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Annual Meeting

The Society for the History of Discoveries: Some Personal Reflections

By John Parker, SHD Fellow
Distinguished Speaker
45th Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Cody, Wyoming  -  September 11, 2004

Having been asked to present some personal reflections on the Society, through my long association with it, I will resist the instinctual reflexes of an old timer to regale you with mere memories of past events and personalities and try instead to focus on what I perceive to be the Society's values and accomplishments.  For those of you who are new to our group and may not have heard the story of our beginnings, I will relate it briefly. It all began in Lisbon in the summer of 1960 at a conference on discovery and exploration commemorating the quincentenary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator.  At an intermission in the proceedings, Steve Slessarev, Thom Goldstein, and I met over a bottle of wine and concluded that we should have an organization in North America which would encourage research into the history of discovery and exploration. It was decided that Thom would place a notice of this idea on a bulletin board at the December 1960 meeting of the American Historical Association, inviting interested parties to meet at a small restaurant across the street from the convention center in New York. Seven people showed up. Inevitably there will be some autobiography in what follows, for I am the observer as well as a sometime participant in the life of our beloved Society.

It was the tenth anniversary when Thom and I were observing and participating in the pre-banquet cocktail hour when one of us said to the other (we were never able to establish authorship), "when we get old this is what will make us most proud." As founders we felt responsible for what we had helped bring into being. Thomas has left us and I am old, and the prediction has come true. He was proud and I am proud of this organization.

One of the sources of that pride is the high degree of consensus that has governed us through the years, and the willingness of members to participate in that consensus. I don't believe that any of us who were at that table in the New York restaurant in December 1960, had any experience in starting a scholarly organization. But in our conversation a sort of minimal structure emerged, with responsibilities shared. And then we asked, "How do we recruit members?" We had no budget. Professor Oswald Backus, University of Kansas, had a mailing list of colleagues he would solicit, using department funds, no doubt, and that was our launching pad. Wilcomb Washburn, Smithsonian Institution, volunteered to get us on the program of the next year's meeting of the American Historical Association, and some of those historians showed up the next year to see who we were. And so the sharing of the load began and it has continued to this day. An inner circle never developed. It just expanded.

This outward expansion of membership did not set up barriers of qualifications, or even envision them. We were historians, geographers, librarians, museum curators, and philosophers who welcomed mathematicians, linguists, cartographers, navigators, ethnologists, full professors, graduate students, medical doctors, editors, booksellers, collectors, independent scholars.  This diversity made me proud early on and it still does.

We could almost constitute a university by ourselves. The 1960s and 1970s were a good time for our Society to be born and grow. Inclusiveness was on the march, and we were not encumbered with an old boys’ network that had to be overcome. From the beginning women scholars were attracted to us, and we to them.   Barbara McCorkle, Mary Emily Miller, Ursula Lamb, Hildegard Binder Johnson, to name a few, were among our earliest members. I wish we had been equally successful in appealing to scholars from minority groups, but we have not, and I know it is not from any exclusionary attitudes of members. We have been and remain open to all.

In spite of our general agreeableness, we have had arguments over some rather fundamental issues, such as what shall we call ourselves. Until we had firmly established our identity and purpose, I think we saw ourselves as a North American poor relative of London's Hakluyt Society. But try as we might, we could not find in our history an equivalent to Richard Hakluyt worthy of giving a name to our Society.  Nothing comparable to Canada's Champlain Society. There was a long and serious discussion at our meeting at the Peabody Maritime Museum.  I do not remember if the name was adopted then, but surely it was suggested as we probed our history to find an answer, and if some of us were not in agreement when the decision was made, I do not recall anyone resigned in a huff over our choice, the Society for the History of Discoveries.

Even more difficult, I believe, was launching Terrae Incognitae.  Starting and maintaining a scholarly journal is a formidable undertaking, especially for an organization very newly created. Yet that is when the urge is strong, to give the new entity the visibility it needs for growth. Each of us had visions of a fine journal full of learned articles-written by someone else, or conjured out of the air by a magician - the editor. As members of a multi-discipline society we all had old-established loyalties to other journals. The academics among us had to consider whether we would get promotion or tenure with an article published in a well-established journal as opposed to our own with its limited readership and prestige. We owe a debt of gratitude to Bruce Solnick who took on the editorship and guided the journal through its formative years - surely the most taxing job of any of us. But steadily it gained momentum and recognition.

But there was the matter of its name. What to call our journal? Living in the shadow of Imago Mundi, the journal for the history of cartography, Terrae Incognitae was a reasonable choice, and consensus was not difficult to achieve.  And that consensus has been extended to the journal itself, with support for its editors, contributions of articles by members, reviews of books, and attention to relevant articles in other journals. I hope that support will always continue, for Terrae Incognitae is a major part of our identity, and its editors, present and past, have carried a big load for us.

As a group of individuals with scholarly interests often unrelated to the primary interest of others, only once in my recollection did we undertake something specific that would require many hands.  It was the 1992 Columbus Quincentenary. Early in the 1980s a Dutch marine officer, Commodore Pieter Verhoogh, wrote to me as president of the Society (obviously our fame was spreading) asking us to hear his paper, "Columbus landed on Caicos," which was a condensation of his book, Guanahani Again, published in 1947. Here was no lightweight. He had far more experience at sea than Admiral Morison - whom he despised - having captained or navigated such sea craft as the Hede France and the Nieuw Amsterdam. I urged him to come to our next meeting, but he declined due to old age and poor health.  But he would send me the paper to read at the meeting, provided I agreed to change nothing in the text, not even a comma. Some of you will recall that I read the paper at our 1980 meeting in Columbus, Ohio.  I advised Commodore Verhoog that I would delete only his reference to one of his adversaries in the landfall controversy as a "nitwit." The paper sufficiently interested some members, Sandy Bederman and Louis De Vorsey especially come to mind, to propose a full session at our next meeting on the 1492 Columbus landfall. Thus came into existence volume 15 of Terrae Incognitae and soon thereafter a book version of it, In the Wake of Columbus, published by Wayne State. It was agreed that I would be editor of the text and Lou De Vorsey would produce the maps. Among the many hands designated to this light (?) work was David Brassfield at the University of Michigan, to be copy editor.  We agreed to a deadline in late summer. When the deadline had passed and the manuscript had not been returned I called David and was told that he had gone on vacation.  His colleagues in Ann Arbor gave me some phone numbers where I might reach him.  I tried them day after day with no success. The only response I got was from a crusty old New Englander who simply said, "ain't nobody of that name lives here."  Then one day my phone rang.  It was David.  He wanted to tell me about his bicycle tour of New Hampshire.  "Just send the manuscript back," I responded.  He sent it back and I found a professional copy editor to finish the work.  And so volume 15 of Terrae Incognitae and In the Wake of Columbus were published.  But the landfall issue was not settled.  It occupied members of the Society for several years to come, and is still a subject for papers at our annual meetings, and a "Landfall Newsletter” kept several of our members engaged for some time.  We didn't settle the argument about the landfall, but I have always believed we became better researchers because we gave it our most serious effort.  And possibly the most enduring scholarly work to come out of the Quincentenary was the new translation of Columbus's Diario by two of our members, Oliver Dunn and James Kelley, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Their first step toward that achievement was in volume 15 of Terrae Incognitae.

In earlier years our Society had dreams of a monograph series, still seeing ourselves as a North American Hakluyt Society. We were not big enough to do it ourselves, so alliances were formed with the University of Chicago Press and the Newberry Library.  Looking back on that effort which did produce a few books, I don't sense failure so much as misguided ambition. We wanted to accomplish too much for the amount of energy we had.

Reflecting upon our life as a society, my mind revisits meeting after meeting - now a long blur of social and intellectual companionship. I cannot overstate how much we have helped each other, and what heroic work has been done by and for us by local arrangement chairs and host institutions.  Most of us have not given or heard "no" for an answer when the Society has asked something of us - not from a sense of obligation, but from the love we have for this organization.

I think again of Thom Goldstein: alone, in terrible physical condition, arriving in Arlington, Texas, on a very late flight from New York, he managed to get some food from a closed kitchen, and we talked in an empty dining room. He had no paper to give at that meeting. He just wanted to be with us, a spiritual thing that went beyond scholarship. The Society of which we would be proud had given him that. Surely it has done something similar for many of us.

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

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