He describes their ways of life, their traditions, and different Indian languages. Beyond that he was also interested in the cultural differences between tribes in different areas, providing descriptions in which he reveals a certain preference for the tribe of the Caribes and mentioning the consequences of tribal intermingling on physiognomy and character.
Humboldt moreover provides detailed descriptions of the main obstacles which they faced in relation to colonial society, and consistently attempts to explain the Indian culture from an insider's point of view, illuminating the injustice of their treatment 8. This complete and in-depth description reveals his thorough knowledge of the anthropological issues of his era.
His rejection of the current European discussion regarding the bon sauvage and the mal sauvage in preference for a distinction between free Indians and Indians who were consigned to living in the missions, merits special mention. Referring to this difference on many occasions, Humboldt reinforced the idea that their characters varied considerably and that the Indians in the missions had lost their natural personality.
He states that their seeming stupidity and mistrust was adopted by them due to slave labour and the daily oppression which they faced in the missions 9.
The missions formed part of Spanish American colonial society which Humboldt severely criticised. His description of Venezuela includes many allusions to the missions and the missionaries' despicable behaviour. He provides a thorough portrayal of the missionaries' violation of the law, and especially their imposition of religious dogma.
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He comments upon many examples of immoral behaviour - such as maintaining a "maitraisse", having children or selling alcohol - and mentions several cases of missionaries' abuse of power as they sought personal and financial gain. Above all, Humboldt highlights the monks' despotism and their treatment of the Indians. Apart from imposing Christian myths upon the Indians - something of which Humboldt strongly disapproved - he severely criticizes the fact that they were forced to work unnaturally hard in the missions, and were physically mistreated if they did not behave according to the missionaries' demands Humboldt's relationship with the principle families of Caracas should also be mentioned, although Humboldt's Relation historique is a richer source of information than his diaries on this point In his narration he gives an interesting view of the cultural life of pre-revolutionary Venezuelan society.
He mentions the hospitality which he and his friend Bonpland enjoyed among the Venezuelan elite Regarding their intense preoccupation with culture, he writes about their relatively dynamic cultural life:. In Caracas, Humboldt severely condemns - in a manner that extends to all of the other regions him visited - the cruel, inefficient, and arbitrary justice system, which he considered amongst the greatest evils of Spanish America.
He comments upon the presence of the military stationed in Venezuela, the dissatisfaction of the soldiers due to maltreatment, lack of food, the arbitrariness of commanding officers, and the fact that they were not even paid appropriately. In conclusion it can be said that Humboldt's depiction of Venezuela in his diaries emphasizes the sociological and anthropological aspects of life there. He seems to have been so fascinated by this new indigenous world and by the co-existence of different races, as well as the mixtures between them, that on occasion he even offers statistics regarding the composition of the population.
Among the Spanish territories which Humboldt visited in America, Cuba was unique in the sense that there was no sign of an independence movement at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The social structure was completely dominated by large landowners, especially sugar planters whose slaves provided them with incalculable wealth. The Spanish government had convinced these landowners that independence would result in a slave revolt and the abolition of the institution of slavery, neither of which would be in their best interest.
It must be mentioned that the present analysis is based only on the published part of the diaries. For a long time, these short notes were considered to be the only comments made by Humboldt during his stay in Cuba which raised questions about his interest in this island, though he later dedicated a complete social, political, economic, and historical essay to it. It is only recently that Ulrike Leitner, from the Humboldt Research Center in Berlin, found in the Biblioteka Jagiellonska in Cracow 24 pages of unknown notes by Humboldt regarding his stay on the island of Cuba These documents are titled "Isle de Cuba.
Antilles en general" and have not yet been published Humboldt's criticism of the colonial administration, in particular, stands out in his commentary. He mentions the problem which Havana's disproportionate size had created for the rest of Cuba, and the corruption that predominated there due to the government's domination by large landowners and merchants. The infrequency, as well as the significance, of the comments and judgments made by Humboldt justifies extensive quotation:. Da die Regierung in Havanna thront, den Rest der Insel nie sieht, da das Consulado aus Hacendados und Kaufleuten besteht, deren Interesse es ist, dass nur der Handel der Havanna floriere Ausser der Ungerechtigkeit ist das ganze auch sehr unpolitisch.
Besides warning of the danger of monoculture, Humboldt also refuted the conviction that a successful economy could only be realised through slave labour. Comparing work on the huge plantations of Cuba with those on the small farms of Colombia, he pointed out the disadvantages of the Cuban model from an economic, as well as from a humanitarian, point of view. Since Cuban plantations produced nothing but sugar, the population could not survive without importing meat - they were, therefore, dependent upon external agents.
Referring to his second visit to Cuba near the end of his expedition, Humboldt included an interesting statement at the beginning of his description of a trip from Havana to Philadelphia:. Here Humboldt clearly reveals that his perception of various places is to some extent influenced by the region from which he was coming.
In the published portion of his diaries, Humboldt generally presents quite a negative image of Cuba, and particularly of Havana.
His criticism of Cuba is entirely in line with his personal convictions and seems to reveal his true opinion about this Caribbean island and its society. In Cuba, Humboldt was in contact almost exclusively with the colonial elite; landowners and sugar manufacturers comprised the colonial society with which he was confronted and, therefore, it is they who appear in his private annotations For obvious reasons his incisive criticisms are not to be found in his published works.
In his description of Colombia, Humboldt continues to address topics concerning the Indian population, though much less intensely than in Venezuela. He comments mainly upon his encounters with Indians, and only infrequently mentions the injustice with which they are confronted In this region, Humboldt's attention was dominated by the cultural influence of the first European settlers on local Indian culture. His criticism of the way Europeans settled so near Indian settlements, appropriating many of their cultural achievements without imparting their own knowledge and abilities, suggests that in the tropical regions Europeans adopted more from the Indians than vice versa.
He also points out that due to their religious intolerance and imposition of laws, European settlers had limited the intellectual development of Indian culture. As a result, Humboldt considers the Indians to be in their original mental state, and therefore makes the claim that travelling in America was like being transported to an earlier epoch As usual, Humboldt focuses on miserable working conditions, especially of the oarsmen bogas , who accompanied travellers on their treks down the rivers, and the porters cargueros , who carried both cargo and people.
In Colombia, Humboldt appears to have discovered an interest in the conquest and colonial history of the regions he visited. On several occasions he refers to the ancient civilizations of America, and gives lengthy descriptions of different aspects of these cultures Easily recalling his observations in Venezuela, Humboldt reaches clear conclusions regarding the difference between the so-called "highly developed" and the "less advanced", cultures of America - conclusions which were of interest in the anthropological debates of the nineteenth century:.
In Ecuador, Humboldt's attention appears to have been preoccupied by scientific excursions and, despite the fact that he does not give much space to describing creole society, the warm hospitality with which the travellers were greeted on the farms of the creole elite. A significant feature of Humboldt's description of Quito is the emphasis he places on the description of the churches and cultural achievements of this society, including the high quality of cultural events such as theatre plays As far as the Indians are concerned, Humboldt reveals more interest in their ancient cultures - for which he expresses high appreciation on several occasions - and in the monumental remains which he discovered during his excursions Interestingly, he not only describes the Indians as victims, but adds sharp criticism of the caziques , which he describes as the "bloodsuckers" of the Indians who steal whatever the priests and corregidores leave behind As usual, his descriptions of Ecuador include criticism of the missionaries, especially their lack of morality and the wealth which they had acquired.
Humboldt suggests that this wealth should not be kept for personal purposes, but spent on social projects such as schools, universities, and hospitals Similar to his comments on Ecuador, writing of Peru Humboldt shows more interest in - and more appreciation for - the pre-Hispanic Indian civilisation than the colonial one with which he was actually confronted.
He describes at length, and in a somewhat admiring tone, the remains of the Indians' material culture, and returns to topics such as the conquest and destruction of these native societies. Nevertheless, his abiding interest in material culture does not prevent him from commenting upon the social injustice suffered by the Indians Since by this time in his expedition he had already gained considerable experience with Indian culture, he dedicates more space to express his high regard of free Indians in contrast to those living in the missions Once again, he suggests that the negative character traits for which the Indians were known were directly related to their treatment in the missions:.
While travelling to Lima, Humboldt also notices that the Indians of warmer regions were much friendlier than those who lived in colder climates - an argument which he repeats elsewhere to express his feelings about the differences between Peruvian Indians and the Indians of Venezuela Apart from these descriptions of the Indians, Humboldt, loyal to his humanitarian concerns, also criticizes a broad range of social problems in Peru, such as the corruption of the miners His diaries reveal little information, however, regarding his stay in Lima or his interaction with creole society The fact that Humboldt visited Mexico when his expedition was almost nearing its end means that, on the one hand, he had already accumulated a wealth of observations of colonial societies, many aspects of which were therefore no longer new to him.
As a result, the facets which he described at great length in Venezuela are scarcely commented upon in Mexico. On the other hand, his assimilation and experience with a wide variety of aspects of Spanish American colonial societies means that his observations in Mexico can be considered more elaborate and complex However, he immediately describes the human misery that he sees on the streets, and comments on its cause, namely the unjust distribution of Mexican wealth.
The difference which Humboldt points out when comparing Mexico City to Lima is the number of Indians living in Mexico, and what to him appears to be their dull and indifferent character. Later, when comparing the Mexican pre-Hispanic cultures to those of Peru, he returns to the argument that the nature of ancient civilisations may have had an influence on contemporary colonial society Humboldt appears to be relieved by the lack of black slaves in Mexico, although he comments that the situation of factory workers - mainly Indians - was not much different from slavery.
He expresses his anger about their working conditions in strong terms, and concludes his description by suggesting that the government should deal with the matter immediately. Going so far as to take up the issue with the viceroy, Humboldt continues to address social injustice, describing the terrible situation of miners and Indians forced to toil digging drainage ditches Years later in his published work on Mexico, Humboldt would focus even more attention on the huge social differences in the Mexican population, exposing a very critical stance:.
This also explains Humboldt's plans in later years to return to Mexico - a desire that for many reasons never became a reality. Since Humboldt undertook his expedition through America on the eve of its independence, it is of special interest to observe how he described pre-revolutionary Spanish America, which signs of a coming revolution he detected and how he evaluated a given society's social problems In general, it can be said that he was quite cautious in his comments. On several occasions - apart from his numerous social critiques - Humboldt made reference to the events in Haiti and the possible influence or danger they might exert on the rest of colonial America.
However, in his diaries there is no explicit comment or advice that reveals his opinion about the independence movements in the colonies he visited. That the Spanish colonies would find themselves in a much better economic situation if they achieved independence from the financial interests of the metropolis can only be deduced from his detailed economic analyses, his statistics of trade and his comments on population trends.
On the one hand, this is due to the fact that Humboldt always harboured a sense of gratitude towards Spain's King Carlos IV for granting permission for his expedition through the American colonies; on the other hand, this posture was also a function of his self-understanding as a scientist and his personal aims in undertaking his expedition. Humboldt quite clearly placed his focus on scientific objectives and was reluctant to risk realising his American project.
For these reasons, many of his critiques of society found in Humboldt's diaries fail to appear in his later published works. In some cases, diary entries were marked explicitly "never to be published". In the diaries, his fundamental criticism of colonialism is based on specific examples of oppression, corruption, and violations of human rights. A typical intellectual characteristic of Humboldt is that he never simply criticises what he found. Instead, his observations are based on an in-depth study of various issues, frequently accompanied by recommendations for solutions that either seemed more efficient or, in some cases, simply more humane.
His writings contain important proposals for concrete reforms on a wide variety of different issues, such as the mono-cultivation of sugar, slavery, and the like. In the aforementioned unpublished essay on colonialism, Humboldt also makes references to the difficulties that determined the relationship of the elites with the metropolis. Many of the evils he described had their origins in the metropolis, and the colonial administration was based on metropolitan laws. Apart from that, the permanent conflict with the metropolis created a certain attitude that Humboldt expressed in the following way:.
A further topic of interest which was expressed mainly in his diaries is Humboldt's negative perception of the way in which the ideas of the Enlightenment were put into practice in America. On several occasions he admits his disappointment that members of the creole elite talked about the freedom of mankind, about encyclopaedias, about European philosophers, and that in theoretical discussions they often even expressed revolutionary opinions, while in fact they were mainly interested in maintaining a situation that personally offered them many advantages Since Humboldt's attitude toward the initial signs of the independence movement has been the topic of many studies, it will not be addressed at length here.
In summary, it can be assumed that without explicitly approving of political revolution as a means of solving the social problems which he observed in Spanish America, to a certain degree Humboldt demonstrated a clear understanding of the circumstances that might have been leading events in that direction. Although in many ways Humboldt criticizes the social and political system in America and mentions a vast range of issues requiring an immediate solution, he never calls for armed revolution. On the other hand, Humboldt believes in the possibility and the necessity of obtaining social progress through reforms.
Nevertheless, although the Prussian traveller continually claims to be more readily convinced by amendments than by revolutions, his critiques of the different facets of colonial society and the social injustice he discovered in Spanish America were interpreted and used in many cases to lend ideological support for these movements. Differences found in Humboldt's regional descriptions.
Humboldt draws a portrait of the political and social situation of Spanish America that not only includes all of the important elements of each society but also offers insights into the differences between these societies, as well as conflicts among the various social groups within each population.
His rich depiction of colonial society is not limited, however, to an isolated description of each social group, but also considers the networks that existed between different social classes, analyzing the interactions between them as well as their mutual influences. His attention is repeatedly drawn to the nature of accommodation between Indian inhabitants and European immigrants, but he also examines different cases of racial or cultural fusion. Against this background it seems worthwhile to highlight the differences found in his descriptions, and to investigate whether or not Humboldt conducted a consistent assessment of the main aspects in each region, or if his perceptions differed from place to place.
Considerable disparities are apparent between his official and his unofficial texts that is to say, between the comments and critiques which he made of events as he experienced them, and those which he elaborated years later. A comparison of the descriptions and judgments found in Humboldt's diaries with those in his official works about America, such as his travel narratives and his essays on Cuba and Mexico, reveals that his initial, personal comments and verdicts are much more critical than what he decided to publish years later.
As mentioned above, a fundamental reason for this cautious attitude was his sense of gratitude towards the Spanish government.
The presence of critical considerations in his published work in spite of this appreciation, therefore, takes on an even higher value. This kind of analysis also demands a consideration of the evident evolution of Humboldt's perception over the course of his five-year journey. At the beginning of his expedition, Humboldt did not yet command an in-depth understanding of the structure, function, and network of the different parts of colonial societies.
Therefore, the first part of his diaries consists of relatively extensive descriptions of his scientific activities, especially regarding natural phenomena, although they also contain general views regarding the Indians, ethnographical descriptions, comments on the curiosity of their character and their behaviour, and his first impressions of the missions and the colonial cities. Later, Humboldt undertakes more complex and deeper analyses of the intricate composition of colonial societies.
With respect to the concrete differences between the various colonial societies of Spanish America, Humboldt makes a clear distinction between the Caribbean society of Cuba and other countries. While in Cuba there existed a clear separation between white and black populations - without an Indian presence - and the population was either free and, typically, wealthy, or enslaved and living under deplorable conditions, in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and Ecuador the social system was far more complex. In the latter regions, the colonial societies could be considered more like caste societies, with major or minor Indian components, in which such factors as race, degree of liberty, and skin colour determined people's experiences.
Slavery existed, but it was not as deeply entrenched an institution as it was in Cuba. Nevertheless, Humboldt points out that the Indians in the mines, who were forced into the so-called mita -system, lived under semi-slave conditions. These different societal structures are also reflected in Humboldt's descriptions. Humboldt also devotes attention to the development of scientific and intellectual activity in general, as well as to the cultural progress he detected in the different regions.
In the later elaboration of his first, spontaneous impressions, he declares:. In general, Humboldt identifies a difference between the cultures which developed in the tropical regions, and those which developed in colder regions, and proposes that the climate bears an influence on the population's character and way of life. Like many European scientists and philosophers, he distinguished between the ancient, advanced civilisations of the American Indian population, and particularly the cultural achievements of Peru and Mexico on the one hand, and the level of civilisation of the Indians which he encountered in Venezuela on the other.
In attempting to understand the personal and professional reasons for Humboldt's varying perceptions of the colonial societies of Spanish America, importance must be placed on his relationship with the colonial elites, since he interacted mainly with this group. Besides that, the differences in Humboldt's descriptions are in no small way due to the nature of his access to colonial society.
Whether his access was mainly through the economic elite, as it was in Cuba, or through the Indians and missionaries, as in Venezuela and Colombia - or if he was more engaged in scientific activities, as in Mexico - obviously shaped his perceptions and influenced his judgments. In fact, Humboldt could only obtain fragmentary glimpses of different aspects of a society, as they were largely determined by his contacts and activities.
Indeed, his diaries can be described more as an anthology of comments rather than a complete description of colonial reality. Undoubtedly, the length of time he spent in each region, the nature of his stay and the activities he undertook while there, as well as the development of his thinking during the expedition, all played an important role in shifting his perspective and determining how he articulated his ideas. Add to Basket. Compare all 5 new copies.
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