Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Explorers

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.

Wild Thing

Woodwose (detail), Albrecht Durer, 1499

Woodwose (detail), Albrecht Durer, 1499

Whether going up mountains, down rivers, over canyons, or across the pack-ice, adventurists often express a malaise with “civilized life” back home. In the wild, the drudgeries of the mall-shopping, lawn-mowing, 401K-filing world fall away, and with them, the barriers to authentic experience. Says Mt Everest climber Stephen Venables:

Although you don’t deliberately seek an epic, you know that one day something like that might happen. When it did happen on Everest, it was harder and more prolonged and draining than anything I had ever done, but also more exhilarating than anything I had ever done. It was like a watershed. It was something I was probably never going to repeat again. [quoted in Maria Coffey, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, 137]

Why does civilization make some people feel so queasy that they’d travel to the most dangerous places on earth to find relief? A common answer is that human beings are not well-adapted to the world they inhabit, that some deeply buried instinct drives us to leave our suburban ghettos and take up high-altitude mountain climbing. A related argument holds that humans are innately curious, so curious that they are impelled, like cats near washing machines, to explore at any cost.

I don’t like these explanations. No one doubts that human beings have inherited behaviors, all animals do, but humans have proven remarkably plastic as a species. Speech patterns, fashion, diet, and language all show how impressionable we are to environment, experience, and culture.

Perhaps this reveals my bias too: as a cultural historian, I tend to think of explanations that are cultural rather than biological. In this case, I am inclined to believe that explorers and adventurers find catharsis in the wild because, well, they have learned to think of such places as cathartic.

Historians such as T. J. Jackson Lears and Gail Bederman have built a strong case for this argument. Looking at a wide array of evidence from the 19th and early 20th centuries, they link the urge to return to nature with cultural events. In particular,  “going native,”  Primitivism, and the Arts and Crafts movement all gain popularity just as Western societies transition from agricultural to industrial economies. For Lears and Bederman, the “call of the wild” has less to do with the feral impulses of the human psyche, and more to do with the disorienting world of the industrial city.

Tarzan of the Apes (Cover), Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

Tarzan of the Apes (Cover), Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

Yet, I will admit, the “call-of-the-wild” impulse cannot be entirely explained by culture either.  If we travel back in time before industrialization, we can still find a certain malaise with civilization.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Allan Ramsay, 1766

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Allan Ramsay, 1766

Living in 18th century Paris, Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed against the vanities and corruptions of civilized life. He found role models in the islands of the South Pacific where native peoples lived – so he thought – more virtuous lives closer to nature.

The Fight in the Forest, Hans Burgkmair, 1500 CE

The Fight in the Forest, Hans Burgkmair, 1500 CE

We can go back even further.  For Medieval Europeans the “Wildman” was a common, if legendary, figure in art and literature.  Often, wildmen represented civilized men who, in the throes of madness, grief, or unrequited love,  cast off everything and entered a state of nature. They reverted to savagery,  acted violently, and lost their powers of speech and reason.  Yet when these wildmen, by chance, were returned to the civilized world, they often emerged better for the experience: stronger of spirit and purer of heart.  Such was the case with Merlin of the King Arthur legends.

Even the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates to at least 2000 BCE, features the feral wild-child Enkidu, a boy raised by beasts and ignorant of all of civilization’s pleasures until seduced by the temple prostitute Shamhat. No industrial cities here.

What to make of all this? Perhaps there is something of the “call-of-the-wild” that strikes deep, beneath the reaches of culture (is there such a place?). From what we know, it appears that human beings spent most of their 125,000 year history in motion, as nomadic,  itinerant tribes. Only in the last 10,000 years or so have we put down roots, developing agriculture and the foundations of complex, specialized societies. Is this restlessness a a biological shadow of our long journey as hunter-gathers? A vestigial organ of the civilized psyche? I never used to think so but I wonder.

What Kind of Explorer are You?

Robert Peary

Robert Peary

Explorers’ narratives only get you so close to the truth. They are — like all memoirs  — public documents, manuscripts that are written to be read by others. Yet they sometimes reveal things unawares.  For example, Robert Peary’s 1910 book, The North Pole, is not a source you would consult to figure out if Peary really made it to the North Pole in 1909. But the book reveals much about Peary’s view of the North Pole quest and his ideals of leadership (or, to be more accurate, Peary’s views as channeled through his ghostwriter). Describing the final push across the polar pack ice in April 1909, Peary states:

This was the time for which I had reserved all my energies, the time for which I had worked for twenty-two years, for which I had lived the simple life and trained myself as for a race. In spite of my years, I felt fit for the demands of the coming days and was eager to be on the trail. As for my party, my equipment, and my supplies, they were perfect beyond my most sanguine dreams of earlier years. My party might be regarded as an ideal which had now come to realization-as loyal and responsive to my will as the fingers of my right hand. [Peary, North Pole, 270-271]

Peary’s view of his expedition “as for a race” is telling. Seeing the North Pole as the finish line in a contest rather than a region to be investigated, Peary tended to look at other explorers as rival contestants rather than colleagues or collaborators.

Peary’s view of his team as “fingers” is also revealing. It shows that Peary thought of leadership as a something dictated from the top. Teams should not exhibit independence or creative judgment, any more than fingers should challenge the mind that directs them.

While Peary’s attitudes were common among explorers, they were not universal.  Alexander von Humboldt used his expedition narrative to give voice to peoples often omitted in travel literature, in particular, the Spanish and indigenous Americans who made his researches possible.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Explorer-scientists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace had good reason to feel competitive: both arrived at the theory of natural selection independently. Yet while Darwin learned of Wallace’s discovery with a certain amount of gloom, he co-reported Wallace’s work with his own. Wallace, for his part, upheld the priority of Darwin’s claim. Both men remained on good terms.

Is it your field of work that determines your approach to your peers and employees? Or other factors — class, family, work culture, personality? As I worked on my dissertation, I remember looking warily at works that approached my topic too closely. While some of these works ultimately proved helpful, they seemed dangerous at first: objects just below the waterline which might force me to change course, or worse, send my thesis to the bottom.

Yet graduate school was also a time of generous acts. We grad students kept an eye out for one another: writing down citations for each other, photocopying sources, drinking beer, listening to bad practice speeches.

Now I’m fortunate to belong to a community of generous peers: people I seek out for advice, to read early drafts, recommend books, or suggest lines of thought. These are not the only ways to approach life in the Academy – I know of a few Pearys in the field – but fortunately I see them only at some distance, marking out territory and planting flags.

Call Me Starbuck

Guy Waterman

Guy Waterman

On February 6 2000, Guy Waterman drove his Subaru Impreza to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, hiked up Mt Lafayette, and in the windy -16 degree night, let himself die of exposure.

Waterman was a man of many gifts and torments, a climber, writer, and environmentalist who lived for thirty years with his wife Laura Waterman  off-the-grid in Vermont.

Of these torments, which drove him into deeper and deeper isolation, Waterman said little. Yet he wrote about them through the characters of literature. He was Shakespeare’s Ariel battling the witch-child Caliban. He was Milton’s proud Satan. He was tragic Prometheus. He was Melville’s Ahab.

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Ahab.  As I read Laura Waterman’s spare, graceful memoir, Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage , it seemed an appropriate metaphor for Guy Waterman.

Then, this morning, reading Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Ahab surfaced once again.  Near the summit of Everest in 1996,  David Breashears and Ed Viesturs come across a body near the Hillary Step.

They found [Bruce] Herrod’s body clipped on to fixed ropes with a figure-eight rappel breake. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears later wrote, “lashed to his white whale.” [Coffey, 118]

It made me pause. One hears different many different literary metaphors for explorers and adventurers, but rarely Ahab.


Successful explorers find comparison to Odysseus, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Confined to the scurvy-ridden cabin of Advance over the long winter of 1854, Arctic explorer Elisha Kane would keep up the spirits of his men by reading them Alfred Tennyson’s Odyssean poem “Ulysses”) Those explorers who perish are commonly portrayed as Icarus, a boy whose joy with altitude overcame good judgment, causing him to fall to earth.

Both of these are figures are imperfect but bright of heart. Ahab is a different creature, a man of darker spirit, a figure turned in upon himself. Ahab’s travels to the ends of the earth bring no discovery or enlightenment; he sees only the white whale. Ultimately his obsession brings tragedy to all, not only Ahab, but to those who follow him.

Is Ahab the true spirit of extreme adventure? You would not think so reading most adventure literature. While these books reveal some of the dirty laundry of expeditionary life, they mostly chronicle struggle and attainment, heroism and transcendence.  Indeed, elite climbers often speak of the transcendent moment as the Holy Grail of high-altitude climbing, that thing which brings them back, time and time again, to the most dangerous mountains in the world.

Yet transcendence, going beyond oneself, is the opposite of obsession, a psychic tunneling-in so extreme that it diminishes or excludes everything around it: Golem’s ring, Ahab’s whale, Herrod’s mountain.

Grim metaphors indeed. Perhaps the legions of 8000-meter peak baggers and Seven-Summiters should read Moby-Dick, digest the moral of Ahab, and then turn their attention to the Ahab’s Quaker First Mate Starbuck:

[H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him … from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. [Melville, Moby-Dick]

If this seems too tame or Quakerish for the modern climber, perhaps they’d learn more from a more modern Starbuck, the character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Gallactica. Thrace is a woman of many demons, of violent appetites. Her thirst for transcendent experience has no limits.  But ultimately she channels her dare-devilry into objects of common interest, the search for Earth, the return home.

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica

Maybe I Was Wrong

Summit of Denali, courtesy of Exposed Planet

Why do people climb 8000-meter mountains? Free-solo the Eiger? BASE jump the Eiffel Tower? Motives are tricky things.

My work on Arctic explorers gave me a way to think about it.

Nineteenth-century explorers had their own answers to the “why” question. In the 1850s, when U.S. exploration of the Arctic began, explorers defended their missions by describing all of the commercial benefits that would accrue from their expeditions: new routes to Asia, new whale fisheries, new technological innovations in ship design. (Interestingly, NASA features a similar-sounding set of commercial benefits when it justifies its current plan to return humans to the Moon and Mars).

Then, in the 1880s, explorers changed course, justifying their exploits by anti-commercial motives: we explore because it is impractical. We explore to escape the strictures of the civilized world. We explore for the sake of exploring. Or, in George Mallory’s translation for mountain climbing, “because it’s there.”

George Mallory

George Mallory

In the language of day, the explorer had succumbed to “Arctic fever,” a term used over and over again in the last decades of the nineteenth century to describe the seemingly irrational behavior of explorers in putting themselves at risk:

“The northern bacilli were in my system, the arctic fever in my veins, never to be eradicated.” Robert Peary, 1898

“The polar virus was in [my husband's] blood and would not let him rest.” Emma DeLong, 1884

Explorers are ” infected with the same spirit.”  Frederick Cook, undated

“Arctic enthusiasm is an intermittent fever, returning in almost epidemic form after intervals of normal indifference.” McClure’s Magazine, 1893

As I tried to make sense of “Arctic Fever” for my book Coldest Crucible, I concluded that all of this talk of fevers was just another means to show purity of motive:

The disease may seem to be nothing but a playful literary metaphor, but it had serious functions. Arctic fever located the urge to explore in the human passions. It was a condition that afflicted the heart against the better judgement of the mind, operating beyond conscious control. Why should anyone attempt to reach the North Pole when it served no useful or scientific function? Because -explorers claimed- they felt irrationally compelled. In this way, Arctic fever masked rational motives for voyaging north, namely, the promise of celebrity and financial reward.

While explorers spoke about their irresistible compulsions, they were simultaneously working out huge publishing contracts, product endorsements, and lecture fees.  At the time I wrote my book, it seemed to me that all of this talk of instinct, true spirit, experience of the sublime, etc. was just a matter of bait-and-switch: finding motives that would impress paying audiences and would hide the true, mercenary motives behind them.

I haven’t abandoned this line of thinking entirely, but after reading the first chapter in Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, I think I need to revise it.


Coffey’s book is about the effects of extreme adventure on the people left behind: spouses, parents, and children who have to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. She starts her book with interviews of adventurers who talk about their motives in putting themselves at such risk.

“Endurance, fear, suffering cold, and the state between survival and death are such strong experiences that we want them again and again. We become addicted. Strangely, we strive to come back safely; and being back, we seek to return, once more to danger.”  Reinhold Messner

“I was totally possessed. The experience was like some inner explosion. I knew  it would somehow mark the rest of my life.”  Wanda Rutkiewicz

Coffey’s list of climbers who speak about this compulsion is impressive. It extends beyond the elite, celebrity climbers such as Messner and Rutkiewicz to include those who do not have agents, publishing contracts, or product endorsements.

I am realizing that it’s not enough to label this exploration “fever”  as merely a savvy form of marketing. It is clearly a psychological manifestation too, one that Coffey links to the impact of extreme risk on biological factors such as adrenaline and dopamine.

Coffey also describes the way that such extreme experience can have, ironically, a quieting effect on adventurists, making them feel less moody, more even-keeled, more able to focus on the present moment. Indeed, more than one climber described climbing as an escape from distraction, a way to concentrate on the task at hand, to live in the moment, to experience things more fully.

At times, it made me wonder if there a common psychological profile for elite climbers. The frequency of people referring to attention and distraction sounded very similar to interviews conducted by Dr. Edward Hallowell in his book, Driven to Distraction, a book about attention deficit disorder (ADD).


The point here is not to throw out one label in order to replace it with another. But Coffey’s book is making me realize that my work on the history of exploration should not only play out at the level of nations, empires, commerce, and popular culture.  I need to make room for the individual, a tangled world of emotion, experience, and behavior.

I know that many of you are thinking  “No duh! This is standard stuff for climbing books.” True enough: Will power, spirit, fear, endurance, ecstasy: the meat and potatoes of adventure literature. But cultural historians are trained to think of personal motives as ultimately unknowable, a black box that should not be opened. To psychoanalyze the historical subject is like touching the third rail in the subway. Dangerous terrain.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,643 other followers