H i N

Alexander von


HiN                                                     I, 1 (2000)

Ulrike Leitner: Humboldt's works on Mexico


3. Alexander von Humboldt's Diaries

Since Humboldt's report on his American journey (Relation historique) ends with his arrival in Columbia in 1801, his diaries are the essential source for a full account of his stay in Mexico. They are on loan from the owners, the von Heinz family, descendants of Wilhelm von Humboldt and can be found in the manuscript department of the Berlin State Library at Schloß Tegel in Berlin. In four extensive volumes, Margot Faak undertook the time-consuming task of compiling a selection of the transcriptions which are now located at our research center. The first volume contains the diaries in the original languages (mainly French) (11); the second one has the German translation as well as various indexes.(12) An additional volume sums up Humboldt's texts on the topic: Latin America on the eve of the revolution of independence.(13) Another volume (14), which has been published within the year, includes a selection of the diaries concerning the first part of the journey, thereby providing a comparison to Humboldt's diaries and the published text in the Relation historique. Concerning controversial points, as e. g. the exact route of the journey, the diaries should always be taken into consideration first.

Bringing back the diaries to Europe with him, Humboldt referred to them regularly and made them the basis of his publications on the results of the American journey, especially for the Relation historique which is why it contains some annotations added down the line. He later took the notebooks apart and had them bound into nine volumes. Their chronological order thus seems in some cases to be interrupted. In the edition I mentioned previously, M. Faak attempted to reestablish the original order. On pp. 309-392 of vol. 8 (pp. 202-296 of vol. 9 in the translation), his stay in Mexico is described, consisting of parts from the original diaries VII and IX.

Humboldt considers all observations worthy of writing down, but his preference for precise measurements is especially remarkable. Lists of data are therefore often left out by the editor. Descriptions of the flora, of customs and habits, of language, culture and nature, the rocks and layers of mountains, descriptions of trade and commerce, remarks on the social situation of the population, all these go beyond a mere description of his experiences and excursions with Bonpland and his other companions. Humboldt's summary of his stay in Guanajuato from August 7-September 6, 1803 is a good example of this: "[it was one of the] most exhausting periods of my life. I climbed all mountains using my barometer. In Valenciana I descended three times to the bottom of the mine, two times in Rayas, in Mellado, in Fraustros, in Animas and in San Bruno. I visited the mine of Villalpando, spent two days in Santa Rosa and in Los Álamos [...] I had a dangerous fall on my back in Fraustros, and experienced extreme pain for 14 days due to a sprain of the base of my spine!"(15) He showed his interest in history by writing down all sources of information, even traditional anecdotes. This makes the texts entertaining and varied. He tells, for example, the story of the creation of Jorullo with irony ("one of the most dreadful phenomena history has to offer"), which rose up on the 29th of September 1759 in the form of a cone, and - according to myth - was to have been the work of some monks. They had apparently been poorly received at the Hacienda of Jorullo and had therefore cast spells upon the plain. "Surely the Jorullo is the greatest work monks have ever created, and if one is not impressed by the gullibility of a people who claim they can constantly observe how the eternal laws of nature have been abolished, one has to be amazed by the eagerness of this religious caste to do everything in their power in order to base their world on fear."(16) This kind of critical remark about the role of the clergy, made many times by Humboldt, as well as his overall critical attitude of Latin American society, placed him in the role of a champion for the revolution of independence. Today, based on Humboldt’s newly edited diaries, letters and other authentic statements, this myth is reduced to Humboldt as a reformer, a representative of a just liberalism and economic progress.




(11) Alexander von Humboldt. Reise auf dem Río Magdalena, durch die Anden und Mexico. Part I: Texte. Aus seinen Reisetagebüchern, ed. Margot Faak, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, 1986. (Beiträge zur Alexander-von-Humboldt-Forschung. 8)

(12) Reise T. II: Übersetzung, op. cit.

(13) Alexander von Humboldt. Lateinamerika am Vorabend der Unabhängigkeitsrevolution. Eine Anthologie von Impressionen und Urteilen aus seinen Reisetagebüchern, ed. Margot Faak, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, 1982. (Beiträge zur Alexander-von-Humboldt-Forschung. 5)

(14) Alexander von Humboldt Reise durch Venezuela. Aus seinen Reisetagebüchern, ed. Margot Faak, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, 2000. (Beiträge zur Alexander-von-Humboldt-Forschung. 12)

(15) "[...] einem der anstrengendsten Zeitabschnitte meines Lebens. Ich bin mit dem Barometer auf alle Berge geklettert, ich bin in Valenciana dreimal bis auf die Sohle eingefahren, in Rayas zweimal, in Mellado, Fraustros, Animas, San Bruno, ich bin im Bergwerk von Villalpando gewesen, zwei Tage in Santa Rosa und in Los Álamos ... Ich habe in Fraustros einen sehr gefährlichen Sturz getan, indem ich auf den Rücken gefallen bin, wovon ich 14 Tage lang wegen einer Verstauchung des Steißbeins stärkste Schmerzen verspürt habe!" In: Reise T. II: Übersetzung, op. cit., p. 265.

(16) "Sicherlich ist der Jorullo das größte Werk, das Mönche je hervorgebracht haben, und wenn man sich nicht über die Leichtgläubigkeit des Volkes wundern will, das jeden Augenblick die ewigen Gesetze der Natur aufgehoben sieht, muß man sich über den Eifer dieser religiösen Kaste wundern, die [...] aus allem Nutzen für sich gezogen hat, um ihr Reich auf der Furcht zu gründen." Reise T. II: Übersetzung, op. cit., p. 276.


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