations on the Apure and the Orinoco, the stay in Cuba (1800-1801) and in Quito (1802) as well as extensive records of the trip to Italy, which Humboldt undertook in 1805 after returning to Europe together with his friend, the chemist and physicist Gay Lussac.

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Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

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Alexander von Humboldt

American Travel Journal, Vol. III

The descriptions of the journey in the third volume of the journal directly build on the remarks in the first volume. They focus on the continued journey along the coast from Nueva Barcelona near Cumaná to Caracas, Calabozo, and the Río Apure (1800). After the ascent of the Silla in January, Humboldt and Bonpland set off from Caracas to embark on their trip on the Orinoco river.

As so often in his descriptions, Humboldt's view of nature and people is equally precise: he is critical of the dramatic social situation of the impoverished and in part enslaved indigenous and black African population; he sharply condemns the sociopolitical contradictions and moral abysses of the Spanish missionaries. His experiment with live electric eels, recorded here, later came to fame. Also, there are observations on yellow fever, the chemical properties of the coffee plant, and the geology and flora of South America.

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Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

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Alexander von Humboldt

American Travel Journal, Vol. IV

Volume IV is the actual "Journal of the Orinoco" and chronologically continues the records from Volume III (with which it was originally bound). The adventurous journey leads from the "Llanos de Caracas" to the rivers Apure, Orinoco, Atabapo, Negro, Casiquiare, and Esmeralda (February to May 1800). On April 5th, the travel group sets off from the shore at the Bocca de Tortuga on the Orinoco and almost dies a few minutes later when the Lancha capsizes: “Our rescue was a kind of miracle! The sensation of rising up, the return to life was very, very beautiful. [...] All books, all MSS. in the water, luckily good ink, and therefore everything readable. But difficult to dry.”

Humboldt goes into detail about the local cultures of the river peoples (the rock carvings on the Orinoco, the arrow poison Curare, the way of life of the Caribbean and Otomaks); the episode around the bone cave Ataruipe is as famous as it is controversial.

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Alexander von Humboldt

American Travel Journal, Vol. V

Back to Cumaná, Humboldt and Bonpland wait for some time to be able to translate to Cuba. In the meantime, they calculate numerous astronomical observations to determine the location during the journey, complete river maps, and sort plant collections. On the way to Havana on December 6, 1800, Humboldt writes: “Everything that is said in Europe about slave treatment is extremely true. You can't exaggerate, that's how shameful it is. In Europe, people go to the countryside to enjoy quiet pleasures. Here you can hear chains rattling – and people talk about the happiness of Jamaica, about the splendor of S. Domingo. Who is, who was happy … Everything unnatural disappears in the world, and it is not natural that a few rocky islands produce so much.”

Similar to Journal II and VI, Volume V is a compilation of various travel-related, smaller notebooks. Humboldt also included the excursion from Dresden via Prague to Vienna and Salzburg between June 1797 and April 1798. The almost fifty pages show a young scientist in preparation for the hoped-for world trip: In the Eastern Alps and the Salzkammergut, he learned how to use his instruments, record and annotate meteorological data as well as determine the specific location and altitude of a given place. He experiments with chemical procedures that should be practicable in the field using simple means and seeks the advice of experienced researchers and instrument makers.

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Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

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Alexander von Humboldt

American Travel Journal, Vol. VII a and b

After returning from Cuba, Journal VII a et b first describes the journey on the Río Magdalena (April 21 to June 15, 1801). A stop along the route is the town of Mompós. Here Humboldt dissects crocodiles and studies their anatomy, and the sketches become part of his later anatomical work. On his journey through the viceroyalty of New Granada, Humboldt meets a population on the move: “Everywhere one hears talk of the nueva Philosophia; this is the epitome of the newer physics, mechanics, astronomy. The American youth is in a state of inner emotion that is unknown in Spain. Everyone complains about the yoke and nonsense of the Peripatetics and wants to shake off the shackles on reason that the monks have put on the people. Even among the clerics, there are innovators ...”.

Besides the description of the journey through Turbaco, Cartagena, Honda, Bogotá, the Quindíu Mountains, the Andean Cordillera, and Quito, there are short portraits of travel companions and famous personalities such as Carlos Montúfar, José Celestino Mutis, and Francisco José de Caldas.

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Alexander von Humboldt

American Travel Journal, Vol. VII bb and c

Journal VII bb et c is the most comprehensive of all journals. The travel stops in Quito and Lima are covered in detail. Some of Humboldt's most famous mountain tours can be found here: Cotopaxi, the Pichincha peaks, and of course the ascent of Chimborazo. Shortly before the summit he has to stop due to bad weather: “Notre séjour à cette immense hauteur était des plus triste et lugubre. Nous etions eveloppés dans une brume qui ne nous laissait voir que par intervalle les abimes qui nous entouraient. Aucun etre vivant, aucun insecte, pas même le Condor qui à Antisana planait au-dessus de nos tetes, vivifiait les airs.”

He visits the cinchona forests near Loja, travels to the mines of Hualgayoc and criticizes the technical deficiencies and social grievances in colonial mining. In Cajamarca, Humboldt meets the descendants of the last Inca ruler Atahualpa. Near Trujillo, he sees the ruins of the Chimú city of Chanchán, destroyed by the Incas.

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Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

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Alexander von Humboldt

American Travel Journal, Vol. VIII

On the last stations from Lima to Guayaquil Humboldt studies the Pacific climate, especially the cold ocean currents along the Peruvian coast (later – against his will – called “Humboldt Current”). The notes in Volume VIII mark the end of the South American period. His journey continues to the north: Humboldt describes in detail the almost five-week sea voyage to the port of Acapulco. The one year's stay in the viceroyalty of New Spain (later to become Mexico) leaves its mark on Humboldt: the mountains and the flora, the climate of the plateau, the silver mines in Taxco, the inspection of the mines, the visit of the academic and scientific institutions in the capital. In June 1803, Humboldt examines the more than 500 manuscripts of the confiscated collection of pre-colonial manuscripts of the Milanese Lorenzo Boturini in the archives of the viceroyal secretariat and makes detailed notes.

The journal entries display once again Humboldt’s political stance: He is critical of the working conditions in the silver mines, the evil of colonialism in the American territories, the European adherence to the system of slavery, the arbitrary rule of the missionaries, the widespread social inequality in the viceroyalty.

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Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

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Alexander von Humboldt

American Travel Journal, Vol. IX

Similar to Volume VIII, Journal IX is also characterized by the records of the Mexican journey from 1803 to 1804. Humboldt visits the drainage system (Real Desagüe) of Mexico City, which was already built by the Spaniards in the early colonial phase, and makes suggestions for its structural improvement. Once again, political judgments shape the material: the living conditions of the indigenous weavers, the treatment of the workers in the mines of Guanajuato, a long excerpt from a report by the archbishop to the Spanish king on the situation of the “Indios”. The visit of the still-active volcanic Jorullo area is described in detail, and the sketches and drawings made there will later appear in three different atlases.

Humboldt briefly describes the sea journey from Veracruz to Havana and from there to Philadelphia. The journal ends on May 22, 1804, with reflections on whitewashing ships to reduce the danger of epidemics. At the gates of Philadelphia, he writes: “Nous n'avions jamais été en quarantaine. C'est le moment ou l'on commence le plus a se detester à bord. Tout le monde se chicane. L'Hopital de Lostridge parait tres beau.”

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Biblioteka Jagiellońska, Krakow (Manuscript Department)

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Alexander von Humboldt

Journal de Mexique à Veracruz

The Journal of the Journey from Mexico City to Veracruz is, along with the so-called “Cuba Journal” Isle de Cube, the second journal fragment from the Humboldt Personal Papers Collection of the Krakow manuscript department that was previously believed to have been lost. First published in 2005 in a print edition by Ulrike Leitner, a revised version of the journal will be integrated into the publication model of edition humboldt digital.

As a testimony to the journey, it is, as the entire corpus of Humboldt’s travel journals, of great value for research. The notes recorded here refer to the stages of the journey between leaving Mexico City in January and arriving in Veracruz in March 1804. Humboldt describes in detail his studies of the Pyramid of Cholula where he measured the heights of various peaks of the Mexican high mountains (including Popocatépetl, Iztaccihuatl, Pico de Orizaba). His route leads him from Puebla via Amosoque, Acajete, Pinar, and Ojo del Agua towards Perote. To improve his cartographic data, Humboldt undertakes numerous barometric altimetry measurements, especially around Jalapa. On March 7, Humboldt and his companions embark in the port of Veracruz to sail for the second time to Havana.

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