Alexander von Humboldt and the Scientific Discovery of America

Alexander von Humboldt and the Scientific Discovery of America

April 27, 2017

Humboldt
Illustration from the 1808 publication of Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland. Sixième partie, botanique. Plantes équinoxiales, recueillies au Mexique, dans l’île de Cuba, dans les provinces de Caracas, de Cumana et de Barcelone, aux Andes de la nouvelle-Grenade, de Quito et du Pérou, et sur les bords du Rio-Négro, de l’Orénoque et de la riviere des Amazones.

BRIT Reads, our monthly bookclub, recently enjoyed Andrea Wulf’s bestseller The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. This month’s discussion was made even more special because we have a relevant item in our rare book collection: the 1808 botanical volume of Alexander von Humboldt and Amié Bonpland’s Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was drawn towards science at an early age, collecting thousands of plant specimens and insects as a young boy in Prussia. He eschewed a life of privilege to become a scientific explorer, a great disappointment to his strict mother who wished him to pursue a more respectable job as a civil servant.

His mother’s death in 1796 brought Humboldt a sizable inheritance — enough to fund the scientific expeditions he had always dreamed of. He enlisted Friend botanist Amié Bonpland as his travel companion. They secured permission from the King of Spain to travel to Spanish America and set sail for Venezuela in June 1799.

Although the New World had been discovered centuries before, Humboldt and Bonpland’s momentous five-year expedition has been called “the scientific discovery of America.” The two worked with a ferocity that baffled their Indian guides, navigating dangerous routes in the name of science. Humboldt expressed frustrations that he was unable to record everything he saw — the birds that flew too high to describe in detail, the plants that were just out of reach, the animals that scurried away quickly… Humboldt and Bonpland were both avid plant collectors, filling books with pressed specimens throughout their journey. Most specimens were given field labels or tags that corresponded to a numbered entry in their collection, which sometimes also had an early determination.

Humboldt travel diaries
Three volumes of Humboldt’s American Travel Diaries. His extensive original recordings are housed in Germany and have recently been digitized through an effort of the University of Potsam and the German State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. © Carola Seifert, SBB-PK

Humboldt kept a fastidious diary throughout the expedition that totaled over 3,000 pages, which today is being studied and was recently digitized at University of Potsdam in Germany. (You can read more about that project here. Note: the website is in German!) Upon returning to Europe in 1804, Humboldt published 34 volumes outlining his discoveries, titled Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent (English translation: Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent). The final volume was published in 1834, 30 years after the expedition ended. Although his diaries formed the basis for his writings, the magnitude of information and detail show that Humboldt had exceptional memory.

Humboldt travel diaries illustration
Recently digitized, this page from Humboldt’s diary shows a botanical illustration. This image appeared in the third diary he used on his expedition between 1799-1800.

The publications covered the multitude of sciences Humboldt studied on the trip, and two of the volumes are dedicated to botany. The BRIT rare book collection houses the first volume of the botanical book, published in 1808. It is rich with detailed copper engravings, most of which were created by artist Pierre Jean Francois Turpin. The engravings were likely produced based on the authors’ drawings, memories, and dried plant specimens. The illustrations are particularly noteworthy for the focus on scientific information, especially the dissection details.

All engravings are towards the back of the book, while the front half contains descriptions of the plants, with additional details about the dissection figures. The book was intended for a scholarly, specialized audience of botanists. It’s interesting to compare this with other books of the time, such as another BRIT treasure, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. These two publications are both composed of fairly straight-forward plant descriptions, but Curtis’s descriptions are succinct and easy to understand. Plant descriptions in Humboldt’s books can go on for several pages and also touch on family characteristics.

Humboldt
The book shows extremely detailed scientific illustrations.

Humboldt’s book has no color illustrations, and the text is set simply with very few woodblock decorations. The book is printed as a large folio to show the scientific detail of the illustrations rather than to serve as a piece of artwork.

Thanks to the BRIT Reads books club, the list of Humboldt appreciators has grown! And with one of his important publications in our rare book collection, we’re able to provide access to the work that so filled him with passion.

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