Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Explorers

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.

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.

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.


Where No ENFP Has Gone Before, Part II

brain

(For Part I, go here)

I first took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) when I was a junior in high school. This was a good time to take it since, like most sixteen-year-olds, I was self-absorbed enough to think I should spend more time trying to figure myself out.

The test labeled me as an ENTP: Extroversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving.

I was a clear extrovert, someone who Jung describes as gaining energy from the world around them, or in my case, trying to set fire to the world around them. Introverts like Jung find energy through reflection. Thinking first, acting second. An interesting idea.

I also tested strongly intuitive, or as the MBTI would observe, I gathered information as concepts and abstract patterns rather than as concrete, immediate facts available to the senses.

One axiom of the MBTI is that personality types are stable, more or less. As this idea goes, the psyche sets up basic patterns of gathering, interpreting, and acting on information quite early, by age three or four.

Yet critics of the MBTI such as Paul Matthews point out that people who take the test often get different answers. My testing history confirms this as well. In high school, the MBTI tagged me as a thinker rather than feeler,  deciding issues on logical and consistent premises.

When I took the test again last week, I had swung over to the feeling side of the spectrum, making decisions based upon personal association or empathy more than general principles. That a person’s psychological type seems squishy, mutable over time, is one of many criticisms leveled at the MBTI, one that challenges its claim to measure meaningful psychological differences.

Still, my MBTI evaluation has been stable other than that, particularly in the final category of  perceiving/judging which evaluates how people process information. Strongly judging individuals tend to like settling matters and, as a result, gather information in order to make decisions and tie up loose ends.

Those with strong perceiving tendencies (of which I am one) gather information like rodents in November, amassing it without end. Perceivers are the hoarders of ideas, stowing and revising them even though it keeps things unsettled. They have messy desks.

Driving on Rt 6 in Wellfleet last week, my wife Michele (an INFJ)  wondered how her students might type characters in her lit courses. Ahab would have to be an INTJ. The Great Gatsby? ESFP I think.

The conversation brought me back to a post I wrote last year about The Explorer Type.  At the time, I was thinking about how certain explorers, such as Roy Chapman Andrews and Louis Leakey, took on similar cultural personae: popular outsiders who contributed to, but were not a part of, the academic establishment.

Was there something deeper here? A psychological type that lay behind the public persona?  The ENTP personality type (Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving) is often labeled “The Inventor-Explorer.” Other analyses of Myers-Briggs tag INTP (Introvert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceving) as the rightful home of this type. Yet what spotty data exists on this subject shows that real explorers, such Chuck Yeager and Alan Shepard, test as ISTPs (Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving).

Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard

Then again, test pilots and astronauts offer a narrow field of explorers. Reading Goethe and ranging over the mountains of South America, would Alexander von Humboldt have been an ISTP? Never. An ENTP if ever there was one.

Nor should the military discipline and technical demands of modern spaceflight necessarily point to controlled, process-oriented types such as ISTPs. The world’s most famous astronaut is a confirmed ENFP.

James Kirk: A Confirmed ENFP

An ENFP seeks out new worlds.

See for yourself.

Take a quick MBTI assessment here.

Type profiles are available here.

Other posts on exploration and personality:

What Kind of Explorer Are You?

Call Me Starbuck

Maybe I Was Wrong

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