On this day January 6: von Humboldt & Tainted Love


alexander von humboldt
Humboldt and Bonplant in the Jungle by Eduard Ender

On January 6 1802, Alexander von Humboldt arrived in Quito, Ecuador. A travelling companion later complained about the scientist frequenting ‘houses where tainted love reigns’.

The German naturalist was one of the most influential thinkers of his age. Charles Darwin called him, “The greatest scientific traveller who ever lived.”

From an aristocratic German family, von Humboldt used inherited wealth to travel the world. His 5-year exploration of South America and subsequent publications made him a legendary figure of his age. German historian Andrea Wulf says, “He was handsome, adventurous, and worked at a frenzied pace — fueled by his love for nature and science but also by large amounts of coffee which he called ‘concentrated sunshine’.”

Father of environmentalism

The German is mostly forgotten today other than occasional mentions as the father of environmentalism and the first scientist to write on human-induced climate change. Alexander von Humboldt saw the universe as one interacting entity. Therefore activity like wetland draining and forest clearance would inevitably impact on connected ecosystems.

But von Humboldt left a mixed legacy. He wrote of South America from a colonial perspective. While critical of colonial rule, the invisibility of Indigenous peoples in his writings is reminiscent of James Cook and terra nullius. Indeed, von Humboldt and Joseph Banks, the botanist on the Endeavour, were friends for 30 years.

To his credit, von Humboldt became a lifelong opponent of slavery after witnessing a slave market. Yet, he was also accused of purchasing an Indigenous South American to carry equipment during his expeditions.

Sexuality

Alexander von Humboldt never married. His sister-in-law said, “Nothing will ever have a great influence on Alexander that doesn’t come through men.”

While he once wrote, ‘I don’t know sensual needs’, his romances with handsome young men and choice of travelling companions attracted attention. Aimé Bonpland, pictured in the above painting with von Humboldt, accompanied him on his 5-year South American odyssey.

In South America, von Humboldt met a Colombian scientist named Francisco José de Caldas. Caldas shared his own research with von Humboldt and provided the German with invaluable local knowledge. He joined the expedition. In Quito, the scientists enjoyed the hospitality of local aristocrat Marquis Juan Pío Montúfar at his palatial hacienda.

During over a month in the Ecuadorian capital, Alexander von Humboldt and the 21-year-old son of the marquis apparently hit it off straight away. Subsequently, von Humboldt decided to dispense with the services of the Colombian scientist on his future travels. Young Carlos de Montúfar would come instead.

Caldas was pissed. A sober and serious man, described by everyone – including himself – as anything but the life of the party, he slagged von Humboldt mercilessly in private letters.

Tainted love

“The baron enters this Babylon, becomes friends with a few dissolute, obscene youths; they drag him to the houses where tainted love reigns; this shameful passion takes control of his heart and blinds this young sage…”

A little ambiguous so far, but in a further letter, he made the homosexual inference more explicit, calling Carlos de Montúfar an Adonis.

“Baron von Humboldt left here on the eighth in company of Bonpland and of his Adonis who does not interfere with his trip as does Caldas.”

Young de Montúfar stayed with von Humboldt for the remainder of the expedition and returned to Europe with him. They attended the coronation of Napoleon I together but then drifted apart.

Alexander von Humboldt died in 1859 at the age of 89. Four years before, he transferred his entire estate to the valet who’d been with him for 30 years.

Once I ran to you.
Now, I’ll run from you,
This tainted love you’ve given,
I give you all a boy could give you,
Take my tears and that’s not nearly all.
Oh, tainted love.
Tainted love.

Read more: January 5 <— On this day —> January 7

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