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Humbolt's Mexican Trip

Mexico Remembers German "Discoverer" Alexander von Humboldt

  TWIG - Any German who has ever taken geography knows Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was Germany’s greatest naturalist. What is less well known is that for a third of his life, the Prussian baron who mapped the New World was also Mexican. Humboldt was granted Mexican citizenship in 1827, in recognition of his remarkable knowledge of the area, based on a scientific expedition he launched there on March 22, 1803. Germans and Mexicans are getting together this year to celebrate the bicentennial of the trip, beginning Saturday (March 22) with a conference in Acapulco, the spot where Humboldt’s ship landed and his Mexican journey began.

"Humboldt is a world-class scientist and certainly the most important one of the first half of the 19th century," says Jaime Labastida, one of Mexico’s leading Humboldt scholars. The man known as Latin America’s "second discoverer" gets too little attention in Europe, Labastida laments, and even in Mexico he is "more admired than read."

With his traveling companion Aime Bonpland and a load of 50 scientific instruments, Humboldt embarked on his celebrated tour of South and Central America from a Spanish port in 1799. Landing in Venezuela, he crossed the Andes on foot and scaled Chimborazo, Ecuador’ highest peak. He collected thousands of plants and stuffed the bodies of birds, monkeys and crocodiles to ship home. Wherever he went, he tracked latitude, longitude and elevation, relating geography to wildlife and weather.

Humboldt also made political observations, concluding that the Spanish colonies were ripe for independence. The viceroyalty of New Spain, as Mexico was then known, was in Humboldt’s eyes the most developed of the Spanish holdings. But he also saw it as "the true land of inequality." A "clear-sighted government," he wrote, should abolish "the enormous inequality of rights and property relations." The explorer also criticized the Spanish colonial authorities for their decision to drain the Valley of Mexico, foreseeing the water shortages that plague Mexico City today. On returning to Europe, Humboldt spent 30 years evaluating his data. His personal fortune, much of which he had used to fund the journey, dwindled away.

"We can’t repay him for all he has done for New Spain," says Labastida. But along with historians, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is working to ensure his name is not forgotten. The DAAD funds the Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt chair at the Mexican National University, for visiting German professors who teach and conduct research on German-Mexican themes. Mexico, the United States and many other countries also take part in exchange programs run by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Bonn. A series of educational and cultural events will mark the anniversary of Humboldt’s Mexican trip, including a major exhibition on the explorer in Mexico City this fall.


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