Why Alexander von Humboldt is said to have rediscovered America

It is often said that Alexander von Humboldt rediscovered America or even there are those who directly call him the "second Columbus".

Why Alexander von Humboldt is said to have rediscovered America
The German government printed postage stamps to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt. Image: German Federal Ministry of Finance

It is said that Alexander von Humboldt rediscovered America or even some directly call him the "second Columbus". The parallelism between the two originates from an extensive list of coincidences.

The trip that this German naturalist made through what are now Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Mexico, and the United States between 1799 and 1804 had profound influences on the continent.

Newspapers and books have repeated time and time again that both Columbus and Humboldt departed for the New World from Spain, both led voyages of discovery, sailed with the permission of the Spanish crown, and landed at the same place. This last fact is not certain.

These two men are also bound by differences. Columbus, traveling with an army, discovered the material wealth that led to servitude; Humboldt, traveling with only one companion, the French botanist Aime Bonpland, discovered a wealth of knowledge that led to liberation. In this sense, some prefer to classify the German as "the scientific discoverer of America".

The best proof of his deep legacy 250 years after his birth is in his name: Humboldt is the person with the most places in the world, geographical features, plants, and animals in his honor.

Only in Latin America does he have a current that bathes the coasts of Peru and Chile, a peak in Venezuela, a mountain range in Mexico, a commune in Argentina, a river in Brazil, and a bay in Colombia, among others. He has given his name to a species of penguins and another of giant squids, a crater on the Moon, and an asteroid. Even the state of Nevada was about to be called Humboldt.

The arrival of the German in America, three centuries after Columbus, once again changed the destiny of the continent and the axis of world power.

The millionaire inheritance

Humboldt was born on 14 September 1769 in Berlin into a wealthy aristocratic family close to King Frederick the Great of Prussia. When his mother died, he was about 25 years old and inherited a fortune. He spent almost everything on the five-year exploration of Latin America. That gave him unprecedented freedom, which is very important in how he later wrote about it.

But before traveling, he had to ask King Charles IV for permission to travel to territories that were then Spanish colonies. The enlightened Bourbon monarchs wanted to revive the economy of their colonies and modernize the administration.

Columbus discovered the material wealth that led to servitude; Humboldt discovered a wealth of knowledge that led to liberation.

That's why the crown decided to name Humboldt as "New World mine inspector", allowing the almost unprecedented exception of letting a foreigner enter the Spanish colonies.

This reluctance of the crown to admit foreigners explains why knowledge of much of the continent's nature remained a mystery outside of Spain. A second reason: for Europe, the very existence of America, with its rich nature and culture, constituted a challenge to its values, beliefs, and traditions.

The Anti-Conqueror

Humboldt's work in America was that of an anti-conqueror. Despite his title of a mining inspector, he did not take gold and silver, but notes and astronomical measurements. He also took more than 6,000 geological and botanical samples, fossils, and illustrations made by himself.

Among his most outstanding exploits and discoveries are having climbed the Chimborazo, the highest mountain in the world -according to what was believed at the time-, having discovered the communication between the Orinoco and the Amazon, and having invented isothermal lines and isobars.

During three decades he dedicated himself to narrate his trip in 32 volumes that included botany, zoology, geology, astronomy, meteorology, public relations, economy, the geography of the American countries visited.

His work was so influential that the British naturalist Charles Darwin went so far as to say that if he had not read Humboldt, he would never have boarded the Beagle.

However, the main merit of the German lies in having made his journey in one of the most special periods for the history of the West, in the run-up to Latin American independence.

Diplomacy and science

Humboldt was, in a sense, a diplomat: He saw knowledge as a form of diplomacy, rather than a form of power or control. For him, science and politics were indivisible.

Humboldt was a deep and vocal admirer of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, considered the founding fathers of the U.S. During his trip to Latin America, but especially in Venezuela, Humboldt had conversations about the independence movement and helped spread the American ideals of freedom and equality.

Humboldt even met several times with Simón Bolívar, who recognized the naturalist's influence on his libertarian aspirations. Bolívar directly called him "the discoverer of the New World.

While Columbus caused entire nations to be reduced to servitude, Humboldt paved the way for the revolutions that gave independence to the nations of South America.

Humboldt, who claimed to be half American, loved South America and felt at home there, a place he considered the most beautiful in the world for its enormous natural and cultural diversity. He believed that by opening Europe's eyes to this wealth, he would find solutions to war, oppression, and the abomination of slavery.

His constant militancy against European imperialism and slavery would win him, enemies, at the court of Berlin, the Spanish crown, and the government of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Father of ecology

Humboldt's discursive audacity sought not only to reinvent the European imaginary about America but the planet itself. He created the notion that the Earth is a living organism, a tissue where everything is interconnected, from the smallest insect to the tallest tree.

This shows how vulnerable nature is, because if you pull on the thread, the whole tapestry can fall apart.

At that time Humboldt had already seen that this nature seen as a web of life, was in danger by human actions, making him the forgotten father of ecology. He was even the first to warn about the links between deforestation and catastrophic changes in the environment, making him a precursor to climate change.

At a time tormented by the anxiety of imperial conquest and destruction, Humboldt was a Columbus of Enlightenment, a figure of redemption and hope.