Olive Press columnist Jack Gaioni on why the ghosts of Simon Bolivar and Alexander von Humboldt are alive and well
VENEZUELAN political leader Simon Bolivar and German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt were 19th century international icons. Both men had an enormous impact on Spain and, by extension, the world as we now know it.
Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) is known in South America as ‘The Liberator’. His family originated in the Basque, Spain, but had been in Venezuela over 200 years by his time.
They were ‘Creole’ or American of pure European blood.
‘Creole Simon Bolivar’ would go on to lead Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Bolivia (his namesake) to independence from the crumbling Spanish Colonial Empire.
Today he is regarded as a hero, a revolutionary visionary and the ‘father of modern-day South America’.
Like many young Creole men, Simon was educated in Europe. He became infatuated with the ideas of the European Enlightenment. The concepts of the British legal systems, the precepts of the French Revolution and the principles of Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson and John Locke were not lost on young Simon.
These humanistic values were anathema to what Simon and the Bolivar family had witnessed and been subject to under Spanish colonialism. The plundering of the New World’s resources (especially gold and silver), slavery, mistreatment of indigenous peoples and draconian taxes were the reality here.
The ecologist Alexander von Humboldt (1767-1835) was not only a man of science, but a man motivated by humanitarian and political concerns.
He was the first European to travel widely in South America as part of a scientific expedition to investigate the vast, uncharted region. At the invitation of King Charles VI of Spain – hoping for more mineral wealth (gold) – Humboldt began his five-year scientific expedition in 1802.
He climbed towering volcanoes, mapped South America’s deserts and jungles and even surveyed the depths of the Amazon River Basin.
His observations and discoveries relate to subjects as diverse as botany, geology, zoology, mineralogy, forestry, oceanography and astronomy.
He categorised over 6,500 previously unknown plants, theorised about the earth’s magnetic fields and was among the first minds to advance the ‘big bang’ theory.
Humboldt, however, added another dimension to his scientific study, believing: “neither humans nor nature can be understood in isolation. Nature has never been merely a background but has played an essential role in the development of human societies.”
He saw the vast human possibilities of the New World. Yet on the other hand, he actively preached that these potentialities were restrained by the yoke of the oppressive and dysfunctional Spanish Colonial system.
His co-joining of the natural world with all things humanitarian was enthusiastically received by many European thinkers of the era, his work becoming immensely popular in the intellectual circles of London, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Paris and Madrid.
In an historical twist of fate, Simon Bolivar met face-to-face with Alexander von Humboldt at a Parisian lecture and their conversations were immortalised in history as the ‘awakening’ of Bolivar.
Bolivar is purported to have said to Humboldt: “What a brilliant fate awaits that of the New World if only its people were freed of their Spanish yoke of despotism.”
Humboldt replied to the young South American: “I believe that your country is ready for its independence. But I cannot see the man who is to achieve it.”
Bolivar was so inspired by Humboldt that he fell to his knees and vowed ‘upon that holy earth beneath his feet that he would liberate his country’. The vow has become a South American legend.
The two men shared a vision of the unlimited potential of the Spanish New World, albeit for different reasons.
Bolivar skillfully formulated a resonant socio-political philosophy setting the New World apart from Spain, bringing it freedom.
Humboldt contributed to the emerging national conscience of the Spanish Colonial Empire through his connection between scientific and environmental factors and their impact on human society. His ‘unity of nature’, now known as ‘Humboldtian Science’, is seen by many as the foundation of today’s environmental awareness.
Collectively, ‘the Liberator’ and the ‘ecologist’ changed the way we see the globe today in a magnitude of ways.