Sobre las huellas de Humboldt / José Antonio Ramos Sucre

On Humboldt’s Trail

Nineteenth century Germans, hallucinating and magnanimous, celebrate in particular the inventions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They are active under the banners of feeling and originality, and they censure the faults of social life, recreating themselves after the example of nature.
     The philosopher himself animates that century’s affection for the erudite journey and the remote excursion, and exalts the free, adventurous and elusive generations. He repudiates the current literature of palace-dwellers and scholars, and he describes the habitual scene, and refers to the everyday event without grandeur, confessing to be a sympathetic spectator of humble lives. He educates the vehement talents, entertained by distant emigrations, in acerbic shyness, in proud and bizarre dreams.
     Alexander von Humboldt reveals a close similarity with two men of letters who praise wild and naive societies, when they sing laments for unhappy love; they are Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and François-René de Chateaubriand; and they are eminent figures with traditional and awkward names; and they are quarrelsome students of Rousseau. He cites them in noted passages where he himself delights in praising equinoctial beauty. This similarity and company is best manifested by noticing that the naturalist composes his most picturesque and manual works in French. He uses the language of his Huguenot grandfather; the one most useful for reticent diplomacy, according to the complaint the abandoned Aurelia makes to Wilhelm Meister; the one most useful for science before any other in Europe, since Descartes redeems it from the scholarly form, renovating the gesture of one who removes a plant cultivated in caverns, far from the sun, disfigured and pale.
     Humboldt belongs to the indulgent and encyclopedic Germany of that era. At each step he adorns his writings with the reference of the man of letters and the artist. A spot on the Venezuelan coast reminds him of the landscape where Leonardo places the figure of La Gioconda, and a scene from the slave market in Cumaná reminds him of the way captives are evaluated in the Trato de Argel, the vigorous, though unstitched and inorganic text by Cervantes. The plague of the myopic and reclusive specialization had not been born yet, which was so disdained by Eça de Queiroz, who cites the case of a wise German, author of robust tomes on the physiognomy of lizards.
     Germanic thought constantly rises from the detail to the universal idea, from the small observation to the grandiose topic, to the encouraged and chimerical endeavor. Humboldt gradually observes the natives of the new world, and finds that the geographical environment does not manage to improve the integrity of the type saved by inheritance, a notice that illustrates the juvenile attempts of sociology, that determinist interpretation of life. He visits the Orinoco up to its junction, through the Casiquiare, with the Río Negro, and reflects on the way of joining by means of canals the internal rivers of South America, dreaming of an astonishing navigation from Angostura to Buenos Aires.
     He sees that the horse originally decides the fate of the nations; he suggests that if the resident of the Venezuelan plains and that of the Argentine pampas had known and domesticated the generous animal before the European invasion, they would have gone up into the highlands of Cundinamarca and Peru, and brought down its theocratic government, to replace it with the patriarchal regime of pastoral societies; and this conjecture is proved to be true when the path of the emancipatory campaigns is set. He also notices that the Spanish colonizer, dazed by American nature, surprised by the circumstances of the new home, conceives a new soul, forgets the native land, looses the ties that bind him to the distant beach of the metropolis; and this phenomenon denounces at once the passions and feelings of the fastidious Venezuelan, censor of the homeland of his elders, docile to the suggestion of foreign advances.
     He talks about studying in savage man the gradual development of the mind, in which he anticipates the sound judgment of subsequent wise men, and emits discrete opinions on the progress of primitive societies. He declares that the circulation of ideas and news in newly born nations precedes the exchange of mercantile articles, and that the most isolated savages of South America had known of the sea and its greatness. He says that the inhabitants of the woodland Alto Orinoco were not able to communicate with each other by land, from the vegetation growing so thick amidst the dissolute abundance of the waters; thus, isolated and with even the closest neighbors being hostile, using only the rivers, they couldn’t find a less barbarous state, joining together in larger tribes. Later on he observes that the cult of the holy trumpet, kept in the Tomo hill, a place in the aforementioned fluvial country, could join the Indians in a single state, ruled theocratically, that adoratorium gaining the importance of Delphi with its oracle. In another part he notes, as a lesson for travelers and philosophers of history and regarding the indigenous Americans, that the character and customs of a people confess their past better than their present.
     He philosophizes regarding vegetables reaching the conclusion that they determine the physiognomy of the landscape and correspondingly straighten the soul of the inhabitants. He talks about the successively war-like, civilizing and pacifying ministry of sugar cane, the thin arundinacea, which before served as an arrow, then as a flute and later on became a learned plant. He indicates the decisive reach of the moriche, a palm that satisfies any necessity of the Guaraúno, associated in lacustrine cabins, and which is worth so much in the natural economy of the Venezuelan plains, announcing water springs under its feet, and winning, by this sign of freshness, the name of tree of life, with which it is compensated by the charming and mendacious pen of father Gumilla. He recalls, with Linnaeus, that the first homeland of man must have been the region of providential palm trees, and he tells of primitive lotophagous people, awakening evocations with murmurs of Sinbad. In a passage worthy of the modern Rudyard Kipling he describes the tree that gives Brazilian chestnuts, triangular walnuts very beloved by wild beasts, who fight over them in noisy disputes, while the infantile indigenous man aspires to repress that negation of his government.
     The sorrowful discourse is not lacking, a custom of his longing generation. He draws a portrait of many of his contemporaries when he mentions that the explorer Malaspina enjoys in solitude the deep emotions that the contemplation of nature and the study of man, on different soil, give rise to in a sensitive soul experienced in misfortune. At a certain place in his writings he opines, with a pessimist touch, that the monkey loses its happiness when he becomes like man, and later on he abandons himself to the bitter contemplation that the latter can be too numerous in the concert of nature. This is what he thinks when he visits the Alto Orinoco, a country absorbed by density and by its indefatigable fecundity.
     He procures news against simple philosophy, the work of mental laziness and of political interest, that qualifies nations as though they were individuals, and distinguishes strong races, chosen since eternity for the privilege of leadership, and humble and damned races, abandoned to irremediable degradation. He praises the liveliness of the Canary Islanders, the oppressed inhabitants of the Peninsula, anticipating the vulgar, forgetful murmuring of proven names and the lack of gratitude toward Andrés Bello, the inspired civilizer, and toward José Félix Ribas, a general at the vanguard in a campaign of portents; two great men born under the more clement sky of Caracas. He denies the enervation of man by the mere effect of the tropical climate and without the cause of the deleterious miasma; and he wonders at the physical power of the Indian who rows against the current for fifteen hours, that of the mulatto porters of La Guaira, capable with the heaviest load, and that of the Aztec miners who take and bring, for six continuous hours, through tunnels of suffocating heat, three hundred fifty pound metal bodies. He praises the value of the American zambo, facing the crocodile and the beasts of the forest unarmed, and he thinks the new world agitators can succeed with the retinue of the people of color, whose energy is doubled under misfortune. He understands that the Caribs, with an eloquent language, should be counted among the most beautiful and robust races on Earth, and he applauds the native sharpness and the fearlessness of the Guaiquerí of Cumaná and Margarita, who execute daring navigations in narrow vessels, with no other governance than the fixed stars; an endeavor worthy of the vassals of Alcinous.
     He declares the fate and shows the character of the indigenous man, adhering to the wise principle of examining institutions, abandoning the story of individual misfortune. He cites the privileges and favors he receives from the pious Spanish legislation, served by unreliable and unruly agents, and he recalls him as being ridiculed since he was under the command of his national princes. He finds his caste endlessly multiplied in the same places where he formed urbanized kingdoms on the day of discovery. He sustains, against Ulloa, that the number of Indians has grown in certain places of the Spanish new world, making up, in 1825, half of its 16 million souls; a considerable sum in a hemisphere where ferocious place names, Victorias and Matanzas, celebrate the extermination at each step. He believes that an excessive number of slaves do not succumb to mistreatment, before the sudden change of climate. He denies anthropophagy, as a malicious refinement, and censorship, an ingenuous custom, even among intelligent and peaceful tribes. He absolves the Caribs of the continent of this abomination and only confesses it only in respect to the Antillean Caribs. He teaches that the Indian reduced in the mission propagates himself better than the one in the mountains, accustomed to abortion and squandered from the race; that in one and another state one finds him as a farmer; that in one and another state he barely and briefly understands the dogma of the European and, enjoying the new ceremony, refers it to the ancient numens, by which he permanently interprets nature; and he cites the example of the Aztec, who gathers in a single religion the gentilitious eagle and the evangelical dove. He records that the pre-Columbian exercises pottery, neglects ruminants and milk-pottage, ignores the pastoral life, and omits the culture of any type of cereal, aside from corn. He prefers, for their advanced and progressive character, the Indians of the alpine climate and those of the militant Carib nation; and he sees that the latter improve the palpable arithmetic of the Quipos and take advantage of the firearms of their Dutch neighbors and, standing tall, they look like bronze statues, and are winged runners, though less agile than the Guaraúno, natural practitioner of the Orinoco, who runs over mud without sinking. When indicating the similar physiognomy of the Indians, he demonstrates that the face differs individually with civilized life, rich in feelings and emotions, and warns that the drama of the savage world, eternally repeated, and the habit of marriage within the same tribe help with the conservation of the uniform face. He observes that the Indians, and all men, seek corporeal beauty, losing weight and emphasizing the physical traits of the race itself. He finds the Indians to be in good shape, without the affliction of humped backs and other repugnant notes. He indicates the apparition of modesty in the man, earlier than in the primitive woman, and smiles wittily on the urbanity of the Caribs and of their partials, which consists in painting themselves with annatto. Humboldt dilates the most arrogant brow with the narration of an Indiano myth, which seems like the snowy and lunar daydream of a Scandinavian soul, and tells of the birth of the first man in the innocent world, in a pleasant jungle, surrounded by the birds and deer, as of yet devoid of wings and antlers, with which they save and defend themselves. He lays out the topic of simple stories, lullaby of wide awake children, with the story of two tribes hidden in the Venezuelan forest, the Otomacos, who had the vice of eating earth, and the Salivas, Indian flute whistlers. He delights when he notes that the Indian officially assents to the greatest piece of nonsense that one might ask him; that the preparer of curare, where one breathes in the effluvium of Amazonian waters, placed his work above European inventions, save for the composition of soap; and that the Indians of this last region would announce, joined in a chorus of voices, the course of two rivers, the Inírida and the Atabapo, neighbors as much as the contiguous fingers on a hand; a magisterial trait for an innocent fable.
     He points out people more unlearned and backwards than their tongues; a new reason for distinguishing between barbarians of original coarseness and those from a previous civilization in decline. He notes the Antillean origin of Indian words that corrupt the language of the conquerors. He finds that women use an antiquated language where they conserve domestic withdrawal; and he tells of female captives of the Caribs, who speak with the vocabulary and grammar of the male victors. He refers that the lineage of the American languages practices the custom of agglutination, which consists in gathering several ideas in a single, prolonged word; and he declares that this phenomenon, likewise noted in historical languages of the old world, gives origin to the fatuous theories and violent comparisons of the first researchers. He amends the raving linguistics of his contemporaries; he denies the etymology based on a similarity of sounds, and he organizes and classifies languages by the structure and functioning of grammar. He writes that the latter differs essentially in the Aryan and new world languages, which exhausts the Indians in the assimilation of Spanish, and awakens in the Jesuits the sensible idea of promoting faith in the language of the Incas, using it with all the tribes, giving it once again the titles of privileged, courtesan and general, thus honoring it more than an emphatic chronicler might. He suggests this language adopts the delicious and magnificent lies of literature, and warns that it holds in its treasure the idylls of Theocritus, the most fortunate pastime of the ancient imagination, thanks to the version by Juan Larrea, the hard-working Ecuadoran naturalist. He refers to the fact that Carib, whose clarity endures in the course of consecutive and widespread clauses, has served for the treatment of theology, a matter in which concrete words of sensory origin can be lacking and spiritualized and abstract terms are abundant.
     Humboldt curtails his praises for the missionary, dissipated and spoiled successor of others with greater merit. He barely approves their establishments neighboring the coast, and he frankly condemns those in the interior. In all of them he enjoys hospitality and tolerance, and he longs for natural science books at the Venezuelan mission in Caripe. He finds the disempowered and endless vegetation of the fable and the story in the idleness of the remote seminaries, and he remembers the disloyal maps of desert regions, where the missionary and the governor invent cities, villages and castles for the lazy and credulous court. He notes that the religious people penetrate the rivers and civilize the shores, without renovating the primitive man’s coarse mind. He recommends the education of evangelizers in particular seminaries of the tropical zone and the abandonment of monastic discipline over the forgetful and ingenuous Indian. He censures the undivided power of the missionary, enemy of the Episcopal, military and civil authority, a monopolist of commerce and of heterogeneous faculties. He frankly accuses those of the Alto Orinoco, rapacious of creatures too timid for servitude, who don’t take advantage of fertile lands for agriculture. He narrates the unease of their president, residing in San Fernando de Atabapo, who never manages to extract a manuscript of praise for the deplorable establishments. He discovers the vestiges of feral battles between the Indians of the high Orinoco; he suggests the untold and forgotten bravery; he deplores the ossuary of the defeated; and he admires other signs of hatred in the republic of the indolent monks, and he censures the narrow intrigues and pillories the swindling revolutions. He looks at the consequences of the Portuguese colonial regime, applied by opposing authorities of religious and profane orders, when he cites the most successful state of the missions of the Amazonian basin and the abundant number of the reduced. He quickly displays the course and destiny of the institution, when he sees in it a type of district that separates the Spanish colonizer and the Indian of the forest solitudes, and he adds that the white man tirelessly seeks to invade the closed town of missions and that the Presbytery of the secular cleric sooner or later succeeds the religious one. He displays the Indian as a minion of the missionary and an enemy of he who emulates him, the soldier, who bothers him with more disorganized vexations. He excludes the Guaraúnos for being abandoned from the zeal of the cathechizer, and he jovially points out his home at the top of the trees, to the fright of the apostolic men. He gauges the ripe corn of the missionary reapers when he distinguishes the gentle hunters of the jungle situated to the east of the Orinoco and the rebellious vagabonds of the plains extending to the west. He divides between the missionary and the reiterated expedition of the far limits the honor of advancing the geographic knowledge of South America. He finds that the high-minded and diligent Catalonian capuchins had gathered nearly all the natural inhabitants of the Bajo Orinoco in their opulent missions, between the Caroní and the Cuyuní, and that, in confrontation against the governor and the bishop, they were administering an independent state; and he shows how other soldiers from the Franciscan militia, esteemed by the savage, played a major role in the gathering of sixty million pure Indians, half of those in Venezuela, counted in the provinces of Cumaná and Barcelona in the year 1800, and afterwards abandoned to extermination.
     He calculates three hundred eighty-seven thousand blacks among the sixteen million inhabitants of the Latin American continent, in the year 1826. He tells of others in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and more than two million in the rest of the Antilles; all oppressed and with the fortitude and joviality of the dancing bear and the petulant monkey. He always observes lesser numbers of slaves, less mistreated and more favored with manumission in the regions subject to the reign of Castile. He cites one black in Spanish America for every five in Brazil or the United States. At each step he fears the stormy birth of an Ethiopian confederacy, absorbent of the Antillean archipelago, and he adds that the fear of irritated slaves aids the security of the governance of the metropolis and the continuation of the adventitious dynasty in Brazil, half of whose natives are African in the year 1818. He remembers with this fact the uniform policy of the European governments, aimed at conserving the colony by means of hatred among its inhabitants. He repeats the customary praise of Spanish laws, which show charity toward the offended race, and occasionally frustrated in the administration of domestic servants. He reveals that the progressive emancipation of the servile is enough to dissipate the threat of their resentment, and he forgets the futile prejudice that denies their assimilation of European culture. He recommends the gradual and peaceful reform, rooted in the same barbarous and nefarious oppression, the slow rescue chosen by the President of Colombia, the general Simón Bolívar, a remarkable man because of his republican merits, because of his military career and because of his moderation on the day of fortune. He denies the fabulous computation of Depons, which elevates four times higher the number of blacks in Venezuela; and he substitutes forty thousand in the province of Caracas, six thousand in the entire territory of Cumaná and Barcelona, and four thousand, quite intermixed and dispersed, in the plains of San Carlos, Guanare, Barquisimeto and Calabozo. He observes the easy propagation of the other men of color and the disproportionate death of serfs, and he opines that any colony with more than two million people, situated in the slave quarters of the Antilles, supposes the introduction of a duplicate number of captives; and he refers that the regime of the Brazilians encourages the multiplication of the caste and defends the life of dark-skinned infants. He awakens the conjecture that Africa was providing more men than women, with the fortune that the servile offspring were less chaste than the parents; and he inspires the correlative observation that illegitimate unions diminishes the difference between castes in Venezuela, and relentlessly confers upon them the desired mercy of white skin.
     Humboldt traverses, unscathed by men, the dominions of the Colombian world. He is grateful to the humor of the intelligent and hospitable Venezuelan, prodigious with affectionate attention. He classifies them as indolent, as shy of hard work, as wanting to prolong life without occupying it. He describes them as being tangled in municipal hatreds, in physical quarrels, emulating the bad habits of Spanish origin, divided in two nobilities, enemies to the death; one with a remote ancestry, adventurer in the conquest, founder of the city, patron of the initiated villa; and the other, of more recent lineage, the breed of the self-centered agent of the metropolis; and he records the seditious and third protest of the Biscayan, by which every white man is a gentleman. He describes them as unlearned about natural resources, because the government reserves statistical news, capable of promoting the rebel cause; boastful and anxious for courteous treatment and noble epithets, satisfied with supplemental command in the militia; and he notes the rent of the court in the commerce of lordly parchment and military insignias. He reasons about the anger of the Venezuelan against the Spaniard of the peninsula, his equal in written legislation, his tyrant in practice, and he confesses that the most despicable character, by merely being born on the ground of the metropolis, rises effortlessly where the most illustrious American is dismissed. He finds the younger generation unhappy and rudderless, revolving cloudy and unformed ideas, and he omits the names of the intrepid noblemen, later on forced to the test of a war without example. He finds the district councils in charge of a minority, removed from the populace, willing to be under the domain of another crown before having to share the division of privileges with the rest of their compatriots. He counts two hundred thousand Spaniards in the Castilian new world, plenty to save the party of the king amid so many altercations, without having to immediately set aside the necessities of civil affairs and peace, by which most of them sustain themselves. He illustrates the diversity among the Americans of Spanish origin, distinguishing the countries with an inland population from those where it is on the coast and open to novelties, and noting the territories with a crowded and educated indigenous race on the day of conquest, and those of wandering and scarce tribes on that same day. He looks at the literary vocation among residents of Lima and Quito, the application for the sciences in Bogota and Mexico, and the anxiety of a political nature in Caracas and Havana, capitals of a maritime neighborhood, frankly open to foreign novelties; but he adds that the sheltered colonists lose the originality won in isolation, once they establish a vivacious republic, familiar with fraternal nations and with the most educated ones in the old world.
     He notices the improvements of the colonial government, under the command of recent monarchs, attentive to the teachings of contemporary philosophers, friends to the human species; the tendency of the court in those days to facilitate the advance of the ultramarine kingdoms, and the encounter with the bothersome administrative mechanism. He applauds the beginning of the education of Americans in the natural sciences; the governmental vigilance for the illustration of geography, animated by qualified engineers and sailors of Spanish origin; the subsidized study of botany in the proud hemisphere of a Mutis; the edict of free commerce, decreed in 1778, in part contradicted by customs tariffs, but helping to substantially loosen the blockade of American ports by the monopolist from Seville and Cadiz. He moves on to the vigorous remainders of oppression, of simple politics, more severe on the islands, which pays with the artifact of the metropolis for the natural fruit and prime material of the colony closed off from the rest of the world; and he cites the subsequent prohibition of the industrial workshop in the new kingdoms; the farming of the vine, the mulberry, hemp, flax and the olive, prohibited by the Council of the Indies; Venezuela’s extraordinary resources, concealed by closure and monopoly, eased slightly by contraband, remedy of the fiscal law; the stagnation of opulent territories, needing Mexican subsidies in order to satisfy official spending; the slight rent of the American colonies, divided in twenty nine million for their own governance, and eight million, the risible balance kept in the end by the treasury of the metropolis. He laments the suspicious policy occupied in counting the steps of the Venezuelan; the turpitude of establishing the crown’s regime on the division of those governed; the inveterate advice of cultivating snares between the castes, between residents of the alpine climate and those of the warmer lands, between the secular clerics and the religious ones, between the bishop and the president of the mission, between the various authorities by means of the confusion of districts and powers, and in the multitude of subjects due to the procedural rights that absolve the instance, crowded with exceptions and resorts, that feeds an army of lawyers and ecclesiastical courts and corrupts litigious and atrabilarian characters, too common; and he sustains greater arguments against penal rights and their administration at the hands of lazy courts, that exasperate with superfluous confinement the noisy flocks of prisoners inducing them to evasion and the subsequent trade of banditry.
     He leaves out the dissensions between places until his examination of the republic of Colombia. He conjectures its dissolution provoked and accelerated by the application of a centralist regime of confidence in the course of hostilities, but bothered when the time comes for a strict order from the naturally solicitous peoples for municipal and provincial independence. He approves, meanwhile, the republican form Faustically chosen in the emancipated nations, and he recommends it in accordance with new societies, with scarce traditions, exempt from the mold of middle centuries, newcomers and intruders. He repeats, in this and other opportunities, the prophetic accusation directed at the defeated metropolis, because it muddled the new nursery beds of the race, fully sowing the seeds of civil war. He qualifies the contention for emancipation under this last fate, and follows it with astonishment to its end. He closes the most enjoyable of his narratives in the year 1825, when the Colombian trumpets decant victory and promise the blessed rest from arms. But what happens is that, according to the melancholy use of war, they merely decree a repose from battle in the afternoon’s decline.

La torre de Timón (1925)

Translator’s note: This text was originally published as a pamphlet in Caracas in 1923.

{ José Antonio Ramos Sucre, Obra completa, Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1989 }


Jose Ramon Santana Vazquez said...


desde mis


CON saludos de la luna al
reflejarse en el mar de la




Anonymous said...

"No he aprendido a sufrir, toda severidad es inhumana"
Juan Carlos Mestre

Luz de un quinquet
9 pintas, 29 latidos, Gillespie,
madrugada, ganas de hablar.
La generación del 77 íbamos a cambiar el mundo en el fututo
pero los electrodomésticos siguen funcionando en el 2007,
como siempre…
Me pregunto:
Por qué un intermitente puede llevarme a la lágrima, de vasta emoción, por qué siento que me responde, cuando se ilumina su automática luz naranja, y que no estoy solo, que somos dos, objetos comunicándose, que la máquina pretende mi atención, sabiendo antes de que se ilumine sin embargo apenas un segundo antes que así será…
No lo entiendo:
Por qué ladra el borracho a los coches que pasan a su lado.
Es de noche.
Hace frío.
Mientras, la gente ahí afuera insiste, empujando sus pesadas rocas, hacia la pirámide.
En las paredes de mi casa se pudre la luz de ayer por la mañana.
Y yo sigo de pie junto a la ventana, sin tomar ninguna decisión.
Podría quedarme a vivir dentro de esta canción.
A night in Tunisia.
Pienso que:
La oportunidad debe ir acompañada de destreza…
Todos los muebles de casa me observan con rostro de preocupación.
No quiero pensar,
para no atraer su atención, con el ruido de mi cabeza.
Un automóvil ha atropellado al borracho, se apagó el ruido y la furia.
Está muerto, pero no siento lástima.
Tampoco sé qué significa eso realmente, si es salvaje, inhumano o inmoral,
pero es cierto.
Y mientras, la gente ahí afuera no deja de insistir, empujando sus rocas.
Me pregunto:
Debe haber algún motivo por el que todo haya adquirido esta forma,
esta forma de costumbre, en que amanece como una herida sin importancia.
Ya no recuerdo qué clase de paciencia me trajo a este lugar...