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He arrived in Cumaná, Venezuela, on July 16, 1799. His first days in this new land were sensory shocks for Humboldt as he experienced new smells, saw half-Indians, and exotic animals such as electric eels, blue crabs, and armadillos. He was also amazed by the plants and their rate of growth sizes, “trees with enormous leaves and sweet smelling flowers as big as your hand, all utterly new to us.”2 The people of Cumaná were as fascinated with his instruments as he was 2 Douglas Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos (New York: Harper & Row, 1873), 77.
telescope to see the moon spots and letting the ladies use his microscope to inspect lice. In turn, almost every night Humboldt was invited to dances and he learned the local musical rhythms like the samba, the animalito, and the Congo minuet, which was of African influence. Moreover, in Cumaná, Humboldt became fascinated with the night sky and the prevalence of Venus on the night’s brilliance. Humboldt wrote that one could read at night by the light of Venus and that Venus played the role of the moon.3 He was also awestruck by the haloes of rainbow color that Venus showed at night. In contrast to Venus’ beauty, the slavery of Cumaná revolted Humboldt and he was forced to watch as black young men were sold on the town square. He noted that these Spanish slaves were better treated that slaves elsewhere, but he stilled disliked the practice.
3 Douglas Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos (New York: Harper & Row, 1873), 78.
4 Wikipedia, Alexander von Humboldt, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_von_Humboldt
he met the Spanish missionaries who lived with the Chayma Indians; although these missionaries knew that Humboldt came from a protestant region of Germany, to Humboldt’s surprise, they made no remarks to him about it. Before returning to Cumaná, Humboldt explored the legendary cave locally known as “The mine of fat” or “Cueva del Guácharo.” The locals mentioned that a mysterious oilbird resided in this cave and Humboldt set out with Indian guides and most of the monastery’s population to explore the cave. They shot one of the Guácharo birds for closer examination and Humboldt remarked that it was an entirely new species. Humboldt named it Steatornis caripensis. This bird was the size of a crow, had long wings (3.5 feet) and strong beaks, and the younger birds had a thick cushion of edible fat in their legs, which the Indians used for cooking. Humboldt also witnessed strange plants, the seeds of which the birds brought inside; these plants were pale and deformed from the lack of photosynthesis.
After returning to Cumaná in November, he witnessed a solar eclipse, an earthquake, and a meteor shower, all of which he documented extensively. The morning of the solar eclipse, Humboldt spent much time watching the event through an incredible heat. He refused to stop looking even though his metallic instruments reached a temperature of 124º and his face was badly burned. He was forced inside and it took him two days to recover before he went outside again.
The earthquake was an unforgettable experience for Humboldt, not from a fear of death, but from its novelty as he had never experienced one. During the event, Humboldt was coolheaded enough to look at his magnetic needle, which reduced by more than 1º. He wrote that it wasn’t an undulation but an upwards/downwards movement.
quarter of an hour after sunrise. Humboldt arose to “enjoy the freshness of the air,”5 when he was astonished to notice that fireballs were raining from the sky. Thousands of meteorites, with brilliant-white nuclei and long luminous traces, rocketed through the sky. Humboldt discovered much later that the event was witnessed over one million square miles. Missionaries in Brazil, a count in Cayenne, astronomers in Florida, a vicar in Weimar, and Eskimos in Labrador and Greenland observed the event. Now known and celebrated in the history of astronomy as the “Leonids,” Humboldt’s precise documentation was used as a starting point for research into the nature and periodicity of asteroids.6 On November 16th, Humboldt left by sea for Venezuela’s capital Caracas. Although he had spent but four months in Cumaná, he felt as if it had been his home for years and later in life he recalled, “This was the first spot we set foot on in a land I had been dreaming about since I was a boy… In my mind’s eye it is not to all the wonders of the Cordilleras that I return most often, but to Cumaná and its dusty soil.”7 Humboldt’s two and a half months’ stay in Caracas was spent in a large and comfortable house situated in the most fashionable part of town and overlooking the Plaza de la Trinidad.
Much of Caracas’ population of 40,000 people was well educated and cultured, and especially appreciated music. Humboldt heard the latest trends from Europe including Mozart, Haydn, Pleyel, and others played in the gardens of Chacao, an open air theater. Caracans warmly welcomed Humboldt, however he was careful not to involve himself too much in politics. He was aware of the underground need for change and, even though he agreed with the revolutionary cause for freedom, he enjoyed both Criollos (those born in Venezuela) and 5 Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos, 90.
6 Ibid, 91.
7 Ibid, 90.
opinions. His only commitment to Spanish America was to its geophysical phenomena.
The rest of Humboldt’s passing through Venezuela was spent travelling through the coastline and then farther inland towards the river Orinoco. While on the coast he passed through the coastal town of Puerto Cabello and visited Lake Valencia further inland. The coastal towns at the time enjoyed most of the advantages of 18th century civilization. Farther inland in the plains, Los Llanos, people lived a more ancient and pastoral life. And further south in the forests, savage Indians still lived under the tentative rule of Franciscan missionaries, and had lived in an unchanged state since the time of Columbus. Humboldt desired to dispel the existence of rumor that was not actually documented or believed by geographers of the time: a connection between the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers.
Humboldt traversed the Llanos – a vast plain, “bigger than France and almost as big as Texas”8 – before reaching the jungle. Nothing but land stretched as far as the eye could see.
Done on a very hot season with a scarcity of trees big enough to provide shade, this trek through the plains meant that Humboldt suffered severe burns; they often travelled through the night to make the trip more bearable. The water supply was especially a problem and the travelers drank stinking-yellow-puddle water that they filtered through a linen cloth. When they reached the dusty cattle-trading station of Calabozo, they studied electric eels. Humboldt captured five and dissected them and proposed questions such as why did the animal not electrocute itself. He also revealed that the electric discharge was not visible on a dark room, it did not register on his
In March of 1800, Humboldt completed the crossing of the Llanos and arrived at the San Fernando village, the capital of the Capuchin Missions located in the province of Varinas. This small village, founded in 1790, was strategically located on the Apure River, an important tributary of the Orinoco River. San Fernando was notable for the heat throughout the year. They obtained large canoes that the Spanish called “Lanchas,” and required four Indians to paddle;
these canoes were considered luxurious when compared to later means of transportation. Almost all of the available space in the canoe was taken up with Humboldt’s scientific instruments, a little scientific library, firearms that were almost useless in the damp climate, and provisions for a month. They were aware that their expedition through the jungle would take longer than a month, but they were mistakenly confident that a place as fertile as the Amazon would be rich with game; their trek through the Amazon took three months and their supplies were destroyed by insects and rain shortly after departing.
The first part of their journey eastward down the Apure, then southward along the Orinoco, took them to the natural barrier of the Atures and Maipures rapids, known as the Great Cataracts. Beyond the Cataracts lay terra incognita, a land only seen by a handful of soldiers and conquering priests, and inhabited, then as it is now, by no more than a few scattered tribes of wild Indians and a few isolated missionaries. From there on, Humboldt and his crew spent most of the time in their canoe.
observed as a sort of huge riverine zoo. He was constantly treated to wonderful close views of birds, animals, and insects of every conceivable variety. Flocks of birds were so numerous that looked like clouds in the sky. He saw bands of fifty to sixty capybaras, the largest rodent in the world, paddling like dogs along the river, and fresh water dolphins swam alongside their canoe.
9 Rainforest Foundation, South American rivers map: http://www.rainforestfoundation.org/
see five or more alligators lying motionless on the coast with their jaws wide open. At night, parrots and howling monkeys awakened them. They made a brief stop at an island where they encountered about 300 Indians of different tribes who were there to harvest turtle eggs used to make oil.
Shortly after leaving the island and the captain’s almost sinking the canoe, they found another encampment of egg-harvesters. There they met Father Bernardo Zea, a missionary who agreed to guide them through the Rio Negro. They had to abandon the big lancha for a smaller canoe to navigate the rapids. This new canoe, their home for the next two months, was made out of a single hollowed out tree trunk; it was forty feet long and less than three feet wide, and it capsized if they stood without warning. This structure was stiflingly hot during the day and filled with mosquitoes at night. All instruments were stored in trunks and they had to paddle ashore every time they wanted to retrieve one. This proved uncomfortable for the Europeans, but they endured the conditions with a good sense of humor and tenacity.
They departed in their new canoe on the 10th of April, 1800. The Indians had to paddle against rising water levels and stronger currents that the rainy season had brought. Humboldt was amazed by the endurance of the Indians, who paddled one day for twelve and a half hours straight. When they reached the Great Cataracts on the 15th of April, they traveled forty miles by land to avoid the violent rapids that stemmed from the Cataracts. This trek proved challenging, not because of snakes, jaguars, and crocodiles, but because of insects that bit their bodies and got inside their mouths and nostrils. They were amazed by the Cataracts, however, and never tired of gazing down on them from the top of a nearby hill; and the deafening sound of the rushing water was especially loud at night. This land beyond the Cataracts was a source of mystery and in the
ventured along its lower reaches in search of El Dorado, only stories from the Indians were known. Tales of men with dog heads and mouths below their navels and eyes in their forehead were propagated in the civilized world.
Back on the boats on the 21st of April, Humboldt busied himself measuring ground, air, and river temperatures, as well as barometric pressure, magnetic dip, and longitude/latitude.
On the night of April 24, they reached the bifurcation of the Orinoco and Atabapo rivers. They veered right to the Atabapo River, a so-called black river, in search of the connection with the Orinoco/Amazon Rivers. In a letter to King Carlos IV in Madrid, Humboldt wrote that this coveted connection would make the communications much easier between the Portuguese possessions on the Amazon and the Spanish ones on the Orinoco.
When they awoke the next morning, it was as though they were in a different country.
The mosquitoes disappeared overnight; the color of the Orinoco water had been muddy and musky and Humboldt used his linen to filter the water, while the water of the Atabapo was pure, cool, odorless, and delicious to drink. They spotted small fish at a depth of twenty feet and sometimes could see the bottom of the river. “Nothing,” Humboldt wrote, “can be compared to the beauty of the Atrapo.10” They spent six days traversing the Atrapo and on occasion, anacondas fourteen-foot-long swam alongside the canoe. They also witnessed a spectacle in which they were surrounded by fresh-water dolphins that blew spouts of compressed air and water. The Atrapo River did not connect with the Pimichin River, which connected to the Rio Negro, so they traversed the land on foot. Again, the Indians carried the canoe for four days and 10 Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos, 22.
to Humboldt, has the most twists and turns of any river in America with a total of eighty-five bends. Although they went with the current, this stretch took four and a half hours of paddling to reach the Rio Negro, the most beautiful of all the Amazon rivers. This great, successful moment of their thirty-six day expedition in a narrow canoe, bitten by insects, soaked by storms, endangered by rapids and falls, took them closer to their goal. Nevertheless, hundreds of miles of dangerous waters lay in front of them before reaching their journey’s end.