Journey to the Top of the World
On a morning in May 1804, there arrived at the White House by Baltimore coach, and in the company of the painter Charles Willson Peale, a visitor from abroad: an aristocratic young German, age thirty-four, a bachelor, occupation scientist and explorer. And like Halley's comet or the white whale or other such natural phenomena dear to the nineteenth century, he would be remembered by all who saw him for the rest of their days.
He had come to pay his respects to the president of the new republic, Thomas Jefferson, a fellow "friend of science," and to tell him something of his recent journeys through South and Central America. For the next several weeks he did little else but talk, while Jefferson, on their walks about the White House grounds; or James Madison, the secretary of state; or the clever Mrs. Madison; or Albert Gallatin, the secretary of the treasury; or those who came to dine with the president or to do business with him, listened in awe.
The young man, they found, was a naturalist, an astronomer, a geographer, a geologist, a botanist, an authority on Indian antiquities, a linguist, an artist -- an academy unto himself, as the poet Goethe would say. He was at home in any subject. He had read every book. He had seen things almost impossible to imagine. "We all consider him as a very extraordinary man," Gallatin told his wife, speaking apparently for Jefferson's entire official family, "and his travels, which he intends publishing on his return to Europe, will, I think, rank above any other productions of the kind." He also talked at double the speed of anybody Gallatin had ever met beforeand would shift suddenly from English, which he spoke superbly, into French or Spanish or German, seemingly unaware of what he was doing, but never hesitating for a word, apparently to the very great confusion of his newfound American friends, Jefferson and the Swiss-born Gallatin not included.
Gallatin, a man not easily impressed, found the extent of the visitor's reading and scientific knowledge astonishing. "I was delighted," he said, "and swallowed more information of various kinds in less than two hours than I had for two years past in all I had read and heard."
In a letter to Jefferson written from Philadelphia a few days earlier, the young man had said, "[I would] love to talk to you about a subject that you have treated so ingeniously in your work on Virginia, the teeth of mammoth, which we too discovered in the Andes." Jefferson had responded immediately and most cordially. "A lively desire will be felt generally to receive the information you will be able to give." In the new capital city, Jefferson wrote, there was "nothing curious to attract the observations of a traveler," which was largely so, save, of course, for Jefferson himself. Upon arrival the young man had found the presidential mansion anything but imposing -- crude wooden steps led to the front door, rooms were still unplastered -- and at one point he had inadvertently encountered the chief executive sprawled on the floor, wrestling with his grandchildren.
But there they were in Washington for several days, two of the most remarkable men of their time, fellow spirits if ever there were, talking, talking endlessly, intensely, their conversation having quickly ranged far from fossil teeth.
The young man's name was Humboldt, Alexander von Humboldt -- Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt -- or Baron von Humboldt, as he was commonly addressed. He had been born in Berlin on September 14, 1769, the second son of a middle-aged army officer, a minor figure in the court of Frederick the Great, and of a rather solemn, domineering young woman of Huguenot descent who had inherited a sizable fortune. He was a baron in about the way some Southerners are colonels.
William Burwell, Jefferson's private secretary, described him as looking considerably younger than his age, "of small figure, well made, agreeable looks, simple unaffected manners, remarkably sprightly." And Humboldt's passport, issued in Paris in 1798, has him five feet, eight inches tall, with "light-brown hair, gray eyes, large nose, rather large mouth, well-formed chin, open forehead marked by smallpox." However, in a portrait by Peale, done shortly after the trip to see Jefferson, the eyes are as blue as Dutch tiles.
Years later, when the phenomenon of Humboldt had become known the world over, the learned and curious would journey thousands of miles for the chance to see him, and his published works would be taken as the gospel of a new age. He would be regarded as the incomparable high priest of nineteenth-century science -- a towering godlike inspiration to such a disparate assortment of individuals as John Charles Frémont, John James Audubon, John Lloyd Stephens, Sir Charles Lyell, Simón Bolívar, W. H. Hudson, William Hickling Prescott, Edward Whymper, Charles Darwin, Louis Agassiz. Darwin, during the voyage of the Beagle, would carry with him three inspirational books -- the Bible, Milton, and Humboldt.
But at this point the name Humboldt meant very little. The honorary citizenships, the countless decorations, were all still to come. No Pacific Ocean current, no bay or glacier or river had been named for him as yet, no mountains in China. Humboldt, Kansas, and Humboldt, Iowa, were still prairie grass, part of that incomprehensibly vast piece of the continent purchased by Jefferson from Napoleon only the year before and that Jefferson had just sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to investigate. So it was the young man himself, not a reputation, and the story he had to tell that captivated everyone. After nearly five years he had returned from one of the great scientific odysseys of all time. It was a journey that would capture the imagination of the age, but that has been strangely forgotten in our own time. It is doubtful that one educated American in ten today could say who exactly Humboldt was or what he did, not even, possibly, in Humboldt, Iowa, or Humboldt, Kansas. Perhaps this is because his travels were through Spanish America. Perhaps his extraordinary accomplishments were simply overshadowed by the popular impact of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In any event, his was a journey of enormous scientific consequence (far more so than the Lewis and Clark expedition) and a fascinating adventure by any standards.
In the company of a young French medical doctor turned botanist, Aime Bonpland, Humboldt had departed from La Coruña, Spain, in June 1799, on a Spanish frigate, slipping past a British blockade in the dark of night, in the midst of a storm, and carrying with him a unique document from the Spanish government. He and Bonpland had been granted complete freedom to explore -- for scientific purposes -- any or all of Spain's largely unexplored American colonies; to make astronomical observations, maps; to collect; to go wherever they wished, speak to whomever they wished. The whole arrangement was quite unprecedented (prior to this Spain had rigorously denied any such travels by foreigners), and it had come about quite by chance.
Humboldt, after completing his education and serving as a government inspector of mines in Prussia, had decided to lead his own far-flung scientific expedition. Just where was an open question, but both of his parents had died, with the result that he had become a man of ample private means and was free to do whatever he wished. His impulse had been to go to Egypt, to catch up with Napoleon's troops there. But he and Bonpland (whom he had met by chance in Paris) had proceeded no farther than Spain when Humboldt, during an audience with Charles IV, expressed an interest in His Catholic Majesty's overseas empire. An expedition, to be paid for by Humboldt, was immediately and most unexpectedly sanctioned, an