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Christopher Ondaatji

The Oxford Book of Exploration

edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison

OxfordUniversity Press: £16.99

As far as I know Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s The Oxford Book of Exploration, first published in hardback in 1993, was the very first anthology of explorers’ writings. Benedict Allen’s The Faber Book of Exploration, which I reviewed in The Literary Review in 2002, is the only other. There are, of course, a great many travel anthologies (notably Eric Newby’s excellent Book of Travellers’ Tales) and books on exploration in general (notably John Keay’s History of World Exploration which the editor has used as his template).

Robin Hanbury-Tenison was, in this republication of the 1993 The Oxford Book of Exploration, given carte blanche by his publishers in his choice of extracts and therefore it is obvious that he has been able to hone his own prejudices and concerns about the inadequacies of much exploration in the failure of many explorers to recognise even the existing societies in the lands they were “discovering”, let alone the huge contributions they often made to the explorer’s own journeys and, indeed, survival. He has clearly made an effort to choose pieces which revealed this through their own words and cutting extracts to highlight this. However hard they tried to ignore the fact, explorers were very seldom the first people to discover new lands, since by the time history came to be recorded virtually the whole of the globe was already well and truly settled. For examples of this self-delusion, and worse, readers can witness in Hanbury-Tenison’s unmasking book Count Teleki discovering and naming Lake Rudolph or Livingstone the Victoria Falls; Tasman in “Murderers’ Bay”; Roggeveen on Easter Island; and Frobisher off Baffin Island. The stupidity of not recognising that people already lived on land they found inhospitable is best shown by Burke and Wills, who only realised as they were dying of starvation that they were surrounded by healthy aborigines.

What really made explorers’ explorations significant was, of course, their initial observation of new things. This can be illustrated by Darwin’s joy at being in a rainforest for the first time; Cook’s description of Hawaiians surfing; Thomas Manning on entering Lhasa and comparing it to Rome. And this must be just as easy to do today, as is revealed perhaps most startlingly by one of Hanbury-Tenison’s new entries, Bob Ballard, whose observations of life in hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean may overturn the theory of evolution. It is in this sense that the editor claims in his new Introduction that the age of real exploration is only just dawning.

In editing this new The Oxford Book of Exploration Hanbury-Tenison has clearly tried to let the explorers make the aforementioned points in their own writings. With his own obvious concern for the rights of indigenous minorities there is a noticeable bias in favour of the people being discovered rather than their conquerors. There are many stories from the South Seas and from the Americas about first contacts, which nearly always had disastrous consequences for those being contacted. The final entry of this sort has a particular poignancy, as it is by John Hemming and concerns the death at the hands of uncontacted Indians in Brazil of their mutual best friend, Richard Mason.

In this new and revised edition, the editor also explains in his introduction that he has cut out some of the longer extracts from the first edition and added some, which take us into the future. The book is therefore much more rounded than the original and takes us from ancient China to outer space. Yet the explorers’ reactions to new things are strangely similar. There is a common thread that runs through their writings: a strong sense of the significance of what they are doing. Compare the first extract, Fa Hsien, writing in 399 “if I were to recall all which has occurred to me, then persons of unstable minds would be excited to strive how they might enter on similar dangers …” with Buzz Aldrin speaking in 2001 “Everything and anything we did would be recorded, remembered, studies for ages …. The eyes of the world were on us, and if we made a mistake, we would regret it for quite a while”.

The object of any book should be both to inform and to entertain. Nobody really reads anthologies straight through. They should be kept beside the bed and read last thing at night to send one to sleep with a new idea. Thus, in this most recent edition, what Hanbury-Tenison has tried to do is to present extracts from explorers’ writings that reveal, through their own words, something new and interesting both about themselves and their view of the world. It is a refreshingly original slant. And, because so many of the great explorers wrote at a time when travel was the great adventure story of their age, their books were not surprisingly best sellers in a straight laced world. Their tales are often spiced with titillating insights into the ways of other peoples and surprising facts about a constantly amazing world.

Interestingly, after I had finished this review, I bumped into Hanbury-Tenison at the Royal Geographical Society and asked him whether he realised that the cover photo of his book was not of Herbert Ponting but taken by him. He replied that he was indeed aware of the error but that he was anyway particularly pleased with the new cover, as it illustrated his thesis so well. “You can” he told me “create a caption for the photo as I do: ‘Wise native restrains foolish Englishman from plunging into the abyss’ or, as more gung-ho explorers might, ‘intrepid Brit drags terrified native to explore new worlds’.” Bravo! The editor’s confident grasp of his subject shines through this truly entertaining anthology. Broadcaster, film-maker, author, explorer and conservationist himself he has in this single volume burst some of the most outrageous bubbles in exploration history.

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