German and Brazilian Perspectives
Facts and Fictions: Alexander von Humboldt in Brazil
During his nearly five-year journey in the Americas, Alexander von Humboldt visited parts of the Spanish colonial territories that would later become Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and Cuba. He also briefly detoured to the USA. He never made it to Brazil—unless we believe Voltaire Schilling’s delightful fiction of Humboldt’s 1800 stray into Portuguese territory:
O sentinela estranhou-lhe a presença e os gestos. O que fazia aquele branco desconhecido, com a cara mordida pelos mosquitos, no meio da selva erguendo uma luneta para todos os lados? Naquela mesma noite, numa rápida operação, o naturalista alemão Alexander von Humboldt foi preso por uma patrulha portuguesa. Acusaram-no de espionagem. Transpusera sem querer os supostos limites que, em plena floresta amazônica, separavam o império espanhol do lusitano. Como poderia o pobre homem saber em meio ao colossal verdor qual árvore ou cipó, qual córrego ou igarapé, era o marco exato da fronteira?2 [The sentinel was taken aback by the presence of this man and his gesturing. What was that white stranger, his face bitten up by mosquitoes, doing in the jungle, pointing a telescope in all directions? That same night, in short order, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt was arrested by a Portuguese patrol. They accused him of spying. He had unwittingly crossed the supposed border that separated the Spanish from the Portuguese Empire in the dense Amazonian forest. How could the poor man know, amidst the gigantic verdure,...
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