Humboldt’s Scientific Discovery of America
With the First Printing of the Juan de la Cosa Map—Believed to be “the earliest extant map showing any part of the continent of North America”
230. HUMBOLDT, [Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich] Al[exander von] [& Aimé Jacques Alexander von Bonpland]. Atlas géographique et physique des régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fondé sur des observations astronomiques, des mésures trigonométriques et des nivellemens barométriques par Al. de Humboldt. Paris: Librairie de Gide, 1814-1834 [verso of first half title] A[nge]. Pihan de la Forest, Imprimeur de la Cour de Cassation, Rue des Noyers, No 37. [second title] Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland. Première Partie. Relation Historique. Atlas géographique et physique. Paris, Librairie de Gide, 1814-1834. [8 (2 titles & 2 half titles)],  2-3 [1, blank] pp., 40 copper-engraved plates on heavy rag paper, some colored (frontispiece view, maps, profiles). Folio (58 x 46 cm), contemporary half green morocco over green and black marbled boards, spine with gilt panels and title in gilt, raised bands, marbled endpapers. Minor shelf wear, joints rubbed, first signature detached, occasional very mild foxing. Overall an excellent, large, handsome and fresh copy of a splendid imprint of historic consequence. This is a rare work in commerce, much more difficult to find than Humboldt’s Atlas géographique et physique du royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne. Of the publications comprising the entire massive series Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continen, this atlas is the most difficult element to acquire.
First edition. This atlas was issued as part of Humboldt and Bonpland’s Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804 (Paris, 1808-1834), which was published in over thirty volumes over several decades. Fiedler & Leitner (Alexander von Humboldts Schriften Bibliographie der selbständig erschienenen Werke 4.4, pp. 157-163) describe variants in publishers of this atlas on the general title page (Librairie de Gide, F. Schoell, and L’Imprimerie de Smith; all Paris) and provide a history of the publication in parts, noting that the number of plates varies. See also: Hanno Beck, Alexander von Humboldt (Wiesbaden, 1961) II, pp. 347-356; and Löwenberg, Humboldt: Bibliographische Ubersicht (1872) (S.506). British Museum (Natural History), pp. 890-891 (cites the atlas as accompanying the first three volumes of Voyage aux régions équinoxiales, itself published in 24 vols., 1805-1837). Brunet III, 373-374 (cites the series, within which is the atlas, as a component of the first part): “Exemplaires bien complets de cette collection sont rares.” Griffin 2879 (citing the 1942 edition of the complete work published by the Venezuelan government): “The fruit of lengthy and penetrating observation, Humboldt’s work remains an indispensable source.” Palau 117013: “Obra monumental.” Sabin 33753. See also: Printing & the Mind of Man (320) for a discussion of how Humboldt altered the way we view the world. Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. V, pp. 549-555. See Phillips, America and Mapoteca Colombiana for citations to the maps. See our web site for a complete listing of maps and plates.
An excellent overview of protean explorer and scientist Humboldt (1769-1859) and his travels and researches in Latin America are found in the notes of R.A. McNeil & D.M. Deas in the 1980 exhibit catalogue at the Bodleian Library, Europeans in Latin America: Humboldt to Hudson, Part II “Humboldt”, p. 5:
Humboldt was born in 1769 in Berlin. From an early age he was determined on the life of a scientific research and explorer: before he was thirty he had published a monograph on the vegetation of the mines of Freiberg and made a botanical and geological tour through Switzerland and Italy. In 1799, under Spanish patronage, he set sail for the New World, accompanied by the French botanist Aimé Bonpland [1773-1858]. They arrived at Cumaná in Venezuela, and set off to explore the course of the Orinoco river. After a journey of nearly 2000 miles through previously unknown territory they returned to the coast and spent several months on the island of Cuba; then they crossed the South American mainland again on an expedition from Cartagena to Quito, ascending the Magdalena River and crossing the Cordillera of the Andes. From Quito they travelled to Lima and Callao via the headwaters of the Amazon; then by sea to Mexico, where they stayed for a year before returning to Europe.
Humboldt spent much of the next twenty-five years arranging the publication of the mass of scientific, geographical and political information he and Bonpland had collected during their five-year trip. Paris was chosen as the place of publication; and thirty folio and quarto volumes appeared between 1805 and 1834; even so, the work remained incomplete. Humboldt never went back to America (though Bonpland returned to settle in Argentina, and spent several years imprisoned in Paraguay). Nonetheless, by his trip and the resulting publications, Humboldt did much to condition the way in which nineteenth-century Europe viewed Latin America.
McNeil and Deas in their entry (#11, p. 5) on multi-volume Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, in which the present atlas appeared, remark on the work in general:
Humboldt was determined to produce a report of almost clinical objectivity, rather than a mere “narrative of personal adventure.” Fortunately the resultant loss in readability was compensated for by the amount and importance of the information contained…and the work acted as an inspiration to many subsequent nineteenth-century explorers of Latin America.
This atlas is important for many reasons, and its illustrations showed Europe and the entire world new scientific information for the first time. Humboldt’s groundbreaking exploration of the Orinoco River, for example, is delineated on two maps, one of which was the first to establish the precise location of and to show the connection between Rio Orinoco and Rio Negro, a question that had baffled geographers for three centuries. Von Hagen, remarks: “[Humboldt] and his companion…had come [to America] with the avowed purpose of ascending the Rio Orinoco…which would open the portals of South America to the world…. The determination of the connection of Rio Negro and the Orinoco was complete…. How exact and estimable this survey was, considering that his chronometers had not been set for years, is seen in a recent survey where with radio and perfect time sequences the same region was determined…. Humboldt was off a little more than a minute and wrong by only two miles on the Orinoco’s length” (South America Called Them, pp. 87 & 122). The Orinoco river maps are supplemented by maps of other rivers, many accurately depicted for the first time.
Also significant are the profiles and maps of mountain ranges, which are depicted with scientific precision showing new information in novel ways. Many of the profiles are dramatically hand colored. One such profile is that of Chimborazo, which is a complement to the grandiose, dramatic view of the legendary mountain in the pair’s Atlas Pittoresque. Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique, where the mountain is viewed from afar in a vast landscape, in the foreground of which are people, animals, and plant life. In the profile in the present atlas, Chimborazo is viewed close up and deconstructed scientifically to precisely show geological formations, plant life at various elevations, snow heights, relative heights, etc. It is easily understandable that Humboldt would have lavished such attention on Chimborazo, which he considered the grandest mountain in the world. In 1859 when he sat for his last portrait, he refused a background with decorative trappings indicating status, wealth, and accomplishments, instead suggesting that the background should be Mount Chimborazo and commenting that of all he had undertaken in his ninety years, he regarded his ascent of the mighty mountain his greatest accomplishment. Humboldt and Bonpland climbed to 19,286 feet, only about 400 feet short of the summit of Chimborazo, before a deep, wide, crevice prevented further progress, along with extremely gruesome physical duress. Nevertheless, the ascent of Humboldt, Bonpland, and their party was the highest ever completed up to that time.
The fellow travellers seem to have been especially fascinated by volcanoes, of which they explored several by climbing them. The dramatic volcano plates are supplemented by several large-scale maps, which are masterful depictions of land forms. These studies were crucial to Humboldt’s later conclusions about the origin and nature of these natural structures and constitute one of his major contributions to the field of geology.
Humboldt mapped many areas in an accurate fashion for the first time. Because riverbeds and stream courses interested him immensely, those features are often shown in great detail on the maps, which also depict other natural and man-made features, such as mountains, missions, roads, and settlements. His map of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, for example, was from the latest available surveys recently done by the Mexican government (Humboldt was for fifty years an advocate of an interoceanic connection between the Atlantic and Pacific). The Cuba map is also an updated version and reflects his recent explorations of the island. Despite a few secondary sources, most of the maps are based directly on his extensive travels and observations during the course of his explorations.
Perhaps the most remarkable map in this atlas is the first printing of a manuscript map that harks back to the very earliest European cartographic representation of the New World. This is the manuscript world map made by Spanish conquistador, cartographer, and explorer Juan de la Cosa (ca. 1460-1509), who sailed with the first three voyages of Columbus and was the owner of the Santa María. This portolan world chart incorporates lands discovered in America up to 1500 during expeditions by Spanish, Portuguese, and English expeditions to America. Juan de la Cosa’s mappa mundi is painted in ink and colors on ox hide (93 x 183 cm) and richly decorated. His map is believed to be “the earliest extant map showing any part of the continent of North America” (Schwartz & Ehrenberg, The Mapping of America, Plate 1, pp. 18-19). Schwartz & Ehrenberg comment:
Both its authorship and date of execution continue to be contested. As is true of many significant historical documents, the discovery and disposition of this one also involved dramatic coincidence. While browsing in a Paris bric-a-brac shop in 1832, Baron Walckenaer, the Dutch ambassador to France, came upon an intriguing map drawn on ox hide and bearing the signature of Juan de la Cosa and the date 1500. The ambassador surmised its importance and brought it to the attention of German naturalist and traveler Alexander von Humboldt, who authenticated it after extensive study. Following Walcknaer’s death, the map was auctioned in 1853. Henry Stevens, one of the first collectors of Americana in the United States, bid the equivalent of $200 for the map, but lost it to the Queen of Spain, who bid approximately $8 more, and eventually it became the major attraction of the Museo Naval in Madrid.
The identity of the mapmaker is uncertain. Most scholars identify the name Juan de la Cosa, written on the parchment, with the great Basque cartographer who traveled on Columbus’ first and second voyages—the owner and mate of the Santa María and one of the signers of Columbus’ affidavit affirming that Cuba was part of Asia. Yet there are others who claim that its author was another Juan de la Cosa—a sailor who served on the Niña only during Columbus’ second voyage. The inscribed date of 1500 is also under contention, since it is apparent that the Western Hemisphere portion was executed later than the European. The map could not have been drawn much before 1500 because it incorporates Cabot’s voyage of 1497. It is now generally thought that the map was not completed before 1505, perhaps not until 1509…..
It is the first map on which Cuba is so named…. Since Cuba is shown as an island, which is at variance with Columbus’ concept, the map perhaps reflects the results of a voyage Amerigo Vespucci purportedly made in 1497. The significance of the map, however, relates to the North American continent…. Five English standards…are irrefutable evidences of John Cabot’s explorations. It has even been suggested that the Cosa map may have been copied from an undiscovered Cabot map…. Although the Cosa map stands at the summit of historical listings as the first map of North America, it apparently was not available to other contemporary cartographers and had little influence on subsequent mapping of the continent.
Finally, going back to the beginning, the emblematic frontispiece engraving Humanitas. Literæ. Fruges (after the art work of artist Barthélemy Joseph Fulcran Roger) is not just another pretty, classical picture, but rather an expression of Humboldt’s deep philosophical concept of America and Europe expressed in iconography. Anthony Padgen comments in European Encounters with the New World: from Renaissance to Romanticism (Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 8-10; illustrated, Figure 1):
Humboldt, whose cosmology attempted so hard to shrink distances, to encircle and contain the world, wished to preserve at least this distinction between the ‘Old’ continents and the “New” one. America, he believed, was a more recent creation than Europe, and its peoples, for all their obvious achievements, were still at that stage where their arts…could not be considered as anything other than of historic interest….
Humboldt looked forward to a future in which the European would be able to assist the Amerindian in his struggle towards a “civilization.” Such a civilization would, he argued, be characterized, as that of classical antiquity and its modern European heirs had been, by the capacity to create transcendent works of art, and to understand the cosmos through science. On the frontispiece to his Atlas géographique et physique des régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent he tried to capture this process. A fallen Aztec is being lifted up by the twin figures of Greece and Rome, represented by Minerva and Mercury. To this Humboldt has appended a caption from Book VIII of Pliny the Younger’s letters, Humanitas. Literæ. Fruge…. Intelligible now as a part of a huge spatial and environmental scale, at one with the flora and the geology in which they had their being, the Native-American was, still fixedly, for the moment at least, “other”.
Humboldt could hope that one day the Americans might come to resemble the Europeans, Tibetans or Asians with whom he compares them. But in his own time, as in this illustration, his world and theirs were still wholly incommensurable.
See Items 231 and 315 here.