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PRINCE MAXIMILIAN OF WIED-NEUWIED
(1782-1867)


In the eighteenth century, non-Portuguese explorers were prohibited from traveling in Brazil without an official escort.  This changed in 1808 when, in the wake of Napoleon’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the prince regent of Portugal (the future King João VI) temporarily moved the royal court to Brazil. One of the liberal policies João immediately put in place was to open Brazil’s doors to travelers of all nationalities.  For an independently wealthy student of natural history such as Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, this was a great opportunity, especially after the Napoleonic Wars came to an end in 1815. In the introduction to his 1820 account of his travels in Brazil, Wied remarked that more than twenty years of war “had thrown numerous obstacles in the way of every attempt to extend the domain of natural science and geography by travels into remote quarters of the globe” (Wied-Neuwied 1820, 1). Although Alexander von Humboldt, whom Wied had met in 1804 or 1805 upon Humboldt’s return from the Americas, had been enormously successful as an explorer and collector, he had been unable to visit Brazil (in fact, he was threatened with arrest if he ever set foot there). After meeting with his famous countryman again in Paris in 1814, Wied, who had come to the French capital as a soldier with victorious German troops, decided to pick up where Humboldt had left off, taking advantage of Brazil’s new “open door” policy, as well as the peace in Europe.

In January 1815, with Napoleon packed off to his initial exile on the island of Elba, Wied was granted a leave of absence from the Prussian army and traveled to London with two assistants – David Dreidoppel, a hunter and taxidermist, and Christian Simonis, a gardener – both of whom had been in his family’s employ.  The three men departed from London aboard the Janus in May and arrived at Rio de Janeiro seventy-two days later, attempting unsuccessfully to shoot their first birds (gulls) as their ship approached the city. From the capital, they proceeded up Brazil’s southeastern coast, a region known as the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest). Wied, Dreidoppel, and Simonis joined two other German scientists, the ornithologist Georg Wilhelm Freyreiss and the botanist Friedrich Sellow, who had arrived in South America sometime earlier and were working under the patronage of Baron Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, the Russian consul general to Brazil.  Northeast of Rio de Janeiro, on the road to Cabo Frio, Wied and his companions entered a mountainous region that, he wrote, “surpassed everything my imagination had as yet conceived of the grand scenes of nature” (ibid., 43). The trees there were so tall that even the hunters’ best fowling pieces could not reach the birds perched in their upper branches. The party also encountered birds so unafraid that the men could almost catch them with their bare hands. To his ornithological collections Wied soon added several species of brightly colored tanagers, hummingbirds “of exquisite beauty,” and dozens of parrots.

Despite Brazil’s new openness to foreign travelers, Wied (who traveled under the pseudonym Baron von Braunsberg) encountered suspicion almost everywhere he went. Some thought he was an English spy.  Others simply found it hard to understand what he was trying to achieve. Brazil’s native peoples – whom Wied, as a former student of the pioneering anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, was interested in studying – were equally distrustful. For thirty years, the Portuguese had been at war with the Indian tribes of the region through which Wied was traveling. The Germans were startled to learn that some of these Indians were cannibals. While visiting one settlement, the travelers were informed that Indians had recently captured, roasted, and eaten a black slave, leaving nothing but his skull as a warning to others. Wied and his companions had good reason to believe that they, the hunters, would soon become the hunted. As they proceeded northward, however, their fears diminished. Several members of the Botocudo tribe helped them collect specimens, and Wied had time to compile several brief lists of Indian words, which he eventually published as an appendix to the account of his journey.

In 1817, while exploring the state of Bahia, Wied was arrested and imprisoned.  Revolution had broken out in the neighboring state of Pernambuco. Mistaken once again for an Englishman or American, he was automatically assumed to be a supporter of the republican rebels. Although he was released after three days, the experience soured him on Brazil. His health had also declined, and so, upon reaching the port city of Salvador, he ended his journey and returned to Europe.  It was in the United States that Wied eventually undertook his most famous expedition. Between 1832 and 1834, he traveled on the upper Missouri River with the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, studying the northern Plains Indians, documenting the natural history of the region, and comparing the area with what he had seen in Brazil. (Michael Taylor)