Tag Archives: exploration

“The Discoverers” by Daniel J. Boorstin


Book #100!

An ambitious title – the history of “discovery,” which can really be interpreted in many ways. I liked the stuff about calendars, clocks, maps and exploration. However, the sections on medicine and sociology in the latter third or so of the book was a bit of a slog. Each chapter is almost like a standalone essay, but they do flow well … until the end, which ends quite abruptly. (It discusses atomic theory; perhaps setting up Einstein’s quote “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible” in order to sum up the whole book.)

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff here; I’ll share some of the best bits I learned from reading.

  • The origins of our calendar are in the lunar cycle, which provided a ~30 day month. This didn’t quite mesh with the solar year, which the Egyptians determined quite accurately to be 365 1/4 days long. The origin of the seven day week is unknown, perhaps the sun + moon + five known planets? Twenty-four hours in a day comes from the Babylonians, who had a 12-based counting system. While 10-based seems logical to use due to 10 fingers, 12 is also not a stretch — it’s the number of knuckles on one hand (excluding thumb), which were counted off using the opposing hand’s thumb.
  • Clocks are known as “mother of machines.” In order to make them work, medieval craftsmen had to discover mechanisms of transferring mechanical energy. Once this was figured out for clocks, the same principles were applied to many other things, and here we are today with Iphones. Any, the key to clocks were the verge escapement and pendulum. There was a positive driving force behind developing clocks from the Church: they needed to ring the bells at different times of day for Catholic prayers. (Why didn’t Muslims make clocks first? Was it because they used only verbal calls to prayer?)
  • Originally, the hour was a division of daylight into equal partitions. This is fine I guess if you really have no way to accurately measure time, but rather tricky to automate such timekeeping with a clock, since amount of daylight varies per location on the globe and differs from day to day. Early clock makers tried to follow this with complicated systems that required almost constant and setting calibration before simplifying things to the current system. It was the right thing to do — later the discovery of an accurate way to measure longitude depended on clocks. What you do is set your clock at high noon at a known location, then go sailing and check your clock at “high noon” wherever you happen to be (when the sun is directly overhead). The difference your clock says from noon is the difference in longitude you have traveled. It’s no coincidence that degrees of longitude (and latitude) are subdivided into minutes and seconds. (How to tell latitude? Just get a stick with a weighted string on the end. Point it to the North Star and measure the angle of the string.  There you go, that’s latitude.)
  • On the other hand, mapmaking and geography suffered negatively from the Church’s influence. Reasonably accurate physical maps and a latitude/longitude-like grid system inherited from the Greeks and Romans were discarded in favor of an overly-literal Biblical layout: rough circle with Asia taking up one half, Europe and Africa the other, with Jerusalem in the middle and all 3 continents separated by the Mediterranean.
  • Prince Henry the Navigator is kind of a new hero for me after reading this book. He focused on mapmaking, new ship design (caravel), and setting up conditions for “incremental discovery” — kind of like an early research institute. One major obstacle to the early Portuguese was Cape Bojador in West Africa. It was the ends of the earth to them – difficult to circumvent, both logistically and psychologically. But once they did, it was almost like an attitude of “hey, that wasn’t so bad! And look at all this cool new stuff!” (Some of the “cool stuff” to them was slaves … Portuguese quickly became big slave traders. Not so cool from our perspective.) Year by year, the explorers ventured further and further until Gama rounded the Cape and was on to India. There’s an early Portuguese saga, Camoens‘ “Lusiads,” which is about this golden age of Portuguese exploration; it stuck out to me because Burton who I just read about was very interested in Camoens and this period as well.
  • Modern-day denizens are astounded by the brutality of the times. When Gama came a second time to India, this time in conquistador-mode, he rounded up several random Indians without cause, killed them, cut off their hands and heads, and sent it on to persuade Calicut’s ruler to surrender. Needless to say, resistance was brief. Gama is a Portuguese hero.  And, while the barbarism of the Vikings is not unknown, it’s horrifying that one Norseman was renowned for his gentleness, since he refused to impale small children, a typical way for Vikings to unwind at the end of a long day of pillaging. (Presumably, this gentle Viking had no qualms about whatever he did to the parents!)
  • The origin of the term “America” – Columbus always insisted that he had reached Asia. Later, Amerigo Vespucci went down S. America coast and publicly speculated that it was an entirely new land. The secrecy of Spain and Portugal regarding their discoveries (the nuclear secrets of the age) meant the outside world didn’t hear of everything right away. Vespucci came later than Columbus, but his accounts became more widespread earlier. A mapmaker in France heard of Vespucci and put his name on the new world, and it stuck.
  • Linnaeus – the whole genus-species naming convention happened basically all at once, largely by him. Latin names don’t necessarily describe the organism, just a way to remember and categorize the organism and define it across language boundaries.

“Over the Edge of the World” by Laurence Bergreen

This is the exciting account of the first circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan.  Actually Magellan himself died along the way, as did many of his men.  Out of the original five-ship “Armada de Moluccas” commissioned to find a western water route to the spice islands, only the Victoria and a handful of sailors (about 10% of those who started the voyage) made it back to Spain three years later.

Magellan was from Portugal, but after years of failing to win the support of the Portugese king to back his expedition, he turned to Portugal’s arch-rival, Spain.  (Little did Magellan know that Portugal already had a highly secretive trading network in the spice islands, and was busy establishing a trade monopoly.  No wonder the king cared little for Magellan’s plan.)  When King Charles agreed to sponsor the expedition, there was somewhat of a diplomatic incident given the recently signed Treaty of Tordesillas and mutual suspicion between the nations.  When the going got tough during the voyage, it was easy for the Spanish captains and crew to assume Magellan was really a Portugese spy intent on their destruction.

Indeed, mutiny did break out during the winter at Port Saint Julian in Patagonia.  When three out of the five ships mutinied against their Captain General, the outnumbered Magellan displayed some guts by dividing and conquering the rebel ships and then having the leaders drawn and quartered.  He also marooned one of the rebellious Spanish captains and a priest, which caused big problems for his reputation when word got back to Spain.  But Magellan himself was dead by then…

The fleet, minus one wrecked ship and another that returned to Spain, eventually found the Strait of Magellan and crossed the Pacific Ocean.  Arriving at the Phillipines, they quickly strayed from their commercial mission and became involved in local politics and religious conversion.  Establishing an alliance with the first friendly king they met, Magellan decided to strengthen the ties by attacking a rival tribe.  Overestimating the advantage of their superior technology, namely plate armor and primitive, widely inaccurate and slow firearms, Magellan and some of his crew were overwhelmed by the sharpened bamboo sticks of 1500 warriors on the island of Mactan.

In a very interesting display of the two sides to every coin, today at Mactan harbor there is a monument with two inscriptions.  “Here on 27th April 1521 the great Portugese navigator Hernando de Magallanes, in the service of the King of Spain, was slain by native Filipinos.”  On the reverse side, “Here on this spot the great chieftain Lapu Lapu repelled an attack by Ferdinand Magellan, killing him and sending his forces away.”  The historical record tells nothing more about Lapu Lapu than this incident, but evidently he’s a Filipino national folk hero of sorts simply for this lone act of defiance against the western invaders.

Magellan’s demise reminded me of Cook’s death in Hawaii about 260 years later.  In fact, I was struck by a lot of similarities between the voyages.  Even in the long time span between them, the challenges of exploration via sailing ship and the strangeness and hazards of the alien cultures they encountered seemed very similar.  The each had a gifted chronicler – Magellan had Antonio Pigafetta and Cook had Joseph Banks.  I wonder if today we wouldn’t celebrate these two explorers quite as much without the records these scribes left behind.  Never underestimate the value of a good journal!  Makes me wonder if there is some unknown explorer from the Age of Discovery that is unknown simply because no one ever took notes during the trip…

The other thing that struck me about the expedition was the incredible diversity of the cultures Magellan and his crew encountered.  It’s amazing to think that there was a time when virtually whole continents of people knew so little about each other.  The mutual discoveries, interaction and even altercations that resulted shaped our world today and make the study of history oh so interesting.

“Blue Latitudes” by Tony Horwitz

“Boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before.”

Horwitz alternates telling the history of Cook’s background and expeditions with stories about the author’s own travels to some of the same regions.  I liked the book a lot and thought it was an entertaining way to learn about Cook and how he is perceived today.

As the subtitle alludes, Horwitz was inspired by comparisons of Cook to another captain, Star Trek’s Captain Kirk.  James Cook::James Kirk.  The Endeavour::the Enterprise.  Seeking out new peoples and new civilizations.  Makes you wonder if Roddenberry was paying homage to the great navigator.  Cook did boldly go where no (European) man had gone before, and experienced the drama of “First Contact” numerous times: in Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest.

The conditions aboard an 18th century sailing ship and the dangers Cook encountered during his three, multi-year journeys really give cause for admiration of his courage and determination.  It’s sad that many even today see Cook as the evil bringer of Western imperialism and the destroyer of native culture.  Maybe the native cultures really were idyllic and totally wonderful (kind of doubt it … people tend to remember the good and not the bad).  But, change was inevitable.  If not Cook, then someone else would have “discovered” these places and peoples.  It seems that Cook was probably more just to the natives than many other explorers might have been in the same situations.  I think that we need to remember Cook in the context of his own time and culture, and respect his accomplishments.  What he did was akin to exploring the Moon or Mars in our own day…gotta give him a little credit.

In light of this book and the previous one I read on Stanley, it makes me reconsider some of the places that would be fun to visit.  I used to want to travel to many exotic destinations; now I think I would be content to just read about most of them.  (Grand European Tour = still on!)

Factoids, etc:

  • Cook likely pronounced his name “koook”.  That’s what Horwitz reports as the Yorkshire accented pronunciation, which is where Cook was from.  Fits with the Tahitian name for Cook: “Toote”.  There wasn’t a “k” sound in the Tahitian language, but Toote sounds a lot more like Koook than Cook.
  • The Polynesian dancing that is p.c.-ized as being about “the rhythm of the seas” – er no.  It’s about what it looks like it’s about.  Traditional Polynesian culture was much more, shall we say, liberated with respect to morality than even our society today.
  • Seems like Cook wasn’t up to form during his third (and final) expedition.  He lacked some of his previous initiative (choosing not to try to find Fiji or Samoa after hearing of them) and was more insensitive to his crew and to the natives than before.  Horwitz cites experts speculating that a vitamin-B deficiency, caused by ringworm infestation of the intestines, may have been to blame.
  • Herb Kane’s historical re-creation painting of the Death of Cook on Hawaii is mentioned and discussed at length in the book, but isn’t included.  So I found the link.

“Stanley” by Tim Jeal

Subtitle: “The impossible life of Africa’s greatest explorer.”  No kidding!  Quite an amazing life indeed.  Courage, toughness, grit, and defying the odds – that’s my impression of Stanley after reading this book.

John Rowlands was an illegitimate child in Wales.  His mother wanted nothing to do with him; he was raised by his grandfather until the age of five when the grandfather died.  The extended family wanted nothing to do with him either, so he was sent off to be raised in the workhouse (orphanage / poorhouse of Victorian Britain; think Dickens).  The young man, when grown, understandably wanted to get as far away from his sorry situation as he could.

He first ended up in New Orleans and worked as a shopkeeper’s assistant.  When the Civil War erupted, he joined the Confederate Army, not out of any sense of duty or sympathy for the cause, but simply because everyone else was doing it.  After the Battle of Shiloh, where he saw combat and was captured, he decided a life of soldiering was not for him.  He was offered release if he would join the Union Army, which he did and then promptly deserted.

Somewhere along the way, he started calling himself Henry Morton Stanley.  He invented a story that grew with the years of being adopted by and thereafter taking the name of a Henry Stanley in New Orleans.  Years after, when he became famous, this lie came back to haunt him as he got caught in a web of contradictions.  But he stuck with it – no way would he want to return to the status of an illegitimate, unwanted Welsh boy.

Stanley wanted adventure.  Inspired by the likes of Richard Burton, he and some friends traveled to Turkey, intent on exploring, adventuring, and then writing about their experiences afterward to get rich and famous back home.  Things did not turn out – their supplies and horses were captured and the group was arrested.  Luckily they were able to talk their way out of the situation, and made it home.  Stanley got a job basically as a war correspondent for a newspaper, traveling around the hot spots of the world.

The newspaper job led to the event which made him famous: discovering Dr. Livingstone in Africa.  (His famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  is almost surely something made up for the newspaper readership.)  A grueling expedition to be sure, but no where close to the length or severity of the others he later made.  He was inspired by Livingstone’s anti-slavery convictions and manner.  Writing about Livingstone for the press back home, Stanley covered many of his faults and inflated his good attributes.  Ironically, this had the effect of creating the impression, still in effect today, of Livingstone as a saint but Stanley, due to later “bad press” surrounding his later expeditions, as a ruthless imperial oppressor.

After Livingstone died, Stanley wanted to go back to Africa to finish Livingstone’s geographical work on nailing down the source of the Nile River.  Setting out from Zanzibar on the East coast (the same point at which the Find Livingstone expedition started), and after circumnavigating Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, Stanley traveled to the Lualaba River and followed it until it became the Congo, not the Nile as Livingstone had thought.   Traveling down the river was no picnic due to hostile tribes and numerous cataracts that made boat travel difficult.  But Stanley made it all the way to the mouth of the Congo, on Africa’s West coast.

Stanley was again hailed as a hero.  He tried to get Britain interested in setting up a series of trading posts and eventually a colony in the Congo Basin (convinced that this was the only way to save the Africans from the Arab slave traders), but with no success, probably because he was not very diplomatic with members of the Royal Society and also because he was thought to be an American.  The Belgian king Leopold eventually hired Stanley to go back, setting the foundation of the Belgian Congo.  In later years, Leopold’s greed and the brutality of Belgian officers in the Belgian Congo in the 1890s (after Stanley had left the king’s employment)  unfortunately cast a dim shadow on Stanley, even though Stanley was seen by all who knew him as a compassionate, fair, and good leader who admired Africans and Europeans alike.

Stanley has a bad rap as being harsh to Africans, even though he was actually more fair and respectful than many of his contemporaries.  Part of the blame is Stanley himself embellishing accounts of his expeditions.  If he had to shoot an African, then he wrote that he had shot 17 Africans, because that’s a more exciting story, by Jove!  (He was a newspaperman, remember?)  His African name, Bula Matari, means “rock breaker”.  Kind of sounds like a strict dictator … but actually he got the name by working side by side with the black laborers to break rocks in constructing some of the first roads in the Belgian Congo.

A few years after the work for Leopold, Stanley headed up another expedition, this to rescue Emin Pasha, leader of Equatoria.  Stanley and co.  this time crossed Africa from West to East.  Although Stanley’s conduct was admirable, that of some of his European officers was not.  (One of them bought a slave girl and gave her to cannibals, just to see how they would eat here.)  Stanley took the blame for a lot of the disaster that came upon this expedition.  To make matters worse, Emin Pasha was not very grateful for his rescue and was kind of a shady figure himself.

After the Emin Pasha Expedition, Stanley married Dorothy Tennant.  He had fallen in love with her before the expedition, but she turned him down.  Harshly.  After trying to win the favor of another (married) man, she heard word that Stanley had emerged successfully from Africa, more famous than ever.  She won back his affection after telling him how fervently she had prayed for his safety for the three years he was in Africa.  After their marriage, she nixed any further ideas of Stanley returning to Africa as an official in the British East Africa Company, a position he desired and was offered several times.  She instead forced him to run for Parliament, which he won, but disliked very much.  Despite his marriage (can you tell I am less than impressed by his choice of woman?) he found peace and joy in his adopted son.

Stanley was quite a tough cookie.  I’m impressed at his determination and stoicism – he was often sick with malaria or other tropical diseases and endured numerous privations.  But he loved what he did and thought he was doing something positive for the world.  I liked Jeal’s book, especially his conclusions about Stanley’s motivations.  A lot can be explained by his origins and temperament.