Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Africa

On Biography

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Every year, history conferences feature panels about biography. These are not talks which offer a biography in the manner of A & E’s Biography Channel  (which profiles Kirstie Alley tonight) but ones that consider biography as a genre. They come with titles like “Making a Case for Biography: New Methods in the History of X.”

Why do professional historians feel the need to defend biographies? They have never stopped writing them.  Academic presses remain eager to publish them. Yet biography still carries a reputation of being popular at the expense of being deep, of being an intellectual lightweight in a world of hipper, higher-powered genres: micro-histories, cultural histories, comparative histories, and transnational histories. In the high-cultural universe of academic writing, biography is Gilligan’s Island.

There are many reasons for this, but one key reason is structure. Biography focuses on the role of individuals in shaping events. As such, it sails against the wind of modern scholarship which, for forty years or so, has located historical change in institutions, corporations, governments, and national cultures. And individuals? Go to Barnes and Nobles.

Moreover, biography is tricky as a genre because it sometimes lures historians into thinking that they are really psychoanalysts, that they can interpret the thoughts and feelings of their subjects. If Freud couldn’t ferret out the real causes of his patients’ behavior, why do we think biographers will prove any better at it with people who are dead?

Sigmund Freud's Couch

Sigmund Freud's Couch

That said, I like biographies. If the genre has limitations, it also has spirit. Whether or not people offer a useful way to look at historical change, they are interesting to read about. And the way biographers choose to tell the stories of individuals is interesting too.

john ledyard

For example, Ed Gray’s biography of John Ledyard (which I reviewed here) gives a rich account of Ledyard’s travels. Yet Gray avoids the temptation to put him on the couch and Ledyard remains a mysterious figure, a shadow in the foreground of a brightly painted world.

By contrast, Tim Jeal is far freer with his psychological analysis of Henry Morton Stanley. This should probably make me uneasy. But Jeal builds his psychological hypothesizing on a solid foundation of evidence. He has done his homework on Stanley, a man who left an Africa-sized archive of primary source material.

Better yet, Jeal uses his analysis of Stanley to say interesting things. For example, he observes that Stanley inflated the number of Africans that he killed from the island of Bumbireh in Lake Victoria, a strange boast given that it contributed to Stanley’s reputation as a cold-hearted killer.

henry morton stanley

Yet Jeal argues that Stanley’s actions make sense only if one understands his shame at being humiliated by the leader of Bumbireh weeks earlier, something that Stanley — abandoned by his parents and raised in a workhouse — was keenly sensitive to. Moreover, Jeal argues that Stanley misjudged his audience’s reaction to the Bumbireh story, thinking that Europeans and Americans would like stories of warfare in Africa, much as they liked “big kill” stories about the Indian wars of the American West.

Despite their very different styles, I recommend both books.

Mountains of the Moon

Mountains of the Moon, detail of 1655 Kircher Map of Africa

Mountains of the Moon, detail of 1655 Kircher Map of Africa

In 1788, twenty years after sailing into the Pacific with Captain Cook, Joseph Banks turned his attention to the next riddle of geographical science: the exploration of Africa. In St. Albans Tavern in London, Banks and the other members of the elite Saturday Club drafted a proposal of action:

Resolved: That as no species of information is more ardently desired, or more generally useful, than that which improves the science of Geography; and as the vast Continent of Africa, notwithstanding the efforts of the Antients, and the wishes of the Moderns, is still in a great measure unexplored, the Members of this Club do form themselves into an Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Inland Parts of that Quarter of the World.

The Saturday Club acted quickly. It endorsed the resolution, established an Association, put together an expeditionary fund, and commissioned John Ledyard (also a veteran of Cook’s voyages) to cross the African continent from east to west. Ledyard arrived in Egypt ready to complete the “efforts of the Ancients” but was struck down by illness in Cairo.  He died before his boots got sandy.

Ledyard’s death was a disappointment to the Association, but it couldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Africa had proved itself resistant to European efforts for over three centuries. The first forays into Africa began badly. In 1446 Portuguese mariner Nuno Tristão took twelve men up the Gambia River in pursuit of Africans and riches. Tristão was attacked by Gambian tribesmen and killed along with half of his party.

The Portuguese learned from Tristão’s mistake. When they returned to West Africa, they abandoned their plans to explore and conquer the interior, preferring to set up outposts or “feitorias” on the coast from which they could trade with African kingdoms of the interior.

Other factors inhibited exploration as well. The inhospitable conditions of the Sahara made overland expeditions difficult. The great rivers of Central Africa seemed more promising, but they were filled with cataracts that made it impossible to travel far by boat. Malaria felled Europeans who traveled inland, and sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) not only attacked humans but horses. The horse, so effective as a weapon of war for Europeans battling the Incas in the New World,  proved useless in European efforts to dominate Central Africa.

Cataract on the Congo River

Cataract on the Congo River

Despite Africa’s importance in the Atlantic economy as a source of slaves and gold, then, it remained poorly understood in Europe. As a result, it remained a place of mythical and geographical speculation: on the source of the Nile, the riches of Timbucktoo, the Gold Mines of Ophir, the trans-continental mountains of Kong, and the mysterious Mountains of the Moon.

This explains the power of Africa in the Western imagination even late into the nineteenth century. For writers and artists, Africa became a canvas upon which almost anything could be painted. In Anglo-American literature, Africa found a home in the work of dozens of writers including H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines, She), Joseph Conrad (The Heart of Darkness), and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan). Interestingly, the Africa of these works was background rather than foreground, a region made dark (morally, racially, and geographically) so as to better illuminate its protagonists — Allan Quartermain, Charles Marlow, Lord Greystoke — as they found adventure and enlightenment.

How such ideas were projected upon the surface of maps is the focus of Princeton’s excellent online exhibition,  To the Mountains of the Moon: Mapping African Exploration, 1541-1880. Created by curator John Delaney, To the Mountains of the Moon offers a history of Africa as seen through European eyes.

As one might expect, early Renaissance maps of Africa were colorful, fantastical documents. What they lacked in credible information they compensated for with a rich palate of speculation. On Sebastian Münster’s 1554 map of Africa one finds the home of the mythic Christian hero, Prester John, as well as a tribe of one-eyed giants, the dough-faced Monoculi, who sit above the bight of Africa.

Sebastian Munster's 1554 Map of Africa (detail)

Sebastian Munster's 1554 Map of Africa (detail)

Nineteenth century maps added precision and sophistication. Gone are the mythic tribes and gold mines of early maps along with the chatty notes in Africa’s margins about river currents, astronomical observations, Biblical figures, and anything tangentially related to the continent.

Yet the later maps leave out Africans too. If Prester John and African cyclops are not representative of Africa’s peoples, at least they show it to be a place of human action and habitation.  While some nineteenth century maps — by John Tallis and Victor Levasseur — present ethnographic scenes in the margins, others — such as William Winwood Reed’s Map of African Literature — shows the continent as a white text, tabula rasa, for the names of European explorers. “LIVINGSTONE” stretches across Central Africa from Mozambique to the mouth of the Congo River. Which of these maps – Munster’s or Reed’s – shows the greater distortion?

Winwood Read, Map of African Literature, 1910 (detail)

Winwood Read, Map of African Literature, 1910 (detail)

Despite the excellent maps and essays, the menus of the exhibition are not very clear. It’s easy to get lost and miss a map or two on the way out. This didn’t stop Stanley. It shouldn’t stop you.


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

Digital Archive: AfricaBib

Mary Kingsley, African explorer, ca. 1890

Mary Kingsley, African explorer, ca 1890

For me, graduate school was a happy time, of long days in the archives and long afternoons in the Ratskeller. To be fair though there were also moments of fear: fear of discovering some document that would blow apart my thesis like a howitzer shell. Or worse, fear of finding some book that supported my thesis, indeed supported it so closely that it would render my project superfluous, a poor knock-off of the original. Neither of these happened, though I did have my queasy moments of discovery in the card catalog.

"Der Bücherworm" by Carl Spitzweg, 1850

“Der Bücherworm” by Carl Spitzweg, 1850

I calmed my fears by mastering the ways of the database: Historical Abstracts, America: History and Life, the Making of America, Poole’s Periodical Database, Periodical Content Index, Dissertation Abstracts International, the American Periodical Series, etc, etc etc. Database companies market their products as tools for research and networking. And indeed they are. But for the paranoid graduate student, databases are used as radar, informing them when another scholar is flying too close. Happily those days are gone. But I still get a warm, cozy feeling inside when I find a good database. It is researcher’s version of a hot toddy.

Thomas Ewing, Africa, 1830

Thomas Ewing, Africa, 1830

Such was my feeling last night when I found AfricaBib, a set of three databases about Africa, the most exciting of which is Women Travelers, Explorers, and Missionaries to Africa. The databases are a thirty-year labor of love by research librarian Davis Bullwinkle who started working on the project in 1974, using, no doubt, index cards. As the project grew, Davis began to upgrade to a computer filing system, one designed by the precocious computer-whiz son of a colleague. After Bullwinkle retired in 2008, the database was taken over by the African Studies Centre (ASC) in Leiden, the Netherlands who keep it up to date. The database currently boasts 1800 items. What does this mean in terms of finding material on women explorers? Playing around with the database last night, I entered “Mary Kingsley” into the keyword search. It pulled up 109 records, including published dissertations, scholarly articles, books, and online essays. Very impressive. Nice work Davis.

For more on women travelers and explorers, see my post on Gertrude Bell and Women Explorers

Women Explorers

Josephine Peary

Josephine Peary

At one time returning explorers could expect a hearty welcome back home: good press, medals of honor, product endorsements, and lecture halls filled to capacity. Times have changed. Since the late nineteenth century, the press and public have been tougher on explorers, challenging their missions, their claims of discovery, and their behavior in the field.

Certainly there are still moments when the public’s knees get wobbly: the orbital flights of Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn and Armstrong’s touchdown on the moon. But even national pride cannot quite extinguish the feeling that we are watching some kind of carnival attraction, that things are not what they seem, that the dog-faced boy will reveal himself to be a carny in make-up.

The proof? It’s not just lemon-faced academics who are writing skeptically about travelers and explorers. Critics now come at the subject from all sides. Adventure writers such as Jon Krackauer psychoanalyze the ethos of the “go it alone” explorer in books like Into the Wild while explorers themselves hurl slings and arrows at each other on ExplorersWeb. Reading one of the glibby heroic biographies of Robert Peary or Elisha Kane is a bit like drinking coffee with lots of syrup: too sweet, no bite.

The Ninteenth-Century Explorer Narrative

The Nineteenth-Century Explorer Narrative

Still there are areas where criticism remains muted or under-reported, where one can read heroic narratives of old and ignore for a while the nattering nabobs of negativism. Mostly I see this in books on women and indigenous explorers.

It’s understandable. For hundreds of years, women and native peoples were routinely written out of explorer narratives. When they managed to make it in, they were usually playing set characters that readers would understand: the women who travel in the footsteps of intrepid husbands, the noble savages and their thievish brethren, all of them children of one sort or another. No surprise that as social mores have changed, we see attempts to bring these two-dimensional characters to life. In the past twenty years, there have been scores of books on women explorers alone. The Boston Public Library’s list of “Adventurous Women: Explorers and Travelers” gives a taste of this literature. Indeed, the fact that the BPL felt compelled to create this list for its patrons says something about popular demand.

Many books on women explorers hew closely to the heroic model of biography that was popular in the nineteenth century. Of her choice of subjects for the book Women of Discovery, author Milbry Polk said:

So in the end, we chose about 84 women that covered 2,000 years of history, more than a dozen different nationalities. And their endeavors crossed a wide swath of interests from every kind of science to our geography and painting. And, honestly, we chose most of them because we really liked them.

I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with an author liking his or her subjects, as long as it doesn’t interfere with reporting the less noble aspects of the subject’s actions. Many women explorers, often white, well-educated, and upper-class, were just as racist and vain-glorious as their male counterparts (Josephine Peary comes to mind here). A number of them did not rail against “sexism,” in our parlance, but accepted the conventional attitude that men and women were inherently different. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of women travelers is the degree to which they were able to turn these conventional attitudes to their own advantage. For example, Americans were transfixed by Nelly Bly’s bid to travel around the world in eighty days . . . not because she aspired to be look or act as tough as the boys but because she seemed so, well, girly.

Nellie Bly, 1890

Nellie Bly, 1890

This does not take away from the impressiveness of her accomplishments or others. Indeed, it makes the story of these women all the more interesting. More often than not, they did not buck a system of rigid gender roles…rather they used the system to make a space for themselves. Certainly this was not the exclusive strategy of women explorers. Frances Willard, Jane Addams, and other women of consequence did the same.

So I think it’s a shame that many biographies play up the idea of heroic women overcoming adversity through sheer strength of will. It’s a simplistic story that doesn’t do them justice. As a result, these books read very much like nineteenth-century biographies of their male counterparts.

Not that all work on women explorers fits into this category. In her account of Mary Kingsley, British explorer of West Africa, Alison Blunt warns of the dangers of placing women travelers on pedestals. Says Blunt:

Recent interest in white women in colonial settings has often taken the form of romantic, nostalgic imagery in literature, television, and film, notably since the 1980s…These approaches isolate and often celebrate individual “heroic” women rather than question constructions of gender… [Travel, Gender, and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley in West Africa, 5-6]

So where do we turn for good work on women and non-white explorers? Here’s a short list of favorites. Patricia Erikson’s current work on Josephine Peary promises a new, nuanced take on this controversial and complicated explorer. Dierdre Stam’s work on Matthew Henson also will provide some balance and context to the U.S.’s most famous African-American explorer. These are works in progress, so in the interim, you might want to read these:

Patricia M.E. Lorcin’s essay on women’s travel writing which offers a good overview of the field as well as some great secondary sources.

Patricia Gilmartin’s excellent essay on women and exploration in the Oxford Companion to World Exploration (which I reviewed here). Also see Gilmartin’s website for a more complete bibliography of her work.

Lisa Bloom’s controversial, pathbreaking book Gender On Ice which discusses the gender construction of Arctic narratives in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Carla Ulloa Inostroza’s excellent blog on the history of women’s travel Mujeres Viajeras

Laura Kay’s course reading list at Barnard.

If all of this gets a bit wonky for you, head over to the Victorian Women Writers Project where you can read the chronicles of Isabella Bird as she travels through the Rocky Mountains and the islands of Hawaii in the 1870s.

Also see my posts AfricaBib on women travelers and the Gertrude Bell Archive

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