The Struggle for Sea Power  by M. B. Synge

The Travels of Baron Humboldt

"I am going, O my people,

On a long and distant journey;

Many moons and many winters

Will have come and will have vanished,

Ere I come again to see you."


W HILE Mungo Park was making his way into the heart of Africa, another man was turning his thoughts towards South America, the geography of which was still very uncertain.

Baron Humboldt, whose discoveries were to enrich the world, was born in 1769—the same year as Napoleon and Wellington—at Berlin, where his father occupied a high position at the Court of the King of Prussia. As a little boy, Humboldt was taught by the man who had translated Robinson Crusoe into German, and his mind was soon filled with the spirit of adventure from reading the new story-book. But even the feats of Robinson Crusoe grew small beside those of the boy's next friend—Forster. Forster had not been wrecked on a desert island, but he had actually sailed round the world with Captain Cook, and had written an account of his adventures. His desire to travel grew more and more intense as the years passed on. His mind turned towards South America.

He read the chronicles of Balboa and Pizarro. and the grand old Spaniards of the sixteenth century. He learnt mining and geology, then a new science. He talked of his plans to Goethe and Schiller, the world-famed poets. He went to Paris to make known his great desire, and then, leaving home and luxury and a life made pleasant by many friends, he started for the unknown.

The spring of 1799 found him at Madrid, seeking leave from the King of Spain to visit the Spanish dominions in America. For at this time the main part of South America still belonged to Spain by reason of her conquests. The names of Columbus, Vespucci, Cabral, Balboa, Pizarro, Raleigh,—all rise before us in turn when we speak of South American discovery, while in North America, Cortes had gained Mexico for Spain.

Early in June 1799 Humboldt set sail from Corunna on board the Pizarro. He was accompanied by a young Frenchman, Bonpland, a man of science and a congenial companion. Slowly the coast of Europe faded from sight. They would not see it again for five years. Twelve days' sailing brought them to the Canary Islands, where they landed for Humboldt to go up the Peak of Tenerife, a volcano which had recently been very active. They sailed on over the southern seas, deeply impressed with the beauty of the southern skies. As they neared the equator, star after star they had known from childhood sank lower and lower, until apparently lost in the sea. The whole heaven seemed to change, until they hailed with delight the Southern Cross, or the four stars that form, roughly, a cross in the southern hemisphere.

Forty-one days after leaving Corunna they saw the coast of South America, and landed at Cumana, on the north coast of Venezuela. It was their first sight of the tropics. The deep silence, the brilliant colours, the gigantic trees, the strange birds, all impressed them deeply. Humboldt wrote down all his observations, and when he reached home again he gave them to the world, which was soon ringing with his fame. He studied everything: the stars in the heavens, the earthquakes which shook the earth; flowers, animals, shells, trees, the weather and temperature. His eyes and ears were ever open to take in all that Nature could tell him of her great and mysterious secrets. He rejoiced in the beautiful plains and valleys of Venezuela, watered by the vast Orinoco, and soon started off on an expedition into the very heart of things. In a large native canoe he sailed up the river with his friend. In a cabin made of palm-leaves, a table was made for him of ox-hides strained over a frame of Brazil-wood at one end of the boat, where he could sit and write. Many were the stories he told on his return. It was a voyage of peril and wild adventure for the two white men making their way into unknown regions. Never had they seen nature so wild and grand. Gigantic trees and tropical forests, grassy plains and vast rolling rivers abounded.

"The crocodile and boa rule the rivers; the jackal and other wild beasts rove here without fear or danger through the forests," says Humboldt.

Often he found immense tracts of country uninhabited by any human beings. Once he came upon a tribe of natives who made a practice of fattening and eating their wives. One of the deepest impressions was made by the huge cataracts on the Orinoco, at which he and Bonpland stood and gazed in awe. Never before had they seen such masses of foaming waters or such colossal black rocks rising from their surface.

After a journey of seventy-five days, during which they travelled no less than 375 miles, they returned to Guiana. They had sailed on five great rivers, they had discovered the union of the Orinoco and Amazon, the largest river in the world, and they made new maps of this hitherto unexplored region.

It is impossible to follow their wanderings, but their ascent of Chimborazo is interesting. At the time it was supposed to be the highest mountain in the world, but it was scaled by an Englishman, Whymper, in 1880, and it is now known that Mount Everest in the Himalayas is much higher.

January 1802 found the travellers at Quito, one of the most charming cities in South America. It stands among gigantic mountains and almost under the shadow of Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in the world. It is the capital of Ecuador (Equator). Humboldt, with two friends—a Frenchman and a Spaniard—arrived one fine day at the foot of Chimborazo, and they began the ascent on mules. They went steadily upwards till they reached a lake, which was already higher than the highest mountain in the Alps. Already they had attained the highest spot yet reached by human foot. The mules could go no farther, so the travellers went on foot. Over fields of newly-fallen snow, they gained a narrow ridge which led to the top. The path grew very steep and slippery, and their guides refused to go farther. Nothing daunted, the travellers went on. A thick mist now surrounded them. Their path was but ten inches broad. On one side was a chasm a thousand feet deep, on the other was a steep slope of snow covered with a glassy coat of ice. One false step meant certain death. Soon they had to crawl on hands and knees, but their courage was high, and they went doggedly on.

The fog grew thicker: they suffered from the rarity of the air. Breathing was difficult, and mountain sickness came on. Their heads swam, their lips bled, their eyes grew bloodshot. Suddenly the fog lifted, and they saw the summit. They hurried forward, filled with a great hope, when right across the ridge they saw a huge chasm which it was impossible to cross. By this time they were nearly frozen with cold. A great snowstorm broke over the top, and they were forced to turn back without having reached the summit. But they had reached a height of 19,200 feet above the sea, an altitude since surpassed, but never attained by man till that June day in 1802 by Humboldt and his two faithful friends.

It would take too long to tell how they crossed the lofty chain of the Andes and explored Peru, how they reached Lima, with its beautiful cathedral where Pizarro, its founder, lies buried; how they sailed north to Mexico, and finally, after an absence of five years, returned safely to Europe.

He went many another journey after this, and earned for himself the name of the "Monarch of Science," the "Father of Physical Geography." He outlived his contemporaries Napoleon and Wellington by many long years. Long after the "Great Captain" had done his wars and the "Great Despot" had suffered for his ambition, the "Monarch of Science" was winning his victories in a quiet way that cost no tears to others, but enlarged the boundaries of the world of thought beyond all human ken.