History of geographical exploration
Society for the History of Discoveries
Cartography, maps and mapping
About the Society
SHD History
How to Join
Terrae Incognitae
Student Prize
SHD Fellows
SHD News
Members Area
Society Shop
Society Newsletter
Annual Meeting

A Geographer's Reflections
on Exploration and Discovery

By Sanford H. Bederman, SHD Fellow
45th Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Cody, Wyoming - September 10, 2004

When Ed Dahl commissioned me to participate in this plenary session, I asked him what he wanted me to talk about.  He responded by saying that I needed to “go into discovery-exploration theology” more deeply.  More deeply?  My goodness, I have never read a word about discovery-exploration theology in my entire professional life.  Yet, Ed assured me that his charge was right down my alley.

Even though I do not intend to be at all theological, I would over the next half-hour or so like to present some unconnected thoughts and ideas that have accumulated over the past forty years during which time I have read, taught, and written about geographical exploration and discovery. Inasmuch as this plenary session is designed to generate discussion, I hope you will have much to say when I finish.

Please understand that my remarks are made through the prism of an education I obtained in the discipline of geography. When I was a graduate student, a course or two in the development of geographic thought was mandatory. We absolutely needed to know the origins of our discipline. An eminent geographer, Fred Lukermann, said “a field of study is best defined, not by an etymological analysis of the name, nor its logical place among the sciences, nor its position in the curriculum, but rather by its history of development, what it has produced…” So we studied the ancient themes, those of Ptolemy and Erastothenes, we looked with dismay at how the Medieval World was perceived by contemporary scholars, and we happily learned that some semblance of reality was expressed by Muslim geographers. Although very little time was spent on the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the travelers, scholars, and cartographers of those periods helped us know more about the true size of the earth, the proper shapes of continents, and its position in the galaxy.

Bernhardus Varennius, a medical doctor trained at the University of Leiden, published Geographica Generalis in 1650, and his ideas proved good enough to prevail for two centuries, and ultimately be praised by Alexander von Humboldt.  It was Varenius who laid the foundation upon which the likes of Humboldt, Karl Ritter, and Vidal de la Blache developed their notions of the systematic study of the world’s geography. Varenius destroyed the medieval theories of what the world was about, and he was the first to look upon geography as an empirical science. Varenius defined the relationship between descriptive geographical writings about specific places and those that presented general and universal principles that applied to all places. He wrote, therefore, about special geography and general geography. He believed that descriptions of particular places could have no standing as contributions to science if they were not related to a coherent structure of general concepts (Martin and James, 1993, p. 96).  Explorers and other travelers provided the information for special geography. Sadly, Varenius lived only 28 years, but his grand view of geography considerably influenced the great generalist geographer — Alexander von Humboldt.

To be quite honest, few graduate students in my day knew or cared about Varenius. Our heroes were William Morris Davis, Carl Sauer, John Leighly, David Lowenthal, William Garrison, Peter Haggett, and Yi-Fu Tuan.

This preamble leads to how I became interested in geographical exploration and discovery. Geographers in the 1950s and early 1960s were working primarily with spatial data collected in the field by themselves or by others, or they extracted statistical data from census volumes to analyze. I, like other budding historical geographers, wondered about the information we were using that had been obtained by travelers in earlier times. For example, we studied such regions as Middle and South America as if they always existed in the minds of contemporary European geographers and cartographers. But, we know better. Learning about the New World was a long drawn-out, painful drama that involved thousands of players who sent back or brought back myriad accounts of what they saw (or thought they saw) — the places they had been (or thought they had been), who lived there, how they lived, what they looked like, the plants they grew, the food they ate, and how they ate it.    

It was these accounts that geographers worked with. But, how to systematically make sense out of it all? Variant reports poured in not only from the New World, but also from Australia, the Pacific Islands, and later, Africa. Of great concern, however, was how accurate were these accounts?

More of this later.
In my opinion, how the world was “uncovered” was much more exciting to study than trying to explain the modern, contemporary scene. Historical geography is a sub-field practiced throughout the world today, but alas, there are only a few other geographers who have the same predilection as I do, and many are here in the audience – John Logan Allen, Louis De Vorsey, Richard Francaviglia, Karen Cook, Paula Rebert, John Wolter, Ronald Grim, and Ralph Ehrenberg. Certainly not a complete list, other well-known geographers who come to mind and who have shown significant scholarly interest in exploration and discovery are Norman Thrower, Alice Hudson, Robert Fuson, Patricia Gilmartin, Ian Jackson, Peter Enggass, Joseph Schwartzberg, Charles Withers, Felix Driver, James Scott, Clinton Edwards, Roger Balm, Daniel Hopkins, William R. Stanley, and of course, David Woodward. I especially applaud geographer John Webb, my professor at the University of Minnesota, who produced a pioneer study of Polynesian migration in the Pacific, and who taught a marvelous course on exploration and discovery.

With a different approach to historical geography, I became an admirer of Linnaeus, who sent students to all parts of the world not only to collect plants, but also to indicate the climatic and other environmental conditions in which whose plants grew.  Linnaeus then could systematically conclude that the same plant (or a close relative) could thrive in different parts of the world, as long as the ecological conditions were similar. Vladimir Koeppen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries carried this idea to another level when he utilized plants as his test for determining climatic types in his climate classification. Koeppen’s resultant map, or a variant of it, still appears in modern atlases.

I would like to ruminate for a few minutes about my experiences in teaching exploration and discovery for almost 35 years. I daresay that more of my students were hooked on geography through this course than any other I taught.  It was exciting, it had drama, it had adventure, and the characters were to many of my students, unbelievable. And they learned that our knowledge of the present-day world was the result of hundreds of men and women who placed their lives in danger to travel to and learn about the unknown – at least unknown in the Western World. Certainly, the field of exploration and discovery has been, until recently, virtually Eurocentric. The reports that these adventurers brought back became the bases for 18th and 19th century geographers who attempted to make sense out of what the world was about. John Lewis Burckhardt, for example, spent his entire short adult life in penury traveling and reporting on the Middle East. He was probably the best observer in history, and he gave European geographers the best first-hand accounts they had seen to date. Yet, after many years of wandering in Egypt and the Levant, he never even began his original mission, which was to go to Timbuctoo. Burckhardt and other explorers like René Caillié, Heinrich Barth, and Boyd Alexander captured the imagination of my students. How and what they reported simply was captivating. Few questioned the veracity of what Burckhardt or Barth wrote, but Caillié had a different experience. He won honors, but critics, especially in England, declared him and his journey a fraud. It took decades for other explorers to prove him correct.

One of my office mates in graduate school at Louisiana State University in 1958 was Robert Fuson. He told me that he was advised by his major professor not to get involved in the Columbus landfall controversy - but he did.  This was in the late 1950s, and even today gallons of ink are used to argue where precisely that event on that fateful day in October 1492 occurred. Now we are not even sure Columbus was an Italian. I mention these for several reasons.  One is that I have never been involved with Columbus other than to spend an inordinate amount of time on him in my course. Another is that as long as there was controversy, I was able to show my students that otherwise brilliant scholars could go crazy trying to prove themselves correct, whereas others were abjectly wrong in their theories. I was at the Columbus, Ohio meeting of SHD in 1980 when John Parker read Commodore Verhoog’s paper on the first landfall, and where the decision was made that SHD would study the issue. And study it we did. Volume 15 of Terrae Incognitae resulted, and then it was published as a book by Wayne State University.  In 2004, we are still trying to ascertain where the first landfall occurred, and I daresay that in 2092, scholars will re-argue the topic, just as they did in 1892.

While preparing this presentation, I re-read Wilcomb Washburn’s article, “The Meaning of ‘Discovery’ in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries,” which appeared in The American Historical Review in October, 1962. It is an erudite account of how scholars got bogged down in place name semantics. Such questions as “what do we mean by “America?’ are raised. What was the New World called? He presents the concept of the globe being divided into “parts” rather than continents. He especially condemns Edmundo O’Gorman for being a too rigid historian. To O’Gorman, according to Washburn, the statement “Columbus discovered America October 12, 1492” is only an inadequate interpretation.  Further, O’Gorman, and other Latin American historians prefer to honor Amerigo Vespucci as the “true” discoverer of the Americas. This assumes that Vespucci was the first to conceive of the new lands as a continental landmass separate and distinct from Asia.
In his lengthy, thought-provoking essay, Washburn in the end states that Bartolomé de Las Casas, despite the abuse later historians heaped on him, had the most satisfactory explanation of what was meant by Columbus’ discovery – Las Casas concluded that the question of exactly what land Columbus thought he had found makes no difference to the history of discoveries. Washburn describes Las Casas as the real pragmatist and the true historian “whose sophistication of method and knowledge of the events cannot fail to command our respect.”

Still another reason why Columbus fascinated me as a teacher is what I personally found disturbing about the “Encounter” celebration in 1992. My students, most of whom were of a liberal bent despite the fact that they were Southerners, considered the way that the history of the event was presented and analyzed by scholars, the media and by certain social groups to be extremely meaningful. Columbus was portrayed not as a driven explorer bent on finding a route to the Orient by traveling west, but instead was depicted by contemporary revisionist writers as the first of the great European exploiters of the indigenous population he met along the way. The early 1990s was a time of social and political recrimination, not celebration. Contemporary writers condemned Columbus for spreading European mercantilism to other parts of the world, and only agony, tragedy, and mass annihilation resulted. The history of colonialism, some said, was nothing more than a replication of the “Columbus Enterprise” on a world scale.

My indignation derives from the fact that we scholars of exploration have always known the effects of discovery on indigenous peoples, and we have never diminished its importance. Few could do a better job of explaining it than Alan Moorehead did in his 1966 book The Fatal Impact. He showed that the human geography of places in the Pacific Region were changed forever when indigenous populations encountered the European. The 500th year celebration of the event that occurred in October 1492 became the excuse in 1992 to again excoriate the invaders from across the other side of the ocean for all the evils they wrought. Folks were more concerned about the egregious results of discovery than they were with the actual exploits and geographical contributions of the discoverers. Columbus is not the only famous explorer to be condemned – even David Livingstone recently was accused of being “a hippie and a spy.”
I would now like to mention two other “controversies” that have cropped up during my career as a professor. I think it fair to say that they have consumed the interest and time of many members of our society, as well as those in the scientific fraternity.

Norman Thrower can best shed light on precisely where Francis Drake made his landfall in California. I remember the late Robert Power lobbying very hard for one site, and other, much better-trained scholars just as strongly defending others. I admit that I know as little about Drake in California, as I do about Columbus in the Bahamas, therefore, I am not aware today if any site has been declared “the place.” From my vantage point, it really does not make any difference where Drake landed. The important point is that a English explorer found land in northern California, and brought back information to be used by cartographers in Europe.

Another controversial topic actually emerged in the mid-1960s, and I recall many articles written about it in professional journals and in the press. I am speaking of the Vinland Map. You might be interested to know that Google reveals over 67,000 sites that refer to the Vinland Map. The argument here is whether the map is real, or if it is a fraud. Laboratory scientists had to be called in on this one, and I do not know whether the map has yet to be declared a legitimate representation of the New World 50 years before Columbus. Stay tuned.

Now, back to what explorers reported about their discoveries on their return from far-away places. These reports were often written to substantiate the explorer’s motive for travel in the first place, and this leads to the reliability of explorer’s accounts. Matching what explorers of Africa had to say about the indigenous population with what we know today, one would think they were on another planet in a far off galaxy. In his essay on mapping cannibals in the Cross River region of Nigeria, Christopher Slogar reports that European observers claimed, on hearsay information only (not by ocular demonstration) that indigenes in that part of southeastern Nigeria ate human flesh.  Of course, whether they did or not, this provided a moral motive to claim the territory for Britain, and, in the doing, further British commercial activities.
Explorers’ writings were believed to be authoritative, yet David Livingstone once remarked that you could not trust explorer’s accounts. This helps us understand why regional geography textbooks are much different now than those written a century ago.

Roy Bridges reported to me that he was criticized by an authoritative editor for being naïve enough to believe that explorer’s accounts realistically had anything to do with Africa. The editor commented, “What travelers describe in Africa is mainly Britain.” In other words, explorer’s texts can tell us only about themselves and their own personal hang-ups, and nothing about geography in any objective sense. Bridges asked me if this was a “theological issue.” I daresay, it will take a higher being to give us the truth in this matter.

Now, let us look at Giovanni Verrazano. I am using Verrazano as an example of what an explorer thought he discovered and the reality of his mistake. According to Samuel Eliot Morison, the Spanish had their Italian mariner, so the French had to have one also. Thus, Verrazano was commissioned by King Francis I in 1523 to investigate the coastal area of North America between Florida and Newfoundland, and determine if a sea route to the Orient existed. Verrazano did not find a sea route, even though his voyage was fruitful. Let us see what explorer Verrazano discovered. His coastal reconnaissance made Europe familiar with 13 degrees of latitude previously unexplored.  What he did not discover was Chesapeake Bay – he sailed right past it. Remember, Verrazano was commissioned to find a sea route to the Orient – so, off the coast of present-day North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound, he made a most significant geographical pronouncement: He said that he found an “isthmus a mile wide and about 200 long, in which, from the ship we could see el mare oriental. The Pacific Ocean.”

Well, Verrazano did not find a passage to the Pacific because one does not exist.  Nonetheless, mapmakers did not allow his comment about el mare oriental to go by without a cartographic record. For many decades, a feature labeled as the “Mare de Verrazano” was placed on maps, and needless to say, a great deal of speculation was generated.

Now to something else!

At a much later time, when the Royal Geographical Society provided instructions to explorers who were going to all parts of the world, they would include the need to collect precise geographical data. Explorers were to determine locations of places, heights of hills and mountains, and measurements of anything they deemed important. For a long time, most of the instructions were prepared by Francis Galton. These reports may have reflected geographical reality, but they presented extremely dull reading for the general public.

David Livingstone rebelled, and in a letter to one Mr. Oswell dated July 8, 1868, he wrote “I preferred to follow Sir Francis Beaufort’s advice to Arctic explorers – “Gentlemen, remember you go on discovery, not on survey – never spend time on measuring if you can discover.” Clearly, Livingstone’s motives were not measurement.

The RGS sought geographical data from its explorers. The RGS was justifiably proud of all of its explorers whether they survived or not, and took credit for their accomplishments. Explorers in Victorian times were treated as heroes – that is, all but Henry Stanley. Stanley, of course, was known as the “Napoleon of African Travel,” and even worse, he practiced exploration by warfare.

This brings me to several other ideas I want to pursue. I am beholden to Roy Bridges, now President of the Hakluyt Society, for sharing these with me after I mentioned to him what my task is today. He properly has led me down different avenues I needed to travel. Bridges suggested I mention the contemporary historical geographer, Felix Driver, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. I had lunch with Driver when I was working in London in 1990. He impressed me then, and even more so with the publication of his wonderful book, one I recommend all of you to read.  It is titled, Geography Militant, and it presents exploration and discovery in a new and different light.  Driver introduces the concept, “Cultures of Exploration,” a topic I have never seen discussed in Terrae Incognitae.

Driver is concerned with how exploration narratives were “produced and consumed,” who aided explorers, who benefited from their accomplishments, and how their exploits were publicized. He provides chapters on Livingstone and Stanley, but he does not dwell on their exploits as explorers and discoverers.  Instead, he emphasizes the effects these men and their resultant fame had on the general public in Britain. Livingstone was venerated, Stanley was despised.  Describing Livingstone as the last “heroic” explorer of Africa, every element of British society wanted to be associated with this “martyr.”  Stanley, on the other hand, raised the ire of virtually every liberal organization in the British Isles, and became the visible whipping boy of such organizations as the Aboriginese Protection and Anti-Slavery societies.

At home, Englishmen tried to do good things in the name of David Livingstone, and in reaction to their perception of Stanley, undo the bad things he was accused of perpetrating.

Explorer’s accounts were mostly dull documents, but Livingstone, and especially Stanley, changed that. Stanley wrote adventure stories. Roy Bridges says that these documents instilled in British society a constant desire to find new lands. This meant that as far as Europe was concerned, discovery meant having to come to terms with, and try to understand different environments and different cultures.

Driver also shows that some Britons in the 19th century suggested that explorers should be let loose in England.  William Booth of the Salvation Army was one of them. In 1890, he published In Darkest England, and in three months it sold 115,000 copies. Booth said, “As there is a darkest Africa, is there not also a darkest Britain.” He obviously was familiar with Stanley’s book, In Darkest Africa.

One last reflection -- one regarding the fact that members of our society have shown little interest in the accomplishments of women explorers.  We have offered special sessions on the Columbus Landfall, the Vinland Map, and the Drake controversy, and even though a huge literary output exists focusing on women travelers and explorers, I am not aware of any interest by SHD.  My particular concern began several years ago when I was asked to give a talk in Atlanta to a group of professional women travel agents.  I had plenty of time to prepare for this talk, so I decided to have a look at women explorers, and what an eye-opening experience it was.  Naturally, the geographical fraternity had little good to say about women’s literary output, and pejoratively commented that they were nothing more than the results of informed travel experiences. The way the Royal Geographical Society treated women in the late 19th century is, frankly, scandalous. Clearly, Mary Kingsley, Alexandra David-Neel, and Freya Stark were more than “informed” travelers. Also, Isabella Bird (my personal favorite) informed the western world about peoples, places, and things that no male explorer could, nor would, report.
I would like to see special sessions devoted to women explorers, and even a special issue of Terrae Incognitae.  It would be proper if the Society for the History of Discoveries recognized the accomplishments of women travelers, and I do not think it would be difficult to assemble scholars who would be willing to participate in such a venture.

Now, a final thought. As an historical geographer, I believe that the Society for the History of Discoveries is properly named. It was the discoveries that provided data for geographers, which allowed them to make sense of the various places in the world with their varying cultures and environments. Of course, we are still trying to make sense of our planet, and new discoveries are taking place all the time all over the world.

(To read more about Sanford Bederman, see his citation as SHD Fellow by clicking here.)

All original content, translations and code
Copyright © The Society for the History of Discoveries 1999 - 2014. All rights reserved.