Not so humbly Humboldt: the queer relationships of a German explorer

Alexander von Humboldt
Alexander Humboldt. Wiki Comms.

Born in Berlin on the 14th of September 1769, Alexander von Humboldt is something of a global name. His namesake is found throughout nature, such as the Humboldt penguin, Humboldt’s lily, Humboldt’s hummingbird, Humboldt’s Glacier. Indeed, you can go all the way to Antarctica and encounter the Humboldt mountains, named for him.

Humboldt is also known for inventing isotherms (the lines we see on today’s weather maps), discovering the magnetic equator, and an immense documentation of South American wildlife; but perhaps most importantly seeing the world as a web of life that is infinitely connected. What is not talked about; however, is his relationships with other men. 

Humboldt’s burning love

There is a tendency amongst academics to ‘pray the gay away’ by making excuses for notable figures’ same sex relationships, and Alexander von Humboldt is no exception. Indeed, Adolf Meyer-Abich’s book “Alexander von Humboldt” states that love and friendship are synonymous at the time of Humboldt, and if there are any romantic suggestions to be made of his ‘close friend’, it is of Humboldt’s affection for his friend’s wife.

Many of his personal ‘love’ letters have been destroyed, which is unsurprising given the laws on homosexuality at the time. 

Discovering the love triangle: Reinhard von Haeften

Humboldt had many ‘close friends’ in his early years, such as Wilhelm Gabriel Wegener, a theology student who Humboldt expressed his “fervent love” for; Georg Förster, whom he explored Europe with, and a survey instructor named Karl Freisleben. The most concrete suggestion of a romantic relationship is in a letter addressed to Reinhard von Haeften. He spent two years travelling with Haeften, at his own expense, which didn’t quite end even when Haeften married his pregnant fiancée. Indeed, the three lived together for 6 months.

Text abstract from one of Alexander's letters.
Text abstract from one of Alexander’s letters.

Exploring South America with Aimé Bonpland

An abstract from one of Alexander's Von Humboldt letters
An abstract from one of Alexander’s Von Humboldt letters. Flickr

The next 5 years of Humboldt’s life were spent with the French Botanist, Aimé Bonpland, exploring South America. They returned having documented a wealth of natural phenomena, including more than 60,000 plant species, measured what is now known as the Humboldt Current (though he objected to the name), and letter describing the ‘masculine beauty’ of South American men.

There is no specific reference to the exact nature of the pair’s relationship, though this trip was entirely self-funded and appears to hint at least the homosexual nature of the pair, if not toward each other. Their discoveries in this trip are said to have laid the foundation for modern biogeography and comparative climatology.

Hiding in plain sight: Johann Seifert

There were others later in life who Humboldt is reported to have had long term relationships with, the last of which was a servant in his house named Johanne Seifert. Upon his death in 1859, Humboldt left his entire estate to Seifert. At the time, passing off a lover as a servant was a common way to hide queer relationships. Humboldt’s name can be found pole-to-pole in every element of nature connected in the very way he saw nature, but his queerness is rarely discussed.

Today, though legal in many countries, Queer scientists are still likely to hide their identity in the workplace. It may not be right to ascribe a sexual nature to Humboldt’s relationships; however, there is clear indication for romantic relationships with other men.

What Humboldt’s ‘modern’ identity would have been (gay, bi, ace, pan etc.), it is clear that Humboldt was both a world-renowned naturalist as well as a piece of queer history. In talking about this, we help young queer scientists see themselves in research and make research itself more accessible.

There is an annual LGBT+ STEMinar in January 2022 in Glasgow. For more information click here.

For further information and support on some of the matters discussed in this article check out the resources below.

References

1. Alexander von Humboldt. Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-von-Humboldt. (last accessed 5th October 2021).

2. A testimony to a restless spirit (2019). 250 humbolt. Available at: https://humboldt-heute.de/en/humboldtblog/wulf-interview. (Last accessed 7th October 2021)

3. Alexander Von Humboldt. LGBT History Month. Available at: https://lgbthistorymonth.com/alexander-von-humboldt?tab=biography. (last accessed 7th October 2021)

4. Mackey, A.W., Adger, D., Bond, A.L., Giles, S., and Ochu, E. (2019) Straight-washing ecological legacies. nature ecology and evolution. 3. 1611.

5. Elisarolle. Available at: http://www.elisarolle.com/queerplaces/a-b-ce/Alexander%20von%20Humboldt.html. (Last accessed 5th October 2021)

6. The Life and Times of Alexander Von Humboldt, by Helmut de Terra. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1955, p. 63.

About the Author

Daniel Parkes is a Quaternary scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London studying abrupt climate change events in a warm period similar to the present day known as MIS 11c. About 400,000 years ago.

Dan uses information from marine and terrestrial sediment cores from across the North Atlantic Ocean to look at changes in the surface and deep ocean environment during this period in. Using this information, he hopes to understand the cause and structure of abrupt climate change events at a time where the Greenland ice sheet had lost its entire southern area, and where modern humans were not impacting the environment.

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