publisher colophon

When Alexander von Humboldt traveled to South America in 1799–1804, he developed the idea of the “American Mediterranean,” shorthand for his comparative project to explore whether and how the physical and human geography—mountains and seas, languages and nations—of the New World resembles those of the Old. By “mediterraneanizing” America—and otherwise demonstrating its own complex comparability not only externally with Europe and Asia but also internally with what he calls Spanish America, Portuguese America, the English possessions in North America, and the United States—Humboldt’s hybrid travelogue/scientific/historical account of his voyage provides a model for Américas studies, both cautionary and inspirational. Attuned to asymmetrical, uneven, and incommensurate comparisons, the Humboldtian American Mediterranean comments self-reflexively on the limits and possibilities of the Mediterranean as a comparison and thus raises larger contextual issues of linguistic and cultural translation inherent in the project of rethinking the Américas in global, world-historical perspectives.

When the celebrated Prussian naturalist and traveler Alexander von Humboldt wrote his Relation historique (Personal Narrative), part of his thirty-volume Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804, he coined the terms Méditerranée des Antilles and Méditerranée mexicaine to describe the greater Gulf–Caribbean basin. Translated into English, it became something else: the “American Mediterranean,” shorthand for Humboldt’s method of oceanically superimposing the Mediterranean on the Américas. Itself a term of comparison like so many place-names in the New World (all those Nuevo Léons and New Orleanses), the American Mediterranean is an apt translation, pointing both to Humboldt’s worlding of the Américas and to his “quest for comparability.”1 His “thirty-volume voyage,” the unfinished account of travels during 1799–1804, extending from the “Republic of Colombia” to Cuba (twice) to the “Cordillera of the Andes,” explores whether and how the mountains and seas, flora and fauna, nations and languages—the physical and human geography—of the nouveau continent resemble those of l’ancien monde. By “mediterraneanizing” America—and otherwise demonstrating its own complex, often uneven comparability not only externally with Europe and Asia but also internally with what he calls Spanish America, Portuguese America, the English possessions in North America, and the United States (PN, vol. 6, 1826)—Humboldt’s hybrid travelogue/scientific and historical narrative brought both space-times of comparison, the New Continent and the Old, in all their linguistic diversity, into the imperial sphere of Western knowledge. Put another way, Humboldt’s Américan Mediterranean reinvented Europe as much as it rediscovered América.2

Humboldt’s “American Mediterranean” typifies the limits and possibilities of his comparative method: grounded in cultural and linguistic translation, attuned to asymmetrical physical and human geographies, his approach lends itself both to omniscient generalization and to discrepant engagement. An ethnographic translator, Humboldt is known, unlike other contemporary scientific travelers, for acknowledging the power relations implicit in the gathering of [End Page 505] knowledge from informants, especially his awareness of the lack of transparency in translation. “Unacquainted with the language of the people,” he confesses in the midst of a chapter in Personal Narrative devoted to the different native tribes in New Andalusia, “I do not pretend to have penetrated their character during my short abode in the Missions” (PN 3:230). At the same time, he argues for the imperative to compare languages and cultures, asserting, like his brother, the celebrated linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, the link between language and ways of viewing the world. Writing locally on the condition of “the reduced Chaymas, Caribs, and Tamanacs,” forced into the homogenized isolation of the mission system, Humboldt argues that they “retain so much the more their natural physiognomy, as they have preserved their languages,” and concludes globally: “It is this intimate connection between the languages, the character, and the physical constitution, which maintains and perpetuates the diversity of nations, that unfailing source of light and motion in the intellectual world” (PN 3:219). Humboldt’s approach is translational in the broadest sense, what we would now call “ecological” or “environmental,” working locally and globally across disciplines and languages, nature and culture.3

Beyond Humboldt, the concept of the American Mediterranean has proved highly adaptable, used to invent and discover other mediterranean seas across the Américas. From the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus, writing in 1891, who credits “Alexander von Humboldt’s journey in 1803 and 1804 … as a second discovery of Mexico,”4 the translational chain leads to other thinkers, writing in French, Spanish, and English, in other genres and disciplines, and even proposing other candidates for their mediterraneans. Following Humboldt’s Gulf–Caribbean, the southern California coast and the Long Island Sound are the most prominent “American” spaces seen as counterparts to “Mediterranean” times, variously ancient Greece and Rome, imperial Spain, modern France, Italy, and North Africa. Cultural critics as varied as Mike Davis (“deep Mediterraneaneity”), Carey McWilliams (“Mediterranean” as “misleading” when applied to Southern California), and Kevin Starr (“California as America’s Mediterranean littoral”) explicitly use the Mediterranean as keyword. In turn, these multiple possible American Mediterraneans bear comparison to other oceanically extended regions as well as to the land masses that etymologically define “mediterranean” (Atlantic World, Black Atlantic, extended or circum-Caribbean, greater or global South). These touchstone accounts display the historical and theoretical proteanness of the mediterraneanizing imaginary, while Humboldt’s version, in the words of the literary critic Laura Dassow Walls, always deliberately comparative, stresses its linguistic and translational possibilities and limits.5 [End Page 506]

The problem of translation as a problem of comparison is key to Humboldt’s mediterraneanizing of the Américas and in turn to his current potential for American studies. A multivalent translator, Humboldt experimented with the different modes that Roman Jakobson calls intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic translations.6 The extensive linguistic material that Humboldt collected on “American” languages in his sprawling Personal Narrative includes multiple tables and lists of indigenous terms and phrases that compare the vocabularies and grammars of Chaymas, Caribs, and Tamanacs both intralingually to themselves and interlingually to Indo-European languages (Greek and Latin, German, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew) as well as their Creole counterparts or variants. In addition, Humboldt was known for his graphics, the visual translations of his data into charts, tables, and drawings, especially the engravings of archaeological and natural phenomena, among them the famous Chimborazo vertical map that Mary Pratt describes as “still breathtaking.”7 Humboldt’s work in comparative linguistics, thus scattered throughout a body of writing, all of it, including the thirty-volume Voyage (of which Personal Narrative is only a small part), unfinished, is at once so monumental and so fragmentary that it may account for the relative neglect of Humboldt as a linguist in the shadow of Wilhelm (on whose behalf the data on American languages was collected).

As a result, what dominates the scholarship is Humboldt as translated rather than translator in his own right. The nineteenth-century Victorian versions of Personal Narrative have been criticized by modern readers as unreliable, antiquated, and excessively sentimental, homogenizing Humboldt’s prose. A major new translation project is currently underway, “Humboldt in English” (or HiE, edited by Vera Kutzinski and Ottmar Ette, University of Chicago Press) that aims to provide “what Humboldt actually wrote,” in “scrupulous, clear, and modern” prose. Whether or not we accept the assumption that a translation should be judged by its fluency and fidelity to the original (values notably at odds with each other), the problem of translation plays a key role in Humboldt’s mediterraneanizing, fundamental especially to his comparative work on the interrelations among hierarchies of language, nation, and race. Among the most suggestive evidence in Personal Narrative of the translational link between language and worldview are the many maps, amounting almost, but crucially not quite, to a countercartography, cited in the footnotes but not reproduced visually anywhere in the text, in which American names, often based on native terminology and testimony, come into contact with European concepts of race and place to produce misnamed—inaccurate or nonexistent—locations. So the critical possibilities for taking Humboldt as a multivalent mediterraneanizer, both translator and translated, are open to [End Page 507] Las Américas studies—specifically in the aim of this special issue to disrupt “U.S.-centered nomenclature, and accompanying ideological and geopolitical framing that often bypasses and submerges Latino/a American vernaculars and epistemologies within the rubric of American rather than Américas studies.”

Humboldt himself, biographically, raises his own translational specter of comparisons. Celebrated as “the second Columbus,” “the real discoverer of South America” (Simon Bolívar), the “Rediscoverer” (Carl Ritter), and the “Napoleon of science” (Oliver Wendell Holmes), Humboldt has been frozen, even defamed, by his fame, particularly by these dubious distinctions, drawing on the familiar comparative formula that honors Y as a belated, second-order variant of X. Moreover, Walls notes drily, to call Humboldt the second Columbus is hardly a salutary comparison. As a stamp of approval, it carries darker undertones of the long history of conquest and colonization, slavery and genocide in the Américas.8 In part as a consequence, in the United States, Humboldt has been forgotten several times over, either assimilated as another imperial eye, dismissed as a colonial mouthpiece readily appropriated by later nineteenth-century advocates of American racial science, or distanced by the lack of accessible English translations. The translation question is the most fundamental.9

Humboldt’s strongest suit as a translator is to critique the limits of his own, for example, European, habits of usage, but it remains to be seen whether he goes as far as the anthropologist Talal Asad advocates, to transform one’s own language through translation: “never an easy business,” Asad admits.10 For Humboldt, language provides privileged access to a culture, but as such also reflects cultural bias. Hence his efforts to defamiliarize his own language, not only through a foreignizing strategy that incorporates, untranslated, other European languages, but also regularly pointing out the problems with the terminology in all those languages applied to the Américas (misleading place-names, value-laden ethnographic descriptors, and more). My examples throughout this essay of Humboldt’s mediterraneanizing continually come up against their own limits, questioning whether keywords such as “barbarous,” “autochthonous,” and even “America” itself can stand up to translation, when their linguistic meaning and cultural usage are so unstable.11 Most critical is how to assess what is gained and lost, the limits and possibilities, in Humboldt’s translational project. This essay concludes with a brief balance sheet on the past, present, and future of Humboldt for American studies. [End Page 508]

Naming Humboldt’s American Mediterranean

Humboldt’s checkered American reputation is undergoing rehabilitation by cultural geographers, literary critics, and historians, focused primarily on his historical presence and legacy in the United States.12 My aim is not to rehabilitate Humboldt but to rediscover the uneven ground of comparability, the as-yet-uncompleted argument that runs through the names he gave to the mediterraneans of the Américas. To start with three: “that sea of the West Indies, which we have described as a mediterranean with many outlets” (PN 3:472) (cette mer des Antilles que nous avons décrite plus haut comme une Méditerranée à plusieurs issues [RH 4:206]); “the little Caribbean Sea, a sort of mediterranean, on the shores of which almost all of the nations of Europe have founded colonies” (PN 3:428) (la petite mer des Antilles, une sorte de Méditerranée, sur les bords de laquelle presque tous les nations de l’Europe ont fondé des colonies [RH 4:153]); “The basin of the West Indies forms … a Mediterranean with several issues” (Le basin des Antilles forme … une Méditerranée à plusieurs issues [RH 10:195]), “the influence of which on the political destinies of the New Continent depends at the same time on its central position and the great fertility of its islands” (PN 6:552). A pattern begins to emerge here in which “the” gives way to “a” Mediterranean—and in turn the physical geography accommodates a finely tuned human geography. “Nations” develop differently, as I show with the rest of the mediterranean formulations, less according to internal or biological differentiations of race than through external or environmental circumstances and accidents that interact with sociohistorical relations.

Foremost among the interaction of political and physical phenomena is the history of colonialism and slavery in the New World. “Considering the sea of the West India islands, of which the Gulf of Mexico makes a part, as an interior sea with several mouths, [une mer intérieure à plusieurs issues (RH 4:156)], it is important to fix our attention on the political relations that result from this singular configuration of the New Continent, between countries placed around the same basin” (PN 3:430). Characteristically for Humboldt, these generalized terms—”a mediterranean with several issues”—lead to a more historically specific argument. “Notwithstanding the isolated state in which the greater part of the mother countries endeavor to hold their colonies, the agitations that take place are not the less communicated from the one to the other. The elements of discord are everywhere the same; and, as if by instinct, a concert is established between men of the same colour, although separated by differences of language, and inhabiting opposite coasts. It is natural that the [End Page 509] commotions, which since 1792 have manifested themselves in St. Domingo, should have been propagated to the coasts of Venezuela” (PN 3:430–31). “It was reserved for our age to see … a European colony of America transform itself into an African state” (PN 3:430–33) (Il étoit reserve à notre siècle de voir s’accomplir cette prédiction [RH 4:158–59]). Humboldt uses the prophetic voice here to validate the past, reminding us that he was one of the few white intellectuals to publicly support the Haitian Revolution. And finally, “that American Mediterranean, [Cette Méditerranée de l’Amérique (RH 4:156)] formed by the shores of Venezuela, New Granada, Mexico, the United States, and the West Indian islands, may count upon its borders near a million and a half of free and enslaved Blacks. … This may be said to be the African part of the interior basin” (PN 3:430–33). The “American Mediterranean” named in this last phrase makes explicit the reach of the comparison, extending from the empire of New Spain to the democracy of the United States, and linking the conquest of the indigenous to the enslavement of the African. The reach of the name “America” itself is another question, still open, which I address later.

We can see the significance of the pattern of Humboldt’s mediterraneanizing geography starting to emerge. First, his mediterraneans, translated into the plural and, in English, lowercase, demonstrate the oddity of conventional terminology in that the sea between Europe and Africa has become known as the Mediterranean rather than one of a number of mediterraneans in the world. In a very real sense (and as oceanographers use the term), the Caribbean is a mediterranean, with a small “m.” Here again the English translations provide the pivotal orthographic evidence, underscoring the fundamental translational imperative of Humboldt’s mediterraneanizing of the Américas. The distinction is less visible in French, where the lowercase is used only for the adjective form—méditerranée—not the noun, Méditerranée.13 So only the English translation explicitly restores the oceanographic sense of “a” mediterranean, simultaneously, as I show, putting “the” Mediterranean under the microscope, questioning long-standing geohydrographic assumptions about its singular and exceptional history.

Second, the plural mediterraneans bring up historical questions of race and nation that for Humboldt defined key factors in the equation of geography, natural and human, with “the various degrees of civilization” reached by societies over time (PN 3:471). “The Mediterranean considered as the starting point for the representation of the relations which have laid the foundation of the gradual extension of the idea of the cosmos” is the way he puts it, grandiosely, at the headnote of a chapter in his final work, Cosmos (a scientific best seller, subtitled A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, that went through [End Page 510] numerous editions and translations before his death in 1859). This statement, made near the end of a lifetime devoted to global research in natural and cultural geography, points back to the beginning, to how the Humboldtian method always required, as the biographer Hermann Klencke noted in 1853, some point from which to advance “contemplatively and experimentally.” That point was the Mediterranean Sea: “the point where [Humboldt] begins his physical history of the world,” “the circumscribed space, round which those nations lived who prepared the foundations for our subsequent western civilization.”14

The Mediterranean is Humboldt’s point d’appui, the baseline for his comparison of new and old worlds. But, recalling Benedict Anderson’s formulation of a discrepant method of comparison in which Europe is viewed from the standpoint of Southeast Asia, as though through a doubly inverted telescope, Humboldt’s is not the traditional Eurocentric ground of comparison. Humboldt’s old world, alternatively l’ancien continent, his material starting point, signals the particular process of invention he embraces when speaking of continents.15 His “old” encompasses not only Europe but also, reflecting his interest, as well as that of his brother, Wilhelm, in comparative languages, extends spatially to Asia and Africa, as well as temporally and linguistically to the ancient worlds of Sanskrit, Persian, and Old Icelandic. Humboldt’s compass point centers three-dimensionally on the Mediterranean, as a, not the, basin of world civilization, one that is exceptional by virtue of being the first, not the only, one: “The existence of our Mediterranean has been closely connected with the first dawn of human cultivation among the nations of the west” (PN 6:184) (l’existence de la Méditerranée a été intimement liée à la première lueur de la culture humaine chez les peuples de l’occident [RH 3:89]). To translate as “nation” the French peuples anachronistically produces for today’s readers a meaning limited to the modern nation-state, while throughout the nineteenth century such terms, including race and family, were used more fluidly and interchangeably.16 As such, they reflect Humboldt’s cosmos: unity within multiplicity, “many luminous points, or centers of civilization, simultaneously blending their rays,” he says, naming among them Egypt, Babylon, Nineveh, Kashmir, Iran, China.17

The lodestar of the Mediterranean, Humboldt’s la or notre Méditerranée (the Williams translation, as above, sometimes favors “our” over “the”), thus transmutes into an unlikely medium for thinking about—locating geographically, historically, and linguistically—other mediterraneans in the Américas. In this comparative sense Humboldt anticipates the turn in modern ocean studies from the history of the Mediterranean to other seas and other maritime spaces, including the Atlantic (with its subsets the Black and Iberian Atlantics, [End Page 511] French Atlantic Triangle), the Indian Ocean, Caribbean, and Pacific. This still leaves open the question posed about Anderson’s specter of comparison by the critic Pheng Cheah: “If comparison always presupposed geographical or cultural areas that are a priori distinct and to be compared, how must the grounds of comparison be re-envisioned”?18 Even more pressing is the specter of the “Mediterranean” as a Eurocentered imposition on the mediterraneans of the Américas.

Varieties of Mediterranean Analogies: How Well Do They Fit the Américas?

If the Mediterranean is a constant Humboldtian reference point, it is paradoxically not static, nor does it proceed from or produce a stable hierarchy of value. Instead the American Mediterranean defines a lateral and plural rather than vertical and singular model of comparison. Humboldt’s mediterraneanizing is almost never straightforward. When he comments, for example, that the passage from the coast of Venezuela to Cuba seems as short as that from Cadiz, Smyrna, and the ports of the Baltic, he concludes, “The Caribbean Sea is like the basin of the Mediterranean” (PN 6:801–2) (La Mer des Antilles est connue comme le basin de la Méditerranée [RH 11:122–23]). The English translation complicates the relation, substituting a simple “like” for the more equivocal “known as” of the French. Similarly, commenting on trade with opposite coasts in both mediterraneans, Humboldt says, “As in our Mediterranean … so also in the Mediterranean of America” (PN 6:208) (De même que, dans notre Méditerranée … de même aussi, dans la Méditerranée des Antilles” [RH 3:101]). The translation, substituting “America” for “Antilles,” complicates the seemingly one-dimensional resemblance.

Like the translations, Humboldt favors qualified comparisons. Discussing the origins of several indigenous languages, including those of the Caribs and Chaymas, Humboldt starts with a modified declarative that gives way to the conditional: “They seem to belong to the same stock [elles semble appartenir à une même souche (RH 3:270)], and they exhibit in their grammatical forms those intimate affinities [ces rapports intimes] which, to use a comparison taken from languages more well known, connect the Greek, the German, the Persian, and the Sanscrit” (PN 3:216). However, he ends conditionally, “if we were to consider them as simple dialects [pour les considérer comme de simples dialects], then Latin must be also called a dialect of the Greek, and the Swedish a dialect of the German” (PN 3:283) (il faudroit aussi nommer le latin un dialecte du grec, et le suédois un dialecte de l’allemand [RH 3:352]). The conditional if/then [End Page 512] structure foregrounds both sides of the equation, both the languages more and less known, calling into question the assumed distinction between dialect and language that underlies the comparison. So, too, does the hierarchy of world languages come home to roost through the deliberately far-fetched Latin–Greek and Swedish–German comparison. Humboldt’s readers, European and Euro-American, would better appreciate the risk of conceptual violence in historical linguistics of their own rather than other languages.

The Mediterranean comparison, then, rarely produces unproblematic symmetry. It is more common to find Humboldt examining the imperfect fit among comparative bodies, units, and terms. Here is where Anderson’s specter of comparisons looms large—and where Humboldt struggles, without ultimate closure, to go beyond a recognizable “non-Eurocentric,” “provincializing-Europe,” mode of comparison.19 For these uneven, asymmetrical comparisons, I use examples from Humboldt’s observations of the migration and movement of plants, people (languages), and oceans (geographic formations, water level). These show Humboldt as a mediterraneanizer of the Américas engaging less with what he directly observes in the New Continent than with the basis for the comparison in European knowledge, testing hypotheses that have long dominated studies of Europe by Europeans. In each case, observing the movement of oceans and migration of plants and people (“European genera, which have sent species to people like colonists the torrid zone”), Humboldt concludes: “The more we study the distribution of organized beings on the globe, the more we are inclined, if not to abandon the ideas of migration, at least to consider them as being hypotheses not entirely satisfactory” (PN 3:495–96). By challenging the status of what is known of “our” Mediterranean, Humboldt points toward a paradigm of knowledge making that advocates the systematic incorporation of uncertainty, if not conjecture, tainted for Humboldt by association with the speculative philosophy of his “nemesis” G. W. F. Hegel.20 Indeed, Humboldt may call himself in Political Essay on the Island of Cuba “a historian of America,” but, as Kutzinski and Ette point out in their introduction, this positivist claim “in no way keeps him from speculating and hypothesizing.”21

Three Mediterranean Examples: Plants, Oceans, Languages

Observing plants of Germany, Arabia, and Senegal among those gathered, improbably, on “the cold table-lands of Mexico and the burning shores of the Orinooko,” Humboldt asks, “How have the germs of organic beings, which resemble each other in appearance and internal structure, unfolded themselves at unequal distance from the poles, and the surface of the seas, wherever places [End Page 513] so different present some analogy of temperature?” (PN 3:492–93). A further comparative conundrum emerges when, searching, in vain, for even “one indigenous rose-tree in all of South America, not withstanding the analogy existing between the climates of the high mountains of the torrid zone, and the climate of our temperate zone,” he unexpectedly discovers a single specimen in the Mexican mountains at the nineteenth-degree latitude: “American eglantines,” which are recognized (he says in a footnote) in a monography of rose-trees, as “our Mexican eglantine, under the name of rosier de Montezuma, Montezuma rose” (PN 3:487). This moment of convergence through difference, both cultural and linguistic, translates the native specimen, encountered in the contact zone, into “ours” through a foreignizing series of local names (American, Mexican, Montezuma). The Williams translation goes even farther, having simultaneous recourse to French, Spanish, and English.

In turn, this translation sparks an extended discussion of what it means, on the one hand, that plants migrate through countries of such different climates, but on the other, there are so few identical species in the two continents and the two hemispheres (the “charming rhododendron of the Andes” differ as much from each other as do “the rhododendrons of the Lapland, Caucuses, and the Alps” [PN 3:496–97]). Humboldt’s conclusion acknowledges that the problem of plant distribution, like that of human migration, must be left open, uncertain, unsolved. “European genera, which have sent species to people like colonists the torrid zone” (les genres européens qui ont onvoyé des espèces, comme des colons pour peupler les montagnes de la zone torrid [RH 4:232]), may produce “genera of the same tribe,” which, “from their physiognomy we might confound with those of Europe,” but all specifically different, “which take the place of each other in different latitudes” (PN 3:493). How to resolve this contradiction in the evidence? “When I combat hypotheses too easily admitted, I do not engage to substitute others more satisfactory in their place. I am rather inclined to think, that these problems cannot be solved” (PN 3:495–96).

On the related question of oceanic origins—the changing levels and formations of the world’s waters—Humboldt turns throughout Personal Narrative to a seemingly straightforward Mediterranean analogy. Starting from what is known about the straits formed by the Pillars of Hercules and the ancient land bridge that once spanned the Dardanelles, the Mediterranean basin provides a jumping-off point for the “hypothesis of the rupture and ancient continuity of lands” in the Caribbean basin (PN 6:551). “In the same manner as we recognize in our Mediterranean the vestiges of three ancient basins … as well as by that … of Sicily … and of Africa; in the same manner the basin of the West Indies, which surpasses the Mediterranean in extent, seems to present [End Page 514] the remains of ancient dykes” (PN 6:552). This conjecture is itself based on another conditional comparison, first laid out in volume 1, where Humboldt raises questions about the evidence for ancient land bridges in the classical Mediterranean. “This curious phenomenon,” he says, “recalls the traditions of the Samothracians, and other historical testimonies,” those, he adds in a long footnote, of the “ancient geographers” (Straton, Eratosthenes, and Strabo) who staked out different “hypotheses” for the formation of the Mediterranean basin. “If we admit that these traditions owe their origins, not to mere geological reveries but to the remembrance of some ancient catastrophe” (si l’on admet que ces traditions doivent leur origine, non à de simples reveries geologiques, mais au souvenir d’une ancienne catastrophe [RH 1:88]), then we are in a position to evaluate “everything that relates to the formation of this sea which has had such a powerful influence on the first civilization of mankind” (PN 1:46–47). The grammatical conditional underscores the provisionality of this long-held view of the Mediterranean origins while allowing it still to stand.

Here Humboldt addresses his developing vision of how nature and culture interact, with accidents of geography producing different conditions for world civilizations—the Humboldtian variant of climatology. But “to give weight to these systematic ideas,” Humboldt cautions, “we must clear up the doubts [les doutes] that have arisen respecting the rupture of so many transverse dikes; we must discuss the probability [la probabilité] of the Mediterranean having been formerly divided into several separate basins, of which Sicily and the isle of Crete appear [paroissent] to mark the ancient limits” (PN 1:47; my emphases). Rather than argue for or against the hypothesis, though, “we will not here risk the solution of these problems” (nous ne hasarderons pas ici de résoudre ces problémes); instead, Humboldt concludes the line of questioning on another conditional note. “If the causes, which may have changed the surface of our planet, be an interesting speculation, investigations of the phenomena, such as they offer themselves to the measures and observations of the naturalist, lead to far greater certainty” (PN 1:47). The parallelism of if/then is even starker in French: “S’il est intéressant de rappeler les causes … il est plus sûr de s’occuper” (RH 1:60). The Mediterranean comparison provides the occasion to revisit but not resolve the status of prior knowledge, allowing Humboldt to work less through speculative thinking than within the uncertainties of what we know, as such, to produce and advance knowledge.

The question of migration, of plants, oceans, and humans, coalesces around the problem of language origins, spread, and development. Shared languages can mark hypothetical “affinities” of race and nation when migration produces dissemination of groups either through human political or natural geological [End Page 515] shifts. Like the hypothesis of an ancient Mediterranean land bridge, it is similarly difficult to determine the origin of the languages of the Caribs and Chaymas (both are “a littoral race, like the Malays of the ancient continent,” but are “different nations” with linguistic “affinities”). “The historians of the Conquest … continually confound, like the ancients, geographical denominations with the names of races. … This circumstance, by infinitely multiplying the number of tribes, renders everything uncertain” (PN 3:217). Here we see a key translational strategy of Humboldt’s, to historicize, by comparing, the terminology over time of the major scholars (European and Euro-American only), and by contextualizing their texts. “I believe from a more accurate knowledge of the country, a long and laborious study of the Spanish authors who treat of el Dorado, and above all from comparing a great number of ancient maps arranged in chronological order, I have succeeded in discovering the source of these errors. … To oppose an error, it is sufficient to recall to mind the variable forms in which we have seen it appear at different periods” (PN 5:772–78).

The next step is to acknowledge, even to embrace, the role of the conjectural and the speculative in knowledge production. “In the New World, at the beginning of its conquest,” the indigenous (“to the eye of the spectator wandering hordes”) were “scattered like the remains of a vast shipwreck. In the absence of all other documents, we will try whether the analogy of languages, and the study of the physical constitution of man, will enable us to group the different tribes, to follow the traces of their distant emigrations, and to discover some of those family features, by which the ancient unity of our species is manifested” (PN 3:209). This discovery is made possible only by linking observation, measurement, and other conventional knowledge-forms to hypotheses that cannot be proved but can be weighed in their degree of uncertainty. Humboldt stresses the need to live with and act in the absence of knowledge. “Neither the analogy nor the diversity of language can suffice; to solve the great problem of the filiation of nations; they afford only simple probabilities” (PN 3:286). For Humboldt, accepting uncertainty is not enough: he acts on it, by assessing and reporting the degrees of certainty in competing claims.22

Revising the Language/Race/Nation Equation: The Carib Case

Rather than simply provide the center around which other mediterraneans revolve, then, the Mediterranean comparison doubles back and reflects critically on itself. Here the language of mapping—the place-names on the maps that Humboldt both relies on and corrects—becomes ground zero for investigating how geography, mapping as a form of labeling, interacts, often [End Page 516] implicitly, with cultural concepts of race in place. Yet all linguistic and cultural translation, Humboldt’s included, takes place within the inequality of world languages, from “prestige” to “primitive.” In mapping languages, as Humboldt does with his parallel tables detailing the “Preponderance” and “Distribution” of the languages and races in the New Continent (PN, vol. 6), both language and racial difference are brought into the colonial sphere of knowledge as a problem of study.

The farthest Humboldt’s mediterraneanizing goes, then, is to rethink, not to unseat, the equation between the Enlightenment classification of world races and the inequality of languages underwriting the European colonial hierarchy. This is the foundation for the “modern world-system” that Aníbel Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein name “Americanity,” with its fourfold dimensions of coloniality, ethnicity, racism, and finally newness itself. Humboldt’s focus: the power of language in the world-system. Comparing the historical development of language and the migration of people in the two mediterraneans leads Humboldt to a situational, local not global, reconsideration of the value-laden terms both for languages and for the people who speak them. Ranging from “primitive,” “savage,” or “barbarous” to “inferior” to “perfect,” Humboldt’s terminology pushes back against itself, specifically to question the use of those terms as a proxy for “race” (in nineteenth-century French, a term synonymous with peuples, nation, and tribu, as well as a Humboldt favorite, genre humaine).23

“How can we at present decide,” Humboldt asks, confronting in the contact zone of New Andalusia the apparent disparity in the linguistic affinities linking tribes that consider themselves different races and nations, “whether the Tomooza and Piritoo be of different races [de race différente (RH 3:271)], when both speak the Cumanagoto language … ?” (PN 3:217). Similarly, are the Caribs “an entirely distinct race” (une race entiérement isolée [RH 3:355]), with “no bond of relationship” to “the Guaraons and the Tamanacks, whose languages have an affinity with the Caribbee”? (PN 3:286). The answer reflects Humboldt’s mediterraneanizing mind, reaching back comparatively to the Old World to disrupt the presumption that race and nation are coextensive with language. “Such is the contrast between the two continents, that in the new a surprising variety of languages is observed among the nations [nations] of the same origin …; while in the old continent very different races of men [des races d’hommes très différentes], the Laplanders, the Finlanders, … the German nations and the Hindoos [les peuples germaniques et les Hindoux (RH 3:271–72)], the Persians and the Curds, the Tatar and Mungal tribes, speak languages, the mechanism and root of which present the greatest analogy” (PN 3:217–18). Humboldt’s usage here of the sliding terms for “race” in nineteenth-century [End Page 517] French transforms itself across space and time in the different terms of the English translation. Yet the Humboldtian contact zone of translation, the global-in-the-local reach, does not do the transformative work of a Guaman Poma de Ayala, for example, the Andean indigenous historian, known for his double-speaking translations that are widely considered decolonial. Instead, Humboldt speaks from within the structures of coloniality, multiplying the many synonyms for race to confront, not overturn, the hierarchizing that makes some languages, and the people who speak them, less equal, more barbarous and savage, than others.

Moreover, Humboldt’s critique of the term barbarous is noticeably more equivocal when referring to people than to the languages they speak. People may be called barbaric, but languages never. While “the word barbarous” (le mot barbare), Humboldt says, drawing on an etymological comparison of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin usage, is “perhaps only the particular name of one of these rude hordes” (PN 3:208) (n’est peut-être que le nom propre d’une de c’est hordes abruties [RH 3:260–61]), he flatly rejects the concept of a barbaric language. “None of the American tongues are in that state of barbarism which has long been erroneously believed to characterize the infancy of nations” (PN 6:363). Barbarism exists in and is perpetuated by the eye of the beholder. The translational slippage between the French “nom propre” and the English “particular name” only underscores that relativism. Friedrich Schlegel (whose Sprache und Weisheit der Indier is cited in a Humboldt footnote) is among those who have “thought they have discovered, on comparing languages, that they are all divided into two classes, some of which are more perfect. … while others, more rude” (PN 3:263), but “in languages, as in everything in nature that is organized, nothing is entirely isolated or unlike. The farther we penetrate into their internal structure, the more do contrasts and decided characters disappear” (PN 3:263–64). Humboldt, like his brother, sought to find the unity in linguistic diversity, but the inequality of languages was perhaps a more intractable stumbling block than the hierarchies of race and nation.

Humboldt never fully divested his own language of these civilizational terms, continuing to use them even while paradoxically challenging their underlying assumptions. “I should warn the reader,” he says in one of his frequent self-reflexive moments, “that I have constantly written the words of the American languages according to the Spanish orthography. … Now I am afraid of changing the value of these signs, by substituting others no less imperfect. It is a barbarous practice, to express, like the greater part of the nations of Europe, the most simple sounds by many vowels. … What a chaos is exhibited by the vocabularies written according to English, German, French or [End Page 518] Spanish notations!” (PN 3:255). Both Humboldts were omnivorous collectors, drawn linguistically to what was discounted as “barbarian” and culturally to the concept of a worldview embedded in language, but neither connected the dots to acknowledge that the project to map other languages only ever reveals to us the outlines of our own models. Only a few of Humboldt’s case studies, especially of what are now historically resonant place-names, work more locally and self-consciously to make visible and thus to question the racial subtext.

Most striking for modern readers familiar with the post-Tempest “school of Caliban,” the postcolonial studies inspired by the interrelations among Caliban, cannibal, and Caribbean, Humboldt formulates his own critique of “Carib” as a name-place-race complex. The Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd would call this a geographic palimpsest created by the “transit of empire” in the Américas, where histories of settlers map themselves “cacophonously” onto indigenous peoples, such that their differing names for places reflect the competing claims of each to autochthony. Humboldt wants to sort out the conflicting referents of dueling languages (he traces geographers’ errors to ignorance of languages not their own, both native and European, and to the consequent “disfiguring” of native terms), whereas Byrd’s geographic palimpsest produces “cacophony,” multidirectional conflict, both vertical, between colonizer and colonized, and horizontal, between different groups, “settlers, arrivants, and natives,” in enduring struggle for indigenous status.24 This colonial cacophony helps us hear the traces of what Byrd calls “Indianness” in Humboldt’s own unstable colonial discourse.

Humboldt’s source for his Carib (unlike the Columbus diary entry cited elsewhere by Humboldt as well as by so many postcolonial critics) is a Spanish “ethnographic document,” the 1520 El Auto de Figueroa, “a most curious record of the barbarism of the first conquistadores”: Figueroa was as rigid in drawing a line between cannibals and Guatiaos (“Indians of peace and friends of the Castilians”) as, from Humboldt’s characteristically self-reflexive, self-critical comparative perspective, “our geographers” are “arbitrary” in distinguishing “the Mongols from the Tatar nations” of Central Asia. “Without any attention to the analogy of languages, every nation that could be accused of having devoured a prisoner in battle was arbitrarily declared of Carib race” (PN 6:34–36). This racial linkage reflects another imperial linguistic imposition, the mistaken equation consistently made by Spanish colonizers among race, place, and identity, assuming that “the Caribbees of the West India islands derived their origin, and even their name, from these warlike people. … I do not deny that real Caribbees may have had a settlement near [them]; but it may also have happened that the Spanish navigators, little attentive to languages, [End Page 519] called every people of a tall stature and ferocious character Caribbee and Cannibal” (PN 6:23–24). So while it is the people who give their names to the places they settle, Europeans mistakenly equate the identities of peoples with places, putting race into place through names that do not necessarily follow historical migrations over time.

For Humboldt, then, the Carib raise questions about how to define “autochthony.” Byrd, working with indigenous critiques of colonialism, positions Caliban as a figure of colonial cacophony, overfilled with competing subaltern identities, “simultaneously African, Irish, Carib, Arawak, Jewish, and Other,” “simultaneously slave, ‘Indian,’ and ‘native,’” to demonstrate how colonial discourses of racialization, slavery, and colonization often work against each other, coercing “arrivants into complicity through reifications of racism, rather than colonization,” and producing competition among these multiply minoritized groups for indigenous status, “the site of inclusive remediation for all settlers and arrivants.”25 Similarly, Shona Jackson reads multiple “Calibans,” a complex of difference not singularly but diversely constituted across historical epistemes, in the context of Caribbean, specifically Guyanese, “founding myths” as a contradictory figure of “Creole indigeneity,” in which “Indigeneous Peoples move into the [Hegelian] dialectic in the place formerly occupied by blacks in order to work for black being within modernity.”26 Humboldt’s Caribs, like Byrd’s Caliban and Jackson’s Calibans, both reproduce and raise questions about the protean prescription of racial logics by coloniality across time and space.

Characteristically for the skeptical Humboldt, the etymological meditation on “Carib” produces no conclusive evidence but rather points to the messiness of the available linguistic data and the need to accept the conditionality of what is known about the origins of both the people and their language. This hardly qualifies as a speculative philosophy of history, but it does suggest how Humboldt, “a fanatical empiricist,”27 integrated uncertainty into his cosmic vision without producing the “chimerical calculations,” “absurd reveries and historical romances” that he despised (PN 6:353). He notes how various mapping errors, the “hypothesis of the imaginary lake” (PN 6:519), the “pretended great expeditions of the interior” (PN 6:522), and the “ancient idea,” the “local fable of Dorado” (PN 6:502), become repeated elements on multiple maps, reflecting the “geographers, who are fond of copying, and of stereotyping, for ages, the chains of mountains … which the caprice of the draftsman has traced on some well-known maps” (PN 6:497). Humboldt bases his critique of the maps squarely on their language, tracing geographers’ errors to ignorance of both native and European languages not their own; to the consequent “disfiguring” [End Page 520] of native terms; to European assumptions about relations between names of peoples and places; and, finally, to colonial desire for expansion as reflected in their language practices.28 “Our maps of America are overloaded with names for which rivers have been created. This desire of compiling, of filling up vacancies … has given our maps of countries the least visited an appearance of exactness, the falsity of which is discovered when we arrive on the spot” (PN 6:535). Even more sweepingly: “the travellers of the 16th century, … like modern travellers, had the rage of explaining everything” (PN 6:334).

Underscoring the many gaps between the names on European maps and the actual places to which they refer, Humboldt nevertheless insists on the value of comparing geographic usage, even or especially when erroneous, in “a species of philological examination” (PN 5:775) of the language in the maps of a given region across time. “The apparent diversity of names arises partly from the difference in dialects spoken by one and the same family of people, partly from the imperfection of our European orthography, and from the extreme negligence with which geographers copy one another” (PN 5:775). Yet, simultaneously, it is thanks to the enterprises for the “conquest of the imaginary country of el Dorado” that we owe much of “our knowledge of the interior of America”; “they have been useful to geography, as errors and daring hypotheses are often to the search of truth” (PN 5:819). Humboldt’s experimentation does not settle anything but rather unsettles what we think we know; his is not a closed system, totalizing the known world, but instead a conditional and speculative knowledge, strikingly unfinished and open-ended.

Rather than fill gaps, Humboldt recommends living in and with them. Using native naming to contradict colonial terminology, he traces errors in European maps, through systematic comparison and critique of discrepant or incompatible place-names. This logic of “false cartography,” as Byrd calls it (after Gayatri Spivak), draws on colonial misnaming—particularly the Columbus nomenclature of “American Indian”—to commemorate a “multiple errant history,” the “myriad of distortive parallactic effects” encoded in “Indian” as structuring colonial event.29 So, extending this logic, native names and terms could have played a substantive, revisionist role in correcting faulty maps, except that for Humboldt native languages as a group were not functional sources of evidence in their own right, on a par with European sources, but data to be collected and brought back to Europe, along with rare documents and exotica he found or was given in the Américas. Put another way: indigenous knowledge was less important to Humboldt than European ignorance. As a result, although Humboldt railed against continuing production of mistaken maps, one even published in his own name, he never took the step to translate intermedially, [End Page 521] into visual form, maps revised, perhaps experimentally, along the lines of his own drawings, the best known of which is the vertical cross-section of Mount Chimborazo. While Humboldt used and reused that map, with its written labels identifying different botanical species at varying altitudes, recycling it as the frontispiece to Personal Narrative (vol. 6), he never remade—translated—it in the broad context of a “visual economy” of the “Andean image world.”30 The promise of a Humboldtian countercartography remains just that: we still do not know whether his visual image of the Chimborazo vertical ecology might have an “Andean dimension” as his translation of the “knowledge and reverence for the ecosystem imparted to him by his Andean guides and interpreters.”31

Nowhere is Humboldt’s translational balancing act more striking than in the conclusions he draws about the limits of the name America itself. “I continue in this study to designate, the countries inhabited by Spanish-Americans, by the name of Spanish-America, despite the political changes that the colonies have undergone. I call the United States—without adding of north America—the country of Anglo-Americans. … The word American may no longer be applied exclusively to citizens of the United States of North America, and it would be desirable if this nomenclature for the independent nations of the New Continent could be fixed in a way that would be at once convenient, consistent, and precise” (PN 6:126). No one in American studies needs to be told that we remain concerned about what is in a name, as Jan Radway’s ASA presidential address asked in 1998, acknowledging the “America” controversy that continues to this day; it is still “embarrassing” or “awkward” (embarrassant) as Humboldt says, “to speak of peoples who play such an important role on the world scene but who lack collective names.”32

Mediterranean Studies/American Studies: Speculative Conclusions

What are the limits and possibilities of a Humboldtian vision for today? His American Mediterranean demonstrates the relevance of Mediterranean and other ocean studies, as allies in the effort to approach the United States from a transnational, translational perspective. Humboldt’s model corresponds to an extended Mediterranean, revising how scholars across the disciplines from Fernand Braudel to Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra and Paul Gilroy have conceived of the geopolitics of waterways. These oceanic offspring, all of which test the bounds of the Mediterranean as a unit of study, may enable Americanists to reimagine “Mediterranean crossings” (Iain Chambers), to reenvision the Mediterranean as a worlded zone of comparative historical inquiry (Edmund Burke), as “global history” (David Abulafia), extending from the limited appeal [End Page 522] to medievalists and pre- and early modernists, to the space-time of modernity, Americanity, and beyond.33

But we do not want to damn Humboldt with faint praise by saying that he anticipates either Braudel or Braudel’s critics. Nor, to bring up the most common way in which Humboldt is praised as prescient for his nascent ecological sensibility, must we take sides and choose either to attack him as just another totalizing imperial eye or defend him as “the ultimate ‘other,’” a potential model postcolonial environmentalist, now “‘othered’” by postcolonial critics. For all the pretense (Humboldt’s own and that of his critics) to a totalizing descriptive project, shaped by his own brand of planetary consciousness, Humboldt’s writings are constitutionally incomplete: recycled, reassembled, ever unfinished.34

What Humboldt does not fulfill, his uncompleted argument, is as critical to his legacy as his final vision of the cosmos. Foremost among the loose ends is to question the sufficiency of the Mediterranean itself as the grounds of comparison, to foreground the insufficiency in the state of European knowledge about the history of migration and movement in the Mediterranean model. In so doing, Humboldt works toward the provincializing of Europe that Dipesh Chakrabarty warns may go only skin deep, assuming the European model of modernity as the only path to the present, to which other parts of the world are fated to lag behind and play catch-up. The Mediterranean is Humboldt’s object first because it is historically the oceanic imaginary through which Europeans represented the discovery of the new world while reconfiguring it within the old. Second, Humboldt’s Mediterranean is the object of my decentering because it is double-edged, used both to dislodge and to relodge the classical Mediterranean as a locus of Western knowledge, becoming “one moment of a larger discursive conflict in which a Mediterranean discourse is constantly stretched by the novelty of an Atlantic world.”35 Humboldt’s periodizing equivocates, making the Mediterranean equal to but no more than the “first” civilization, one that continually looks different, less fully known than was thought, in comparison to the changing histories of other civilized societies. At the same time he speaks as the rediscoverer of the Américas, from within the newly constituted colonial discourses that succeed those of the earlier Mediterranean.36

Can we go so far as to say that Humboldt is doing decentered history? It may seem a stretch, given that Humboldt does not systematically make any of the moves associated with the post–World War II processes of “decentering” history in Western historiography, either the move to working people and subaltern classes, to women and gender, to communities defined by ethnicity and race, or to the study of non-Western histories and world or global history, [End Page 523] in which the European trajectory is only one of several models.37 What is striking, though, about this descriptive list (assembled by Natalie Zemon Davis) is how much the Humboldtian approach to the study of language within human geography captures the total, rather than the sum of the parts.38 While he does not enable the indigenous to speak, Humboldt wants to make the American languages themselves speak, beyond the vocabulary lists he provides, however mediated, translated first through the orthography of Castilian Spanish, then into French—and from there onward. His own speaking location from within the entanglements of race and colonialism reproduces Byrd’s “transit of empire” through “Indianness”: the spectral traces, reiterated within contemporary critical theory, of the Indian as the original, ungrievable enemy combatant. The traces of indigenous “savagery” haunt Humboldt’s collections of American languages. In assessing the limits of European knowledge, the Humboldtian project does not yet look beyond the corrective to a different, as-yet-unknown end.39

The “yet’s” have it. Humboldt himself regularly underscores the unfinished, prospective, even prophetic nature of his own comparative data.40 Using statistics from Europe and Asia, he estimates the relative population growth and topologies of different American nations, as indicators of future political and social progress, only to acknowledge after pages of comparative population tables: “These statements of population, considered in their relations with the differences of race, languages, and worship, are composed of very variable elements, and represent approximately the state of American society. … There is something serious and prophetic in these inventories of the human race: in them the whole future destiny of the New World seems to be inscribed” (PN 6:845). Humboldtian comparativism offers us today a past form of futurist thinking for the Américas, embedded in and indebted to the concept of the American Mediterranean.

Finally, although Humboldt’s Cosmos may be his best-known work, a more accessible summary of this oceanic thinker, it is his unfinished thirty-volume voyage, the sprawling and ungainly narrative of his rediscovery of the Américas, that sets forth Humboldt in all his contradictions, without smoothing out the rough edges. Humboldt makes visible the way that, as Quijano and Wallerstein point out, “Americanity is its own contradiction”: the place and the time both of the great antiracist, revolutionary mobilization, in North America, culminating in the eighteenth century, and of the history of multiple colonizations, uneven subordinations, and regimes of racial power under the hemispheric hegemony of North America.41 Although Humboldt is said in one stroke to reorient the study of the Américas, his American Mediterranean is at once more provisional [End Page 524] and open-ended, pointing to the contingency and the ongoing production of knowledge, both of the old and new worlds, his invention of “continents.”42 As a translator, Humboldt works in the spirit of Walter Benjamin, who sees translation as a process of historical change across space and time that eschews the hierarchy of original and copy, fidelity or treason, in favor of a model that goes beyond the logic of influence or indebtedness to one of unfinished histories and provisional outcomes through translation’s multiple afterlives.43

Put another way, it is because of, not despite, his limitations—among them, the need in the United States to rediscover him at all—that Humboldt could be a critical cautionary figure for American studies. Neither icon nor target, he is a series of contradictions. This second discoverer of the New World led the two-way transatlantic process that Pratt describes as Europe reimagining América, and América, Europe. Humboldt was a transculturator moving between Euro-American knowledge systems across two continents, one who never made the move to produce European knowledges tranculturated (“infiltrated”) by indigenous epistemologies. He was, as I have shown, more interested in European ignorance than Américas knowledge.

Such is what the anthropologist Michael Taussig calls the “mirror dance” of colonial meaning making, where Humboldt’s América, as Pratt says, remains one of the mirrors.44 Humboldt thinks through the Mediterranean, imagining world history and the development of culture in oceanic perspective, but does not manage to jettison the continentalism in which we are all trained. One of the few white intellectuals on record for defending the Haitian Revolution, Humboldt immersed himself in the emerging, often conflicting worlds of creoles and subalterns that produce taxonomies of indigeneity with persistent effects today. An empiricist who rejected Hegelian speculative philosophy, he is best known for his marriage of the objective and subjective, observation and information, science, and art. He risks antagonism to the Mediterranean as a colonial imposition on the mediterraneans of the Américas, a field imaginary that enshrines the classic Mediterranean as an exceptional space of harmonious coexistence, writing out imperial conflict and colonial fragmentation along with racial and ethnic diversity.

For every Humboldtian reference to our Mediterranean as a singular ground of comparison, there are other, plural mediterraneans that go all the way to the Américas. Humboldt’s discrepant comparisons between “our” and other mediterraneans produce speculative thoughts on past and future geo-histories, left unfinished, of both ocean-systems. His Americanity, especially, is a work in progress, an “uncompleted argument,” a past that is different from what we thought we knew, promising “untimely visions,” futures yet to come, still [End Page 525] being invented and named. Very much, I hope, his “unfinished revolution,” ours not to complete but to reclaim and make our own: predicting possible futures from pasts not yet known, worlds not yet come: Las Américas.45

Susan Gillman

Susan Gillman teaches world literature and cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is an essay collection, coedited with Russ Castronovo, States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies (North Carolina University Press, 2009). Her current book-in-progress, a project on translation, linguistic and cultural in the Americas context, is “Our Mediterranean: American Adaptations, 1820–1975.”


1. Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent was brought out in thirty volumes and numerous smaller abridged editions between 1805 and 1839; I have used Helen Maria Williams’s seven-volume English translation of the travel account, Personal Narrative (hereafter cited as PN), because the record of her correspondence and collaboration with Humboldt provides unusual contextual insight into the process of translation; for French quotations, I have used the original edition, titled Relation historique (1814–31) (hereafter cited as RH), in French, published as part of Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804, vols. 1–13 (Paris: Librairie Grecque-Latine-Allemande, 1815–31); on “quest for comparability,” see Anne Buttimer, “Bridging the Americas: Humboldtian Legacies,” “Humboldt in the Americas,” special issue, Geographical Review 96.3 (2006): vii; on the newness of the New World, see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983; v3rd ed. London: Verso, 2006); and Aníbal Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein, “Americanity as a Concept, or the Americas in the Modern World System,” International Social Science Journal 44 (November 1992): 549–57.

2. On the multidirectional reinvention process of the thirty-volume voyage, see Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2008), 112, 115; on “a Euro-centered form of global or … ‘planetary’ consciousness,” see ibid., 7, 15–37; on “imperialist stooge,” see Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), x; François Taglioni, “Les méditerranées eurafricaine et américaine: Essai de comparaison,” in Mare Nostrum, dynamiques et mutations géopolitiques de la Méditerranée, ed. A. L. Sanguin (Paris: L’Harmattan, Collection “Géographie et Cultures,” 2000), 73–88; and Jean-Baptiste Arrault, “A propos du concept de méditerranée: Expérience géographique du monde et mondialisation,” Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography, document 332, January 2006,

3. On Humboldt’s “ecology” of the Américas, see Walls, Passage, 11; Kent Mathewson, “Alexander von Humboldt’s Image and Influence in North American Geography, 1804–2004,” “Humboldt in the Americas,” special issue, Geographical Review 96.3 (2006): 417.

4. Élisée Reclus, Mexico, Central America, West Indies, vol. 2 of The Earth and Its Inhabitants, North America, ed. A. H. Keane (New York: D. Appleton, 1891), 17–18.

5. On the Mediterranean analogy, see chap. 6, “The American Mediterranean: Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea,” in Reclus, Mexico, Central America, West Indies, 338–53; Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Holt, 1998), 10–20; Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith, 1983), 7; Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 365–414. On Humboldt as “always, deliberately comparative,” see Walls, v Passage, 6, 243; on Humboldt as a comparatist of colonial Spanish America, see Sandra Rebok, “Alexander von Humboldt’s Perceptions of Colonial Spanish America,” Dynamis (2009): 49–72.b.

6. Roman Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” (1959), in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 138–43.

7. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 119.

8. On Humboldt’s translators, most of them women, see Alison E. Martin, “‘These Changes and Accessions of Knowledge’: Translation, Scientific Travel Writing, and Modernity—Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative,” Studies in Travel Writing 15.1 (2011): 39–51; Martin and Susan Pickford, eds., Travel Narratives in Translation, 1750–1830: Nationalism, Ideology, Gender (New York: Routledge, 2012), 1–26; Walls’s review of Humboldt in English project (HiE): “To read what Humboldt actually [End Page 526] wrote, in this scrupulous, clear, and modern translation, is to embark on a truly encyclopedic adventure in history” (quoted on University of Chicago Press website,

9. Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (London: Verso, 1998), 2; Simon Bolívar, “The real discoverer of South America was Humboldt, since his work was more useful for our people than the work of all conquerors” (quoted in Alexander von Humboldt, From the Americas to the Cosmos, ed. Raymond Erickson et al., Bildner Center for Hemispheric Studies, CUNY Graduate Center, xvi,; Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem for the 1869 Boston Humboldt centennial; on Carl Ritter, see D. A. Brading, The First America, The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492–1867 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 534.

10. Talal Asad, “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Anthropology,” in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 157.

11. See Asad, “Concept of Cultural Translation,” 141–64; on foreignizing translations, see Lawrence Venuti, The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference (New York: Routledge, 1998).

12. In addition to “Humboldt in the Americas,” a special issue of Geographical Review and Walls, Passage, see Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (New York: Viking, 2006); and Vera Kutzinski, Ottmar Ette, and Laura Dassow Walls, eds., Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas (Berlin: Verlag Walter Frey—edition tranvía, 2012).

13. Taglioni, “Les méditerranées eurafricaine et américaine,” 73.

14. Elise C. Otté, trans., Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Bros., 1850, 1858), 1:119; and Hermann Klencke and Gustav Schlesier, Lives of the Brothers Humboldt, Alexander and William, trans. Juliette Bauer (New York: Harper, 1853), 190–91.

15. Vera M. Kutzinski and Ottmar Ette make their own persuasive editorial case for how Humboldt distanced himself from the civilizational thinking embedded in “the myth of Western civilization,” in Kutzinski and Ette, eds., Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), xxv; see also Christian Grataloup, L’Invention des continents: Comment l’Europe a découpé le Monde (Paris: Larousse, 2009).

16. For a paradigmatic example, see W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Conservation of Races” (1897).

17. Humboldt, Cosmos, 1:114.

18. Jonathan Culler and Pheng Cheah, eds., Grounds of Comparison: Around the Work of Benedict Anderson (New York: Routledge, 2003), 2.

19. On Anderson’s image of seeing Europe from the perspective of Southeast Asia as though through an inverted telescope, see Pheng Cheah, “The Material World of Comparison,” in Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses, ed. Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 168–90.

20. On Hegel and Humboldt: as “nemesis,” see Walls, Passage, 233; Nicolaas A. Rupke: “after his return to Berlin from Paris, Humboldt had not befriended Hegel, objecting to his idealist philosophy of nature” (Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008], 126); Terry Pinkard cites a well-known line (also quoted by Walls) from one of Humboldt’s 1827–28 lectures at the University of Berlin, later incorporated into Cosmos, and widely viewed as a thinly veiled attack on all post-Kantian philosophy, Hegel included. Humboldt protests against the “metaphysics” of “a purely ideal science of nature” that advanced a “scholastic rationalism, more contracted in its views than any known to the Middle Ages” (quoted in Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], 610); Walls, Passage, 223.

21. Kutzinski and Ette, Views, xviii.

22. See Adrian Blau, “Uncertainty and the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 50 (October 2011): 358–72.

23. On Humboldt’s terminology, see Kutzinski and Ette, Views, 554–55.

24. The Tempest literature is voluminous: on the “school of Caliban,” see José David Saldívar, The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman, eds., The Tempest and Its Travels (London: Reaktion, 2000); Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797 (London: [End Page 527] Routledge, 1992); on Caliban and indigeneity, see Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 39–76 (my quotations are from pp. 66, 54); Shona N. Jackson, Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

25. Byrd, Transit of Empire, 75, 54.

26. Jackson, Creole Indigeneity, 34, 36.

27. Sachs, Humboldt Current, 120.

28. “The following are the most ancient names of the Oroonoko, known to the natives near its mouth, and which historians give us altered by the double fault of pronunciation and orthography. … The Tamanac word Orinucu was disfigured by the Dutch pilots into Worinoque” (PN, vol. 5, pt. 2, p. 806).

29. Byrd, Transit of Empire, 70.

30. See Deborah Poole, Vision, Race, and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). For Humboldt’s reference to the false map, see PN, vol. 5, pt. 2, 797.

31. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 143.

32. For “embarrassing,” see PN 6, pt. 1, p. 126; for “awkward,” see Vera Kutzinski and Ottmar Ette, eds., Political Essay on the Island of Cuba: A Critical Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 209.

33. See Edmund Burke III, “Toward a Comparative History of the Modern Mediterranean, 1750–1919,” Journal of World History 23.4 (2013): 907–39; on the “turn” to ocean studies in literature and history, see two recent journal issues, AHR Forum: “Oceans of History,” American Historical Review 111.3 (2006); and PMLA Theories and Methodologies: “Oceanic Studies,” PMLA 125.3 (2010): 657–736. On the “classic Mediterranean” and the need to better define its history and that of “other Mediterraneans,” see David Abulafia, “Mediterranean History as Global History,” History and Theory 50 (May 2011): 220–21; and Iain Chambers, Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

34. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 125, 120–24; Aaron Sachs, “The Ultimate ‘Other’: Post-Colonialism and Alexander von Humboldt’s Ecological Relationship with Nature,” History and Theory 42.4 (2003): 111–35.

35. Hulme, Colonial Encounters, 3.

36. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000; rpt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 7–9.

37. On Humboldt’s decentering of Europe, see Ottmar Ette, Alexander von Humboldt und die Globalisierung: Das Mobile des Wissens (Alexander von Humboldt and Globalisation: The Mobility of Knowledge) (Frankfurt: Insel Verlag, 2009); and Ette, “Everything Is Interrelated, Even the Errors in the System: Alexander von Humboldt and Globalization,” in Alexander von Humboldt’s Transatlantic Personae, ed. Vera M. Kutzinski (London: Routledge, 2012), 15–28.

38. Natalie Zemon Davis, “Decentering History: Local Stories and Cultural Crossings in a Global World,” History and Theory 50.2 (2011): 188–202.

39. Byrd, Transit of Empire.

40. See Ottmar Ette, “TransTropics: Alexander von Humboldt and Hemispheric Constructions,” in Kutzinski, Ette, and Walls, Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas, 209–36.

41. Quijano and Wallerstein, “Americanity,” 549, 557.

42. Walls’s review on the University of Chicago Press website: “Humboldt enacts a profoundly new paradigm of making knowledge, in which facts emerge from a welter of global and interdisciplinary interconnections. This primary and foundational work, a landmark of physical and cultural geography that includes one of the era’s most important denunciations of slavery, in one stroke reorients the study of the Américas and reinvents the making of knowledge, a way that just might be equal to the dire challenges of the twenty-first century.”

43. “The Translator’s Task,” trans. Stephen Rendall, in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2012), 75–83.

44. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 143; see Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 305.

45. See Anthony Appiah, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 21–37; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper Collins, 1988); Gary Wilder, “Untimely Vision: Aimé Césaire, Decolonization, Utopia,” Public Culture 21.1 (2009). [End Page 528]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.