“From my earliest youth I felt an ardent desire to travel into distant regions, seldom visited by Europeans”

So begins Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of America during the years 1799-1804. I can imagine that many of us would like to travel at the moment, even just a few days away from the usual vistas would be nice. After studying at university and working for the department of mines in Prussia, Humboldt decided it was time to travel, he came from a wealthy family so money was no issue. After doing tours of Europe he finally managed to organise a trip to Latin America. He spend 4 years traveling around countries including Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Lima, Peru and Mexico. At the end of his trip he spent 6 weeks in North America before heading back to Europe. Humboldt filled 30 volumes with details from these 4 years (the Personal Narrative forms 3 of these volumes) and it took him 21 years to write them. The Personal Narritve volumes are very detailed travel journals in which he mentions everything – what he saw, tasted, the people, plants, weather, astronomy, what day he traveled where. They even include scientific experiments he conducted.

I only browsed through the first 2 volumes, but did enjoy the wonderful descriptions of the scenery, not so much learning what iguanas taste like. The quote he makes about chocolate, “Down to the sixteenth century travellers differed in opinion respecting the chocolatl. Benzoni plainly says that it is a drink “fitter for hogs than men”, made me chuckle.

Humboldt was a man who did a bit of everything; a naturalist, explorer, proponent of romantic philosophy, scientist, and a geographer. He is seen as the first person to “highlight the effects of human-induced land-use and climate change on the natural world”. (article in the Atlantic, see below for link). In volume 2 of Personal Narrative he mentions the causes that deforestation has on the drop on water level in lakes and springs. Last year was the 250th anniversary of his birth and his impact can be seen by the amount of things he has had named after him and the influence he has had on other scientific thinkers such as Darwin.

Again, as we are away from our fabulous collection I did have to use a copy of the book available online. The Whipple does have a copy of them (catalogue record) but I used Project Gutenberg to look at it. Hopefully soon we will be able to travel about a bit more, until then we have some fabulous books to encourage ourt imaginations.b