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Humboldt in Mexico, 1803–1804

Summary and Keywords

During his breathtaking 19th-century scientific explorations of New Spain (as Mexico was known under Spanish rule), illustrious German scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt crammed a lifetime of scientific studies into one extraordinary year: exhausting inspections of three major colonial silver mines, prodigious hikes to the summits of most of Mexico’s major volcanoes while taking scientific measurements and botanical samples, careful study of hitherto secret Spanish colonial archives in Mexico City, and visits to recently uncovered archaeological sites of pre-Hispanic cultures. Humboldt wrote voluminously about his Mexican experiences and is an indispensable source of insights into the colony of New Spain on the eve of its troubled birth as independent Mexico a decade later.

Keywords: Alexander von Humboldt, New Spain, Mexico, travel writing, scientific exploration, silver mining, pre-Hispanic archaeology

Years Prior to Arrival in Mexico

As indicated in the entry on Humboldt in South America, Alexander von Humboldt’s activities prior to his arrival in Mexico were filled with adventure and achievement. His early education was rich and eclectic, and his experiences as a young mining engineer in the Prussian civil service replete with scientific activity. When he and the French botanist Aimé Bonpland left Spain in June 1799, bound for the Americas, they were well aware of the scientific precedents established by others, whether of international or Spanish sponsorship.

Specific to Humboldt’s later accomplishments was the Royal Scientific Expedition (RSE) to New Spain. Plans were drawn up in 1785, and in 1787 the expedition was given a six-year term under the direction of the Aragonese physician Martín de Sessé (b. 1751). The RSE achieved relatively permanent status in Mexico City and was a focal point for probes all over New Spain in the last decade of 18th century. The RSE also founded the Royal Botanical Garden of Mexico, which gave professional courses in botany, studies closely allied to medicine and especially pharmacology.

Mexican Itinerary

Humboldt and his two traveling companions, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland and the young Ecuadorean adventurer Carlos Montúfar, who had joined the expedition in Quito, spent 350 days in Mexico. They first touched down at the Pacific port of Acapulco on March 23, 1803, after a long and harrowing voyage from Guayaquil, Ecuador, and they departed from Veracruz on March 7, 1804. Acapulco, once the terminal of Spain’s illustrious Manila galleon trade from East Asia, had become a somewhat seedy port by the time Humboldt visited, but he was still able to describe the coast as “one of the most attractive they had ever witnessed.” Heading for the colonial capital of New Spain, Humboldt next traversed what Mexicans still call la tierra caliente, the torrid lands of the tortuous Sierra Madre del Sur range, where dusty granite rocks helped the daytime temperatures exceed ninety degrees Fahrenheit. These difficult conditions in what is now the State of Guerrero failed to deter Humboldt and his party from taking their meticulous geological readings and noting the tropical vegetation. As always, Humboldt was equipped with no fewer than thirty-six of the most modern instruments science could provide. In addition to standard sextants and barometers, these included such specialized equipment as a cyanometer to gauge the blueness of the sky and an inclinometer to measure the horizontal component of the intensity of the earth’s magnetism.

After a brief respite at Chilpancingo, now the state capital of Guerrero, Humboldt entered cooler pine forests en route for Taxco, the first of three great silver mining towns on Humboldt’s itinerary. Taxco made a poor impression on him during his overnight stay. He found that the famous silver lode was almost played out and the town’s lavish baroque architecture was not to his more austere taste. Next, the travelers entered the fertile Cuernavaca valley, home to what Humboldt dubbed “the city of eternal spring” in reference to the benign climate which had made Cuernavaca attractive to generations of rulers dating back to Aztec times.

Only three weeks after landing in Acapulco, after struggling through changing temperatures, high altitude, and difficult roads, Humboldt entered “the city of palaces,” his nickname for Mexico City, on April 12, 1803. The capital, where he would live for seven months, not counting brief excursions to the surrounding towns, took his breath away. He adored the urban layout, the handsome architecture, and the colorful Indian markets. The snow-capped volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl provided a majestic vista, while the archives and libraries of the city, to which he was afforded unprecedented access, gave him unique insights into the political economy of Spain’s remarkable colony. What is often overlooked is that Humboldt was attracted also to the Mesoamerican past, and he dedicated long hours to the study of pre-Hispanic art and culture.

Because he valued the human element in nature, Humboldt did not neglect disciplines such as history, anthropology, political economy, or what today is called “area studies.” He was not a historian, but his impact on the writing of Mexican and Latin American history was substantial. His approach to the history of the continent was novel for his day. He was the first to see the continuity of pre-Columbian history and to include major polities like the Aztecs and the Incas not as exotic entities but as major contributors to what he regarded as the narrative of the past. Columbus, Cortés, and the other conquistadores were important, of course, but they did not make all that preceded them irrelevant. Humboldt’s penchant for the big narrative attracted others, not least of whom was the scholarly American historian of the Spanish-speaking world in the middle of the 19th century, William H. Prescott. Like Humboldt, Prescott believed in telling his story in narrative detail, and he attracted a huge scholarly as well as general readership. He wrote to Humboldt in 1843: “I have been very often guided by the light of your researches.”1

Humboldt’s writings on political economy are somewhat ambivalent. On the surface, he endorsed his sponsors, the Spanish Crown, by praising their achievement in New Spain of creating a prosperous, reform-minded society. But a more careful reading reveals a deeper criticism, that centuries of Spanish rule had turned modern descendants of the ancient Aztecs into wretched victims, and that the “odious monopoly” of Iberian commercial interests, together with financial mismanagement had deprived New Spain of its glorious human and commercial potential. Writing in 1808, a time of great political upheavals in Europe in general and in the Iberian World in particular, Humboldt was cautious. His liberal, democratic sentiments and his passion for justice for the disinherited classes pointed him in the direction of supporting Creole uprisings in Spanish America. But his hope that an enlightened Crown might still achieve some of his vision prevented him from overtly endorsing the rebellions in the colonies. In the view of the Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, Humboldt was “a mid-wife of Mexican consciousness,” and helped support Mexico’s transition to modernity.2

Humboldt championed the study of the humanities in Mexico and was as proud of the achievements of both the classical cultures of pre-Hispanic Mexico as of those maintained and developed by contemporaries in the late colonial period. He personally demonstrated a sustained research interest in the subject, and saw his role to be that of godfather of this dazzling but little-known or appreciated cultural tradition in the wider European world. He basked in the architectural pleasures of Mexico City and delighted in its importance as a center of education and learning. Finally, he discussed the social structure of Mexican society and arrived at harsh judgments over the treatment of its indigenous inhabitants.

Remarkably for a man trained in science, Humboldt made a prodigious contribution to the emerging field of pre-Columbian, and especially Aztec, art. Combining firsthand observation with a profound knowledge of documentary sources and an intense research curiosity, he put forward evidence and comparative hypotheses of great utility to later generations of art historians and anthropologists interested in classical Mexican monuments.3

Humboldt was the first non-state official to be granted access to the colonial archives, and he made the most of this privilege. In addition to his research on culture, he pored over raw economic and geographic information which he would publish in his later writings. Among the unpublished documents were those pertaining to the far north of America from California to Nootka sound. He studied the voyages of Malaspina, and of Quadra, their maps and diaries. He described beautiful colonial paintings which would fetch a fortune on the London market, and a treasure trove of Indian paintings done at the time of Cortés on subjects ranging from genealogical trees to important battles. He was, however, disappointed by the lack of documents on Cortés’s administration and on the 16th century in general.

Humboldt was greatly impressed with the quality of higher education and training in Mexico City. His account of the state of arts and science and of the men who taught these subjects is brimming with superlatives. “No city of the new continent, without even excepting those of the United States, can display such great and solid scientific establishments as the capital of Mexico.”4

One significant two-week excursion was a trip to a second silver mining region, Pachuca and Real del Monte, located about sixty-two miles north of Mexico City. Humboldt not only documented the significant silver production of the region but predicted that the mines would yield still more wealth if Mexican or foreign mining capital were to invest in technological improvements. Humboldt also praised the beauty of the surrounding landscapes in the Huasca river valley, which offered some of the most spectacular sites in all of Mexico.

Next, in August, came a month’s stay in Guanajuato, the third and wealthiest silver mining city Humboldt visited, where the fabulous Valenciana mine ran in a straight line southeast and northwest of the town. The indefatigable Humboldt inspected every silver mine and climbed every mountain in the immediate region. He made three descents to the bottom of the Valenciana and was forced to rest for a week after injuring his back in a nasty fall in one of the mines.

Mining had clearly been one of Humboldt’s principal areas of expertise, and his experience as a mining inspector in Prussia was a significant reason for the Spanish Crown’s decision to give him a free hand in visiting Mexico. The subject of Mexican silver mining; its technical aspects, labor, and sanitary conditions; its economic importance to New Spain; and its future prospects occupy a considerable portion of the Political Essay. Mining helps explain the popularity of the book when it first appeared, especially among potential English investors, and its enduring value some two hundred years later. David Brading, who has written the definitive study of mining and merchants in late colonial Mexico, lavishes high praise on the Political Essay, describing its “overwhelming excellence . . . [as] a first-hand description of the industry that has never been superseded. Since then all students of Mexico’s eighteenth-century economy have to some degree paraphrased Humboldt.”5

A major consequence of Humboldt’s Political Essay was the attention it drew in northern Europe to the immense mineral resources of Mexico. Humboldt spoke so glowingly of silver mining production and how it could be expanded to yield even greater profits if properly exploited that it almost inevitably resulted in a frenzy of investing in Paris and especially in London. Especially after 1821, when Mexico had become independent, Humboldt was approached by European and Mexican financiers to participate in various mining ventures, but he would have none of it, pleading a “disinclination for public affairs” in a letter to his brother Wilhelm.6 Although some of these mining ventures were successful, speculation and unscrupulous operators created a bubble, which burst in 1830, ruined many, and brought undeserved discredit to Humboldt’s reputation among disgruntled investors. Having acted in good faith, Humboldt deeply resented the charges in the English press that he had duped investors with his exaggerated view of Mexico’s mining potential. He defended himself by insisting that he had never offered investment advice nor sought to profit from his knowledge.

In September 1803, Humboldt and his party left Guanajuato to visit Michoacán, the province inhabited by Tarascan Indians who had been evangelized by the enlightened Spanish bishop Vasco de Quiroga. Humboldt praised the craft skills and industriousness of the Tarascans living around Lake Pátzcuaro, but what attracted him most was the newly formed live volcano, El Jorullo, located in the southern part of the province. His ascent of El Jorullo and the observations he conducted there would represent a major scientific contribution to volcanology. Along with mines, mountains also were his passion, and on his return trip to Mexico City, Humboldt took the time to climb the snow-capped Nevado de Toluca, some 15,500 feet above sea level.

Humboldt was a pioneer in climatology and meteorology. He was alert to the presence of Mexican microclimates, such as the coastal dunes at Veracruz, problems of heat radiation in the forests of Guererro, and the insulation properties of black sand soils in the volcanic region of Michoacán. Humboldt was the first to observe reverse polarity and to discover a decrease in the planet’s magnetic force from the poles to the equator. He propagated the notion of seismic waves, and he coined the term “Jurassic” for the geological era existing almost two hundred million years before him.

Back in Mexico City in October 1803, Humboldt began preparations for his return to Europe. More research and the filling of trunks with new botanical and geological specimens as well as Indian codices and sculptures occupied him and his team until late January of 1804, when the group set off for Veracruz and the Gulf of Mexico. The journey would take them through two more important provincial towns, Puebla and Xalapa. Puebla, the second largest city in New Spain, was endowed with beautiful colonial architecture and breathtaking views of the mountains and volcanoes of the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt which surrounded the city in every direction. In his inimical fashion, Humboldt could not resist visiting two of these slopes, the Cofre de Perote and the Pico de Orizaba. He and his companions collected numerous samples of rocks and plants on the slopes and admired the enterprise of indigenous people who carried ice from the snowy fields all the way to the coast at Veracruz to supply sherbet makers there. Like many before and after him, Humboldt was awed by the floral beauty of Xalapa and dubbed it the “city of flowers.” He recognized its microclimate where warmth and moisture produced a natural greenhouse effect, earning the town a reputation as a floral wonder.

During their travels in South America and Mexico, Humboldt and Bonpland were the first to tabulate plant life in connection with meteorology and geography. Not only did they build a vast collection of new plants, they rejected the hierarchical and racist views of Buffon and many others who argued that Americans, whether plants, animals, or humans, were “weaker” or “immature” compared to Europeans. Humboldt would return to this point in his master work Cosmos, where he would reject entirely “the depressing assumption of inferior and of superior races of men.”7

From Xalapa, Humboldt and his party began the treacherous descent to the coast, taking only three days to reach Veracruz on February 19. They hoped to embark quickly on a vessel to Cuba and then on to Europe, but they cooled their heels until March 7, no doubt near exhaustion after their arduous adventures. Humboldt spent his time completing his maps and observing living conditions in Veracruz, then a port city infamous for being a major site of the deadly yellow fever. Humboldt agreed the city was overcrowded and unsanitary but refused to see it only in negative terms. Like other scientists of the time, he did not grasp the complex etiology of a viral disease like yellow fever, which was transmitted by a mosquito vector, but Humboldt correctly recommended that sanitary improvements like supplying the inhabitants with potable water and draining the town’s marshes would dramatically improve the quality of public health in the port.

Admirers and Detractors

It is a daunting task to summarize the achievements of such a multifaceted luminary as Alexander von Humboldt. His impact was profound, and changing, both in his day and after. One useful approach on a much larger canvas of how opinions have changed over time is the one taken by historian of science Nicolaas A. Rupke. In his Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography, Rupke has organized the writing in German about Humboldt around six different personas.8 First came the subversive liberal democrat who hoped for the demise of the Prussian state which he served. Then, after Humboldt’s death, German nationalism in several varieties appropriated him. The German Empire, unified and seeking a global reach, saw Humboldt as an avatar. Third, in the wreckage after the Empire’s collapse in 1918, the fragile Weimar republic continued to express pride in a German culture for which Humboldt was a central figure. Next, completely ignoring Humboldt’s cosmopolitanism and rejection of racism, Nazi Germany appropriated Humboldt (and his brother Wilhelm) as pure Aryan exemplars. After total defeat in 1945, the divided Germanies split Humboldt in two. The Communist East Germany took Humboldt’s abolitionism and his concern for the condition of those who toiled as miners as proof of his proletarian tendencies. In Bonn meanwhile, West German interpretations were also self-serving. Humboldt’s affinity for Americans, his approval of British mining capitalism, and his philo-Semitism were all endorsements of German rapprochement with other nations. Finally, various forms of postmodernism, environmentalism, feminism, and even queer studies could all make their claims to this extraordinary man.

In Mexico, appreciations of Humboldt have also reflected the turbulent history of this land after 1804. Public honors have come from villains and heroes alike, whether the self-serving General Santa Anna or the visionary liberal Benito Juárez, who honored Humboldt after his death in 1859 with the title “Benefactor of the Nation.”9 As Covarrubias and Souto have shown, 19th-century Mexican figures like Lucas Alamán, José Luis Mora, and Tadeo Ortiz de Ayala regarded Humboldt as a progressive follower of Adam Smith, and one who helped consolidate classical capitalist economic theory in the Republic.10 Cities like Taxco, Guanajuato, and Cuernavaca have commemorated Humboldt with plaques, streets named after him, and statuary in various public places, whether or not his passage in 1803 was widely noted at the time.

Criticisms of Humboldt by Mexicans and others did develop, and they can be reduced to five arguments, only the last two of which contain merit. First, it is argued, he was an ambiguous apologist for Spanish colonial rule; second, he was an agent, willing or not, for British mining capitalists wishing to profit from Mexican independence; third, his admiration for the United States led him to serve American interests; fourth, he was an obsessive generalist prone to shoddy and erroneous research; and fifth, he was a European cultural annexationist.

An Apologist for Spain

Perhaps Humboldt’s most numerous critics were those nationalists who decided that Humboldt’s loyalties lay with Mexico’s opponents, whether Spanish, American, or British. José Iturriaga de la Fuente, for instance, argues that Humboldt’s historical judgment was compromised because the Spanish Crown had been kind enough to allow him full access to Spanish America.11 While blaming the conquest for its brutality, Humboldt, it is argued, whitewashes three centuries of Spanish misrule and exploitation of native Mexicans. Iturriaga cites Humboldt directly: “Happy is that part of the globe that has enjoyed three centuries of peace, erasing from memory almost every vestige of the crimes committed by the insatiable avarice of the first conquerors.”12 Iturriaga assumes that Humboldt’s aristocratic birth, wealth, and elite status on both sides of the Atlantic made him a natural apologist for Spanish colonial rule.

An Agent for British Mining Capitalists

Clearly, Humboldt was the principal source for European knowledge of Mexico’s silver mining. Whether he should be held responsible for how others exploited his information is another matter. It should also be noted that his account of the mines preceded the wars of independence and could not anticipate that many mines would be deliberately flooded by both sides in order to sabotage the plans of the other. The mines needed far more capital investment to make them productive than rosy company prospectives indicated. Angry investors in England and the United States naturally blamed him for the disastrous stock bubble in Mexican mining which resulted during the 1820s. Humboldt wrote his brother on several occasions, commenting on his involvement in mining investment. He expressed his confidence in the integrity of his “intimate friend” Lucas Alamán and was pleased that his own name had helped raise investment funds in England for Alamán’s venture.13 When he was attacked in the press for lending his name to mining investment, Alexander wrote Wilhelm that his conscience was untroubled, and that he had avoided any hint of speculation or collusion with capitalists. A related issue is whether his glowing reports of Mexico’s potential raised false expectations, providing Mexicans with grandiose dreams of wealth and leading to an inevitable souring of what was seen as his excessive optimism. What critics ignored was Humboldt’s pessimism over whether Mexico would be able to transform its social order and mitigate antagonism among classes and races so that its glorious potential could be realized. Lucas Alamán offers a good example of how disappointments over the course of events after independence could be unfairly laid at Humboldt’s feet. Although a great admirer of Humboldt in the 1820s, Alamán’s bitterness permeated his major opus, Historia de México, published in 1849.14 Alamán now argued that Humboldt’s economic statistics were incomplete and inaccurate and that he was too optimistic about the nation’s economic potential.

An Agent for the Expansionist-Minded United States

Humboldt’s more severe critics have focused on what they regard as his too comfortable relationship with Thomas Jefferson and the young American Republic to the north. Ortega y Medina puts it most dramatically:

With Humboldt’s map, the U.S. expansionists acquired a formidable instrument with which to further their imperialist plans. The poor draftsmen and students of mining who aided Humboldt in preparing these documents must never have realized for whom they really had been working and, what is worse, without pay. Humboldt’s Essay as well as his Atlas of New Spain were documents which, during the first half of the nineteenth century, were considered of strategic importance by U.S. military intelligence. Our traveller was well aware of the pretensions which Mexico’s northern neighbor harbored.15

Ortega y Medina is too harsh in assuming Humboldt’s awareness of American expansionist intentions. Though he inadvertently abetted the Americans, the explanation lies in his deep admiration for Jefferson.16 He regarded him as a kindred spirit, an enlightened natural philosopher who, as president, would apply the great principles of the U.S. Constitution to daily life. In this as with other assumptions, Humboldt was naïve. He overlooked the contradiction that Jefferson was a slave-owning member of the privileged American landowning class, and open to the idea of U.S. territorial expansion westward. In 1803, Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon Bonaparte for fifteen million dollars, gaining territory that not only included French lands in Louisiana and the Mississippi basin but also Spanish Crown lands in Florida and on the north shore of the Gulf of Mexico. To Jefferson’s request for information pertinent to this recently acquired territory, Humboldt could not do enough to satisfy the American president. He even agreed to lend for several days his newly produced maps of northern Mexico and beyond, which he and his assistants had compiled in Mexico City based in part on confidential information provided by the Spanish colonial government. Zebulon Pike is said to have copied Humboldt’s maps as they lay open on U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin’s desk.

Humboldt believed in Jefferson’s integrity not only as president of the republic but also in his continuing duties as president of the American Philosophical Society. Like Humboldt, Jefferson had expressed respect for native peoples, did not think of the West as a blank unoccupied space ready for the taking, and had instructed government explorers like Lewis and Clark to collect data on the customs and languages of native peoples. Of course, later presidents, beginning with Andrew Jackson, did not share these Enlightenment perspectives, and Humboldt must have been disappointed that information he had unwittingly provided in his maps and publications was put to such crass purposes. He could hardly have rejoiced at the 1830 Indian Removal Bills aimed mainly at the Cherokee, which the expansionists in Congress finally succeeded in passing.

A more moderate voice than Ortega y Medina is that of Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, who has dismissed as unsustainable the charge that Humboldt was an advocate, complicit or not, of American expansionism. Krauze does acknowledge that Humboldt’s meetings with Jefferson and Gallatin in Washington in 1804 provided the Americans with what would now be called secret intelligence about the territories of northern Mexico, but he never endorsed the “manifest destiny” of the northern republic to take control of Mexican lands. Concerned to show North Americans and Europeans that Mexico had great artistic and scientific worth, Humboldt was instead “a scientific evangelist” bent on dispelling the myth of congenital degradation of America. He sought “to implant definitively the idea of a promising and respectable Mexico.”17 Humboldt saw clearly the good and the bad in Mexican cultural history: the indigenous peoples’ love of beauty and color, but also the cruelty and violence of both Aztec and Spanish despotism. For Krauze, Humboldt was a well-intentioned paternalist, treating indigenous Mexicans as minors. But he did understand the indigenous population would only be truly free if they had the freedom to travel and relocate where they wished. Krauze argues that, with the exception of Chiapas, Mexico gradually moved to greater ethnic tolerance and freedom by the end of the 20th century, and that this way forward was Humboldt’s way.

A Generalist Prone to Shoddy Research

A recurring criticism of Humboldt was that he was an obsessive generalist, unable to penetrate the surface of nature to observe more fundamental theoretical principles. A secondary critique, sometimes linked to the first, was that his research was uneven and sometimes shoddy. Occasionally, some could stoop to petty and entirely unfair levels of accusation. Iturriaga, for example, has read Humboldt on Mexico with an eye to exposing every inaccuracy or exaggeration he could find. Humboldt was prone to use hearsay as evidence for areas like Sonora, which he never visited and of which he wrote that in the ‘Pimeria Alta region, “every ravine and even the rolling plains have gold scattered everywhere, especially in dry river beds and runoff areas. One can find pure gold nuggets of up to three kilograms in weight.”18 He also put forward entirely impractical ideas, ranging from the use of camels to reduce transportation costs to the idea of constructing a navigation canal from Mexico City to Tampico by using the Tula and Pánuco rivers, regardless of the cost of such an ambitious project. Ortega y Medina adds that Humboldt’s estimates of the population of regions he never observed, such as León and Guadalajara, were seriously flawed.19 Even an analyst much more supportive of Humboldt, Stevens-Middleton, systematically points out Humboldt’s errors in measurement by modern standards.20 Of course, Humboldt was not infallible, but it is grossly unfair to chastise him for errors based on yesterday’s obsolete scientific equipment or to hold him responsible for the sometimes dubious quality of the sources he was able to access. What is remarkable is just the opposite of a failure—how conscientious and successful Humboldt was in bringing forward information of a scientific and popular nature on Mexico. For example, when he reached Xalapa in February 1804, fatigue and his anxiety to reach Veracruz and sail home caused him to write very little in his diaries about this colorful city. Yet his concern for accuracy led him to write a long letter from Xalapa on February 16, 1804, to Manuel Ruiz de Texada at the Colegio de Minería providing final corrections to his maps.

A more serious charge holds that Humboldt was a compulsive empiricist and compiler whose obsession with measurement buried his analysis in detail. Humboldt’s seeming aversion to theoretical analysis and his own doubts about the quality of his research, especially in his early writings, has led to such conclusions as those reached by Ortega y Medina, who writes: “This great traveler and geographer was not without his own glow of inspiration, although he was by no means a blinding luminary . . . Humboldt’s strong point was that he had an insatiable appetite for information; . . . and his greatest fault was that he was incapable of digging to the roots of a phenomenon, but rather tended to stay on its surface.”21 Even more balanced critics find Humboldt wanting when held to the highest standards in the history of science and philosophy. José Miranda argues that Humboldt was not an original thinker like Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, or Adam Smith, and instead made his mark by applying the original ideas of other Enlightenment figures.22

A European Cultural Annexationist

The most influential criticism of Humboldt comes from the pen of Mary Louise Pratt in her Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation.23 Following closely Edward Said’s pioneering postcolonial attack on “orientalism” as a doctrine masking European cultural chauvinism, Pratt argues that 19th-century European travel writers served as cultural annexationists and as “advance scouts for European capital.” Imperial Eyes includes an entire chapter on Humboldt, demonstrating how he imposed a Western rationalist model on indigenous American peoples and cultures which deprived them of their originality and autonomy. Pratt’s sophisticated accusation can be supported by several examples. Humboldt had an affinity for large indigenous polities but was less enamored of stateless peoples living in technologically primitive conditions. It is no doubt the case that Humboldt spent far more time in the company of creole intellectuals than he did with indigenous Mexicans. His contact with Mexican cuisine must have been very limited for he claimed that the indigenous population had replaced their affinity for chile and had substituted salt in seasoning their dishes. Perhaps his association with creoles led Humboldt occasionally to share their contempt for the “indolent” native, and his cultural preference for the Greco-Roman aesthetic did cause him to patronize indigenous cultural forms: “It would be curious to see the works of a semi-barbarous people inhabiting the Mexican Andes [sic] placed beside the beautiful forms produced under the sky of Greece and Italy” (Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, p. 75).

A deeper reading of Humboldt’s assessment of indigenous American culture counters Pratt’s charges. Humboldt detested the social and physical damage wrought by colonialism, and his writing was one of the early 19th century’s most powerful attacks on an economic system that, in Cuba especially, combined forced labor with plantation agriculture. Humboldt’s works of cultural description tacitly acknowledged the limits and risks of imposing a European view on others—witness his severe criticism of Buffon and other racists. There is, finally, an attractiveness to Humboldt’s balanced thinking on issues involving indigenous peoples. He rejected the dual and opposing mythologies of the black legend and the noble savage.

Among Humboldt’s defenders against the charge of cultural chauvinism are two distinguished Mexican scholars. Elías Trabulse, arguably the leading historian of science at the Colegio de México, praised Humboldt for his diligence, and for bringing to light documents and texts from the colonial archives which might well have been lost otherwise.24 Miguel León-Portilla, an authoritative expert on Mesoamerican Mexico, acknowledged Humboldt’s determined search for documentation on codices, and stated that the naming after him of a fragment of the Otomi codex of Huamantla is “a fitting tribute to a savant whose knowledge extended to so many fields during his long and fecund life.”25


Reflecting on his American travels, and especially on his sojourn in Mexico, Humboldt was well aware of his good fortune. Not only did he enjoy good health in the face of daunting challenges, the very fact that he visited the Americas, and not Egypt or Australia, was serendipitous. Indeed, in his Political Essay, he reminded readers several times that he still hoped to connect with Baudin and sail on to the Philippines. Much later, however, a more reflective Humboldt had time to recast his research purposes in a less unstructured manner. He summarized his achievement thus:

I endeavored to employ the time spent in Mexico not merely in scientific investigation, but in acquiring an accurate knowledge of the political condition of this extensive and remarkable country. The civilization of New Spain presented a striking contrast to the limited amount of culture, both moral and physical, visible in those countries I had recently visited. I carefully compared all that I had seen . . . The result of this comparison was to incite me to investigate the causes, as yet but partially developed, which have proved so favorable for the increase of population and of national industry in this country.

The circumstances in which I was placed were highly advantageous for the prosecution of this object, since in the collection of materials in which no published book could be of any avail, various manuscripts were placed at my disposal, and I was allowed free access to the public archives.26

Discussion of the Literature

Far and away the crucial text for Mexico is Humboldt’s remarkable Political Essay, which needs to be supplemented by his observations on pre-Columbian cultures, his diaries, and his Mexican correspondence. The Political Essay first appeared in French in 1808 and was poorly translated into English three years later. The work went through nine editions in the second and third decades of the 19th century: four in English, two in French, two in Spanish, and one in German. It was a publishing record for the time and did much to destroy the myths and prejudices about Spanish America while attracting admiring attention to New Spain among northern European readers. The Mexican historian Vivó Escoto has called it “the first modern description of our nation. Thanks to it, Mexico could become widely known in the European world.” He adds that the Political Essay covered everything, “mine, land, sky, water, animals, people,” and that it was “the first great synthesis of our nation.”27

Coinciding with the bicentennial of his American travels from 1799 to 1804, Humboldt has been enjoying a resurgence of scholarly interest. Not only have there been numerous exhibits, conferences, and workshops on both sides of the Atlantic, publishers have supported this attention with a bevy of new and improved translations as well as scholarly works. Leading this effort are German scholars such as Margot Faak, Ulrike Leitner, and Ottmar Ette. Vera M. Kutzinski has both edited and translated into English several publications by the University of Chicago Press which appeared in 2011 and 2012. For a sampling of three recent scholarly writings in English, see Laura Dassaw Wells, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Knopf, 2015); and Myron Echenberg, Humboldt’s Mexico: In the Footsteps of the Illustrious German Scientific Traveller (Montreal: McGill—Queen’s University Press, 2017). To explore the vast quantities of Humboldtiana on the internet, three websites in Germany, France, and the United States are the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie de Wissenschaften, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the Library of Congress.

Chronology and Map of Humboldt’s Itinerary in New Spain, 1803–1804


  • March 23: arrives in Acapulco.

  • March 29: departure for Mexico City.

  • March 31: reaches Papagayo River.

  • April 1: reaches pine forests and cooler air.

  • April 2: arrives in Chilpancingo.

  • April 3: reaches Zumpango, Zopilote, and Mezcala.

  • April 5: from Tepecoacuilco to Taxco, and departure via Tehuilotepec.

  • April 6: arrives in Iguala, Cocula, and Tlacotepec.

  • April 9: arrives in Puente de Ixtla.

  • April 10: arrives in Cuernavaca and Huitzilac.

  • April 12: arrives in Mexico City, excursions around the city for rest of month, May 14 trip to Pachuca.

  • May 15: arrives in Pachuca.

  • May 17: climbs El Cerro de Zumate.

  • May 19: to Minas de la Regla, of Conde de Regla, Sr. Terreros.

  • May 20: visits Hacienda de Regla.

  • May 21: travels to Atotonilco el Grande.

  • May 22: travels near Puente de la Madre de Dios, sleeps in los Baños de Atotonilco, next to village of Magdalena.

  • May 23: travels to Actopan.

  • May 24: travels in Actopan region.

  • May 25: from Actopan to Carpio.

  • May 26: arrives in morning in Mexico City.

  • August 1: departure for Guanajuato. Sleeps that evening in town of Huehuetoca.

  • August 2: in Arroyo Zarco, staying at travelers’ inn.

  • August 3: in San Juan del Río.

  • August 4: arrives in Querétaro and spends night at Celaya.

  • August 7: arrives in Guanajuato.

  • September 10: trip to El Jorullo, through Bajío, via Irapuato and the Yuririapúndaro lagoon. Sleeps that night in Salamanca.

  • September 14: arrives in Morelia on his birthday.

  • September 17: arrives in Pátzcuaro.

  • September 19: climbs El Jorullo.

  • September 21: returns to Pátzcuaro.

  • September 22: in Morelia.

  • September 24: in Zinapécuaro.

  • September 28: travels through Maravatío and Ixtlahuaca to Toluca.

  • September 29: spends entire day on Nevado de Toluca.

  • September 20: departure for Mexico City.

From October–December, Humboldt’s diary does not provide dates for the last three months of 1803, spent in Mexico City. Presumably the time was devoted to research, and packing of their considerable goods as the travelers prepared for the return trip to Europe via Veracruz.


  • January 9–12: visit to Huehuetoca with the Viceroy.

  • January 20: to Chalco, Río Frio, Texmelucan, and arrives in Puebla.

  • January 22: Puebla.

  • January 24: visits pyramid at Cholula.

  • January 26: to Cofre de Perote.

  • February 7: collects plant and rock samples on slopes of Perote volcano, and repeats exercise on Pico de Orizaba a few days later.

  • February 10: arrives in Xalapa.

  • February 15: leaves for Veracruz.

  • February 19: arrives in Veracruz.

  • March 7: sails for Havana, although had hoped to leave on February 23.

  • April 29: leaves Havana for United States.

  • May 22: enters Delaware River bound for Philadelphia.

  • July 9: departure for Bordeaux.

  • August 1: arrives at mouth of Garonne river, in front of Bordeaux.

Primary Sources

Atlas Geográfico y físico del Reino de la Nueva España. Edited by Charles Minguet and Jaime Labastida. Introduction by Elías Trabulse. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2003.Find this resource:

    Faak, Margot, ed. Alexander von Humboldt. Reise auf dem Río Magdalena, durch die Anden und Mexico. Part I: Texte. Aus seinen Reisetagebüchern. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1986.Find this resource:

      Leitner, Ulrike. Alexander von Humboldt. Von Mexiko-Stadt nach Veracruz.Find this resource:

        Tagebuch. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2005.Find this resource:

          von Humboldt, Alexander. “Correspondencia Mexicana, 1803–1854.” In Tablas geográficas políticas del reyno de Nueva España. Edited by Charles Minguet and Jaime Labastida. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, n.d.Find this resource:

            von Humboldt, Alexander. “Diario de viaje (de Acapulco a Veracruz).” In Tablas geográficas políticas del reyno de Nueva España. Edited by Charles Minguet and Jaime Labastida, 215–311. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, n.d.Find this resource:

              von Humboldt, Alexander. Die Jugendbriefe Alexander von Humboldt 1787–1799. Edited by Ilse Jahn and Fritz G. Lange. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1973.Find this resource:

                von Humboldt, Alexander. Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. Edited with an Introduction by Mary Maples Dunn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.Find this resource:

                  von Humboldt, Alexander. Tablas geográficas políticas del reyno de Nueva España. Edited by Charles Minguet and Jaime Labastida. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, n.d.Find this resource:

                    von Humboldt, Alexander. Vues des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique. Paris: Schoell, 1810.Find this resource:


                      (1.) “I have been very often,” William H. Prescott to Alexander Humboldt, 1843, in Jason Wilson, “Introduction,” Alexander von Humboldt. Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, trans. Jason Wilson (London: Penguin, 1995). First published 1814–1825 as Relation historique du voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent, xxxviii.

                      (2.) Enrique Krauze, “Humboldt y México: un amor correspondido,” Vuelta 212 (July 1994): 22.

                      (3.) For a extensive discussion of Humboldt’s contribution to Mexican art history and culture, see Eloise Quiñones Keber, “Humboldt and Aztec Art,” Colonial Latin American Review 5 (1996): 277–297.

                      (4.) No city of the new continent. . .” Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, the John Black Translation [of 1811, abridged], edited with an Introduction by Mary Maples Dunn, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. First published as Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne, Paris: Schoell, 1811, p. 74.

                      (5.) D. A. Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763–1810 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 129.

                      (6.) “disinclination for public affairs. . . ,” Alexander to Wilhelm von Humboldt, June 4, 1823, “Correspondencia Mexicana, 1803–1854,” in Tablas geográficas políticas del reyno de Nueva España, eds. Charles Minguet and Jaime Labastida (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, n.d.), 187.

                      (7.) Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos, A General Survey of Physical Phenomena of the Universe, trans. E. C. Otté (New York: Harper, 1858–1859), 78.

                      (8.) Nicolaas Rupke, Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography (Frankfort am Main: Peter Lang, 2005).

                      (9.) “Benefactor,” Juarez, in Rupke, Alexander von Humboldt, 120.

                      (10.) José E. Covarrubias and Matilde Souto Mantecón, eds., Economía, ciencia y política: Estudios sobre Alexander von Humboldt a 200 años del Ensayo político sobre el reino de la Nueva España (México: UNAM, 2012).

                      (11.) José Iturriaga de la Fuente, “Alexander von Humboldt,” México Desconocido 140 (October 1988): 18–22.

                      (12.) Humboldt, cited in Iturriaga de la Fuente,”Alexander von Humboldt,” 20.

                      (13.) Alexander to Wilhelm von Humboldt, June 4, 1823, “Correspondencia Mexicana, 1803–1854,” 187.

                      (14.) Lucas Alamán, Historia de México, 5 vols. (1848–52). Mexico City: Editorial Jus, 1942.

                      (15.) Juan A. Ortega y Medina, Humboldt desde México (Mexico City: UNAM, 1960), 95.

                      (16.) For more on Humboldt’s changing attitude toward the United States, see Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006); and Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

                      (17.) Krauze, “Humboldt y México,” 22.

                      (18.) Humboldt, cited in Iturriaga de la Fuente,”Alexander von Humboldt,” 20.

                      (19.) Ortega y Medina, Humboldt desde México, 123.

                      (20.) Rayfred Lionel Stevens-Middleton, “La obra de Alexander von Humboldt en México: Fundamento de la Geografía Moderna,” Boletin de la Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística 81.2 (March–April 1956).

                      (21.) Ortega y Medina, cited in Iturriaga de la Fuente, “Alexander von Humboldt,” 21.

                      (22.) José Miranda, Humboldt y México (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1962).

                      (23.) Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992), 142.

                      (24.) Elías Trabulse, “Introducción,” in Alejandro de Humboldt, Atlas Geográfico y físico del Reino de la Nueva España, eds. Charles Minguet and Jaime Labastida (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2003), 9–25.

                      (25.) Miguel León-Portilla, “Humboldt y los Códices Mesoamericanos,” in Alejandro de Humboldt: Una Nueva Visión del Mundo (Mexico City: Exposición en el Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, 2003), 128.

                      (26.) Humboldt in Bruhns, Life of Alexander von Humboldt, vol. 1, 329.

                      (27.) Jorge A.Vivó Escoto, ed., Ensayos sobre Humboldt (Mexico City: UNAM, 1962), 11–12.