A review of ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf
On 16 July 1799 a revolutionary thinker arrived in Latin America. Unlike most Europeans who had preceded him to the continent, he didn’t believe in slavery and he promoted the rights of indigenous people. He saw mining for gold and silver for the exploitation it was – not only of the earth (which it despoiled) but for the lives it destroyed among the thousands compelled by the colonists to dig for precious metals, whose value they would never enjoy themselves. He wondered at and documented the natural marvels of the continent, at the same time as he deplored the deforestation and monocultural farming that was already, over 300 years ago, beginning to take hold. He climbed to the highest point believed at that time to have been reached by man, on the volcano Chimborazo in Ecuador, then thought to be the world’s highest mountain (and, in one sense, still holding that distinction as its summit on the equator is the point furthest away from the Earth’s centre). In short, in the early nineteenth century he was the one European who understood Latin America, proclaiming its wonders at the same time as he deplored the colonialism and exploitation which defiled them.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Alexander von Humboldt became better known in the Americas than he was in Europe, as in many respects he put the continent on the map. After the results of Humboldt’s five years travelling had been digested, locations were known more exactly, heights of mountains recorded, and key geographical features (like the Casiquiare River, which most unusually connects the two massive river basins of the Orinoco and the Amazon) were mapped for the first time. Indeed, Humboldt’s maps were to be used by his contemporary Simon Bolívar, the future liberator of South America. Humboldt met him in Paris and again in Rome, where the even younger Bolívar was impressed with this man who couldn’t stop talking about the former’s birthplace and who ‘painted South America in such vivid colours’. He called him the ‘true discoverer’ of the New World as, unlike the rapacious conquistadors who arrived with Columbus in 1492 and the centuries that followed, he understood Latin America’s true nature. When the last months of Bolívar’s life were fictionalised by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in The General in his Labyrinth, the author has Bolívar reflecting on his friendship with the scientist, concluding that ‘Humboldt opened my eyes’.
In Andrew Wulf’s book, much is made of Humboldt’s influence on Bolívar. Yet the liberator’s biographer, Marie Arana, claims that Bolívar was in fact frustrated that Humboldt couldn’t see the urgent necessity to end Spanish rule. This seems slightly disingenuous, however. Humboldt did, after all, write a very political book, his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, which was a ‘scathing indictment of colonialism and slavery’. Humboldt, Wulf says, saw that Spanish barbarity had created an unjust world. What seems to have separated him and Bolívar was the latter’s belief that the white descendants of Spanish rule (of whom he was one) could rise up and defeat this barbarity. In truth, Humboldt’s scepticism was justified, as although Bolívar successfully secured independence, briefly united South America and abolished slavery, the post-independence regimes throughout Latin America were, at least until the Cuban revolution and in various countries much later than that, hardly examples of enlightened government.
The truth is that the young Bolívar’s developing political awareness, fuelled by his time in Europe when he met Humboldt, and where he saw the true nature of the declining Spanish kingdom and was exposed to a range of radical ideas (including those of the French revolution), led him to become a soldier and eventually the most famous political leader that Latin America has known. Humboldt however was a scientist, whose scientific awareness blossomed in Latin America, leading him to develop the first comprehensive view of the natural world (as Wulf puts it, to ‘invent’ nature). His alarm at its fragility in the face of man’s depredations led him to a sweeping political analysis that would never crystallise into support for a particular leader or political movement. Indeed, he rather steered through and around politics – making friends with (for example) Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US, even though the latter was equivocal about ending slavery, owned slaves himself and believed black people to be inferior (all views which Humboldt strongly opposed).
What united Humboldt and Bolívar, rather than politics, was their love of South America, their conviction that it had a unique identity and their understanding of the urgency of protecting this uniqueness. In their different ways, they were equally fanatical – Humboldt for a scientific explanation of the natural world and Bolívar for the political independence of a continent. Arguably, though Bolívar is now the more famous, Humboldt was the more successful since he paved the way for Darwin and evolution, the science of ecology and the discovery of ecosystems, and the understanding of phenomena as diverse as climate change and the movement of the continents. His insight into the essential unity of the natural world inspired a range of writers from Thoreau to Wordsworth and even, arguably, was the precursor to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. It would be difficult to think of a man who was more influential but whose influence is now as little appreciated as that of Alexander von Humboldt.
A common thread – Colombia’s Magdalena River
If Humboldt opened up South America scientifically and Bolívar did so politically and militarily, a key shared experience was that as young men each had travelled into the highest parts of the continent, leaving its Atlantic Coast via Colombia’s Magdalena River. Humboldt did so at the start of his first true scientific expedition, with the river revealing to him for the first time the contrast between tropical lushness in its lower reaches and the highland landscapes he found as he climbed towards Bogota. Bolívar’s first military mission, only a year or so later, was to liberate (from Spanish rule) the very river settlements that Humboldt had passed through.
The young Gabriel Garcia Marquez undertook the same journey, albeit now by river steamer, more than a century later in 1943, and it was to be a seminal experience both in his life and in his writing. In The General in his Labyrinth, for example, he describes Bolívar’s journey back down the Magdalena, years after Bolívar’s first mission and when he was already close to death. In Love in the Time of Cholera, the patient lover Florentino Ariza, by then an old man, finally consummates his relationship with the beautiful Fermina Daza as they embark on the same upriver journey that Garcia Marquez made in his youth. Michael Jacobs wrote about the experiences of these and other travellers on the Magdalena River in his own travel memoir The Robber of Memories, which to me establishes its claim to being South America’s second most important river (if inevitably conceding first place to the Amazon).