Personal Narrative of a Journey
Humboldt's travelogue through Spanish America and the Canary Islands from 1799 to 1804 sound fresh and vivid. It's the closest thing to time-traveling. The author takes us to a time when practically all America south of the US border was one varied but politically unified entity. The 300 hundred years passed since colonization had barely made any difference in the way peoples and races lived on the continent. No progress either economically or socially. So the most interesting thing of this book, in my opinion, lies on this ability to make a still picture of 300 hundred years of life in South America.
Afraid that the book would be too technical, too botanical, I had had put it aside for too long, regrettably. This is humanity at work, civilization-making (or rather staling), this is a picture of humanity surrounded by humbling nature. Man strives to improve his condition against that of his neighbor, fights to better his social condition against those who are not his kind, his race, his relatives. But man is humbled over and over again by nature.
It is thought-provoking, if not downright funny, to see supposedly civilized Spaniards trying to civilize their Indian “pupils”. Retrospectively both failed, as always happens when the one-eyed lead the blind. Fat chance of finding any literate Spaniards among the “civilized” conquerors and colonists. The Catholic church endeavored to keep the monopoly of literacy for so long, in Spain as well as in America.
Humboldt's clarity of mind and sensibleness are made apparent, to mention one example, when he takes on the praise lavished on the Guanches of the Canary Islands, who became a fashionable topic among Spaniards, only “when Spain was at the zenith of her glory”. More so: “When nations are mentally exhausted and see the seeds of depravity in their refinements, the idea that in some distant region infant societies enjoy pure and perpetual happiness pleases them.” Utopias and phariseism were things Humboldt didn't fall for as socialists-turned-environmentalists today do: “enormous forest fires are also caused by the carelessness of the Indians who forget to put out their camp fires.”
Being myself a Spaniard by birth I have to deplore how little, if at all, has the Spanish idiosyncrasy changed since immemorial times, and am amazed how well this author detects faults in our national soul: “a shoemaker of Castilian descent … received us with gravity and self-sufficiency characteristic in those countries where the people feel they possess some special talent.” One might think the author a little arrogant himself, but this is not so. Humboldt is equanimity personified. The shoemaker “pulled a few small opaque pearls from out of his leather pouch and forced us to accept them, making us note down … that white and noble Castilian race had given us something that, across the ocean, was thought of as very precious.”
More on Spanish traits: “The missionary in San Fernando was an Aragonese Capuchin … sitting in his redwood armchair most of the day without doing anything, he complained of what he called the laziness and ignorance of his countrymen … however seemed quite satisfied with his situation.” It is also very symptomatic of Spaniards from all regions to see their “lively curiosity manifested … in the middle of American jungles for the wars and political storms in the Old World.”
Spanish old prejudice against manual labor (when done by themselves, that is), as was described in 16th century Spanish literature, picaresque mostly (e.g. Lazarillo de Tormes), lives on and well: “Many of the whites of European stock, especially the poorest … leave their townhouses … dare to work with their own hands, which, given the rigid prejudices in this country, would be a disgrace in the city.”
Humboldt does recognize the divide between the English-speaking world and the Hispanic world, as reflected in their American versions, and as early as the 1800's: “Beyond the Atlantic ocean, only the United States of America offers asylum to those in need. A government that is strong because of freedom, and confident because it is just, has nothing to fear in granting refuge to exiles.”
A book to relish because it blends beautifully Hispanic cupidity and arrogance with nature's zero tolerance for stupidity and tough reality. The Spanish-speaking world continues to reap what it sows.