Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Expeditions

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.

Polar Hoaxes and Lost Worlds

cook and peary

A century ago this week Robert Peary and Frederick Cook locked horns in the  “The North Pole Controversy,” an epic media battle that dominated news on both sides of the Atlantic for months.  For readers it became a scandalous and impossibly compelling story, a post-Victorian Jon vs. Kate with furs and dogs.

John Tierney

John Tierney

John Tierney took up the story in the New York Times yesterday morning. To Tierney’s credit, he avoids the temptation to spend his entire column regaling the reader with evidence of Peary or Cook’s rightful attainment of the Pole. (He does take a position: neither man made it).

Instead he takes an interesting behavioral, rather than historical, approach to the question: why do the supporters of both explorers defend their man against all reasonable arguments? The answer, he argues, is that they become psychologically (perhaps neurochemically) committed to their candidate in a manner that is hard to alter. The use of the word “candidate” here is intentional since Tierney reports that this phenomenon is well measured in people supporting politicians and political parties.

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Also reported yesterday was the discovery of a “lost world” in Papau New Guinea. A team of scientists (big discoveries always follow sentences that begin with ”A team of scientists…”) discovered a unique, pristine ecosystem in the crater of Mount Bosavi. The team found more than forty new species, including the world’s smallest parrot, the world’s largest rat, and a herd of grazing brontosauruses. (I’m making up the rat part).

The use of ‘Lost World’ is an interesting way to  describe this ecosystem  not simply because it conjures images of Jurassic Park, Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name, and a whole genre of early twentieth-century adventure books, but because it’s not an obvious (and therefore not an unconscious) description of Mount Bosavi.

Accounts of the volcano, its geographical and biogeographical riches, have been appearing for forty years in academic journal (see for example Records of the South Australian Museum 15 (1965): 695-6;  Mammals of New Guinea (1990): 236) and even further back in popular literature. Jack Hides and other Australians were writing about the Mount Bosavi in the 1930s.

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

But “Lost World” sounds better than “Relatively Unknown Ecosystem” especially if it’s timed to coincide with a 3-part BBC Special on the expedition (titled “Lost Land of the Volcano”). Perhaps these are the necessary evils of science reporting in the digital age, a realm in which writers have two or three seconds to convey meaning and produce interest. Maybe these are the white lies required to raise the profile of meaningful and interesting projects. “Lost Land of the Volcano” pulled in 4.1 million viewers last night, an 18% share. Maybe the title of this post should be “Cow-Sized Rat Kills Cannibal, Saves Scientist.”

Visions of Exploration

The Augustine Committee on Human Space Flight, July 2009

The Augustine Committee on Human Space Flight, July 2009

In these dog days of August, NASA is feeling the heat. The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (aka Augustine Committee) is now spell-checking its final report for the Obama Administration about the direction of U.S. space policy. With talk of exploration in the air, Dan Lester (astronomy research scientist, University of Texas-Austin) and I thought it was a good time to take a closer look at the different meanings of exploration and their use by policy makers. The full article on the subject, “Visions of Exploration” is now out in the journal Space Policy and available here.

Here’s an excerpt:

The historical record offers a rich set of examples of what we call exploration: Christopher Columbus sailing to the New World, Roald Amundsen driving his dogs towards the South Pole, and Neil Armstrong stepping into the soft dust of the moon. Yet these examples illustrate the difficulty in pinning down exploration as an activity.

If we define exploration as “travel through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it” we exclude Columbus, whose discovery was serendipitous rather than purposeful. We would also have to exclude Amundsen and Armstrong, and indeed many of the pantheon of explorers, who tended to dash across new terrain rather than investigate it systematically.

Even more expansive terms such as “discovery” sometimes offer a poor fit for the object of modern expeditions: did Robert Peary discover the North Pole in 1909, an axis point that Greek astronomers knew about 2500 years ago? Not in any meaningful sense of the word. Students of exploration, then, must make peace with this uncomfortable fact: “exploration” is a multivalent term, one which has been (and undoubtedly will continue to be) used in different ways by different people. Geographical discovery, scientific investigation, resource extraction, and high-risk travel are activities tucked inside this definitional basket.

Because of exploration’s multiple historical meanings, policy makers and administrators have often used this history selectively and out of context. Specifically, policy statements cite the history of exploration in order to make two points: first, that humans are compelled to explore, that curiosity about the world is an innate attribute of our species; and second, that this compulsion has expressed itself most fully in the United States, where exploration has moved beyond matters of trade and settlement to become a part of national identity, a symbol of American idealism, enterprise, and self-sufficiency

Let’s take these ideas in order, starting with the human impulse to explore. We cannot deny that the history of our species is a history of motion. We are all the children of travelers: of long migrations out of Africa, oceanic crossings and continental traverses. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans spent most of their prehistory, from 120,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE, on the move.

Possible human migration routes out of Africa ~100,000 BCE based on DNA evidence, courtesy National Geographic Maps

Possible human migration routes out of Africa ~100,000 BCE based on DNA evidence, courtesy National Geographic Maps

We bear the marks of these migrations: in the foods we eat, the languages we speak, and the places we live. Indeed, we carry traces of our itinerant past inside of us: in our dietary preferences for foods salty and sweet, our peculiar anatomy and physiology, and our unique mitochondrial DNA, which, read carefully, offers us a road map of our ancestors’ paleolithic travels.

Yet these facts, so well established, tell us little about motives. Human curiosity has a long and storied history. Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by stating “All men possess by nature a craving for knowledge”, an observation borne out in the earliest works of human literature.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that humans traveled primarily, or even incidentally, because of curiosity. During the long millennia of our prehistory, the most obvious reason for travel was survival, following seasonal animal migrations, escaping harsh weather, avoiding predators and, perhaps, other humans.

Evidence points to exploration – in all of its incarnations of meaning – as a cultural or political activity rather than a manifestation of instinct. History’s most celebrated voyagers — Pytheas, Zhang He, and Columbus — sailed from nations with imperial ambitions. As Stephen Pyne points in his survey of the ages of exploration, “There is nothing predestined about geographic discovery, any more than there is about a Renaissance, a tradition of Gothic cathedrals, or the invention of the electric light bulb.” (Pyne, “Seeking Newer Worlds,” in Critical Issues in the History of Space Flight, 2006)

The notion that exploration expressed deeper impulses, such as wanderlust or curiosity, came much later, during the Enlightenment, when voyages took up the systematic practice of science: gathering specimens and ethnographic data, observing celestial events, and testing geographical hypotheses. These expeditions expressed a genuine curiosity about the globe, yet they elicited state sponsorship only because rulers saw political value in discovery expeditions, a form of “soft power” statecraft that could enhance national prestige rather then add to colonies or imperial coffers.

James Cook's 1773 Expedition to Tahiti

James Cook's 1773 Expedition to Tahiti (in background: HMS Resolution)

If eighteenth-century audiences came to accept the lofty trait of curiosity as a driving force behind voyages of discovery, nineteenth-century audiences found deeper impulses behind humanity’s urge to explore. In particular, the Romantic Movement gave rise to ideas central to the ethos of modern exploration; first, that discovery is a process that includes, but is not contained by, practical pursuits. While geographical discovery, science, and resource extraction all have their parts to play, exploration has an intangible, ineffable quality that cannot simply be reduced to logical goals. The second idea (which follows closely from the first) is that the value of exploration is tied to the subjective experience of the explorer, a symbol of the nation at home.

Know Your Ingredients

joy of cooking

The Joy of Cooking has many merits: simplicity, comprehensiveness, ease of use. It doesn’t put on airs. My 1967 copy includes a diagram for skinning squirrel along with preparations for raccoon, woodchuck, and wild boar.

The best thing about the cookbook is the “Know Your Ingredients” section which offers data about cooking equivalencies. In the Anglo-American world, many know that three teaspoons make a tablespoon and that sixteen tablespoons make a cup. But how many know that the British Imperial Gill (ie the standard measuring cup) holds ten ounces rather than eight? Or that one ounce is sixteen drams? Or that 60 drops equals a teaspoon? Or best of  all, that a cup of yogurt serves as adequate substitution for a cup of buttermilk in a pinch. No yogurt? Don’t  despair: you can also use a cup of milk with a tablespoon of vinegar.

Skinning a squirrel, Joy of Cooking, 1962

Skinning a squirrel, Joy of Cooking, 1962

My point here is less about buttermilk than equivalences. They are powerful.  Within mathematics, their power is expressed in transitivity relations, the most famous one of which is:

If A=B and B=C, then A=C

But mathematics and cooking are not the only disciplines which rely upon equivalencies.

Western explorers have used equivalencies for centuries.  Encountering things unknown, we try to understand them in terms, ideas, and objects of the familiar.  Explorers were no different. Darwin’s first glimpse of the Cordilleras in South America made him think of the Andes – mountains that he knew less from experience than from another act of translation: viewing the vertiginous landscapes of J. M. W. Turner.

"Bonneville, Savoy, with Mount Blanc," J M W Turner, 1803

"Bonneville, Savoy, with Mount Blanc," J M W Turner, 1803

Yet the most powerful equivalencies in exploration were reserved for people. Early Spanish and Portuguese explorers frequently compared American Indians to children: innocent, emotional, lacking in judgment. By contrast, Europeans tended to identify themselves with parental figures: rational, worldly, prudent. This child metaphor proved enormously powerful, creating an equivalency between children and non-western peoples that was used to develop and justify colonial policies through the mid twentieth century.

Such was the power of the savage = child equivalency that it spawned new ones. In the early 20th century, Ernest Thompson Seton helped found the Boy Scouts, an organization that put boys in the wild on the premise that if savages are like children, then perhaps children are like savages. The child (or more precisely for Seton,  the white child) must pass through a primitive phase before developing into a rational, prudent, moral adulthood.  Getting out into nature was not just good exercise, but a way of coaxing young savages into the next phase of their physical and moral development.

Illustration from Two Little Savages by E T Seton, 1903

Illustration from Two Little Savages by E T Seton, 1903

The child=savage equivalency expanded to include historical (not merely personal) development. If savages were like children, nineteenth century scholars thought, perhaps they represented a child-stage in the evolution of our species. As such, the savage was not merely the equivalent of a child, but a missing link, a living artifact of our earlier history as a species. When Roy Chapman Andrews wrote a book about the “primitive” peoples of the world in 1945, he titled it Meet Your Ancestors: A Biography of Primitive Man.

Roy Chapman Andrews

Roy Chapman Andrews

Others took the equivalency into the human psyche. Freud’s study Totem and Taboo makes comparisons between the behavior of so-called primitive peoples and the neurosis  of white adults.  Freud’s comparison is based upon the assumption that the human mind carries the imprint of its evolutionary history. That is, humans have an animal mind which has become augmented with the higher structures of the civilized mind. By this line of thinking, the Id is not merely an abstract facet of human psyche, but a historical remnant of our animal mind, an evolutionary calling card from the deep past.

If one accepts (as one shouldn’t)  that the child= savage =  id = prehistoric ancestor equivalency is true, a number of claims can be made:

  • children are useful in understanding primitive societies
  • voyages to non-European worlds are voyages back in time
  • primitive societies help us understand prehistoric life
  • our prehistoric ancestors lived without the constraints of moral inhibition

Yet this set of equivalencies – so powerful in the 19th and early 20th century – has fallen out of favor.  Humans do not yield so easily to the transitive processes of mathematics and basic cooking.They are categorically messy, hard to organize, difficult to understand. Perhaps this is best.

Book Review: Science and Empire in the Atlantic World

science and empire in the atlantic world

JAMES DELBOURGO and NICHOLAS DEW (eds.), Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. xiv + 365. ISBN 978-0-415-96127-1. £18.99 (paperback).

Maybe I shouldn’t read too much into titles, but Science and Empire in the Atlantic World caught my attention. At first glance, it seemed a strange choice of words since “science and empire” has become a common, almost clichéd, phrase in the history of science and science technology studies (STS). The phrase took hold in the 1970s when Marxist scholarship revealed the exploitative functions of imperial science and gained inspiration from other critiques such as Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978.

By the 1980s, books and articles containing “science” and “empire” blossomed in the scholarly press. Yet the phrase has since witnessed a slow decline, as scholars have grown uneasy with portrayals of colonial science as a hegemonic expression of European power. Replacement terms tend to emphasize the reciprocal relationships in the production of science. Most notable among these is “Atlantic World,” a term that now races like a forest fire through history of science titles, probably due to Bernard Bailyn’s influential Seminar in the History of the Atlantic World which he instituted at Harvard in 1995. Why, then, marry “Science and Empire” with “Atlantic World” together in one title?

Bernard Bailyn

Bernard Bailyn

The answer comes from the function of “empire” within this edited collection. All twelve essays here challenge empire, or more precisely, an imperial top-down model of science in describing the Atlantic World. The “Empire” of the title, in other words, does not represent a historic process to be revealed, but a historiographic concept to be critiqued, a goal that Dew and Delbourgo accomplish with devastating efficiency. By focusing on famous “heroic narratives of discovery” (5) Delbourgo and Dew argue, studies of imperial science have missed the day-to-day activities which shaped the study of nature in the Atlantic World. In other words, historians of science (including me) have grown too comfortable thinking of Atlantic science through the image of a sextant-wielding Baron von Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

As Science and Empire demonstrates, knowledge of the Atlantic World depended upon the labors of far lesser-known figures: sailors, surgeon-barbers, Creole collectors, and diasporic Africans among others. Most essays go beyond describing the actions of these invisible networks, connecting them with better known ones.

Alison Sandman, for example, explains how pilots competed with learned cosmographers to control cartographic knowledge in early modern Spain. Júnia Ferreira Furtado’s essay, focused on Brazil, shows how Dutch surgeon-barbers “broke the monopoly of erudite knowledge enjoyed by doctors,” (Furtado, 132) giving tropical medicine a pronounced, empirical tilt. Even well known figures are not what they appear. Joyce Chaplin revisits Benjamin Franklin, poster-child of elite science, to show how he relied upon the reports of sailors and sea captains in describing the Atlantic “Gulph Stream.”

Franklin Map of Gulf Stream, 1769

Franklin Map of Gulf Stream, 1769

Taken together, the essays portray Atlantic science differently than the influential center-periphery model of science described by Bruno Latour in Science in Action (1987). Within Latour’s model, knowledge of the world starts and ends in the metropole where men of science provide the questions and instruments needed to understand nature at the edges of empire. While Latour’s system works well in describing many aspects of state-sponsored expeditions, it fails to explain other types of knowledge networks.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour

For one thing, Atlantic networks were unstable. As Neil Safier explains in tracing the work of French naturalist Joseph de Jussieu, acquiring and transmitting information was a precarious business. “The successful circulation of information from one point in the Atlantic to another was often dependent on circumstances that could just as easily go wrong as right” (Safier, 219). The networks developed by Spanish botanical expeditions, as described by Daniela Bleichmar, were of sturdier stuff. Yet Bleichmar points out other weaknesses in the Latourian model, specifically how “periphery” is a term ill-suited to describe botanical science in the Americas: “Circulation [of information] did not resemble the flight of a boomerang, always returning to the center, but rather a more reciprocal paddle game. Every letter or shipment from one side provoked a reply from the other.” (Bleichmar, 239). While European “centers” were important – no one disputes the asymmetries in power between mother country and colonies – they were dependent upon colonial peoples’ cooperation. This was not merely a question of finding Indians and Africans to collect things. As Susan Scott Parrish and Ralph Bauer point out in essays on diasporic Africans and Native American magic, respectively, Europeans adapted indigenous knowledge systems to make sense of an occult, magical nature. If London, Paris, and Madrid operated as hubs of scientific calculation, they were centers shaped by the world wheeling around them.

With such a strong theme linking all the essays, Science and Empire does not really need section headings. I found the four offered — “Networks of Circulation,” “Writing an American Book of Nature,” “Itineraries of Collection,” and “Contested Powers” – too vague to be useful. There are fruitful subordinate themes that track across essays, such as the tension between theory and empiricism (Sandman, Bauer, Furtado, Barrera-Osorio) and environmental history and technology (Golinski, Dew, Delbourgo, and Regourd). Still this is a minor quip. Dew and Delbourgo have managed to square the circle of edited collections: bringing together a diverse set of essays to target an important historiographical issue.

This review will be published in the upcoming issue of the British Journal for the History of Science. My thanks to BJHS for permission to reprint it here.

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,667 other followers