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Leaving Behind Signs of Life – Humboldt‘s American Travel Diaries

Dr. Julian Drews, Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette, and Julia Bayerl. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Dr. Julian Drews, Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette, and Julia Bayerl. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Between 1799 and 1804, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and his companion botanist Aimé Bonpland undertook three major expeditions: They explored the Orinoco River and the Rio Negro, crossed the Andes Mountains and climbed the Chimborazo volcano, and trekked through Mexico to the United States, where they met President Thomas Jefferson. Humboldt recorded his observations in his “American Travel Diaries”, which were acquired by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in the autumn of 2013. Since early 2014, a group of experts led by Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette has been researching the diaries in the sub-project “Genealogy, Chronology and Epistemology”. The objective is to look back on and reappraise the untapped quantity and breadth of Humboldt’s observations. A second sub-project, “Preservation, Contextualization and Digitalization”, at Berlin’s State Library is dedicated to preserving and digitalizing Humboldt’s scientific heritage.

Humboldt feared disappearing: vanishing off the face of the earth, drowning or being buried under masses of snow. Not only for his own sake, but also out of fear of his notes being lost for future generations. “Humboldt wanted to leave behind signs, which is why he wrote day and night during his American journey,” Ottmar Ette explains. We are indeed lucky his travel notes were not lost given what is written in them. After all, while traveling on the Orinoco, Humboldt and Bonpland’s pirogue – a small dugout canoe used by the indigenous population – capsized and Humboldt’s notes went overboard as well. Humboldt risked his life to save them. “He would later blame the captain,” Ette smiles. While walking across a snow slab during the expedition through the high Andes, Humboldt’s biggest fear was that his notes would fall into the depths with him. “These anecdotes show the fragility of Humboldt’s work and the precariousness of passing these notes on to us,” Ette underlines. To make sure his “signs of life” would not be lost forever, Humboldt sent many letters to Europe during his journeys through America, so at least some of his comprehensive, transgressive thinking would be preserved.

Project coordinator Dr. Julian Drews describes Humboldt’s scientific motivation as very modern: “He wanted to feed himself into a network of knowledge. Humboldt’s knowledge was not monolithic; it was dynamic and flexible.“ That is why the Berlin researcher did not appreciate the Academy of Sciences planning to honor him with a bust during his lifetime. He objected – and won. “This is typical of Humboldt,” Ette says with a smile. A bust did not fit with Humboldt’s way of thinking. He was constantly correcting himself, as doctoral student Julia Bayerl reports: “Humboldt amended the marginal notes in his travel diaries even decades later.” They were a life’s work.

This work consists of nine volumes Humboldt had bound in pigskin after his return. All in all, they comprise 4,000 pages written in ink and pencil in French, German, Spanish, Latin, and even the languages of the indigenous populations. He chose to describe mining in German, plants and animals in Latin, and events and remarks about the journey in French. “Humboldt practically wrote the whole time. The number of pages he produced is amazing,“ Ette remarks. “Paper was scarce. During the journey, they had to constantly replenish their paper stock,“ Julian Drews adds. Humboldt wrote while on-board the pirogue on the Orinoco, very dangerous given the monkey cages and the sail behind him; he wrote in the jungle, plagued by mosquitos, by candlelight, oil lamp or the stars. At one point there are 150 blank pages, so the exhausting walk up the Chimborazo must have made writing impossible. His mental condition is reflected in his diaries, too: “You can tell his mood by the regularity of his handwriting,” Ette points out.

As a natural scientist, Humboldt’s fields of interest spanned from anatomy to zoology. He did not think only in narrow scientific disciplines; he wanted more: “Humboldt wanted to find out what binds the universe at its core,” Ette explains. “He searched for signs of life on our planet.“ Humboldt was interested in the totality of life forms and the signs they create. So after his journey to America, he exchanged ideas on sign systems, vigesimal systems, and language with his brother Wilhelm. Last but not least, he wanted to record his own life in writing. “Humboldt knew that science is a neverending story, but the life of a human being is not,” Ette states.

The American Diaries testify to Humboldt’s goal to make the invisible visible. While traveling on the river he drew up maps, made drawings of the inside of a mountain, and sketched landscapes from a bird’s-eye view. It may have been his way of silencing his fears of getting lost: providing an overview and looking for the macrocosm in the microcosm. “Humboldt also described previously unknown plant and animal species. Who knows if we would know them today without him,” Julia Bayerl adds.

Three doctoral students and two postdocs are working on the sub-project at the Institute of Romance Philology in Potsdam. Since the Berlin State Library has completed the digitalization of Humboldt’s Diaries, the researchers have been working primarily with reproductions – to spare the originals. However, when it comes to details such as various inks, pencil sketches, or watermarks, the researchers have to consult the originals at the State Library. They use not only the 4,000 pages of the American Diaries, but also the works Humboldt published later, including his multi-volume travel account “Relation Historique”. They examine documents and letters from his Berlin and Cracovian estates. Bayerl, for instance, studies the American Diaries from a pictorial science research perspective, a very attractive and challenging venture as “Humboldt made more than 400 sketches in these diaries. Humboldt learned early in life from Daniel Chodowiecki how to do copperplate engraving and etching,” the scientist explains. She focuses on the complex relations between pictorial and written images. Among other things, she compares the travel diaries with his later travel book “Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent” written between 1805 and 1838, which is partly based on the travel diaries. Of particular note is that not all sketches from the diaries where chosen to be published in the travel book and engraved in copper. “I can only assume at this point that Humboldt did not publish these sketches because he considered them not concise enough, or the high printing costs forced him to be selective.” Bayerl mentions various kinds of images in the diaries: mathematical and astronomical visualizations, animal and plant illustrations, diagrams, in-depth studies of architecture and hieroglyphs, and maps and mountain profiles. She even takes a closer look at stains. Of course, they are not images in the traditional sense, but are very telling visually: an inkpot tumbled over or water of the Orinoco; Humboldt also used stains to mark passages in the text. On only one occasion did he draw a human being: a priest wearing a hat and some sort of high-heeled shoe. “Presumably this type of shoe was worn in the high Andes for better grip,” Ette says.

Julian Drews researches the history of the “discovery” of America from an epistemological point of view. After all, Humboldt’s journey to America is considered the “second discovery” of the continent. Humboldt walked in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus and in fact carried a copy of his biography. He crossed the Atlantic on almost the same route and found that the constellations described by Columbus centuries earlier were no longer visible to the human eye. Thanks to Columbus, Humboldt could refer back to century-old recordings. “This history of knowledge must be reviewed now – also based on the relations between the biographies and autobiographies of Humboldt and Columbus,“ Drews says.

Humboldt did not only take others’ paths; he also blazed new ones. For instance, he anticipated a thesis later confirmed by geoscientist Alfred Wegener about how the South American and African coastlines fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. For Humboldt, this was a clear indication of the existence of a former supercontinent. We now know this supercontinent “Gondwana” drifted apart over millions of years. He was just as fascinated by the similarities between ancient Egyptian and early American cultures – including the development of pyramidal architectonic structures and theocratic societies. “For Humboldt everything was in motion and interconnected,” Ette says. “He was the first proponent of globalization theory.”

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette studied in Freiburg and Madrid; since 1995 he has held the chair of Romance Literature at the University of Potsdam. He is the manager of the research project on Alexander von Humboldt “American Travel Diaries: Genealogy, Chronology and Epistemology” (2014–2017), which is funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Romanistik
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
E-Mail: ette@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Dr. Julian Drews studied Spanish philology, general and comparative literature and philosophy at the Universities of Potsdam and Granada. From 2008-2011 he was an associate member of the post-graduate program of the German Research Foundation (DFG) “Life forms and life knowledge” and earned his doctoral degree in 2013. Since January 2015 he has been a research assistant (postdoc) and coordinator in the BMBF joint research project.


E-Mail: jdrews@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Julia Bayerl studied Romance literature and art history at the universities of Regensburg, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Compostela. In February 2014 she joined the BMBF project as a research assistant and doctoral student. Her doctoral thesis focuses on “Iconotextual Studies of Alexander von Humboldt’s American Travel Diaries”.


E-Mail: bayerl@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

The Project

The joint research project “Alexander von Humboldt’s American Travel Diaries” is funded by the BMBF and spans three years, 2014-2017. It combines two sub-projects: “Genealogy, Chronology, Epistemology” at the University of Potsdam under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette and “Preservation, Contextualization and Digitalization” at the State Library of Berlin, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. Both projects have been closely linked and funded by the BMBF, after the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation acquired the diaries in the autumn of 2013.

Text: Jana Scholz, Translation: Monika Wilke
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
Contact Us: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de