Rarely have travel diaries experienced such an epic journey: They’ve been across the Atlantic, down the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, carried up volcanoes and over the Andes.
The writings of the Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt documenting his five-year trip to Latin America were recently on display for three days in Berlin. They detail Humboldt’s incredible voyage from 1799 to 1804 in the New World. Crammed with detail, it will take scientists years to glean all the information they hold.
Born in Berlin in 1769, Humboldt died nearly 90 years later in the same city. Over his lifetime, he studied geology, botany, zoology, linguistics and several other diverse fields. In 2019, the German capital is planning to open the Humboldt Forum in the heart of the city in homage to his enlightened and cosmopolitan legacy.
But fortunately Humboldt fans missing the short window the diaries were on display in Berlin won’t have to wait that long to see them, as they’ve been completely digitalized for online perusal.
They tell the tale of a journey Humboldt started in 1799 from Spain, where they call him the “second explorer” after Columbus. But Humboldt was no conquistador, he was an advocate for humanitarian ideals and progress.
He returned to Europe in 1804, but he referred back to his travels his entire life. He based much of his five-tome testament “Kosmos,” which he called an “attempt at a physical description of the world,” on them.
In 1810 the linguist, diplomat and educational reformer founded the university in Berlin that has carried his name since 1949.
During his travels in the Americas, which took him from the Caribbean to the Peruvian capital Lima, Humboldt was reborn. Growing up in Berlin he had been a sickly boy and slow to learn as a pupil. But his tour through the jungles of South America toughened him up and his research and writing was equally rigorous.
In the end, he became as patient, stubborn and lasting as his travel diaries, which continued their journey even after his death.
They were taken to Moscow after World War II, only to return to East Berlin in 1958. After German reunification in 1990, they became the private property of the Heinz family, descendants of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander’s brother.
But in 2013 the travel diaries were purchased by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation for €12 million ($14.8 million) in order to keep them from being sold abroad.
Monika Grütters, Germany’s culture minister, called them “part of our Prussian heritage,” but Humboldt’s legacy is probably more accurately described as world cultural heritage.
They catalog a blur of piranhas, electric eels, monkeys, and mountains, accompanied by drawings, tables and Humboldt’s compact handwriting.
He lived in Paris for over 20 years and dreamt of founding a scientific academy in Latin America. At the age of 60, he left Berlin for a Siberian expedition. But his travel diaries from 1799 to 1804 remained the foundation for much of his life’s work. He had them bound in leather only when he reached an advanced age.
The nine volumes of varying format encompass 4,000 pages of hand-made paper. They have withstood the test of time remarkably well, as has the ink used by Humboldt, and will require little restoration.
Looking at them, it’s hard to imagine they’ve been through so much. They catalog a blur of piranhas, electric eels, monkeys, and mountains, accompanied by drawings, tables and Humboldt’s compact handwriting, which he used to save space.
He switches occasionally mid-sentence between German, French, English and Spanish, and there are notes attached to some pages, which contain his comments written years later.
Humboldt was also a book fetishist, who spent a fortune, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of euros today, to publish his works at the best printers with exquisite illustrations.
Even before his death, these works were shortened, popularized and often spun for political purposes. An American edition censored his engagement against slavery on Cuba and later the National Socialists attempted to stylize him as a German world conqueror.
In the summer of 1804, his America journey came to a close with a visit to Monticello, the plantation and retreat of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. Over the course of several weeks, the two men discussed everything from trans-Atlantic relations to plans to dig a canal through Panama.
Back in Europe, he wrote: “In the planet’s hottest climate, I frequently wrote and sketched 15 to 16 hours in a row … and I’m preparing myself for a trip to Asia after I’ve published the findings of my American research trip.”
Those publications were an impressive intellectual, technical and financial achievement that took decades to complete. But Humboldt would never make it to the Himalayas.
What he documented, always finding patience and calm in the most dangerous habitats, exposed his urge to climb an even higher peak and cross an even wider river.
Planets, cities, foundations and universities have been named after him. But perhaps the most poignant homage to his deep yet dynamic nature is the Humboldt Current in the Pacific Ocean.
This article originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org