Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Expeditions

Prester John

For Europeans in the 1450s, the Western Ocean (or the Atlantic as we now call it) was a frightening place. Unlike the cozy, well-mapped Mediterranean which was surrounded by three continents, the Western Ocean was unbounded, poorly understood, and filled with dangers.

The dangers were not the threat of sea monsters or falling off the edge of the world. Medieval sailors and geographers understood that the earth was spherical. (The idea that they thought it was flat is a fantasy conjured up by Washington Irving in his 1828 biography of Christopher Columbus.)

The Canary Current (part of the North Atlantic gyre)

Rather, the real threat was the ocean itself. Expeditions that followed the West African coast had revealed strong winds and currents that made travel south (with the current) easy, but return extremely difficult, especially with vessels that could not tack close to the wind. By the 1430s, Europeans had even identified a spot on the West African coast, Cape Bojador, as the point of no return.

Cape Bojador, West African Coast

And yet Europeans, led by the Portuguese, continued to push further south despite this risk. They developed trade factories off the west coast of Africa which exchanged Europeans goods — horses, wool, iron — for gold, ivory, and slaves. And ultimately they followed the African coast around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean, reaching the Indies — the holy grail of luxury items — in 1498.

Route of Vasco da Gama, 1498

All of this makes European exploration seem logical and methodical, driven by the promise of riches. Yet Europeans were interested in more than slaves and spices. Africa attracted Europe’s attention because it was considered the most likely location of Prester John, legendary Christian king and potential ally in the fight against the Muslims who occupied the Holy Land.

Historians have long placed Prester John within the category of myth, and in so far as myths describe “traditional stories, usually concerning heroes or events, with or without a determinable basis of fact” I suppose Prester John qualifies.

But “myth” has subtler, darker meanings.  The world is filled with traditional stories  that have a tenuous relationship to observable facts:  the Gospels, the Koran, and the Torah are filled with them. Yet we describe these stories as “beliefs” out of faith or respect. We usually reserve the word “myth,” however, for those stories — unicorns, leprechauns, a living Elvis  — that we dismiss as untrue.

The point here is not to say that Prester John was real, but to say that in characterizing him as a mythic figure, historians have tended to discount his serious influence on European exploration and discovery.

This is a central argument of historian Michael Brooks in his excellent thesis, Prester John: A Reexamination and Compendium of the Mythical Figure Who Helped Spark European Expansion. Brooks shows that, while it might be clear in hindsight that Prester John was more fable than reality, it was not clear to Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries, all of whom could point to multiple accounts of the Christian king from different, trustworthy sources. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, one of the most popular books in late medieval Europe, even offers a first-hand account of Prester John’s palace:

He dwelleth commonly in the city of Susa. And there is his principal palace, that is so rich and so noble, that no man will trow it by estimation, but he had seen it. And above the chief tower of the palace be two round pommels of gold, and in everych of them be two carbuncles great and large, that shine full bright upon the night. And the principal gates of his palace be of precious stone that men clepe sardonyx, and the border and the bars be of ivory. [Mandeville quoted in Brooks, 87]

On the basis of these multiple, mutually supportive documents, Dom Henrique (Henry the Navigator) charged his explorers to bring back intelligence about the Indies and of the land of Prester John. This was not merely an addendum to their orders for geographical discovery. Argues Brooks:

Without the lure of making political connections with the supposed co-religionist Prester John in the struggle against the Islamic world, the European history of overseas expansions would likely have taken a different course [3].

This serious, sustained interest in Prester John helps explain the longevity of the legend well into the seventeenth century.  I could not help seeing many similarities in Brooks’ account of Prester John with other stories of exploration. The one I have written the most about, the theory of the open polar sea, has also been discounted by historians as “myth” even though it was taken very seriously by scientists, explorers, and geographers in the nineteenth century, shaping the missions of numerous explorers.

Brooks’ thesis is available in pdf here.

He also posts a number of articles and reviews on history and exploration on his blog, historymike.

Thanks Research Blogging!

Research Blogging Awards 2010

Time to Eat the Dogs has been named a 2010 finalist for best blog in Social Science and Anthropology by Research Blogging. The awards panel received four hundred nominations and then selected 5 to 10 of the best blogs in each field.

For those who don’t know about Research Blogging, it is a site for “identifying the best, most thoughtful blog posts about peer-reviewed research.” They have over 1000 registered blogs and an archive of 950 research based blog posts.

Registered bloggers at Research Blogging.org will begin voting for winners in each category on 4 March, so if you are a serious blogger and fan of Time to Eat the Dogs, please register and vote.

NASA and the Ghosts of Explorers Past

Shadow Figure, image credit: Sworddancer Krusnik @ DeviantArt.com

By Michael Robinson and Dan Lester

NASA has always stood at the fulcrum of the past and future. It is the inheritor of America’s expeditionary legacy, and it is the leading architect of its expeditionary path forward. Yet the agency has found it hard to keep its balance at this fulcrum. Too often, it has linked future projects to a simplistic notion of past events. It has reveled in, rather than learned from, earlier expeditionary milestones. As NASA considers its future without the Constellation program, it is time to reassess the lessons it has drawn from history.

Statue of the 1804 Discovery Corps party, Kansas City, MO.

For example, when U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in 2004, the administration and NASA were quick to link it to the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, stating in the vision: “Just as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark could not have predicted the settlement of the American West within a hundred years of the start of their famous 19th century expedition, the total benefits of a single exploratory undertaking or discovery cannot be predicted in advance.” In Lewis and Clark, NASA saw a precedent for the Vision for Space Exploration: a bold mission that would offer incalculable benefits to the nation.

Yet this was a misreading of the expedition. The Lewis and Clark expedition did not leave a lasting imprint on Western exploration. The expedition succeeded in its goals, to be sure, but it failed to communicate its work to the nation. The explorers’ botanical collections were destroyed en route to the East Coast, their journals remained long unpublished, and the expedition was ignored by the press and public for almost a century. In 1809, 200 years ago last September, a despondent Lewis took his own life. NASA might do well to reflect on this somber anniversary in addition to the more positive one used to announce the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004. Doing exploration, Lewis reminds us, often proves easier than communicating its value or realizing its riches.

Robert Peary in Battle Harbor. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

NASA should also remember the anniversary of Robert Peary’s expedition to reach the North Pole, completed a century ago last September. Peary’s expedition, like the ones envisioned by the Vision for Space Exploration, was a vast and complicated enterprise involving cutting-edge technology (the reinforced steamer Roosevelt) and hundreds of personnel. Peary saw it as “the cap & climax of three hundred 300 years of effort, loss of life, and expenditure of millions, by some of the best men of the civilized nations of the world; & it has been accomplished with a clean cut dash and spirit . . . characteristically American.”

Yet Peary’s race to the polar axis had little to offer besides “dash and spirit.” Focused on the attainment of the North Pole, his expedition spent little time on science. When the American Geographical Society (AGS) published its definitive work on polar research in 1928, Peary’s work received only the briefest mention. Indeed, the Augustine committee’s statement that human exploration “begin should begin with a choice of about its goals – rather than a choice of possible destinations” would have applied itself equally well to the race to the North Pole as it does the new did recent plans to race to the Moon.

Galileo's illustrations of the Moon, taken from telescopic observations, Siderius Nuncius, 1610.

But the most important anniversary for NASA to be considering is the recent 400th anniversary of Galileo’s publication of “Sidereus Nuncius” (“Starry Messenger”), a treatise in which he lays out his arguments for a Sun-centered solar system. Was Galileo an explorer in the traditional sense? Hardly. He based his findings upon observations rather than expeditions, specifically his study of the Moon, the stars, and the moons of Jupiter. Yet his telescopic work was a form of exploration, one that contributed more to geographical discovery than Henry Hudson’s ill-fated voyage to find the Northwest Passage made during the same year. Galileo did not plant any flags in the soil of unknown lands, but he did something more important: helping to topple Aristotle’s Earth-centered model of the universe.

As NASA lays the Constellation program to rest, the distinction between “expedition” and “exploration” remains relevant today.While new plans for human space flight will lead to any number of expeditions, it doesn’t follow that these will constitute the most promising forms of exploration. Given our technological expertise for virtual presence – an expertise that is advancing rapidly – exploration does not need to be the prime justification for human space flight anymore.

The Augustine committee has shown the courage to challenge the traditional view of astronauts as explorers in its “Flexible Path” proposal, a plan to send humans at first into deep space, perhaps doing surveillance work on deep gravity wells, while rovers conduct work on the ground. Critics have derisively called it the “Look But Don’t Touch” option, one that will extend scientific exploration even if it does not include any “Neil Armstrong moments.”

Yet perhaps 2010 is the year when we challenge the meaning of “exploration.” For too long, NASA has been cavalier about this word. Agency budget documents and strategic plans continue to use it indiscriminately as a catch-all term for any project that involves human space flight. Yet this was not always the case. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the formal constitution of the agency, doesn’t mention the word in any of the eight objectives that define NASA’s policy and purpose. Rather, NASA’s first directive is “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”

Geysers in the southern hemisphere of Enceladus, photographed by Cassini spacecraft, 27 November 2005

Perhaps the best way forward, then, starts with a more careful look back. The world has changed since Lewis and Clark, with technology that would have stunned the young explorers. In the year of “Avatar,” we need to think differently about the teams who direct rovers across the martian landscape, pilot spacecraft past the geysers of Enceladus and slew telescopes across the sky. These technologies are not static in their capabilities, nor as are the humans who control them. Their capabilities advance dramatically every year, and the public increasingly accepts them as extensions of our intellect, reach, and power. As Robert Peary’s quest for the North Pole illustrates, toes in the dirt (or in his case, ice) don’t necessarily yield new discoveries.

Of course robots and telescopes can’t do everything. A decision that representatives of the human species must, for reasons of species survival, leave this Earth and move to other places would make an irrefutable case for human space flight. But that need has never been an established mandate. It isn’t part of our national space policy. As we celebrate NASA’s 50th anniversary, NASA begins its sixth decade, do we have the courage to look beyond our simplistic notions of exploration’s past to find lasting value in the voyages of the future?

Michael Robinson is an assistant history professor at the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College in Connecticut. Dan Lester is an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin.

This essay appears here courtesy of Space News where it was published on 8 February 2010.

Spring Cleaning

I’ve been in semi-hibernation for the last few months and haven’t been posting as often. But its time for spring cleaning at Time to Eat the Dogs. Have courage, reader: February is really the cusp of spring. Beneath that hard macadam of ice, crocuses are leaping out of the ground.

First, I’ve added some new links, which, because of the Illiad-sized list I’ve made in the fourth column, probably are not obvious. They are all good sites and worth a visit:

Those Who Dared (listed under Exploration Journals, Organizations, and Blogs) is a new exploration blog written by Richard Nelsson, chief librarian of the Guardian and the Observer. Nelsson’s a fine writer, the author of two books on exploration, and he posts frequently.

Savage Minds is a new group anthropology blog which has good posts and a killer list of anthropological links. The title comes from Claude Levi-Strauss’s book of the same name, and the play on words (really only funny in French) is his too.

WINGS Worldquest (listed under Exploration Journals, Organizations, and Blog and Women Explorers) is an agency which promotes women explorers throughout the world. It organizes lectures, book talks, awards dinners etc. on a wide range of subjects in science, travel, and exploration.

The Renaissance Mathematicus blog (listed in History, Science, and Anthropology) written by Thony C., tackles a number of issues in the history and philosophy of science.  Thony hosted the Giants Shoulders #19 in mid-January which gives a good summary of current history of science writing in the blogosphere.

INUIT: Contact and Colonization (listed under Polar Exploration) is a new educational site for Inuit contact with traders, explorers, and whalers, focusing on native practices and experiences.

Heritage in Maine written by anthropologist Patricia Erikson features a number of posts on Maine native Josephine Peary (listed under Polar Exploration), a fascinating, complicated explorer who worked at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Second, you can follow the blog now via email subscription, RSS feed, or twitter feed, all available in the third column.

I’ve never seen the value of twitter to my work since issues in the history of exploration rarely unfold quickly. But it’s effective as a communication tool since I receive a steady stream of announcements about exploration events, articles, conferences, and research that never make it to my posts or links. I now announce my blog posts on Twitter as well

If you would like to follow this extra stream of information, I have provided a twitter feed that you can follow (or subscribe to) in column three. Once I have the USB port implanted in my neocortex, new posts will become available every waking moment. Surgery is scheduled.

Happy Spring!

Furr

Gray Wolf (Canis Lupis)

Despite their endangered status, wolves still roam freely in the world of myths and fables. She-wolf Lupa became the patriotic mother of Rome when she wet-nursed Romulus and Remus. The wolves of European fairy tales, on the other hand, were destroyers, the natural enemy of pigs, sheep, children, and near-sighted grandmothers.

Dances With Wolves (1990)

Late 20th-century portrayals of wolves show a softer side:  Kevin Costner’s companion Two Socks is the playful title figure of Dances With Wolves (1990). The wolf pack of Never Cry Wolf (1983) act as teachers to Farley Mowat (played by Charles Martin Smith). Indeed, the image of the wolf seems to improve as the number of real wolves diminish.

In this, the wolf of the western imagination seems to be following a path taken by others, namely American Indians, who were often portrayed as blood-thirsty and menacing in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but eventual  found redemption in the eyes of white Americans as “children of nature” in the late 1800s. It was at this time that real Indians were no longer perceived as a threat to Euro-American expansion.

Yet while Indian and Wolf have both become symbols of nature, I wonder: do these symbols function in similar ways? What about other symbols of nature such as wildman that I wrote about in an earlier post? This was my question as I listed to the song “Furr” by Blizten Trapper:

When I was only 17
I could hear the angels whispering
So I drove into the woods
and wandered aimlessly about
Until I heard my mother shouting through the fog
It turned out to be the howling of a dog

Or a wolf to be exact
the sound sent shivers down my back
But I was drawn into the pack and before long
They allowed me to join in and sing their song

So from the cliffs and highest hill
We would gladly get our fill
Howling endlessly and shrilly at the dawn
And I lost the taste for judging right from wrong

For my flesh had turned to fur
And my thoughts, they surely were
Turned to instinct and obedience to God.

You can wear your fur
like a river on fire
But you better be sure
if you’re makin’ God a liar
I’m a rattlesnake, Babe,
I’m like fuel on fire
So if you’re gonna’ get made,
Don’t be afraid of what you’ve learned

On the day that I turned 23,
I was curled up underneath a dogwood tree
When suddenly a girl with skin the color of a pearl
She wandered aimlessly, but she didn’t seem to see
She was listening for the angels just like me
So I stood and looked about
I brushed the leaves off of my snout
And then I heard my mother shouting through the trees
You should have seen that girl go shaky at the knees

So I took her by the arm
We settled down upon a farm
And raised our children up as gently as you please.
And now my fur has turned to skin
And I’ve been quickly ushered in
To a world that I confess I do not know
But I still dream of running careless through the snow
And through the howling winds that blow,
Across the ancient distant flow,
It fill our bodies up like water till we know.

Stories of wolf-human transformation have a rich history, dating back thousands of years, to the Greek myth of Lycaon who became a wolf after eating human flesh, and extending to Asian and American cultures, such as the Navajo legends of the Mai-cob. (For an excellent treatment of wolves in Asia, see Brett Walker’s book, The Lost Wolves of Japan)

Woodcut of a German Werewolf (1722)

But these transformations also seem to be getting softer over time. Medieval werewolves are devilish creatures, agents of terror. But 20th century werewolves are considerably less brutish, sometimes even urbane, from An American Werewolf in London to the hunky werewolves of Underworld. Blitzen Trapper’s man-wolf certainly doesn’t do the devil’s bidding. Rather he seems to be on an existential Outward Bound course. And in due time, he makes the transformation back into man rather easily, if with a bit of nostalgia for his doggy life.

I like “Furr ” a song that Bob Dylan would have written perhaps if he were taken by the spirit of Jack London. But it also makes me wonder why wolves and werewolves have become progressively de-clawed as cultural symbols, a process that extends to their symbolic cousins, vampires.

Do we feel so far removed from nature that all things feral seem alluring at a distance? Or is our desire for transformative experience so strong that we’ve made animal and demon possessions user-friendly?  In this new age of shape-shifting, one does not have to lose one’s soul to visit the dark side.  It might even be worth the trip. Look how far we’ve come.

Why We Need a New History of Exploration

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

Today, just some announcements:

Common-Place, the online history journal,  just published my article, “Why We Need a New History of Exploration.” You can read it here.

SciCafe, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is presenting “Darwin on Facebook: How Culture Transforms Human Evolution” a presentation by anthropologist Peter Richerson.  “SciCafe features cutting-edge science, cocktails, and conversation and takes place on the first Wednesday of every month. For more information, please visit amnh.org/scicafe

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) opens its new exhibition Hidden Histories of Exploration today in London. The exhibition website is worth checking out. I hope to be doing a more extensive write-up of the exhibition (and curator Felix Driver) soon.

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.


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