I love me a good adventure story, I love the discovery and thrill of wandering among the new, forging paths unknown, and the grit and glory required for surviving under less-than-stellar circumstances in harsh conditions around the globe. Now, I am keenly aware that European explorers were not the first people to wander among most places on the planet; I know that the history I am most aware of has a serious twist towards the Euro-centric version. I loathe (white, male) explorers who claim they are the first discoverer of a location, while simultaneously making notes on the native people who live there, or local trackers who have helped their exploration party navigate rivers or mountains or dense jungles. Uh, they were there first, Sir. You didn’t “discover” anything that wasn’t already well-known by those populations.
This latest batch of books about explorers and discoverers was kind of a mixed bag; I loved two, and the rest were pretty marginal. I have listed a few recommendations at the end, however, that should tickle your fancy if you have any hankering for learning about some of the more remote or undisturbed places in the world.
In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick (5 stars). I *loved* Moby Dick, it somehow combined two loves–Darwinian natural history and 19th century exploration stories. This is the true story of the events Moby Dick was based on, but instead of chapters and chapters describing the brain, skeletal structure, and habits of spermacetti whales, Philbrick follows the crew of the sunk Essex as they make for land and safety in tiny little whale boats with skant provisions. Yep, loved that too. Just like I loved reading about Shackelton’s adventures across Antarctica and the frozen ocean to safety, and just like I loved reading about Fawcett’s adventures in the Amazon. Love, love, love.
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham (5 stars). I read and loved this Newberry book when I was a kid, re-reading it made me realize how much this book affected my way of thinking. Nat Bowditch is a brilliant mathematician in 18th century Salem, Mass, who was indentured at age 12 as a bookkeeper instead of going to Harvard to study. He continues to study everything he can get his hands on, keeping notebooks of facts and numbers and sums, teaching himself Latin, algebra, astronomy, French, and navigation. In his early twenties he finally is released from his indenture and is finally free to do what he likes. He signs on as a clerk for a voyage and is on his way. Bowditch is unconventional, but he also teaches every crew he works with how to navigate using math and charts and numbers, how to take solar and lunar readings, and how to calculate latitude and longitude, in a time when most ships in the high seas do not have a single person who can do such calculations, let alone an entire crew. Bowditch also teaches himself languages for the ports he will be visiting and continues to learn everything he can, about people, history, business, everything. It was so fantastic to read this again!
Memoir of Nathaniel Bowditch, by Nathaniel Bowditch (2 stars). I really love Nat Bowditch as a human, intellectual, adventurer, and one of my childhood role models. However, this is not a book of his memoirs, he didn’t even write the vast majority of this book. This is the transcript of an extended eulogy that Bowditch’s son delivered one week after his father’s death. There is very little nuance, it is a collection of memories with a very nostalgic light, Nat Bowditch was an all around stand-up citizen of Salem, Mass., however he was not perfect, and these “memoirs” only paint him in the most flattering light. Which, given the timing of said speech, makes total sense. There are a few bits from Nat Bowditch’s journals and notebooks, a few favorite stories that were told over and over and part of family lore. Because this was originally published in the mid-1800’s I’m not going to harp too much on the memoirs-or-not point, but if you want more info on the father of modern navigation, read “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch” instead.
Lost City of the Incas, by Hiram Bingham (2 stars). Travelogue for Hiram Bingham who visited Machu Picchu in 1911 and spread information about the ruin’s existence to the Western world (note: I do not say he “discovered” it because, in fact, local native people were WELL AWARE of it’s existence when he arrived). This is interesting for being a travelogue for an white American well-to-do explorer in the early 1900’s complete with almost all of the assumptions and sentimental superiority that comes with it. Honestly, it was exasperating for me to read, yet again, how Bingham was “discovering” the ancient city of the Inca’s and projecting his own assumptions and prejudices on the ancient Inca and the modern descendants who lived among those ruins. Sigh. A better option is Turn Right at Machu Picchu, or Lost City of Z (the latter is not about Machu Picchu, but about South American exploration).
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (2 stars). I really wanted to like this, to appreciate it, to find literary value. But mostly I was just annoyed and bored and ready for the colonial imperialism to be done with; the oft-repeated concept of white Europeans venturing into a native “savage” population and making all sorts of judgements is just…it drives me nuts. I understand that for their time, and blah blah blah. Did not enjoy.
Other Recommended Titles, In No Particular Order:
The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. Percy Fawcett, a British explorer obsessed with the Amazon, went missing in the 1920’s searching for his mythical City of Z; the rumors and stories around his adventures and time with Amazonian tribes persist, decades after his presumed death. A modern writer tries to retrace the trail and find some answers.
South: The Story of Shackelton’s Last Expedition, by Ernest Shackelton. A detailed first-person account of Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica with teams of people and sled dogs. Fascinating. Also, lots of ice.
1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies. Fascinating history of world navigation from a non-Euro perspective; a massive Chinese fleet set out to sail and map the world in the early 1400’s, this is their story. (Menzies, a bit of an eccentric, claims that one of those maps was brought to Italy across the Silk Road by Marco Polo, and eventually made it’s way to the Spanish court of Isabella and Ferdinand, the new patrons of Columbus).