Humboldt, Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von, 1769—1859
by Benjamin Colbert
Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin, the son of Alexander Georg von Humboldt (1720-1779), a Prussian army officer, and Maria Elisabeth von Humboldt, née Colomb (1741-1796). His elder brother was the philologist and educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835).
Humboldt was educated in Berlin and Frankfurt before attending Göttingen University (1789-90) and the Academy of Mining at Freiberg (1791-92). He became friends with the traveller and naturalist, Georg Forster (1754-94), with whom he toured France, the Low Countries, and England in 1791 (Forster recorded their visit to the Lower Rhine region in his Ansichten vom Niederrhein [1791-94]). Afterwards, Humboldt was appointed to the Prussian Department of Mines where he remained until 1796.
In that year, he resigned in order to prepare for a long germinating plan to visit Central America. At Paris, in 1798, he met the French botanist Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858), with whom he set off on the voyage in December of that year, first touring Spain before sailing from Corunna for Venezuela, where they arrived on 16 July 1799. Over the next five years, Humboldt and Bonplan toured Mexico, Cuba, the Orinoco basin of Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru, and briefly visited the United States.
After returning to Berlin in 1804, Humboldt moved to Paris where he began the 23-year project of writing up and publishing the extensive notes he had accumulated during his travels. The volumes appeared first in French from 1808 as Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (35 vols, 1808-27). In 1810, Humboldt met and engaged as his English translator the British expatriate poet and travel writer, Helen Maria Williams (1762-1827), and thereafter the French and English project progressed simultaneously.
Humboldt travelled to London in 1814 and Verona in 1822. After receiving a Prussian royal pension he returned to Berlin in 1827 and remained based there until his death. In 1829, he participated in a scientific expedition to Siberia, which became the basis for his Asie centrale. Recherches sur les chaînes de montagnes et la climatologie comparée (5 vols, 1845-65), partly published posthumously.
The Oxford Companion to German Literature. Ed. Henry and Mary Garland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.
Plewe, Ernst. ‘Humboldt, Alexander’. Deutsche Biographie. Web. 19 July 2018.
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