Archive for Digital Archive
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
Posts seem tidy things when they see the light of day, capped by neat titles, tucked into single columns. But bloggers everywhere share a dirty secret: this sort of writing is a messy business, profligate in its use of words and images, throwing off bits and scraps faster than the butcher’s apprentice. Seventy posts have left me with all sorts of unfinished business: links that never make it to the right hand column, half-written posts that remain unpublished, category listings that do not get updated. So I have done some housecleaning today. Mostly you can see the work on column to the far right. There is a new category of links: Online Archives which have primary source materials on travel and exploration. There are a number of Library of Congress collections here, some travel writings by Isabella Bird, the NOAA archive on 19th century oceanography books, and some visual archives including David Rumsey’s online map collection and the JPL’s NASA image archive. The “Complete List of Posts” has been updated through yesterday and I’ve added some links to my online research and talks on the “About” page.
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.
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.
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.
I have been burning the candle at both ends this summer. I just finished an article about Lewis and Clark & Alexander von Humboldt two weeks ago, wrote a review of Graham Burnett’s book, Trying Leviathan, started a review of Robert McGhee’s book, The Last Imaginary Place, and have started a new article on the work of Frederick Cook. That this seemed an excellent time to pick up blogging says something about me, I’m not sure what exactly, but it would involve words such as hubristic and harebrained. I’ve loved writing the blog to be honest…but on days like today there’s no gas left in the tank. So no grand thoughts tonight, just pictures.
I have been making up a list of visual archives. Here are three of my favorites. Bentley Beetham was a British traveler and photographer who got hooked on mountain climbing in the 1910s. His path converged with the Mount Everest Committee in the 1920s and led to his inclusion on the 1924 Everest Expedition. Mallory never returned from the mountain, but Beetham did, bringing with him hundreds of photographs of the mountains, climbers, and Tibetan life. The Bentley Beetham Collection offers 2000 of his works, a combination of brilliant lantern slides and photo prints.
NASA gets beat up a lot here at Time to Eat the Dogs. As much as I complain about its policies, though, I admit to some weak-knee moments when I see images of the Saturn V hurling itself into space. The NASA Johnson Space Center has archived nine thousand images of the manned space program online on the JSC Digital Image Collection. It represents half a century of human missions, from Mercury to the Space Shuttle.
BibliOdyessey is a digital cabinet of curiousities authored by the Australian “PK”. PK must be in good with the Sydney archivists. Not only has he gotten some serious archive time, he’s also managed to bring his hi-def scanner along with him. BibliOdyessey offers stunning scans of the amazing, the obscure, and the bizarre. These are usually good tags for voyages of exploration – which are also well represented here.
I’ll be on the road for the next few weeks updating when I can. Happy Voyages.