Cuba, the jewel of the Antilles

Cuba – the Pearl of the Antilles

Bonplan’s illness proved to be lingering and serious. Humboldt took him higher into the mountains – in the hope that there his friend would be easier to cope with the illness. It was not until July 10, 1800, after months of uncertainty, that they were able to set off again. They rode on mules, this time northward through the Llanos to New Barcelona, located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. Once there, the travelers spent several weeks putting their collections and records in order. And on August 26 they boarded a sailing ship along the coast and sailed it to Cumana (where their expedition had once begun) to send the first large parcels of seeds, plants, and records to Europe. It was not without its thrills at sea either: no sooner were they off the coast than their vessel was seized by pirates; fortunately an English corvette came along and freed them.

The unreliability of maritime communications forced Humboldt and Bonplan to divide their treasures and send them to Europe piecemeal. They sent one herbarium to France, another, containing 1600 species, to the English botanist John Fraser,[14] a traveler and connoisseur of the Labrador flora, with a proposal to compare his observations in North America with those of Humboldt and Bonplan in South America, and with a request to keep one valuable collection “until peace comes” and then send it to Wilden (as it was later done). The third, smaller collection the friends took with them on the road – as an auxiliary, for various kinds of comparisons. They did the same with the descriptions of plants and other records, first making a copy of each of them. Heaps of papers had to be copied. These precautions later justified themselves: some of the materials, including the only skeleton taken by Humboldt from the grotto in Ataruip, was lost in a shipwreck.

Although their stay in Cumana, where the scientists settled in the house of the provincial governor, was filled with summing up the preliminary results of the trip and rest, Humboldt was depressed by this forced semi-displacement. He could not wait to get to Cuba, where he was going from the beginning. But there was nothing to think about leaving Cumana – the harbor was tightly blockaded by the British. In the end Humboldt decided to sail back to New Barcelona in a coastal sailboat and try to escape to Cuba from there. At some point he succeeded, and they reach the island by a circuitous route and not without dangerous adventures.

Cuba … Already then, because of its beauty and fertility, considered the pearl of the Antilles, it served as a gateway to the Spanish possessions in Central and South America. At one time the British took it from the Spaniards (in 1762), but two years later returned it – in exchange for Florida. From 1773, Cuba became the center of the slave trade of all the Spanish colonies in the Americas: the wealthy South American planters needed manpower. As early as 1740, Cadiz merchants acquired from the Spanish Crown the monopoly right to grow and sell tobacco under a leasing agreement. Tobacco, after its triumphant march across Europe, became a kind of “brown gold”; its production became an immensely profitable business that quickly overshadowed livestock farming. The royalist tobacco planters who had grown rich in French Haiti chose to emigrate to Cuba, where they set up huge coffee plantations after the French government decreed the abolition of slavery. This was just as Humboldt and Bonplan arrived on the island.

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As he explored the island geographically, Humboldt saw the same scenes of barbaric treatment of slaves everywhere, which aroused his feelings of protest and indignation. The first drafts of his book on the socio-political situation in Cuba, which later made a lot of noise, arose during this initial acquaintance with the island, where nature has created a truly heavenly conditions, but foreign invaders have done everything to turn it into hell.

After a stay of two and a half months in Cuba, Humboldt intended to travel to Mexico through the southern states of North America and then travel to the Philippines. But here he had to make some unforeseen adjustments to his plans.

From the American newspapers received in Havana, he learned that the French expedition of Captain Baudin did take place, that his ship was already at Cape Horn and headed for the Chilean-Peruvian coast, and he and Baudin had an agreement that Humboldt and Bonplanet would join the French navigator on the way. After consultation, the friends decided to wait for Bodin on the west coast of South America, and then to sail with him to the Philippines. They sent a message to Bodin, which, however, returned to them a year and a half later without reaching the addressee; it was not until January 1802, while in Quito, that they learned that the North American newspaper reports that had prompted them to change their plans were inaccurate. At the time, Boden was not passing Cape Horn, that is, the southern point of South America, but the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa.

“Being accustomed to suffer failure,” Humboldt wrote, “we consoled ourselves with the thought that the work we had done was not in vain, and that in making great sacrifices we had good ends in mind. When we considered our herbaria, sketches, results of barometric and geodesic measurements and various experiments, we did not regret at all that we passed through places where naturalists either had not been at all or had been rarely. It became clear to us that man should rely only on what he creates himself through his own energy.

This text is an introductory excerpt.

Continued on LitRes

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From Prussian cramped conditions to the vastness of nature 1769-1789

“Only one person could stand next to Goethe – Alexander von Humboldt,” said the German philologist Jacob Grimm, when in 1862 they began discussing plans to erect a monument to Goethe, Schiller and Lessing in front of the Schauspielhaus theater in Berlin. However, a few years before his death, Alexander von Humboldt spoke out against the idea of placing his bust in the building of the Berlin Academy next to the bust of its founder, Leibniz.

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“The great men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were themselves academies – like Humboldt in our time,” Goethe, who always admired his friend, once remarked.

Carl Ritter, the eminent German geographer, called Humboldt “the new discoverer of America,” echoing the opinion of the public who dubbed Alexander “the second Columbus” after his return from his expedition to South and Central America. In France, a commemorative medal was commissioned in honor of “the greatest scientist of his time” by the Paris Academy of Sciences shortly after his death, in which he was referred to as “the new Aristotle.” Humboldt’s name is immortalized on the geographical map of the world: in his honor are named mountain ranges in America and Asia, the sea current off the northern coast of Chile and Peru (Corriente Fria de Humboldt), Nevada salt marsh, a glacier in Greenland, sea bays and lakes, channels and rivers, cities and villages (in North America), minerals, animals and plants. Mexico, after its liberation from centuries of Spanish yoke, bestowed upon him the title of “Benemerito de la Patria,” a man of distinguished service to his country. “Humboldt made the natural sciences the lever of the spiritual liberation of the people,” Otto Uhle, one of his first biographers, said of him. “We want to see Humboldt,” the revolutionaries demanded on March 21, 1848, when the King of Prussia appeared on the balcony of the Berlin Palace. A dozen years after Humboldt’s death, the Borzig factory workers (who constituted the most active part of the Berlin proletariat), passing by the house in Oranienburger Straße where he died, bowed their banners, paying tribute to the democratic scholar, who was near and dear to the interests of the people.

If Goethe can be considered the greatest figure in the age of classical German literature, the creator of the world fame of German poetry, then his younger contemporary became a figure of the same magnitude b the classical age of German science, one of the founders of German natural science.

The beginning of the age of scientific natural science is still about Humboldt’s merits

Ever since Copernicus proved that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the planetary system, and Giordano Bruno discovered other “suns” in the fixed stars and suffered martyrdom at the stake for his “heretical” doctrine of the infinity of the universe, Ever since Kepler formulated his three laws of planetary motion, and Galileo discovered that Jupiter had its “moons”, that the Sun rotated and had “spots” on it, and established the pattern of the phases of Venus, astronomy has firmly established its leading place among the other natural sciences. When Humboldt was twelve years old, the German astronomer Wilhelm Herschel, who had emigrated to England, nicknamed “Columbus of the Fixed Stars,” discovered the planet Uranus.

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The daring breakthrough into the stellar world and penetration into the “mysteries of the sky” was beyond the reach of Earth explorers. The great discoverers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Fernand Magellan (to name the most outstanding) – were not scientists, but navigators, seeking a waterway to the wonderland of India and to the fabulous treasures of distant lands. Adventurers, conquerors, merchants, missionaries followed in their footsteps… The great maritime powers, Portugal and Spain’ first looked there for gold and silver, precious stones and exotic spices, and then, having seized the colony, “closed” it to explorers, and various scientists or travelers were deeply suspicious of them. Overcoming this barrier of distrust of travelers was extremely difficult, and for a long time it served as an obstacle to the scientific study of entire continents. And only James Cook, who toured the Earth three times on his sailing ship, was able to begin a new era – the era of scientific expeditions, and Alexander Humboldt became a classic follower of this trend. A new genre appeared in literature – the scientific description of voyages; its founder, the young German naturalist and writer Georg Forster, participated with his father in James Cook’s second circumnavigation of the globe (1772-1775).

At that time, neither a coherent system of natural sciences based on experience and fact nor scientific earth science as such existed. People had to make do with amateur travel notes, which began to appear in increasing numbers after Marco Polo’s adventurous voyage to China (1271-1295), that is, two centuries before printing, and gradually became available to an educated public. However, their scientific value remained limited even when the authors of these notes were scientists. What is surprising: navigational instruments – the mirror sextant and chronometer – were invented much later: the first in 1731 and the second in 1761. Geographical descriptions of countries were made at will, without any system, on the basis of casual and subjective observations, and existed in the most whimsical forms – from the pictorial accounts of merchants or sailors to various kinds of stories handed down orally or in writing from generation to generation. Geography was not yet a science in the strict sense of the word; its methodology had not yet been sufficiently developed to provide the necessary comparative data for knowledge of the earth. Descriptions of countries and continents were made very sketchily. Only Karl Ritter, who was under the great influence of Humboldt, was the creator of modern scientific geography[1]. One of the founders of scientific geology, the science of the structure of the Earth and the changes occurring in it, can be considered Humboldt’s teacher at the Freiberg Mining Academy Abraham Gottlob Werner, who put forward the theory of classification of rocks and at the same time created the preconditions for the systematic study of the layers of the Earth.

The main direction in the development of botany and zoology, two extraordinarily important sciences for the study of life on Earth, was at that time the systematization, a strictly scientific and meticulous ordering of the extensive empirical material gathered by experience. In 1735, the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus proposed a systematic classification of all plant species known at the time, and the Frenchman Georges Cuvier laid the foundations for the classification of the animal world. His compatriot Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon set out to bring together all the latest discoveries of natural science and create a unified system of views on nature. Theology was gradually separated from science, which was very beneficial for the acceleration of scientific development.

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A few words about physics and chemistry. Even in the early years of Humboldt’s life scientists, for example, believed in the existence of a special “fiery substance.” Only the research of M.V. Lomonosov, as well as the discovery of “fiery air” (i.e. oxygen) made by Priestley and Scheele almost simultaneously, allowed Lavoisier to overcome the false theory of phlogiston and prove that burning is a special process involving oxygen, and that substance as such does not disappear or arise from nothing, that the weight change of the elements involved in burning is due to chemical reactions and the formation of new compounds. If Lavoisier formulated the law of conservation of matter, Priestley made valuable observations in the field of metabolism in the organic world. His work, together with the work of the Swiss de Sossur, paved the way for the discoveries of Justus Liebig (in whose person Humboldt noticed an outstanding chemist very early and was greatly assisted by him) – the founder of the whole science – agrochemistry. The successful practical application of chemistry to agriculture has greatly increased its productivity and served as one of the arguments that refuted the gloomy prophecies of Robert Malthus, who claimed that the growth of the world population outstripped the production of agricultural products and that if this situation persisted in the future, people would inevitably be condemned to poverty and starvation. The rapid development of theoretical chemistry was in Humboldt’s time; practical use of the results of his research began only in his old age. Thus, not long before his death, a systematic elaboration of the chemical properties and structure of aniline dyes was carried out by August Wilhelm Hoffmann.

The author’s assertion about the state of scientific geography in the eighteenth century and, moreover, about the priority of C. Ritter in creating its scientific basis is incorrect. He does not mention the major works of Russian scientists in the field of geography. For example, I.K. Kirillov, who compiled in 1734 “General map of the Russian Empire” based on the data of topographic and geodesic works, works of V.N. Tatishchev to describe the territory of our country as a sphere of human activity, important works of M.V. Lomonosov on exploration of the Northern Sea Route, and especially the results of his academic expeditions 1768-1774. – Note I. B.

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