Portrait of Alex. de Humboldt
Portrait of Alex. de Humboldt.
(Fac-simile of early engraving.)

Born at Berlin, in 1759, Humboldt's earliest studies were carried on under Campe, the well-known editor of many volumes of travels. Endowed with a great taste for botany, Humboldt made friends at the university of Göttingen with Forster the younger, who had just made the tour of the world with Captain Cook. This friendship, and the enthusiastic accounts given of his adventures by Forster, probably did much to rouse in Humboldt a longing to travel. He took the lead in the study of geology, botany, chemistry, and animal magnetism; and to perfect himself in the various sciences, he visited England, Holland, Italy, and Switzerland. In 1797, after the death of his mother, who objected to his leaving Europe, he went to Paris, where he became acquainted with Aimé Bonpland, a young botanist, with whom he at once agreed to go on several exploring expeditions.

It had been arranged that Humboldt should accompany Captain Baudin, but the delay in the starting of his expedition exhausted the young enthusiast's patience, and he went to Marseilles with the intention of joining the French army in Egypt. For two whole months he waited for the sailing of the frigate which was to take him; and, weary of inaction, he went to Spain with his friend Bonpland, in the hope of obtaining permission to visit the Spanish possessions in America.

This was no easy matter, but Humboldt was a man of rare perseverance. He was thoroughly well-informed, he had first-rate introductions, and he was, moreover, already becoming known. In spite, therefore, of the extreme reluctance of the government, he was at last authorized to explore the Spanish colonies, and take any astronomical or geodesic observations he chose.

The two friends left Corunna on the 5th June, 1799, and reached the Canaries thirteen days later. Of course, as naturalists they were in duty bound not to land at Teneriffe without ascending the Peak.

"Scarcely any naturalist," says Humboldt in a letter to La Metterie, "who, like myself, has passed through to the Indies, has had time to do more than go to the foot of this colossal volcano, and admire the delightful gardens of Orotava. Fortunately for me our frigate, the Pizarro, stopped for six days. I examined in detail the layers of which the peak of Teyde is composed. We slept in the moonlight at a height of 1200 fathoms. At two o'clock in the morning we started for the summit, where we arrived at eight o'clock, in spite of the violent wind, the great heat of the ground, which burnt our boots, and the intense cold of the atmosphere. I will tell you nothing about the magnificent view, which included the volcanic islands of Lancerote, Canaria, and Gomera, at our feet; the desert, twenty leagues square, strewn with pumice-stone and lava, and without insects or birds, separating us from thickets of laurel-trees and heaths; or of the vineyards studded with palms, banana, and dragon-trees, the roots of which are washed by the waves. We went into the very crater itself. It is not more than forty or sixty feet deep. The summit is 1904 fathoms above the sea-level, as estimated by Borda in a very careful geometric measurement.... The crater of the Peak—that is to say, of the summit—has been inactive for several centuries, lava flowing from the sides only. The crater, however, provides an enormous quantity of sulphur and sulphate of iron."

In July, Humboldt and Bonpland arrived at Cumana, in that part of America known as Terra Firma. Here they spent some weeks in examining the traces left by the great earthquake of 1797. They then determined the position of Cumana, which was placed a degree and a half too far north on all the maps—an error due to the fact of the current bearing to the north near La Trinidad, having deceived all travellers. In December, 1799, Humboldt wrote from Caracas to the astronomer Lalande:—

"I have just completed an intensely interesting journey in the interior of Paria, in the Cordillera of Cocolar, Tumeri, and Guiri. I had two or three mules loaded with instruments, dried plants, &c. We penetrated to the Capuchin mission, which had never been visited by any naturalist. We discovered a great number of new plants, chiefly varieties of palms; and we are about to start for the Orinoco, and propose pushing on from it perhaps to San Carlos on the Rio Negro, beyond the equator. We have dried more than 1600 plants, and described more than 500 birds, picked up numberless shells and insects, and I have made some fifty drawings. I think that is pretty well in four months, considering the broiling heat of this zone."

During this first trip Humboldt visited the Chayma and Guarauno Missions. He also climbed to the summit of the Tumiriquiri, and went down into the Guacharo cavern, the entrance to which, framed as it is with the most luxuriant vegetation, is truly magnificent. From it issues a considerable river, and its dim recesses echo to the gloomy notes of birds. It is the Acheron of the Chayma Indians, for, according to their mythology and that of the natives of Orinoco, the souls of the dead go to this cavern. To go down into the Guacharo signifies in their language to die.

The Indians go into the Guacharo cavern once a year, in the middle of summer, and destroy the greater number of the nests in it with long poles. At this time many thousands of birds die a violent death, and the old inhabitants of the cave hover above the heads of the Indians with piercing cries, as if they would defend their broods.