Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Exploration: A Very Short Introduction (book review)


Exploration: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series spans 500 volumes, taking up subjects from Beauty to Relativity to Wittgenstein. As we lose ourselves in ever expanding information networks, the brightly coloured paperbacks have become the researcher’s Lonely Planet, a pocket guide to topics that require some navigation. While the series covers some of the same ground as other reference sources insofar as they chronicle events and basic principles, their real value lies in the perspective of their specialist authors who, in addition to detailing facts, take on the central issues and controversies of their subjects.

This is hard to do in 35,000 words. It is especially hard to do with exploration which spans history and prehistory and crosses disciplinary boundaries from history, geography and anthropology to literary theory. From what perspective can all of these topics and approaches be surveyed in 130 pages? Is it possible to give appropriate scope to the subject as a whole and still say something meaningful about the explorer, the subaltern, the contact zone or the encounter?

In Stewart Weaver’s hands, yes. Written with a deft touch, his account of exploration gives scope while still finding room for subjects that require special detail and analysis. Beginning with a reflection on the idea of exploration – a term that after all this time is still difficult to pin down – Weaver establishes a central theme of the book: exploration is much more than a history of travels and conquests. “Far from expressing an eccentric wandering urge on the part of some rugged visionary, [exploration] is the outward projection of cultural imperatives shaped and elaborated back home” (7).

Chapters follow on travel in human prehistory, ancient exploration, the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, the Imperial Age and extreme exploration in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While histories of exploration commonly focus on European and North American activities, Weaver provides numerous accounts of non-Western explorers: from Polynesian navigators venturing into the Eastern Pacific and the peripatetic adventures of Ibn Battuta to the magisterial voyages of Zheng He into the Indian Ocean. Important subjects receive concentrated focus. The Columbian voyages of the late 1400s, which transformed Atlantic peoples on three continents, is given considerable attention. The voyages of James Cook in the Pacific, the long five-year trek of Alexander von Humboldt through the Americas, and the western expedition of Lewis and Clark are also given room.

All of this makes A Very Short Introduction to Exploration a very useful text: accessible for a quick overview of events but also deep enough for a close examination of important episodes. For this reason, it is an appropriate work for lay readers, university students, as well as researchers seeking to contextualise their projects. Researchers will also appreciate Weaver’s nuanced knowledge of exploration scholarship. In general, Very Short Introductions avoid footnotes and restrict references to a short section in the back matter. Still, Weaver manages to infuse his chapters with the flavour of contemporary debates about exploration.

One example of this is his treatment of Alexander von Humboldt. Of the famous Prussian explorer – known in the world of nineteenth-century science not merely for his travels in South America, but for his virtuosity in representing nature graphically and holistically –Weaver provides a portrait that goes beyond a simple play-by-play of his travels. A hero in the Victorian Age, Humboldt (the subject of a special issue of Studies in Travel Writing Studies in Travel Writing, 2016 Vol. 20, No. 1, 116–117 edited by Peter Hulme in 2011) became a contested figure in the 1980s and 1990s during the postcolonial turn for being an agent of empire, doing the bidding of the Spanish crown in its attempts to maintain control over its restive colonies. Given the restrictions of the format, Weaver cannot name names, but he is clearly referring to the work of Mary Louise Pratt and others who put forward this critique of the explorer in the early 1990s. Yet he does not stop there, describing a new interpretation by Aaron Sachs and Laura Dassow Walls that recovers Humboldt from being a mere agent of empire. In their works, he emerges as a pioneer of civil rights and human ecology. 

This is only one example. David Northrup’s theory of “Globalization and the Great Convergence” informs Weaver’s discussion of prehistoric exploration, Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s views are put forward in his treatment of Columbus, and even the findings of molecular biologist R. P. Ebstein – whose work on the dopamine D4 receptor raised the idea of an “adventure gene” in the late 1990s – is described in analysing the motives behind exploration. One senses, in these new biological approaches, that we have returned full circle to the late nineteenth century when “Arctic fever”, “mountain madness” and other metaphorical maladies were diagnosed as behaviours innate to our species: a will to explore. 

Ultimately, while Weaver allows room for the effects of biological imperatives on exploration at both the level of the species and the individual, his emphasis is clearly on culture as the engine of expeditionary zeal, the driver of imperial encounters as well as quests to conquer “the extreme”. Still, the vast reach of exploration across the ages, encompassing so many human actors, activities and motivations resists easy generalizations. Weaver is too nuanced a thinker and too careful a historian to make epic pronouncements, but in this pocket-sized grand tour of human travel across the centuries, he offers a small one: “Exploration is always surprising; it defeats expectations,
challenges certainties, even opens eyes from time to time” (9).

Originally published as “Exploration: a very short introduction,” Studies in Travel Writing, 20:1, 116-117, DOI: 10.1080/13645145.2015.1136093


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