| Christopher Columbus
The Faber book of exploration edited by Benedict Allen, Faber £ 20
The modern sport of bungee-jumping entitles plummeting from great heights with only an elastic cord to keep one from imminent death. Only a bungee-jumper can best describe the sheer exhilaration of the dive. Likewise, only an explorer can truly describe the joy of exploring nature’s boundaries. We are fortunate that much of this experience is available in the form of travelogues or letters to give us the vicarious thrill of many of the breakthroughs in human history.
A good mix of these documents is compiled in this book, which has been sectioned according to the earth’s topography into Seas and Landfalls, Plains and Foothills, Hot Deserts, Cold Deserts, Forests and Mountains. The anthology of the explorers’ accounts also follow a chronological order that facilitates a mapping of the evolution of exploration. For instance, Leif Ericsson’s (970-1020) style of narration widely contrasts with that of Thor Heyerdahl’s (1915-2002) anecdotes. The natural, cultural and social hurdles facing the explorer also come through. So do the travails associated with the meticulous preparation prior to the voyage into the unknown and the surprising results in the end.
Seas and Landfalls covers the period between circa 500 through to the present and contains the anecdotes of 24 explorers; Brendan, Columbus, Cook, Darwin and Severin being some of them. The range allows for an appreciation of the wide-ranging motives that prompted people to cross boundaries. There are interesting little nuggets as well, like an account of a ship’s clerk aboard a 17th-century Dutch vessel which is shipwrecked.
Plains and Foothills has the maximum number of accounts with a demarcation of the Old and New world exploration covering the period from 450 BC to AD 1940. There is Pliny the Younger writing in a letter about his uncle’s demise owing to the wrath of Mount Vesuvius. Equally interesting are the accounts of Britons by Julius Caesar and 18th century-Moors by Mungo Park.
Hot Deserts has a fair representation of the challenges involved in this frontier. There are accounts from Mildred/Francesca French and Freya Stark. Also piquant is the account of modern explorer, Chatwin — a passionate doctrine on how nomadism is natural to all of us. The reader will also savour Howard Carter’s moment of truth with the finding of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The Cold Deserts section contain wonderful vignettes from the polar experiences of Robert and Josephine Perry. The stark challenges of hunger and loneliness in the harsh climate have often forced explorers to subsist on leather and lichen. The description of the polar people viewed through the eyes of explorers also make for interesting reading.
The section of forests contain an account of Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary who independently reached the theory of evolution by natural selection. His “A state of barbarism” is a doomsday prediction of rampant industrialization leading to environmental disaster. The tome ends, perhaps appropriately, with Mountains. This section contains accounts ranging from Leo Africanus (1484-1554) to the present. Pride of place is naturally given to the conquest of Everest. No less fascinating are the feats of Chris Bonnigton and other illustrious mountaineers.
Allen makes an honest effort to personalize exploration of the unknown. The compilation enables the reader to truly experience an exploration through the insights provided into the mind of the explorer. This book is a must for both the sedentary and the intrepid traveller.