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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.
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.
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?
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.
At times I think about getting rid of my laptop, dumping it into the trash or tossing it over the guardrail on I-84. It works perfectly fine. But its role in my life increasingly bothers me. It feels invasive, a tool that has become a crutch, mediating almost all of the activities of my life: my communications with students, friends, and colleagues, my meeting place for committees, spreadsheet for calculating grades, library for reading newspapers and searching archives, store for ordering books, entertainment center for films, sports pages, and blogs.
I find myself thinking — dolefully, wistfully — of paper and pencil, of writing notes on index cards, thwacking out papers on a typewriter, writing letters on rough-edged stationary, reading books slowly and deliberately on my couch rather than gutting them like fish on the deck of a ship.
Most of all, I don’t like what my laptop does to the way I think. I used to spend a great deal of time tunneling in on subjects, digging into the arcana of history like a wood bore. Now I feel I spend a great deal of time skittering over subjects, a flat rock thrown over a calm pond. I cannot place all of the blame on my laptop. It comes from having too many things to do.
Being too distracted is a lament common to Americans and Europeans since the 18th century. Do our lives benefit from the conveniences of modern life? Or are these conveniences a subtle gloss that separates us from the vibrancy of raw experience? A laminate that protects us from the authentic life? Or, as Thoreau puts it:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear… [Walden, ch. 2]
I think Thoreau draws this dichotomy a bit too starkly. My feeling is that all of life is authentic; experiences are real no matter how mediated they are by technology or modern convenience. Still I’m not letting my laptop completely off the hook. For all of its impressive powers, the networked computer is crack cocaine for the skittering mind, the gateway drug of associational thinking.
Still, I won’t throw it away. First, it doesn’t belong to me and I would have to pay back my dean. Second, it has brought me into contact with fascinating people and amazing places, a New World of information that I absorb in bits and pieces.
Ok, enough deep thoughts. Here are some new links I’ve uncovered in my skittering hops across the pond.
Google recently worked out a deal with Life Magazine, scanning decades of photos and putting them in a historical archive online. This is a fabulously rich collection of twentieth-century images, particularly in the field of exploration. Try out, for example, terms such as expedition, voyage, underwater, capsule, and planet. You can also search Google for life photos directly – just enter your search term followed by “source: life”. When this returns a list, specify “images” in the tab at the top.
The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library offers a much smaller set of archival images, five to be exact. But the five images in question, European maps of discovery from 1520-1792, are too rich to be missed. Each map offers a snapshot of European geographical knowledge of the world, from the shape of continents and novel modes of map projection, to elaborate cartouches showing the lifeways of native peoples.
Finally two sites I just learned about today. The first is Big Dead Place, an online journal devoted to Antarctica, edited by Nicholas Johnson, author of a book of the same name published by Feral House Publishing in 2005. Johnson has some great interviews and analysis of South Polar exploration.
For an impressively massive list of all things Antarctica, also check out Dr. Elizabeth Leane’s Representations of Antarctica which breaks up the subject into categories of fiction (juvenile and adult), short stories, poetry, films and television, as well as literary and cultural criticism.
Congratulations to Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, winners of the 2008 Banff Mountain Book Award for Mountaineering History. Their excellent book, Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes , does not merely chronicle the harrowing ascents and colorful personalities of high-altitude climbing. It also offers a look at mountaineering as a cultural project that blossomed in the 19th and 20th centuries. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am friends with Stewart and an acquaintance of Maurice).
David Chaundy-Smart, editor of Gripped Magazine, states:
Tilman speculated that a chronicle of the “fall of the giants” of the Himalayas would not be as interesting as chronicles of the failed attempts. He never anticipated that Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver would eventually paraphrase him in the title of an exhaustive and entertaining history of Himalayan mountaineering. This is a standard-setting work that credibly accounts for the struggle to summit the 8000 metre peaks with a seamless discussion of politics, economics and the development of climbing technique backed by a mind-boggling list of sources.
If this isn’t enough to satisfy your Himalayan appetite, visit the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Tibet Album. Here you’ll find a collection of British photographs in Central Tibet from 1920-1950. The collection totals 6000 photographs by Charles Bell, Arthur Hopkinson, Evan Nepean, Hugh Richardson, Frederick Spencer Chapman, and Harry Staunton among others. Taken together with Everest expedition photos of the Bently Beetham Collection (listed in my links and profiled here), one gets a vivid picture of British-Nepali-Tibetan encounters in the early 20th century.
You can also find the journal of Cecil Mainprise, medical officer of General Sir Francis Younghusband’s expedition to Tibet in 1903, dutifully published in blog form by his great nephew Jonathan Buckley.
Reading all of this material may give you a bit of altitude sickness. Best to descend for a while and acclimatize. I’ll be here with more after the New Year.
Gertrude Bell and Sir Percy Cox, Mesopotamia, 1917
My students are usually pretty good at the why questions of history. Why did the French revolt against their King? Answers include “Peasant frustration.” “Anger at the monarchy.” “Expensive bread.” It’s the when questions that cause students trouble. Why did the French revolt in 1789? What particularities of this historical moment led to the great unraveling of the French Monarchy?
This pattern holds true for discussing women in history, or more specifically, the actions of women travelers and explorers. Why did Annie Peck climb the Matterhorn (1895)? Or Fanny Bullock Workman the Himalayas (1899-1912)? Why did Mary Kingsley canoe her way up the Ogawe River in Africa (1895)? Or Nelly Bly circle the globe in 72 days (1889)? Student answers usually come in some variety of “They had to prove something to the world.” Ok, fair enough. But here is the more interesting question: Why did they all feel the need to prove it at the same time?
Mary Wollstonecraft certainly felt she had something to prove. Enlightenment novelist and historian, philosopher and feminist, Wollstonecraft authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman a full 136 years before Britain fully granted women the right to vote in 1928. But living at the end of the 18th century, Wollstonecraft is something of an outlier in women’s history, a person whose beliefs and actions were at considerable remove from the rest of society. Peck, Workman, and Bly, by contrast, were part of a large social movement that extended across the Atlantic, a movement that gleefully assaulted the idea of a “separate spheres” for men and women.
In this sense, Gertrude Bell was a women of her time: born in Britain, Oxford educated, Bell was an omnivorous learner and traveler, fluent in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and German. She voyaged around the world twice and took up a passion for mountain climbing in the Alps all before “settling down” in the Middle East as archeologist, author, and British political agent during the First World War. She collaborated with T.E. Lawrence to draw up the modern political map of the Middle East including Jordan and Iraq. Yet Bell remains hard to categorize. Sitting at the center of British political activity in the Middle East, Bell also served as honorary secretary of the British Women’s Anti-Suffrage League.
Bell left 1600 letters, 16 diaries, and 7000 photographs, all of which are in the possession of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Now the University Library has begun a four-year project to put these materials online. Here for example is Bell’s description of her ascent of the Aiguille du Géant in the Alps:
Demarquille was frozen. I gave him my big woollen gloves. My hands were warmed by the rock work, but I continued to shiver, though not unpleasantly, almost until we returned to the foot of the Aiguille. We crossed a bit of snow and turned to the left under the Aiguille where we found a hanging rope – it was just about here that a guide was killed a fortnight ago by lightening, after having accomplished the ascent by a new road up the N face said to be easier than the old. The first hour or so was quite easy. Straight up long slabs of rock with a fixed rope to hold by. Then a flank march which was rather difficult; the rocks from here to the top of the NE summit are extremely steep. At one point my hands and arms were so tired that I lost all grip in them. A steep bit down, a pointed breche and a very steep up rock leads to the highest summit where there is a cairn.
The Gertrude Bell Archive is a work in progress. Not all of the materials have been scanned. It does not have keyword or full-text search capabilities. Still it deserves to be filed as a bookmark in your growing list of exploration archives.
For more on women explorers, see posts on
Before I starting working on the frost-bitten, scurvy-riddled, dog-eating world of Arctic explorers, I researched more inviting places, such as Valparaiso Chile, “the Vale of Paradise.” In the 19th century, Valparaiso was a popular port for European and North American voyagers, a place for crew to load up on provisions, repair hullwork, mend sails, and dive into debauchery before the long sail across the Pacific.
The U.S Exploring Expedition stopped here, as did the U.S. Astronomical Expedition, and even HMS Beagle, disembarcking a sprightly young, recently-graduated Charles Darwin into town for some quick surveys of the Cordilleras before heading out into the Pacific (with a minor port-of-call in the Galapagos on the way). My masters thesis “Describing the Vale of Paradise: Valparaiso Chile in the Years after Humboldt” looked at the way these various scientific expeditions talked about Valparaiso, and more importantly, how they rendered it in images.
Darwin did not leave much in the way of illustrations of the town, but the Beagle’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens did. Martens’ landscapes are quiet, almost languid, places, a world apart from the pulse-pounding wind-swept, volcano-erupting landscapes of his fellow Romantics. As I sat in the stacks of the Wisconsin Historical Society looking at these far away places, they gave me a feeling of Darwin’s world…an imperfect impression to be sure, but a feeling nevertheless. Thanks again to the Beagle Project Blog, great conduit of all things Darwin, I have learned that Martens work is now available for all to see at the Cambridge University Library’s website. They have scanned two of the four extant Martens sketchbooks made from the voyage. They include, be still my heart, lovely Valparaiso.
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
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.
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.
In his book New Lands, New Men, William Goetzmann describes the 18th and 19th centuries as the “Second Age of Discovery.” The First Age of Discovery, kicked off by the Mediterranean powers of the 15th century, developed maritime routes to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Best known of these early discoverers is Christopher Columbus who sought to extend Spanish dominion, proselytize natives, and bring home piles of loot, objectives followed by his 16th and 17th century successors.
By the 18th century, however, the goals of exploration had changed. Empire and commerce still had their place in voyages of discovery, but they increasingly made room for other, secular objectives such as natural history, ethnography, and natural philosophy, changes that reflected new attitudes about knowledge and learning back home in Europe.
Captain James Cook, who led three expeditions to the Pacific in the 1760s and 1770s, became the poster-child of Enlightenment voyaging. Of modest birth and education, Cook was not himself a philosopher of nature. But his command of three discovery expeditions – to study the transit of Venus, discover the extent of the Antarctic continent, and investigate the possibility of a Northwest Passage – set the benchmark for scientific expeditions to come over the next century. Cook’s chronicles and those of his men of science (Joseph Banks and Johann Forster) provided models for the expeditions of Jean-Francois de la Perouse (France), Alessandro Malaspina (Spain), and Charles Wilkes (United States) among others.
Cook’s serendipitous discovery of the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 (which he named the Sandwich Islands) was also, ultimately, the cause of his demise. After a series of quarrels with Hawaiians of the Big Island, Cook was killed in a skirmish with islanders on the beach of Kealakekua Bay.
The National Library of Australia and the Center for Cross-Cultural Research have developed an impressive website on Cook’s legacy, South Seas: Voyaging and Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Pacific. Focusing on Cook’s first voyage, South Seas offers accounts from Cook, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, and John Hawkesworth. A world map of Cook’s route allows the viewer to zoom in features of interest, identifying the dates of Cook’s passage, landfalls, as well as diary entries for dates mentioned. A set of four “Cultural Atlases” offer maps and descriptions of the native peoples which Cook visited in Tierra Del Fuego, the Society Islands, Botany Bay, and Endeavour River. South Seas also offers some indigenous histories and European reactions to Cook’s voyage.
There are a few “links to nowhere” on South Seas. Perhaps the project ran out of funding before it was fully completed. But even in its unfinished form, there are gems here for the student of Enlightenment voyaging.
Also on Cook see:
The Historical Record of New South Wales on Google Books
Many of the full text books on South Seas are also available on Google Books for viewing or download