Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Asia on Top

Zheng He's Fleet sailing the Western (Indian) Ocean, 1405-1433. 20th century, artist unknown

Zheng He's fleet sailing the Western (Indian) Ocean, 1405-1433. 20th century painting, artist unknown.

Exploration seems an inclusive concept, a big-tent activity that admits anyone with a geographical goal and a good pair of shoes. But like most terms, exploration has hidden meanings and rules, ones that restrict certain places, people, and activities.

For example, Americans have made a national mythology out of exploration, creating a genealogy of pioneers and explorers that extends from Lewis and Clark in 1804 to Neil Armstrong in 1969. Were extraterrestrials listening in to the speeches of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, they would be forgiven for thinking that Americans single-handedly discovered the world. (For more on exploration talk at the DNC, read this)

Yet even the most blinkered American manifest-destinorians would have to extend the “spirit of exploration” to Europeans. Otherwise they would have to exclude the Renaissance all-stars of exploration, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan, from their ranks.

Protestant Americans wrestled with exactly this issue in the 19th century, ultimately deciding to embrace southern European explorers as a part of their own cultural heritage. In their favor, Columbus and his successors were white Christians, even if they suffered from being papists, speaking Spanish and Italian, and drinking wine on Sundays.

Columbian Exposition Commemorative Half Dollar, 1892

Columbian Exposition Commemorative Half Dollar, 1892

But this is about as inclusive as Americans have been willing to get.  Expeditionary activities of African and Asian nations are duly reported of course. Western press agencies keep us apprised of the South African National Antartic Programme (SANAP) and the Chinese Shenzhou Space Program. But one detects in western press coverage a view that these accomplishments are adaptations to a Western philosophy of discovery, a mimetic activity rather than something which expresses core features of Asian or African culture.

Put differently, exploration has become the symbolic equivalent of baseball, an activity played all over the world, but still seen in the U.S.  — now and forever more — as an archetypally American game (debts to cricket aside).

Were we to sit down with early European navigators in the 15th century, I think they would be astonished by all of this Euro-American strutting and preening. After all, exploration took off in Europe because Europeans felt they were being pushed off the stage of world events.

Despite the pageantry of statues and paintings, the European Age of Discovery was less about curiosity than fear and admiration, an appreciation for non-European powers, particularly in Asia, that held the keys to European collapse or prosperity.

For medieval Europeans, the Orient was the center of the world.  It was the font of Judeo-Christian religious history, the site of the Holy Land. It was the center of global commerce and trade, particularly luxury items. While Frankish farmers ate mutton and plowed their fields in scratchy woolens, Marco Polo enchanted readers with stories of  silks, teas, and concubines  from Cathay.

Travels of Marco Polo, manuscript page, 1298

Travels of Marco Polo, manuscript page, 1298

Meanwhile Crusaders brought back cinnamon and clove from the Spice Islands and cottons from India. As for geopolitical power, any Pole, Serb, or Castilian from the late Medieval period would have stories to tell about the powerful pagans of the East. One forgets that before the centuries of European hegemony, European border kingdoms were continually reacting to events from empires East:  Mongols, Persians, and Ottomans.

Evidence for this comes from many sources. The importance of the East is pounded into the English language of geography. For example, the word for Eastern lands “Orient” (Chaucer, 1375 CE) soon begot words of directionality such as “orientality” (Browne, 1647 CE) and “to orient” (Chambers, 1728 CE).

Moreover, European cartography expressed a Eastern-centric vision of the world. European T-O maps produced in late medieval Europe usually faced East and centered on Jerusalem. It was common for such maps to also overlay important religious symbols such as the body of Christ or the sons of Noah on the world’s continents.

T-O map from the Etymologiae of Isidorus, 1472

T-O map from the Etymologiae of Isidorus, 1472. Asia is on top, Europe is bottom left, Africa is bottom right. The names of Noah's sons are placed under each continent.

Mappa Mundi showing Noah's ark and three sons on three continents in La Fleur des Histoires, Valenciennes, 1459-63

Mappa Mundi showing Noah's ark and three sons on three continents in La Fleur des Histoires, Valenciennes, 1459-63

European conquests in Asia and America in the early 16th century did much to boost European self confidence.  (See for example, Abraham Ortelius’s frontispiece for his 1580 Atlas in my post on cannibalism)

There is much more to be said about Asia in the history of exploration, particularly 19th century conceptions of the East and Edward Said’s influential work Orientalism. All of that will have to wait for another post though. For now, here are a few links on history, travel, and exploration in Asia:

The Silkroad Foundation “The Bridge Between Eastern and Western Cultures”

The Athena Review Journal of Archeology, History, and Exploration

Astene Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East

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4 Comments»

  ArchAsa wrote @

So true! This extremely etnocentric view of exploration in the West is deeply imbedded in the idea that all other peoples were totally isolated before europeans turned up. Unless you’ve been discovered by a sweaty white dude, you might as well be a non-entity.

I hate modern TV shows where some reporter with a Stanley-complex sets out to discover “new peoples”, who incidentally have been importing chinese porcelain since the 16th century… But that doesn’t count,

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Asa, on sweaty white dudes: I seem to remember a paper by Franz Boas, published in Science in the 1880s in which he argued that Arctic geography could be advanced more quickly, cheaply, and safely by closely interviewing Inuit hunters about regional geography. He produced a map based upon his own interviews with Baffin Islanders. The idea was met with deafening silence.

  Kevin Z wrote @

But I thought of seeking out local knowledge was an old one. Isn’t that why armies and expeditions had guides, often ‘savages’? Lewis and Clark had Native Americans and trappers, for instance. So while the sweaty white dudes took all the credit, often they seemed to seek the assistance of a person with a lot of regional knowledge.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Kevin, you’re right – it goes way back. Some western explorers, such as Alexander von Humboldt, went into the field, learned from indigenous people and credited them in their books. Other explorers (most ?) were not so generous. Elisha Kane would not have survived two years in the Arctic without the help of the Inuit of Etah. Yet in his book, they come off as thievish children.


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