Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition

Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s six-thousand-mile expedition through Central and South America was the first major scientific exploration of the region. They made numerous discoveries, describing them fully in their published journals.

Summary of Event

On July 16, 1799, Alexander von Humboldt and his colleague Aimé Bonpland disembarked at the Venezuelan seaport of Cumaná, where they began an epic journey of scientific discovery and high adventure. Their Latin American odyssey would last five years and cover more than 6,000 miles (9,650 kilometers) in the region. Humboldt, the expedition’s leader, was trained in astronomy, botany, chemistry, geology, geography, linguistics, literature, physics, and zoology. He was a firm adherent of the inductive approach to scientific inquiry. [kw]Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition (July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804)
[kw]Bonpland’s Expedition, Humboldt and (July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804)
[kw]Expedition, Humboldt and Bonpland’s (July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804)
Exploration;South and Central America
[g]Mexico;July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804: Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition[3390]
[g]Venezuela;July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804: Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition[3390]
[g]Colombia;July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804: Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition[3390]
[g]Peru;July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804: Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition[3390]
[g]Ecuador;July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804: Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition[3390]
[g]Cuba;July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804: Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition[3390]
[c]Exploration and discovery;July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804: Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition[3390]
[c]Environment;July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804: Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition[3390]
[c]Science and technology;July 16, 1799-July 9, 1804: Humboldt and Bonpland’s Expedition[3390]
Humboldt, Alexander von
Bonpland, Aimé
[p]Bonpland, Aimé

The overall objective of the expedition was to conduct fieldwork for a theory-based physical description of the world and humankind’s place in it. Humboldt recruited Bonpland to serve as his assistant. Bonpland’s knowledge of botany eclipsed that of most European scholars, including even Humboldt himself. Humboldt was popular among Europe’s well-heeled aristocracy for both his broad intellect and his affable wit and charm. Indeed, his reputation was so good that the Spanish crown gave him and Bonpland permission to travel together throughout the Spanish Americas. The Crown issued its consent, in part, because Humboldt promised to evaluate Spain’s gold and silver mines in the region. Humboldt also received permission because he was willing to finance the expedition himself.

The array of scientific Surveying, land instruments that Humboldt carried reflects the breadth of the impending investigations. His instruments included barometers for fixing elevations and quadrants and sextants for determining geographical positions. He also took telescopes, microscopes, chronometers, and compasses, as well as electric batteries, theodolites for surveying land, and hygrometers for measuring water vapor. Other instruments were used for measuring rainfall, oxygen in the air, and the Earth’s magnetic field. Humboldt and Bonpland were to make frequent stops to take measurements and collect plant, animal, and mineral specimens as their expedition passed through previously uncharted and most likely uninhabited land. Spanish officials in the few relatively large cities that the explorers visited would provide them with lodging, provisions, and guides for each leg of their journey.

Humboldt and Bonpland began their investigations soon after arriving in Cumaná, from which they went to Caracas, in January, 1800. Caracas Caracas, Venezuela was the capital of the Venezuela captaincy general, a semiautonomous division of Spain’s colonial province of New Granada. Humboldt and Bonpland scaled Silla de Caracas, Silla de Caracas, Venezuela a previously unclimbed high peak overlooking the capital, to collect plant specimens. Next, they set off on a southerly trek to confirm the existence of the Casiquiare River, Casiquiare River, Venezuela a stream thought to be a tributary of both the Orinoco Orinoco River, Venezuela and Amazon Rivers. Amazon River, South America The Casiquiare was controversial because it was believed that two rivers could not share the same tributary, as sloping land causes tributaries of different rivers to drain away from one another. However, Spanish missionaries had first reported (mid-sixteenth century) the existence of a canal of sorts that connected the drainage systems of the Orinoco and Amazon. In May, 1800, Humboldt and Bonpland traveled the length of the Casiquiare, proving that it did, indeed, join the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers.

The trip to the Casiquiare took Humboldt and Bonpland across the llanos, or grassy plains that form the midsection of modern Venezuela, to the Amazonas Plain in the southern extremity of Venezuela, the home of the Casiquiare. The explorers followed channels of the Apure, Orinoco, Atabapo, and Negro Rivers, as well as the Casiquiare. They also collected a multitude of previously unrecorded plants. They would eventually also take back to Europe monkeys, birds, and other animals from the region. Both explorers suffered bouts of either yellow or typhoid fever on their way back to Cumaná.

On December 4, 1800, Humboldt and Bonpland traveled to Havana, Cuba, to store their Venezuelan specimens. After a brief stay there, they returned to South America to study the Andes region. Andes region, South America In March, 1801, they arrived in Cartagena, the great Spanish seaport in what later became Colombia. There, they followed the Magdalena River upstream, then climbed the Andes to Bogotá, Quito, and Cajamarca. Then they descended to Lima, Lima, Peru Spain’s principal city on the Pacific coast. Along the way, they collected specimens, took measurements, and mapped their progress.

The indefatigable Humboldt also examined the region’s geology and mines, in part to satisfy his agreement with the Spanish government to report on mining in Spanish lands. The explorers climbed numerous Andean peaks, including Mount Chimborazo, Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador near Quito. At that time, Europeans believed that Chimborazo, which is 20,561 feet (6,267 meters) high, was the highest mountain in the world. Humboldt and Bonpland themselves ascended to 19,286 feet (5,878 meters)—the highest Mountain climbing altitude that any human beings were known to have reached at that time. Along the coast of Peru, Humboldt examined the chemical properties of guano, or bird droppings, useful as fertilizer. Owing to the dry climate and lack of chemical leaching, he found that Peruvian guano deposits had extraordinarily high concentrations of nutrients. Humboldt also analyzed the chemistry, temperature, and flow of the ocean current that passes by Peru. He named it the Peruvian Current, but modern maps now label it the Humboldt Current Humboldt Current in his honor. From Peru, Humboldt and Bonpland sailed to Guayaquil, Ecuador.

In March, 1803, Humboldt and Bonpland sailed from Guayaquil to the Mexican port of Acapulco. Acapulco, Mexico At that time, the viceroyalty of New Spain had been at the peak of its prosperity. The explorers conducted fieldwork there for a full year. In March, 1804, they sailed back to Havana to gather the specimens they had collected from Venezuela. By the following summer, they were in Washington, D.C., where they dined with President Thomas Jefferson at the White House. Humboldt and Jefferson became friends and would correspond with each other until Jefferson’s death in 1826. On July 9, 1804, Humboldt and Bonpland sailed for France aboard a French frigate.

A magnificently resilient team, Humboldt and Bonpland traveled through many uncharted and physically hostile lands, in which hunger and fatigue were almost constant companions. In the tropical lowlands, they faced stifling tropical heat, hordes of feasting mosquitoes, and torrential floods. In the Venezuelan llanos, they survived parching droughts, wily crocodiles, and hungry jaguars. In the Andes, they teetered atop precarious ridges, battled numbing cold, and climbed dozens of active volcanoes. Even so, the passion of the two scientists to observe, record, and learn was undeterred. While in Venezuela, they even subjected themselves to painful shocks of electric eels as part of a scientific experiment on the passage of electricity through muscles. The physical stamina and unbounded enthusiasm of the two explorers were the key to their expedition’s ultimate success.


Humboldt and Bonpland collected more than sixty thousand plant specimens and a huge number of exotic New World animals. To document the expedition, Humboldt published a thirty-volume work under the general title Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (1807-1834). Voyage aux régions équixoxiales du Nouveau Continent (Humboldt) He included maps and topographic profiles of the region. Bonpland edited several of the volumes and contributed drawings of plant and animal specimens. The tomes would prove invaluable to later explorers, government officials, scientists, and mining engineers. Arguably, volumes 28-30, titled Relation historique (Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, 1814-1821), Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America . . . (Humboldt) had the greatest impact on the scholarly world. These volumes are Humboldt’s account of the scientific studies that he and Bonpland pursued in South America. They include his insights into social, political, and economic conditions in early nineteenth century Spanish America, as well as his analyses of the interrelationships between the land and its life forms.

Humboldt and Bonpland’s expedition sought to answer questions about the interconnections among the phenomena grouped together in rich diversity on the face of the Earth. Although the expedition’s most enduring contributions were in the fields of plant geography, meteorology, and climatology, this preoccupation with the interrelationships of all living and inanimate things presaged modern environmental science.

Further Reading

  • Gaines, Ann. Alexander von Humboldt: Colossus of Exploration. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1991. A brief but well-written and useful biography of Humboldt.
  • Helferich, Gerard. Humboldt’s Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journal That Changed the Way We See the World. New York: Gotham Books, 2004. Analyzes the journey’s many contributions to scientific knowledge.
  • Humboldt, Alexander von. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804. Translated by Helen Maria Williams. 6 vols. London: Longman, 1814-1821. English translation of volumes 28-30 of Humboldt’s Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent. A facsimile edition of this publication was issued by AMS Press in 1966.
  • _______. Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent. 30 vols. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970-1973. Facsimile reprint of the edition first published in Paris between 1807 and 1834. Humboldt’s complete report on the expedition. Includes color reproductions, original drawings, and maps.

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