Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Historiography

Academics vs. Explorers

Last week explorer Mikael Strandberg published an interesting post on his blog about Academics vs. Explorers . The post described some of the tensions that exist between explorers and university professors on issues related to exploration.  I think that many of Mikael’s points ring true: academics are less than comfortable at times collaborating with travelers and explorers on matters of geography, science, anthropology, and exploration.

Mikael Strandberg

Why? I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, academics usually approach their subject matter from a specific viewpoint or research methodology. For example, anthropologists, field biologists, archeologists, and historians all have different frameworks for understanding the world and its peoples. Information obtained from explorers (or other fields) often doesn’t fit very well within these frameworks and, therefore, remains difficult to integrate. Most travelers and explorers, by necessity, need to approach new peoples and new regions with versatility, sensitivity, and creativity. They do not have the time to settle in one place the way an anthropologist does. They cannot carry thousands of pounds of equipment the way archeologists do. They cannot afford to set up their travels as controlled experiments.

Neil Armstrong: subject & expert

Second, academics often don’t know how to categorize explorers. For example, as a historian of exploration, I am interested in the culture, experience, activities, ideas, and biases of explorers. This is the subject of my research. Working with explorers is exciting for me because it sometimes gives me insight into the historical expeditions that I focus on in my work. But it can sometimes also be uncomfortable because I don’t know which hat to wear. Am I a colleague listening to a fellow expert in the field? Or am I an anthropologist, analyzing my subject for information about his or her ideas, beliefs, and behaviors?

Still I think that academics and explorers would benefit from closer contact.

One way explorers might help professionals in general (and academics in particular) is in thinking outside the disciplinary box. Sometimes my greatest insights come from sources far removed from my field of expertise in the history of science and exploration. As Will Thomas has pointed out at Ether Wave Propaganda, historians sometimes forget that their “subjects” are often sophisticated observers of events and their place within them.

One way that explorers might benefit from academics is in looking at exploration more critically. I often hear travelers and explorers speak about exploration in rather visionary terms: as a way of escaping overly commercialized and routinized life in order to find a “core” self….or as a deep-seated, instinctive behavior that humans express in order to achieve their full humanity. While these ideas are inspiring, they don’t really conform with data on the history of explorers and exploration.

Christopher Columbus, Robert Peary, and NASA astronauts all reached “new worlds” far away from the civilizations they knew. Yet all of them remained deeply invested in the practical and personal payoffs of exploration back home (eg. fame, glory, professional advancement). My research leads me to believe that the desire to explore flows as much from the influence of modern culture as it does from our innate drives or inner curiosity.

In the end, however, I am fine if academics and explorers don’t see eye-to-eye as long as they keep talking to each other face to face.

For other posts here on related subjects see:

The Myth of Pure Experience
The Problem of Human Missions to Mars
The Explorer Gene

Mr X

There is a scholar, call him Mr X, who received his training within the academy, but who found it wasn’t enough. He wanted more: to move outside of his wonky circle of colleagues, to engage the public, to communicate ideas in a manner that was artful as well as illuminating.

While his peers wrote difficult books and debated obscure issues at their meetings, Mr X took part in the communication revolution that was bringing academic ideas into greater contact with the wider world. He wrote shorter pieces for broader audiences, telling one colleague “Publish small works often and you will dominate all of literature.” So when Mr X was offered a position far away from his bustling city home, he took it, feeling that his community was no longer defined by geography but by ideas, communicated through the new social technologies.

The new social technologies wern’t blogs or Web 2.0 applications, but the pamphlet and the salon. Mr X is not Steven Jay Gould or PZ Myers but Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, an 18th century French explorer and polymath who led a geodetic expedition to Lapland in 1736.

Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis. Notice Maupertuis' left hand flattening the globe.

Maupertuis is usually remembered as the scholar who described the actual shape of the earth by measuring a degree of arc at high latitude. In so doing, he helped settle a dispute with French cartographer Jacques Cassini over whether the earth was prolate (that is, longer along its N-S axis), or oblate (longer along its diameter at the equator). Cassini believed that the earth was prolate like a lemon. Maupertuis, following in the footsteps of Newton, helped prove that it was oblate like a jelly donut.

A prolate spheroid

An oblate spheroid

Yet as Mary Terrall points out in her book The Man Who Flattened The Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences of the Enlightenment, Maupertuis’s most interesting work takes place back home as he tries to make a name for himself in this new theater of conversation, a world that connects elite academies and educated polite society.

As I read about the radical effects of social technology on academic writing and reputation today, I wonder: how much of this is really new? Perhaps the boundaries between elite institutions and general public have always been squishier than we’ve made them out to be. Blogs and twitter feeds feel so new, so world changing, because they have in fact changed the world we live in, the way we communicate with friends, peers, and random passers-by. Yet it’s bound to feel like this. The flood feels strongest when you’re standing in the middle of the stream.  The story of Maupertuis makes me think that it is a seasonal event, a spring flood that returns with some regularity, the latest iteration of social technology (and sociable science writing) that probably dates to the printing press. Vive le café.

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.

Interview with Felix Driver

hidden histories of exploration

A Malay native from Batavia at Coepang, portrait of Mohammed Jen Jamain by Thomas Baines. Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society

The history of exploration does not have its own departments in universities. It does not really exist as a historical sub-discipline either, at least in the way that formalized fields such as labor history, women’s history and political history do.  Instead, the history of exploration is a disciplinary interloper, a subject taken up by many fields such as literary studies, anthropology, geography, and the history of science. Each brings its own unique perspective and methods. Each has its own preoccupations and biases.

All of which makes the work of Felix Driver, professor of human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, especially important. While Driver has covered many of the meat-and-potatoes subjects in exploration: navigation, shipwrecks, and biographical subjects such as Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone, he has framed them in the broadest context: through the visual arts, postmodern theory, social history, and historical geography.

He is the author of many books and articles including Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire. He is also the co-editor of Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire which came out with University of Chicago Press in 2005.

At the same time, Driver has worked to bring these subjects to the attention of the public, supervising the new Royal Geographical Society exhibition, Hidden Histories of Exploration. The exhibition, which opened on October 15, “offers a new perspective on the Society’s Collections, highlighting the role of local inhabitants and intermediaries in the history of exploration.”

Driver took some time to speak with me about the exhibition and his work on exploration.

Welcome Felix Driver.

What inspired the Hidden Histories exhibition?

A conviction that the history of exploration was about a wider, collective experience of work and imagination rather than simply a story of lone individuals fighting against the odds. The idea of ‘hidden histories’ has an innate appeal – it suggests stories that have not been heard, which have been hidden from history, waiting to be uncovered. It has already provided the RGS with a model for a series of exhibitions linking aspects of their Collections with communities in London. The Society’s strong commitment to public engagement in recent years provided an opportunity for a more research-oriented exhibition which asked a simple question: can we think about exploration differently, using these same Collections which have inspired such great stories about heroic individuals? This was a kind of experiment, in which the Collections themselves were our field site: together with Lowri Jones, a researcher on the project, we set out to explore its contours, trying to make these other histories more visible.

step down stanley

"Step down Stanley and let me see behind you" John Bull, 1890, courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society

Hidden Histories uses RGS collections to look at “role of local peoples and intermediaries in the history of global exploration.” Those of us who study exploration get excited by this, but how do you pitch it to the general public? How do you engage the exploration buff interested only in Peary, Stanley, or Columbus?

That’s a good question. The exploration publishing industry has returned over and over to the same stories. The lives of great explorers continue to sell well, and that is one aspect of the continuing vitality of what I call our culture of exploration. Still, recent developments in the field and in popular science publishing have encouraged authors and readers to shift the focus somewhat, turning the spotlight on lesser known individuals whose experiences have been overshadowed. Consider for example the success of some terrific popular works on the theme of exploration and travel such as Robert Whitaker’s The Mapmaker’s Wife, or Matthew Kneale’s novel English Passengers, which are all about large and complex issues of language, translation, misunderstanding and exchange. That gives you a bit of hope that actually readers are looking for something new, so long as there is a good story there! Of course it is not easy – so much simpler to tread the path of our predecessors. Sometimes it requires an exploring spirit to venture further from the beaten track….

wife of captain drysdale

"The Wife of Captain Drysdale," Thomas Baines, 1856. Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society

What first drew you to the history of exploration? Is there particular question or theme that guides your research? How have your interests changed over time?

What drew me first to the history of exploration was a growing realization that the subject was more important to my own academic field – geography – than my teachers in the 1970s were prepared to admit. I was interested in the worldly role and impact of geographical knowledge, socially, economically and politically. When I was at school and college, ‘relevance’ was in the air and geographers were turning their attention to questions of policy and politics. My point was that geographical knowledge has been and continued to be hugely significant in the world beyond the academic, from travel writing to military mapping, and exploration provided one way into this. There were other ways into this worldly presence, of course, and the work of my PhD supervisor Derek Gregory has had a lasting influence.

Much of my own writing has focused strongly on the long nineteenth century, partly because this was a period in which I immersed myself for my PhD and first teaching (my first post was a joint appointment in history and geography). However, I was drawn to the work of social historians – at first EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, later work influenced by new models of cultural history. Partly because of my appointment on the borders of two disciplines, I found myself increasingly attracted to fields – such as Victorian studies or the history of science – that were in a sense already interdisciplinary. In both these cases, an interest in space and location has had a strong impact on the best writing in the field. Historians like Jim Secord and Dorinda Outram, as well as geographers such as David N. Livingstone and Charles Withers, taught me a lot about the ways in which ideas about exploration circulate, and why it is important to think of knowledge in practical as well as intellectual terms.

My interest in the visual culture of exploration and travel reflects the strong focus on the visual has shaped the work of geographers in this area, pre-eminently Stephen Daniels and Denis Cosgrove. My interests developed through work with James Ryan, whose book on the photographic collections of the RGS remains a seminal work. Later I worked with Luciana Martins on a project on British images of the tropical world in which we were particularly concerned with the observational skills of ordinary seamen and humble collectors rather than the grand theorists of nature. In retrospect, this project paved the way for some of the themes in the hidden histories of exploration exhibition. But this exhibition also represents a departure for me as the focus is squarely on the work of non-Europeans. There is an interesting discussion to be had here about whether turning figures like Nain Singh or Jacob Wainwright into ‘heroes’, just like Stanley or Livingstone, is the way to go. Perhaps we can’t think of exploration without heroes, and it’s a matter of re-thinking what we mean by heroism. Or perhaps we historians need to do more than ruminate on the vices and virtues of particular explorers, by considering the networks and institutions which made their voyages possible and gave them a wider significance.

In Geography Militant, you warned that scholars were focusing on exploration too much as an “imperial will-to-power” [8] ignoring the unique and contingent qualities of each expeditionary encounter. You developed this argument further in Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire. Do you think scholars are now moving away from an “empire-is-everywhere” world view? If so, what do you think we are moving towards?

This is not an original view. Many of the best known historians and literary critics writing on empire have made similar points: I am thinking of Peter Hulme, Catherine Hall and Nicholas Thomas. What I take from them is a deep sense of what colonialism and empire meant – not just at the level of trumpets and gunboats, but in the very making of our sense of ourselves and our place in the world, past and present. At the same time, I have wanted to highlight the fractured, diverse nature of the colonial experience and I have never been happy with lumpen versions of ‘colonial discourse’ which used to be advanced within some versions of postcolonial theory. This interest in difference is reflected in my interest in moments of controversy and crisis, points where the uncertainties and tensions come to the surface (as in controversies over the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley). You can’t work on exploration for long without realizing the strong emotional pull of the subject on explorers and their publics; and the fact quite simply that they were always arguing, either with ‘armchair geographers’ (those much maligned stay-at-homes) or with their peers. If these arguments were frequently staged if not orchestrated by others, that is part of the point: these controversies were more than simply the product of disputatious personalities, they were built in to the fabric of the culture which produced them.

What’s your next project?

In recent years I have worked on a variety of smaller projects on collectors and collecting, involving everything from insects to textiles. What I would like to do next is a book on the visual culture of exploration, drawing on a wide variety of materials from sketch-books to film. Some of these materials are represented in the hidden histories exhibition, notably the sketchbooks of John Linton Palmer and the 1922 Everest film featured on the website. But there is much left to explore!

Thanks for speaking with me.

 

Your work focuses on many issues besides the history of exploration, including visual arts, the geography of cities, and questions of identity and empire.

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