The trouble with our knowledge of the world today is the surfeit of information available to us through the mass media—information almost as spectacle, with the onus on us to choose from the banquet. But this is an anachronistic situation, unprecedented in history.
For most of history, countries and civilizations had far too little information about each other and pounced with alacrity on the scraps of detail and rumour about faraway places brought to them by emissaries of other countries or merchants working the trade routes, or religious pilgrims. The long heyday of travel writing, when it held all the keys to the wonders of the world, lasted all the way from the Greek Herodotus in the fifth century BC to the early 20th century.
Now, a set of 20 paperbacks from Penguin, called the Great Journeys series, which has just been released, pays homage to the work of the most intrepid adventurers and chroniclers of the last two and a half millennia.
The method of the series editor, Simon Winder, is to choose the choicest sections from what are often very voluminous works (in the olden days, if you knew something about the world you put it straight in, without any editors to tell you they were going overbudget) to make a set of punchy travel narratives, each about a 100 pages long.
Included in this series of 20 volumes are abridged versions of Herodotus’ Histories; the ninth century Arab historian Masudi’s The Meadows of Gold; the travels in Asia of Marco Polo; the adventures in the New World of the 17th century British explorer William Dampier; Richard Burton’s journey, disguised as a Muslim, to Mecca; Anton Chekhov’s expedition to Sakhalin Island, the penal colony on the rim of the Russian empire; and George Orwell’s account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War in Fighting in Spain.
Nor is the list as male-driven as one would imagine. Among the women explorers whose accounts are featured are Mary Kingsley, who journeyed to Cameroon in the 19th century (The Congo and the Cameroons), and Isabella Bird, who explored the dangerous world of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and reported to readers the flavour of a world of cowboys, grizzly bears and rattlesnakes in Adventures in the Rocky Mountains.
Of these books, the oldest and most influential is clearly Snakes with Wings and Gold-digging Ants from Histories by Herodotus, the Greek who roved widely in Egypt and Persia in the fifth century BC and wrote a comprehensive account of what he saw and heard there. Herodotus’ work is not characterized by the tendency to evaluate other cultures by criteria specific to one’s own. Instead, he used his knowledge to show his countrymen how many of their customs and inventions actually originated in other cultures. Not only was Herodotus the father of reportage, writes the great Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski (himself represented in the Great Journeys series by a book called The Cobra’s Heart), he was also the first globalist, conscious of the dignity of cultures unlike his own.
Thousands of years after Herodotus, three men in ragged clothes, their faces bronzed by exposure to the sun, provoked consternation as they entered the town of Venice. These were none other than the merchant Marco Polo, his father and his uncle, returning to Venice after 26 arduous years of travel in Asia. The excitement of these years is recounted in the Travels, excerpted in the series as The Customs of the Kingdoms of India.
If not as good a writer as Herodotus, Marco Polo certainly had the same curiosity. His descriptions of the people of the Malabar coast are admirably precise (they bathe twice a day in cold water, eat no beef, believe in astrology and use only the right hand to eat), and he was the first to name the countries of Asia in their proper consecutive order, only it shad no influence on contemporary map-making because nobody knew whether to believe him.
In a way then, it is we, in our information-rich world, who are best placed to appreciate and compare the achievements of the great explorers through the ages.
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