« PreviousContinue »
NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.
NEW SERIES, No. XIII.
ART. I.-Voyage aux Regions equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803,1804, par Al. de Humboldt et A. Bonpland, Redigé par Alexandre de Humboldt : avec un Atlas Geographique et Physique. Tomes VII & VIII. 8vo. Paris, 1822.
THE appearance this year of two more volumes of the octavo edition of M. de Humboldt's travels has seemed to us a favorable opportunity for calling the attention of the American public to this most important work. The several publications of Messrs de Humboldt and Bonpland have been noticed, as they have appeared, in the respectable foreign journals; and the English translations of some of them have been reprinted in this country; but the value of what has been done by these distinguished travellers, for the knowledge of the American continent is not yet fully appreciated. Various circumstances have prevented a large number of copies of the different publications of M. de Humboldt from passing into circulation, either in Europe or America; and few persons, who have not had occasion particularly to inform themselves, are acquainted with the precise state of a series of works, not yet completed, which constitutes already an era in American history, natural and civil. It certainly is not too much to say, New Series, No. 13. 1.
that the results of the researches of these travellers have fixed a point, where the history of Spanish America will stop, and have shown more clearly than ever, the extraordinary imperfection of the preceding popular manuals. It is difficult in perusing the works of Messrs de Humboldt and Bonpland, in the department of natural history alone, to recollect, with patience, the learned errors of Buffon and the Abbé Raynal, and the grave acquiescence, with which they are repeated by Dr Robertson. We can scarce believe that one generation only intervened between Dr Robertson, who talks of the Mexican gold as being native, and refined into a pure metallic state,' and ' of the lizards and other reptiles, which the heat engenders in a fat soil,' and the authors of the essay on New Spain, and of the observations on Zoology and comparative Anatomy.' The history of Mexico, by Clavigero had already shown, that Dr Robertson had undertaken his task with inadequate preparation.
Works so important to America, as those of M. de Humboldt, deserve, if any where, to be known and prized in this country. We have thought therefore that it would not be unseasonable to offer our readers a succinct account of the voyage of this distinguished philosopher, and of the works, in which the results of it are recorded. We shall say nothing new to students of the natural and civil history of our country, and all we shall aim at is to refresh their memories with a few notices, which lie scattered in several volumes.
M. de Humboldt was born at Berlin, and is by no means the least of the great men whom the year 1769 brought forth. Having prepared himself by his studies, at Freyberg under Werner, and his excursions on the Rhine, in the Alps, and Italy for the vocation of a traveller, he resolved, toward the close of the last century, to carry into execution a purpose formed from early youth, of undertaking a voyage to some remote region.* The acquaintance of a Frenchman, who had already been a traveller in Illyria and Greece and who projected an expedition to Egypt, led M. de Humboldt also to determine on that route. His investigations consequently made with a reference to Egyptian antiquities, though not brought into application by a journey in that country, which the disastrous aspect of affairs prevented his undertaking, were * Introduction to the Voyage aux Regions Equinoxiales.
nevertheless of service to him, in tracing the analogy between the monuments of Mexican antiquity, as afterwards observed by him-the teocalli, and pyramids,—and the similar works of Babylonian and Egyptian antiquity. Frustrated in the plan of the Egyptian tour, as then projected, the next object of M. de Humboldt was to attach himself to an expedition, which the French government was fitting out; a voyage of circumnavigation and discovery, under the command of Baudin, of which the prosecution was afterwards attended with such disasters. In consequence of a war with Austria, which broke out at this period, the funds assigned by the directory to this object were diverted from it, and the outfit of the expedition delayed.
M. de Humboldt was thus a second time disappointed in his projects. Cruelly deceived,' says he, ' in my hopes, and beholding the plans, which I had been forming for several years of my life, destroyed in a day, I sought, as at a venture, the most expeditious manner of quitting Europe, and plunging into some enterprise, which might console me for what I suffered.'*
At this period, he made the acquaintance of M. Skiöldebrand, Swedish consul at Algiers, then at Paris on his way to the coast of Barbary, with presents from his government to the Dey. With the aids furnished by this gentleman, who enjoyed in a high degree the confidence of the Barbary powers, M. de Humboldt conceived the project of exploring the alpine region of central Africa, and thus pursuing the route to Egypt. No mineralogist had yet examined the chain of mountains, which in the empire of Morocco elevates itself to the region of perpetual snow, and he prepared in haste to embark for Algiers.
The Swedish frigate, which was to transport M. Skiöldebrand, M. de Humboldt, and M. Bonpland, had not yet arrived at Marseilles, and every day,' says M. de H. 'we visited several times the summit of the mountain our lady of the watch, which commands an extensive view of the sea.' After two months of anxious delay, they received intelligence that the Swedish vessel, having suffered severely in a storm on the coasts of Portugal, had put into Cadiz, and could not be expected at Marseilles till the spring. At this moment, a Ragusan sloop was at Marseilles, about to sail for Tunis. Happy in any opportunity to put themselves on the way for Egypt and Voyage i. 43.
Syria, our travellers engaged their passage in this vessel. An accidental delay, occasioned by removing from the cabin the goats and swine, which were on board, to make room for the instruments of the travellers, enabled them to receive intelligence of a rupture which had recently taken place between Tunis and France, and which would have exposed them to imminent dangers, on arriving from Marseilles at the former.
In this state of things they determined to repair to Spain, with the expectation of finding in the spring, an opportunity to embark for Africa, either at Cadiz or Carthagena. On their way through Catalonia and Valencia, M. de Humboldt made various astronomical observations, and corrected the latitude and longitude of several places. The result of these observations is contained in a Notice on the configuration of the surface of Spain, in the Itineraire of M. de la Borde.
The travellers had good reason to congratulate themselves on their visit to Spain. M. de Humboldt had the opportunity at Madrid, of forming a friendship with M. de Forrel, the minister of Saxony, who inspired M. de H. with the hope, that under so enlightened a minister as the Chevalier Don Mariano Luis de Urquijo, he might obtain permission to penetrate to the interior of the Spanish possessions in America. M. de H. was presented to the king of Spain, at Aranjuez, in the month of March 1799, and through the good offices of M. de Urquijo, obtained the most ample permission, both from the department of state and the council of the Indies, to visit and explore the Spanish territories in America and the Philippine islands. The orders given to further the designs of the travellers were, says M. de Humboldt, strictly obeyed, even after M. de Urquijo, the minister who had procured them, was obliged to abdicate his office. 6 During the five years,' he adds, 'that we traversed the new continent, we perceived not the least appearance of distrust, and it is grateful to me here to recollect, that in the midst of the most afflicting privations, and struggling against the obstacles which arise from the savage state of the country, we have never had to complain of the injustice of man.'* We cannot but add, that though this remark appears to be justly made, and does the Spanish government credit, it is truly humiliating to reflect, that the keys of a vast continent in the west should be kept by a feeble old man, at Aranjuez, and * Voyage i, 47.