It was only after the death of his mother in 1796 that Alexander von Humboldt was able to tackle his expedition plans. Although the travel arrangements were bolstered by his inheritance, he was repeatedly tripped up in the chaos of European warfare. So it took him until 1799 to finally land in Venezuela, the first stop on his South American journey. With access to the Spanish colonies in Latin America being closely controlled, he was only able to enter and travel the country thanks to a special passport granted to him by the Spanish king.
After an intensive and extensive expedition in the Orinoco basin, he continued to the Colombian highlands and to Bogotá, where he visited the eminent botanist José Mutis. Negotiating tropical wilderness and Andean snowstorms, he went on to Quito, where he made preparations for his ascent of Chimborazo, which was thought to be the highest mountain on earth at the time—due to its proximity to the equator, it actually is the point located the furthest from the center of the earth.
Rosa de Montúfar, the beautiful daughter of the provincial governor in Quito, complained about Humboldt’s preference for volcanoes over her. Humboldt fell in love with her brother Carlos instead, who became his steady companion for the following years.
In view of his fame, society was largely willing to forgive Humboldt his «sexual improprieties» (Theodor Fontane). Such affairs moreover left his lifelong relationship with his French colleague and companion Aimé Bonpland (1773–1858) unaffected.
Under conditions that we would consider intolerable and a breakneck risk today, Humboldt and his companions finally climbed Mount Chimborazo on June 23, 1802. Being denied the final 300 meters, their team made it to an altitude just short of 6,000 meters. Witness of all these endeavors became Humboldt`s famous Physical Tableau of the Andes and Neighboring Countries. This cross-sectional drawing of Chimborazo is a neatly recorded dataset of the altitudinal distribution of all native plant species, uniting «the microcosm on one sheet».
Via Peru, Mexico, and Cuba, the group finally reached Washington, where Humboldt met the then president of the United States in 1804. Jefferson eagerly absorbed all of his information about his expeditions. Humboldt had become the most reliable source on South America at the time. No one knew more about the continent’s nature, as well as about the brutal exploitation by the Spaniards, the slave trade, the cash crops and the monocultures (before all sugar cane and indigo).
Back in Europe
Humboldt received a triumphant welcome on his return to Europe. He and his team had collected 60,000 samples alone of plants over the years… It was now time to scientifically analyze the collected data and to evaluate his experiences and encounters. Humboldt became a star of society in Europe’s major cities Paris and London, where he lived in the following years. He commuted back and forth, also to Berlin, where he lived on and off, and to where he was drawn not least by an allowance from the Prussian king.
The spirit of 1789 had left Europe. Prussia had turned into a police state, and Napoleon resented Humboldt for his insubordinate political statements. Humboldt published without cease, producing magnificent illustrated books and folios, but lacking financial success, which, however, didn’t bother him much. A last great expedition, financed by the Russian Czar, finally took Humboldt to the Altai Mountains and the Chinese border in 1829, where he and his team crossed 15,000 km in only six months.
«I have this wild idea to describe the entire material world in one book», Humboldt had declared in 1834. Cosmos was published in several stages, the first volume in 1845 with a 100-page introduction covering «everything» from the universe to Earth’s core. Volume two dealt with the history of humanity and was a bestseller that finally made Humboldt famous in the USA.
The writers Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)—who considered nature as «living poetry» and had published his influential book Walden in 1854— had immersed themselves in Humboldt. The first U.S. environmentalist, George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882), who wrote Man and Nature (1864), referred to Humboldt as did his fellow countryman John Muir (1838—1914), who launched the animal rights movement and was involved in establishing Yosemite National Park.
Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), «El Libertador» of Latin America, had maintained a lively exchange with Humboldt. Last but not least, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was influenced by Humboldt. Without having read his writings, Darwin would not have boarded the «Beagle». Even his diary entries are written in «Humboldt’s style», and Darwin remained true to his great model throughout his life.
Humboldt had lived a long life when he slowly approached his death in 1859, meanwhile a «half-petrified curiosity», as he described himself. Ten years later, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets worldwide, from Alexandria to Moscow and New York; offices and public facilities were closed in Berlin, where 80,000 people celebrated the event.
«The economic system and the environment are at war. Just as Humboldt realized that colonies based on slavery, monoculture and exploitation are systems which create injustice and disastrous environmental devastation, so we too have to understand that economic forces and climate change are all part of the same system.» (Naomi Klein, as cited in Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, p. 398).