Alexander von Humboldt.

The travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt online

. (page 24 of 35)
Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 24 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

described above suddenly appeared, and in the midst of
these eminences, called hornitos or ovens, six great masses,
having an elevation of from 1312 to 1640 feet above the
original level of the plain, sprung up from a gulf running
from N.N.E. to S.S.W. The most elevated of these
mounds is the great volcano of Jorullo, which is con-


CHAP.xxiii. tinually burning. The eruptions of this central volcano
rnipTions of continued till February 1760, when they became less
joruUo. frequent. The Indians, who liad abandoned all the
villages within thirty miles of it, returned once more to
their cottages, and advanced towards the mountains of
Aguasarco and Santa Incs, to contemplate the streams
of fire that issued from the numberless apertures. The
roofs of the houses of Queretaro, more than 166 miles
distant, were covered with volcanic dust. Mr Lyell
(Princij)les of Geology, vol. i. p. 379) states, on the
authority of Captain Vetch, that another eruption hap-
j)ened in 1819, accompanied by an earthquake, during
which ashes fell at the city of Guanaxuato, 140 miles
distant from Jorullo, in such quantities as to lie six
inches deep in the streets.*
Rise of tiie When Humboldt visited this place, the natives assured
thermome- him that the heat of the hornitos had formerly been
much greater. The thermometer rose to 203° when
placed in the fissures exhaling aqueous vapour. Each
of the cones emitted a thick smoke, and in many of them
a subterranean noise was heard, wliich seemed to indicate
the proximity of a fluid in ebullition. Two streams
were at that period seen bursting through the argillaceous
vaults, and were found by the traveller to have a tem-
perature of 1 26'9°. Tlie Indians gave tliem the names
Rivers ^^ tlie two rivers Avhich had been engulfed, because in

eiiguiphei several parts of the Malpais great masses of water are
heard flowing in a direction from east to west. Our
author considers all the district to he hollow ; but
Scrope and Lyell find it more suitable to their views of
volcanic agency to represent the conical form of the

• In the fourth edition (Lond. 1835) of his Principles, Mr Lyell
saj's, that there appears to liave been some mistake in this state-
ment ; fur iMr IJiirkait, w!io examined Jorullo in l!i27, ascertained
that there had been no eruption there since Humboldt's visit in
IHOIJ. Tliere was still a slij^lit evolution of sul[)hurous acid vapours
from the bottom of the crater; but the "hornitos" had ceased to
send forth steam, and vegetation liad made great progress on the
Hanks of the new hills, the rich soil of the surrounding country being
once more covered with luxuriant crops of sujjar-cane and indigo.




Co turned of the Indians of Mcchoacan

ground as resulting from the flow of lava over the
original surface of the plain.

The Indians of this province are represented as being Indiansofthe
the most industrious of New Spain. They have a con- 1"^°^'"'^^
siderable talent for cutting out images in wood, and
dressing them in clothes made of the pith of an aquatic
plant, which being very porous imbibes the most vivid
colours. Two figures of this kind, which Humboldt
brought home for the Queen of Prussia, are here repre-
sented. They exhibit the characteristic traits of the
American race, together with a strange mixture of the
ancient costume with that which was introduced by the

From Valladolid, the ancient kingdom of Mechoacan, Retnm to
the travellers returned to Mexico by the elevated plain ^^^xico.
of ToJiicca, after examining the volcanic mountains in
the vicinity. They also visited the celebrated cheiran-
thostaemou of Cervantes, a tree of which it was at one


CHAP.xxiiL time supposed there did not exist more than a single

Kesideneeat At that city they remained several months, for the
-Mexico. purpose of arranging their botanical and geological col-
lections, calculating the Ijarometrical and trigonometrical
measurements which they had made, and sketching the
plates of the Geological Atlas which Humboldt proposed
to pul)lish. They also assisted in placing a colossal
equestrian statue of the king, which had been cast by a
native artist. In January 1804 they left Mexico with
the intention of examining the eastern declivity of the
Cordillera of New Spain. They also measured the great
Pvramid of Pyramid of Cholula, an extraordinarj' monument of the
ciioiuia. Toltecks, from the summit of which there is a splendid
view of the snowy mountains and beautiful plains of
Tlascala. It is built of brick, which seemed to have
been dried in the sun, alternating with layers of clay.
They then descended to Xalapa, a city placed at an ele-
vation of 48.35 feet above the sea, in a delightful climate.
The dangerous road which leads from it to Perote, through
almost impenetrable forests, was thrice barometrically
levelled by Humboldt. Near the latter place is a moun-
tain of basaltic porphyry, remarkable for the singular
form of a small rock placed on its summit, and which
The Coffer of 's named the Coffer of Perote. This elevation commands
I'erote. ^ very extensive prospect over the plain of Puebla and

the eastern slope of the cordilleras of Mexico, which is
covered with dense forests. From it they also saw tlie
liarbour of Vera Cruz, the castle of St Juan of UUoa,
and the seacoast.

Before following our travellers across the Atlantic, it
may be useful to present a sketch of the valuable obser-
vations recorded in Humboldt's Political Essay on tlie
Kingdom of Xew Spain, and which are in part tlie result
of his researclies hi that interesting country.



Description of New Spain or Mexico.

General Description of New Spain or Mexico — Cordilleras Cli-
mates — Mines — Rivers— Lakes — Soil — Volcanoes — Harboups

Population — Provinces — Valley of Mexico, and Description of
the Capital — Inundations, and Works undertaken for the Purpose
of preventing them.

Previous to Humboldt's visit to New Spain, tlie in- cnAP.xxrv.
tbi-mation j^ossessed in Europe respecting that interesting p^, ^.: '
and important country was exceedingly meagre and knowiedpe of
incorrect. The ignorance of the European conquerors, ^'^"' ^P'""'
the indolence of their successors, the narrow policy of
the government, and the Avant of scientific enterprise
among the Creoles and Spaniards, left it for centuries a
region of dim obscurity into which the eye of research
was unable to penetrate. So inaccurate were the maps,
that even the latitude and longitude of the capital re-
mained unfixed, and the inhabitants were thrown into
consternation by the occurrence of a total eclipse of the
sun on the 21st February 1803 ; the almanacks, calcu-
lating from a false indication of the meridian, having
announced it as scarcely visible. The determination of
the geographical position of many of the more remarkable
places, that of the altitude of the volcanic summits and
other eminences, together with the vast mass of intelli-
gence contained in the Political Essay on New Spain,
served to dispel in some measure the darkness ; and
since the neriod of Humboldt's visit numerous travellers




CHAP. XXIV. have contributed so materially to our acquaintance witli
Mexico, that it no longer remains among the least known
of those remote countries of the globe over which the
power of Europe has extended.

Although the independence of the American states has
now been confirmed, and their political relations entirely
changed since the time our author was there, the aspect
of nature continues the same in those extensive regions ;
and, as we have less to do with their history and national
circumstances than with the discoveries of the learned
traveller, we shall follow, as heretofore, his descriptions
of the countries examined by him in the relations in
which they then stood.

The Spanish settlements in the New Continent
formerly occupied that immense territory comprised
between 41° 43' of south latitude and 37° 48' of north
latitude, equalling the whole length of Africa, and ex-
ceeding the vast regions possessed by the Russian empire
or Great Britain in Asia. They were divided into nine
great governments, of which five, viz. the viceroyalties
of Peru and New Grenada, the capitanias-gen« rales of
Guatimala, Porto Rico, and Caraccas, are entirely inter-
tropical ; while the other four, viz. the viceroyalties of
Mexico and Buenos Ayres, and the capitanias-generales
of Chili and Havannah, including the Floridas, are
chiefly situated in the temperate zones. Mexico was the
most important as well as the most civilized of the
whole, and was long considered as such by the court of

The name of New Spain was at first given in 1518 to
the province of Yucatan, whci-e the companions of
Grijalva were astonished at the civilisation of the inha-
bitants. Cortez employed it to denote the whole empire
of Montezuma, though it was subsequently used in
various senses. Humboldt designates by it the vast
coivitry which has for its northern and southern limits
the parallels of 38° and 1G°. The length of this region
from S.S.E. to N.N.W. is nearly 1C78 miles ; its greatest
breadth 904 miles. The isthmus of Tehuantepcc, to the




Kew Spain.


south-east of the port of Vera Cruz, is the narrowest part ; Chap.xxiv

the distance from the Atlantic Ocean to the South Sea t ^^ ^

istntniis of

being there only 155 miles. The question of opening a Panama
communication by a canal between the two oceans at ^^"^^
this point, the isthmus of Panama, or several others
which he mentions, is fully discussed by the author.
He discredits the idea that the level of the South Sea is
higher than that of the Gulf of Mexico, and imagines
tliat were a rupture of the intervening barrier effected^
the current would establish itself in the direction
opposite to that usually apprehended.

When a general view is taken of the whole surface of Sub(ii\'isions
Mexico, it is seen that one-half is situated within the ° ^^"^°"
tropic, while the rest belongs to the temperate zone.
This latter portion contains 716,100 square miles. The
physical climate of a country does not altogether depend
upon its distance from the pole, but also upon its eleva-
tion, its proximity to the ocean, and other circumstances ;
so that of the 596,750 square miles in the torrid zone,
more than three-fifths have a cold, or at least temperate
atmosphere. The whole interior of Mexico, in fact,
constitutes an immense table-land, having an elevation
which varies from 6562 to 8202 feet above the level of
the sea.

The chain of mountains which forms this vast plain is Mexican
continuous with the Andes of South America. In the ^ ®
southern hemisphere tlie cordillera is every where broken
up by fissures or valleys of small breadth ; but in Mexico
it is the ridge itself that constitutes the platform. In
Peru the most elevated summits form tlie crest of the
Andes, while in the other the prominences are irregu-
larly scattered over the plain, and have no relation or
parallelism to the direction of the cordillera. In Peru Transversa
and New Grenada there are transverse valleys, having^ ^^^
sometimes 4590 feet of perpendicular depth, which en-
tirely prevent the use of carriages ; while in New Spain
vehicles are used along an extent of more than 1726
miles. The general height of the table-land of Mexico is
equal to that of Mount Cenis, St Gothard, or the Great




Plains of



cnAP.xxiV. St Beniard of the Swiss Alps ; and to determine this
circumstance Humboldt executed five laborious barome-
trical surveys, whicli enabled him to construct a series
of vertical sections of the country.

In South America the cordillera of the Andes presents
plains completely level at immense altitudes, such as
that on vi'hich the city of Santa Fe de Bogota stands,
that of Caxamarca in Peru, and those of Antisana, which
exceed in height the summit of the Peak of TeneriflPe.
But all these levels are of small extent, and being sepa-
rated by deep valleys are of difficult access. In Mexico,
on the other hand, vast tracts of champaign country are
so approximated to each other as to form but a single
plain occupying the elongated ridge of the cordillera,
and running from the 18th to the 40th degree of north
latitude. The descent towards the coasts is l)y a gra-
duated series of terraces, which oppose great difficulties
to the communication between the maritime districts
and the interior, presenting at the same time an extra-
ordinary diversity of vegetation.

Tlie jdains along the coasts are the only parts that
possess a climate adapted to the productions of the
West Indies, — the mean temperature of those situated
\vithin the tro])ics, and whose elevation does not exceed
084 feet, being. from 77° to 78-8^, which is several
degrees greater than the mean temperature of Naples.
These fertile regions, which produce sugar, indigo,
cotton, and Ijananas, are named Tierras calientes, Euro-
peans remaining in them for any considerable time,
particularly in the towns, are liable to the yellow fever
or black vomiting. On the eastern shores tlie great
heats are occasionally tempered by strata of refrigerated
air brouglit from the north by the impetuous winds
tliat blow from October to March, which frequently cool
the atmosphere to such a degree, that at Havannah the
thermometer descends to 32°, and at Vera Cruz to

On the declivities of the cordillera, at the elevation of
3937 or 4021 feet, there prevails a mild climate, never

along the


varying more than eight or nine degrees. To this CHAP.xxiv
region, of which the mean annual temperaturfe is from -j —
08° to 69'8°, the natives give the name of Tierras tempiadaa
templadas. Unfortunately these tracts are frequently
covered with thick fogs, as they occupy the height to
which the clouds usually ascend above the level of the

The plains which are elevated more than 7218 feet Tienas friiw.
above that level, and of which the mean temperature is
under 62*6°, are named Tierras frias. The whole
table-land of Mexico belongs to this description, which
the natives consider cold, although the ordinary warmth
is equal to that of Rome. There are plains of still
greater elevation, on which, although they have a mean
temperature of from 61 '8° to 55*4°, equal to that of
France and Lombardy, the vegetation is less vigorous,
and European plants do not thrive so well as in their
native soil. The winters there are not extremely severe,
but in summer the sun has not sufficient power over the
rarified air to bring fruits to perfect maturity.

From the peculiar circumstances of New Spain, as influence ou
here sketched, the influence of geographical position ^ '^s^'*'^°'i-
upon the vegetation is much less than that of the height
of the ground above the sea. In the nineteenth and
twentieth degrees of latitude, sugar, cotton, cacao, and
indigo, are produced abundantly only at an elevation of
from 1968 to 2625 feet. Wheat thrives on the declivi-
ties of the mountains, along a zone which commences at
4593 feet and ends at 9843. The banana (^Musa para-
disiaca), on the fruit of which the inhabitants of the
tropics chiefly subsist, is seldom productive above 5085
feet ; oaks grow only between 2625 and 9843 feet ; and
pines never descend lower than 6069, nor rise above
13,124 feet.

The internal provinces of tlie temperate zone enjoy a Difference of
climate essentially diff'erent from that of the same
parallels in the Old Continent. So remarkable an in-
equality prevails indeed between the temperature of the
seasons, that while the winters resemble those of Ger-



CHAP. XXIV. many, the summers are like those of Sicily. A similar
g ; difference exists between the other parts of America and
the cori-esponding latitudes in Europe ; but it is less
perceptible on the western than on the eastern coasts.
Si:ver mines. New Spain possesses a peculiar advantage in the
circumstances under which the precious metals have
been deposited. In Peru the most important silver
mines, those of Potosi, Pasco, and Chota, are placed at
an immense elevation ; so that, in working them, men,
provisions, .and cattle, must be brought from a distance ;
but in Mexico, the richest of these, those, namely, of
Guanaxuato, Zacatecas, Tasco, and Real del Monte, are
at moderate heights, and surrounded by cultivated fields,
towns, and villages.

There are few rivers of consequence in the country,
the Rio Bravo del Norte and the Rio Colorado being the
only ones of any magnitude. The former has a course
of 1768 miles, the latter of 863 ; but these streams flow
in the least cultivated parts of the country, and can
have little influence in a commercial point of view until
colonization shall extend to their shores. In the whole
equinoctial part of New Spain there are only small
rivulets, of which very few can ever become interesting
to the merchant.

The numerous lakes, the greater part of which appear
to be annually decreasing in siiie, are the remains of
immense basins of water that formerly existed on the
elevated plains. Of these may be mentioned the lake
of Chapala, nearly 1910 square miles in extent; those
of the valley of Mexico, which comprehend a fourth
part of its surface ; that of Patzcuaro in Valladolid ;
and, finally, the lakes of Mexitlan and Parras in New

The interior of New Spain, and especially a great
part of the elevated table -land of Anahuac, is arid and
destitute of vegetation ; which arises from the rapid
evaporation in high plains, and the circumstance that
few of the mountains enter the region of perpetual
snow, which under the equator commences at the


table hxni.


height of 15,748 feet, and in the 46th degree of latitude CHAP. XXIV

at that of 8366 feet. In Mexico, in the 19th and 20th ^, T" <■

Elevation of

degrees, perpetual frost commences, accordmg to Hum- perpetual

boldt's measurements, at 16,002 feet of elevation ; so ^'°'^*

that of the six colossal summits, which are placed in the

same line in the 19th parallel of latitude, only four,

namely, the Peak of Orizaba, Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl,

and Nevado de Tolucca, are clothed with perennial

snow ; while the Cofre de Perote and tlie Volcan de

Colima remain uncovered during the greater part of the

year. None of the other mountains rise into so lofty a


In general, in the equinoctial part of New Spain, the Temperatiire
., ,. ' , ^ . ^ . ., \ ' ot the table

soil, climate, and vegetation, present a similar character land.

to those of the temperate zone. Although the table-
lands are singularly cold in winter, the temperature is
much higher in summer than in the Andes of Peru,
because the great mass of the cordillera of Mexico, and
the vast extent of its plains, produce a reverberation of
the sun's rays never observed in elevated countries of
greater inequality.

To the north of 20° the rains, which fall only in June, K^i^^*-
July, August, and September, very seldom extend to the
interior. The mountains, being composed of porous
amygdaloid and fissured porphyries, present few springs ;
the filtrated water losing itself in the crevices opened by
ancient volcanic eruptions, and issuing at the bottom of
the Cordilleras.

The aridity of the central plain, on which there is a Dcstmction
gi'eat deficiency of wood, is prejudicial to the working
of the mines ; and this natural evil has been augmented
since the arrival of Europeans, who have not only
destroyed the trees without planting others, but have
drained a large extent of ground, and thus increased the
saline efflorescences which cover the surface and are
hostile to cultivation. This dryness, however, is con-
fined to the more elevated plains ; and the declivities of
the cordillera being exposed to humid winds and fogs,
their vegetation is uncommonly vigorous.



Want of



CHAP.xxiv. Mexico is less disturbed by earthquakes than Quito,
Frequency of Guatiniala, and Cuuiana, although these destructive
earthquakes, commotions are by no means rare on the western coasts,
and in the neighbourhood of the capital, where, however,
they are never so violent as in other parts of America.
There are only five active volcanoes in all New Spain :
Orizaba, Popocatepetl, Tustla, JoruUo, and Colima.
Advantage- The physical situation of that kingdom confers in-
oussituatiou. pgjjj^^jjjjjg advantages upon it in a commercial point of
view. Under careful cultivation it is capable of produc-
ing all that commerce brings together from every part
of the globe : sugar, cochineal, cacao, cotton, coffee,
wheat, hemp, flax, silk, oil, and wine. It furnishes
every metal, not even excepting mercury, and is supplied
with the finest timber ; but the coasts oppose obstacles
which it will be difficult to overcome. The western
shores are indeed furnished with excellent harbours ;
but the eastern are almost entirely destitute of them,
the mouths of the rivers there being choked up with
sands, which are constantly adding to the land. Vera
Cruz, the principal port on this side, is merely an open
road. Both coasts, too, are rendered inaccessible for
several months by severe tempests, which prevent all
navigation. The north winds, los nortes, prevail in the
^Mexican Gulf from the autumnal to the vernal equinox.
They are very violent in March, though usually more
moderate in September and October. The navigators
who have long frequented the port of Vera Cruz are
familiar with the symptoms of the coming storm, which
is preceded by a great change in the barometer, and a
sudden interruption in the regular occurrence of its
horary oscillations. At first a gentle land-wind blows
from W.N.W., and is succeeded by a l)reeze rising from
the N.E., then from the S. A suffocating heat succeeds,
and tile water dissolved in the atmosphere is precipitated
on the walls and pavements. The summits of Orizaba,
of the Cofre de I'erote, and the mountains of Villa
Rica, arc cloudless, while their bases are concealed by
vapours. In this state of the air the tempest com-



mences, usually with great impetuosity, and generally CHAP.xxiv
continues three or four days. Occasionally, even in Dangerous.
May, June, July, and August, violent hurricanes are navigation.
experienced in the Gulf of Mexico. The navigation of
the western coasts is very dangerous in July and
August, when sudden gales burst from the S.W, ; and
even in the fine season, from October to May, furious
winds sometimes blow from the N.E. and N.N.E. In
short, all the coasts of New Spain are at certain periods
dangerous to navigators.

It is probable that Mexico was formerly better inhab- Former
ited than it is at present ; but its popuhxtion was I'opu^ticii.
concentrated in a very small space in the neighbourhood
of the capital. At the present day it is more generally
distributed than it was before the conquest, and the
number of Indians has increased during the last century.
According to an imperfect census made in 1794, the re- census.
turn was estimated at 5,200,000. The proportion of
births to deaths, during the time between that period
and Humboldt's visit, was found, from data furnished
by the clergy, to be 170 : 100 ; while that of births to
the total amount he considers as 1 in 17, and of the
deaths as 1 in 30. The annual number at present born
he estimates at nearly 350,000, and that of deaths at
200,000. It would thus appear that, if this rate of check on
increase were not checked from time to time by some ui"'«tse
extraordinary cause, the population of New Spain would
double every nineteen years. In the United States
generally it has doubled, since 1784, every twenty or
twenty-three years ; and in some of them it doubles in
thirteen or fourteen. In France, on the other hand, the
number of inhabitants would double in 214 years were
no wars or contagious diseases to interfere. Such is the
difference between countries that have long been densely
peopled and those whose civilisation is of recent date.

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 24 of 35)