Translation of ‘A fictive discussion in Berlin in Winter 1827/28, inspired by Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos lectures’

written by Petra Weschenfelder

Elisabeth and Louise are two fictitious listeners of Alexander von Humboldt’s public Kosmos lectures in the Sing-Akademie (today’s Maxim Gorki Theatre). Their statements are based on the notes of Otto Hufeland that are available in a digitised version in the deutsches Textarchiv. Gotthilf Patzig and Gustav Parthey attended Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos lectures at the university. Their notes are also available in the deutsches Textarchiv. We follow their dialogue after the 4th public lecture.

Elisabeth: : It is such a fine move of Mister von Humboldt to present the knowledge of our time to a public audience. Today’s lecture was so inspiring! The earth’s evolution raises so many questions.

Louise: And there are so many theories! Mister von Humboldt was so apprehending as to refer to earlier works. It has indeed been a while since I read Leibnitz’s Protogea and Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle. Yet, his reminder supported my understanding the context.

Elisabeth:: It is all the more tremendous how quickly the state of knowledge expands and changes! According to Mister von Humboldt the new science of crystallography will contribute a lot to the study of the earth’s evolution.

Gotthilf: Indeed! In the university lecture, the professor also described how the analysis of various stones could tell about the age of mountains. This is because they formed during different ages of the earth’s evolution.

Louise: Just imagine that we would not only know about the age of the stones. We would also be able to date the fossils that we sometimes find embedded in the stone.

Gustav: Oh, of course, the fossils! You and your husband are well known to go to the Baltic summer resorts where you collect fossilised sea creatures. Your collection already advanced to a precious destination among many of my acquaintances. It would indeed be wonderful to know when these creatures lived.
However, in the university lectures the professor did not yet provide that much detail on the earth’s evolution. In one of his last lectures, he shortly mentioned volcanic eruptions that even could produce islands.

Gotthilf: Right. He mentioned the island Sabrina in the Azores. But, if I remember correctly, it was a fraud, wasn’t it? I thought the members of the geographical society wanted to survey it, but it did not exist.

Elisabeth: Oh, it did exist! I read an article about the island. A friend of mine from London sent me the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. The article was published in 1812, the year that followed the eruption. It was written by Captain S. Tillard who witnessed the eruption and explored and named the island..

Louise: Yes, indeed! You gave me the Transactions because it featured a contribution from Herschel about comets. At that opportunity, I read all the articles.
I remember some detail of Tillard’s account. It was very vivid. At one point, he and some friends sat on a cliff to admire the view of the eruption. Of course, they used this opportunity to have a picnic. Yet, when a sudden earthquake caused a part of the cliff to break off and slide down, they had to transfer their picnic to another place.

Gustav: Oh, those Englishmen! Even use a volcanic eruption as an excuse for a picnic. Still, do they have to put this remark into a scientific account?

Elisabeth: Well, however, Mister Tillard described the eruptions very precisely. If I remember correctly, he approached the island of St. Michael and saw columns of smoke rising from the sea. At that point, the eruption had already lasted for two days. Two days after, he watched the spectacle from the cliff. He not only described earthquakes, but also that the smoke columns then rose revolving in irregular involutions accompanied by sudden eruptions of ashes and lightning. The clouds took the forms of gigantic ostrich feathers.

Louise: Was that not also the point when a small tip of the island had already risen out of the sea?

Elisabeth: Right. But the eruptions continued for several days. It was not before Captain Tillard’s visit in the beginning of July that the island had emerged from the sea in form of an amphitheatre.

Louise: I remember the captain’s account on his exploration of the island. The ground as well as the water was very hot. He even found an entirely burnt fish there. Moreover, the island was very steep. Only with great difficulty could they climb the ridges. On these, they moved half-straddled towards a platform where they planted the British flag.

Gustav: The British flag? But the Azores belong to Portugal! He cannot just claim the island for the British crown! And, in 1811! Portugal supported Great Britain during Napoleon’s continental Blockade. I would consider his move was politically ill advised.

Gotthilf: Well, so it was pure luck that the surveyors did not find the island then. The description sounds rather credible. And one would assume that a captain would document the coordinates of his island in such a way that one could find it. Could it be that the island sunk as quickly as it rose from the sea?

Elisabeth: That is quite possible. Mister von Humboldt even mentioned today that volcanoes, earthquakes and even the eruption of hot springs could be related. The island could even have been only the first sign of a phenomenon that entailed further eruptions.

Louise: According to my notes, an earthquake destroyed the city Carracas less than a year after the appearance of the island. Less than a month after the earthquake the volcano of St. Vincent in the neighbouring Antilles erupted. After that, seismic shocks occurred until 1813 in the plains of the Rivers Ohio and Mississippi and at last along the coast of Venezuela.

Gustav: Faced with so much destruction it is indeed consoling to know that volcanic eruptions can also produce new land.