My name is Miguel, and I was born in the town of Cumaná, on the northern coast of Venezuela, though I haven’t lived there all my life. In my youth I had the good fortune to be part of the most exciting adventure ever undertaken in the Southern Americas – or anywhere else, to my knowledge – and though I’m now very old indeed I remember every detail of those wonderful years.
Back in the summer of 1799 it was, I was seventeen, and a frigate arrived from France bringing news of the wars in Europe. But among that news was information which interested me far more; it was soon heard across the town that a great scientist was coming to travel and study in our land. He should be here within a month. At once I was determined to attach myself to him in some way.
True my father, a highborn, patrician Spaniard, was disgusted at my proposal, saying, ‘We are not common men. How can you demean yourself by offering to work for this man with his strange and heretical ideas? I forbid you to bring such dishonour on our name!’ But I ignored him – after all this man was more famous in Paris than Napoleon, and more popular.
With a newly acquired telescope in my hands, I kept a daily watch from the nearest headland, methodically searching the horizon. At last on the 16th July I saw it, a ship flying the French flag was just appearing over the horizon. Filled with excitement I could barely contain myself. Would they come ashore today? How could I become part of his party? It didn’t matter to me what I did, I’d be a lowly porter if that was the only way to travel with him. I hurried down to the harbour.
Not long after noon, the longboat came into the harbour ahead of the ship itself, and a lieutenant and his companion made enquiries about renting out a large villa – a hotel would be quite inadequate for the work they intended to do – and once they’d signed the papers they returned to the harbour, where the ship had now docked, and began to oversee the unloading of their goods and equipment. I watched from a distance for some time, identifying the different people. I was surprised at the scientist’s appearance – he was much taller than I’d expected, upright, fit and handsome, and surprisingly young. He was accompanied by the man who had come ashore with the lieutenant, probably a close friend or colleague – and together they were watching with some anxiety the unloading of their boxes of equipment. In some trepidation I approached the lieutenant, who was now standing watch at the foot of the gangplank and offered my services, taking care not to show signs of my position or upbringing – I can speak the local patois as well as any of the street urchins.
‘Only Alexander von Humboldt, the leader of the expedition, can agree to your offer.’ he said, and turning to the scientist, ‘Sir, this lad is desirous of serving you in some way.’ Once von Humboldt was assured that I was fit and strong, willing to take orders, and had some local knowledge he agreed to take me on, and at once I was sent to buy supplies of fresh food and convey them to their villa.
My father declared he would disinherit me, but I was careless of his threat, I was about to embark on the most thrilling, dangerous, and wonderful five years of my life. Years in which my understanding of the world on which we live was totally transformed; my knowledge of the rivers, forests, mountains, volcanoes, oceans, and yes, even the political systems of the countries of the Americas was expanded beyond all imagining. We spent the first six months working around Cumaná, and during that time I discovered the astonishing range of Humboldt’s aims – to study everything, to leave nothing out, and by that study to understand how all the forces of nature work together; in short to establish the rules and workings of the whole created world.
In January 1800 we sailed up the Orinoco, determined to prove there was a way to travel by water across to the Amazon. It took eight months, and the conditions were terrible; we were often reduced to eating insects and grubs; but we persevered, found the link between the two river systems, and everyone survived – even Humboldt’s companion, the botanist, Bonplain, who suffered a bout of typhoid fever, came back from the brink of death – and eventually we arrived back in Cumaná, where we were received with astonishment and huge relief.
In late August we took ourselves off to Cuba and spent four months studying and recording all we had learnt. By now I was a valued member of the group, allowed to help with the writing of labels as our many specimens were identified and described. Von Humboldt, of course, made the writing of his journals and his scientific conclusions his own particular task.
The following year we set off into Colombia, intending to scale the terrifying range of the Andes, study its volcanoes, and, if possible, to reach the Pacific coast. It took us the entire year, but we did it. It was as a result of this expedition that the geography of plants was first established, and the first beginnings of what your modern world now calls ecology were set in place. Von Humboldt even managed to climb to the rim of one of the Andean volcanoes – although on his first attempt he almost died of a sickness caused by its height. Later I was one of a small group which attempted the highest mountain in the whole chain, but we were defeated by chasms in the snow which proved impossible to cross. However we had reached over 19,200 feet – higher than any man had ever climbed before.
Eventually we reached Quito, and were made welcome by the people of the city, and spent some weeks resting and enjoying the pleasures of the place. The ladies are most beautiful, but remembering my honour, I resisted them.
It is a most unstable area, we experienced several earthquakes while were there, but seeing the locals ignoring the smaller rumbles and tremors, we took heart and learned to do the same.
It was the Autumn of 1802 before we descended to the Pacific coast and found a ship to take us north to Mexico, and, having crossed the divide, finally made our way back to Cumaná.
Von Humboldt should then have gone home, but instead he determined to visit the new republic of the United States of America, and sent a letter to President Jefferson asking if he could make himself known to him. My father had by now realised the honour our family was gaining from my association with these brave adventurers, so he agreed to my continuing with the party. Sailing north, we were once again warmly welcomed. By now the name of Alexander von Humboldt was known across the world, and the news of his adventures and discoveries filled the minds of every educated man and woman. He and the president were of one mind – except on the subject of slavery, which inevitably put Von Humboldt into either a rage or a deep sadness of spirit – and we stayed in Jefferson’s home in Virginia for some time while they learned much from each other. Indeed it is true to say it was Humboldt’s theories and system of exploration which guided those who later set out into the West to explore the vast wildernesses of the North Americas.
At last, despite the continuing disruption of life in Europe, he declared his intent to return home, and I bade him a fond farewell and returned to Cumaná, now a man grown. Five years after he had set out, Von Humboldt arrived back in Europe and we heard he was greeted with a triumphant reception.
And I? I was never the same after spending those years in the company of the greatest man of science the world has known. You will not have heard of me, but I have made my own small journeys and studies using my hero’s model, and the rest of my life has been incalculably richer for knowing him.
Having spent many days reading the journal of the man who, in the Paris of 1804 was both more popular and more famous than Napoleon, and watching again a BBC Documentary about him, I found myself writing, in the voice of a fictional character, this summary of his greatest adventures, in response to the title ‘A Five Year Adventure’.
It is true that Humboldt was inspired by those who came before him, most significantly by Captain James Cook; and sadly true that he was over-shadowed by those who came later – by Darwin, who honoured him, and many others – and it is also true that the vision of the unity of nature, which he set out and showed to the world, has been largely lost as science has fragmented into smaller and smaller specialisms; but none of that would have been possible without the foundations he laid, and the thirty books he wrote in the next quarter century, which showed the world in detail what he had discovered and understood.
Unfortunately, the book shown here seems to be the only excerpt of his journals available in English, and it doesn’t even cover the whole of his time in the South Americas, so I am left seriously frustrated!.