Explore that, will you: Part One


Exploration, Explorers, Navigators, Adventurers; romantic words that conjure romantic images. Images of jungles that stretch out endlessly, or of swash-bucking deeds so daring, they practically beg to be developed into a screenplay. To be sure, they have other evocations: pestilential diseases, savagery, and post-colonial legacy; but those things are somewhat less romantic.

In some ways, I have been quite fortunate; having had a small opportunity to experience both sides of the ‘romantic adventure’ coin. Not in the fullest sense – I did spend a lot if time reading novels about other more fictional adventures during that time. (These included quite a few of the Harry Potter series.) But Just enough, and in superficially manageable amounts, that I could imagine an at least fictive kinship with those who have had real adventures, or been real explorers.

In the more romantic mode, I have strong memories of climbing over the side of a ship into a small outrigger canoe that was waiting to transport me to shore. Or trying to get to the mainland in a dinghy across dangerous water, and being forced to turn back because all the navigation markers disappeared, and a storm blew through. There was even that time I trekked a whole day to visit a man famed and feared for his mastery of magic. (Although I got to visit him, and we did share a meal, we never got to have the conversation about magic and witches I was hoping for. Rather tragically, a young woman in a another village unexpectedly died from a suspected witchcraft attack. This meant that he had to take himself off to help root out, and deal with, any malevolent forces that may have been at work.)

Less romantic were the times I got malaria, and had quite sensitive body parts ache like they were being hit with a hammer. Or the time I had to squat on a beach near a small lagoon to ‘take a constitutional’, all the while keeping an eye out for any crocodile that might think me a tasty snack. There were also many tropical ulcers that started as small scratches, and the time that kid stole my shoes.

Paltry as these ‘adventures’ were, I still feel fortunate to have had them. I also learned a valuable ‘life lesson’: I don’t really have the constitution or temperament for those kinds of experiences, and much prefer the adventure of a good book. Which is why I am still an avid consumer of other peoples’ exploits in the printed (or digital) form, and  read them whenever I can.

This consumption includes many fictional, or fictionalized, narratives of ‘daring-do’. Alexandre Dumas’ Musketeer cycle is a particular favorite, as is anything written by Patrick O’Brian, and many more besides. (The list is rather too extensive to repeat here.) I even went through a phase of reading ‘boy’s own adventure’ stories written in the Nineteenth-Century. Embarrassingly, I read these last as an adult; but I still maintain that R. M. Ballantyne’s The Battery and the Boiler: Adventures in Laying Submarine Electric Cables (1883) is a masterpiece in the genre.

Given my proclivities towards this kind of literature, it should come as no surprise that I also enjoy non-fiction that treats with similar subjects. Well, they’re as ‘non-fictional’ as something can be once it has been written down, edited for narrative consistency, and packaged for sale to the public. Again, I have many favorites, but I’ll mention three here to give you an idea of what I mean.

Strictly speaking, these three examples refer to individuals, but as they are all long dead, I’ve only been able to get to ‘know’ them through the texts left behind in their historical wake.

The first of the trio is Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), a man often credited as the father of  modern anthropological fieldwork. Although I have read many of his more technical works, the one I think I enjoyed the most was A Diary in the Strictest Sense of the Term (1967). So, not a technical work, but actual diaries – published posthumously – and covering the periods between 1914-1915, and 1917-1918 respectively. This was the period Malinowski’s major fieldwork; conducted in the Trobriand Islands, in what is now Papua New Guinea. (The modern Nation-State didn’t really come into existence until 1975, when it gained independence from Australia.)

What I like about his diaries, is the all too human figure that emerges from them. He was a man with a great appetite for literature, and seems to have read many novels while he was there (which gives me some sense of a kindred spirit). It appears also, that he was very fond of exercise, and describes many occasions on which he implemented a regimen he had worked out to keep fit. (The image of a young, bald, proto-ethnographer doing calisthenic exercises in an island village is one I shall always treasure.) Finally, he emerges as a man who perhaps pioneered self-treatment techniques for field-researchers in want of trained medical personnel. For the most part, this seemed to have involved injecting himself with small amounts of an arsenic solution whenever he felt he was a suffering a bout of lethargic sluggishness. (That’s my phrase, not his.)

Although I can’t say why, I like this man from the diaries slightly more than the one who wrote Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), and The Sexual Life of Savages in North Western Melanesia (1929). Perhaps it is only because he seems more real to me than his professional persona, and it makes his mostly dry anthropological writings seem, somehow, less thirst inducing.

Of course, Malinowski is probably only well known by a few people who have an interest in the kinds of things he was also interested in (except for some allusions made in the diaries; most people would find these equally intriguing). Because of this, I am including in my triad of adventurers, an explorer whose salience is almost pop-cultural. I am speaking of none other than Captain James Cook (1728-1779). I mean, who doesn’t like Captain Cook? Okay, so there were definitely quite a few Native Hawaiians in 1779 who didn’t like him very much, but probably they were in the minority. Well, except for some other indigenous peoples that also didn’t care for him greatly, but let’s just leave that aside.

In my opinion, James Cook is one of the most remarkable explorers to have ever lived. As an historical figure, his shadow has loomed large my entire life. For the longest time, I thought he was the man who discovered the set of islands that make up my ‘home’ country. It made sense, his face is on some of the money, and the fifty-cent coin still has the image of H.M. Bark Endeavour – Cook’s first ship of exploration – on its reverse side. In truth, I cried when I found out it wasn’t Cook that had first sighted my land. Instead, the credit for this discovery belonged to some other European explorer. (I wasn’t at all upset when in turned out that Cook’s usurper really hadn’t discovered it either. It transpired that there was already an existing indigenous population there, whose ancestors had discovered the place centuries before any European.) Nevertheless, Cook still remains an impressive figure, even for only really discovering many already discovered places.

One of his many significant contributions to navigation is his participation in testing “…four time-pieces, or watch machines….” as part of a concern with accurately measuring longitude. It’s hard to believe, but at the time there was no truly scientific way to do this. This was a problem, because ships kept getting lost and running into things. And so, the official account of Cook’s second voyage is full of references to the testing of these ‘watch machines’:

On the 7th, being in the latitude of 41º 22′, longitude 156º 12′ W., we had two hours calm; in which time Mr Wales went on board the Adventure to compare the watches, and they were found to agree, allowing for the difference of their rates of going: A probable, if not a certain proof, that they had gone well since being at sea.

(James Cook: July 2nd, 1773)

As you can see, riveting high adventure, and thanks to it, ships hardly ever get lost or run into things anymore.
Not all of Cook’s adventures were so heady, he also had many of a type we might be familiar with: adventures in complicated bureaucracy.
On Monday, November 14th, 1768, Lieutenant James Cook (RN), commanding the H.M. Bark Endeavour, arrived in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. By the time the ship anchored it was 5 p.m, and according to his journal, the sea was moderate with “…fine pleasant weather.” Cook’s purpose there? Simply to resupply for the next leg of the voyage, and maybe make a few notes on the the harbor’s fortifications. You know? Just in case the British Admiralty had any interest in that sort of thing.
At that point in history, Brazil was still an asset of the Portuguese Crown, and it fell to a Vice Roy to conduct affairs there on the Crown’s behalf. Middle-aged Lieutenant Cook and the Vice Roy didn’t really get on.

The problem’s started when Cook learned that the Officer he had sent ahead to warn of their arrival, had been detained at the Vice Roy’s pleasure. When a delegation of the Vice Roy’s Officer’s arrived – ostensibly to ask questions as regarded the ship’s origin, compliment, cargo, how many weapons it had etc. – he was informed that it was always the custom to detain the first Officer of any newly arrived ship. The Officer, of course, was returned, but Cook appears not to have been appeased by this. Indeed, he seems to have grown more suspicious:

About this time a Boat filled with soldiers kept rowing about the Ship, which had orders, as I afterwards found out, not to suffer any Officers or Gentlemen, except myself, to go out of the Ship.

(James Cook: November 14th, 1768)

On meeting with the Vice Roy to obtain permission to procure supplies, Cook discovered that there were even more ‘customs’ to which he had to submit. At least, if he wanted to provision his ship in the way he would like. He appears to have taken this in his stride; yet, from his journal, I have the sense that he was getting really pissed off by this point.
Eventually Cook decided to do what anybody might in such a situation, he a wrote a letter to the Vice Roy because:
…thinking that the Vice Roy might lay under some mistake, which  on proper Application might be clear’d up, I therefore drew up Memorial stating the whole case and sent to the Vice Roy this afternoon…
with the result that:
…thus a Paper War commenced between me and His Excellency, wherein I had no advantage than racking his invention to find reasons for treating us in the manner he did, for he never would relax the least from any one point.
(James Cook: November 17th, 1768)

As is often the case with bureaucracies, the Vice Roy pointed out that Cook and his crew were free to leave any time they wanted. Especially if they were feeling a little hard done by: the rules are the rules, after all. But this did not suit Cook at that time – he was still in want of provisions, although he did his best to hurry it all a long.

When Cook did eventually try to leave on December 5th he was, therefore, rather surprised to be fired upon from the Santa Cruz Fort, and prevented from making a ‘free’ departure. A quick investigation revealed that the fort’s Captain had not received an order to let them pass. Cook looked into this matter a little further:

I immediately dispatched a petty Officer to the Vice-Roy to know the reason why we was not permitted to pass the Fort; the Boat very soon return’d with an order to let us pass, which Order had been wrote some Days Ago, but either by Design or neglect had not been sent.

(James Cook: December 5th, 1768)

So, no harm done; just a case of lost paperwork … probably.

Of all of the the adventures of Post Captain James Cook (RN), it is in his experience of Brazilian bureaucracy where I feel a loose connection. Not that I’ve been fired at by any Brazilian fortifications, just that I have myself had some dealings with its modern form.

Here’s how it normally goes: you show up with all the paper work you’ve been told that you need. You wait – for quite some time. Eventually, you get to see someone that explains you don’t need half the documents you brought, and are missing ones that you really do need. What’s more, you should really have known that you needed those missing documents, and “why are you wasting my time idiot.” This is often accompanied by a shrug, from the official chastising you, that indicates: “rules are rules, after all.” It seems not much has really changed there since at least the Eighteenth-Century. I’m not even joking; I think some of those procedures are still on the books.

This brings us to the last of my explorer Triumvirate. I’l be quick here, as I am sensitive to the fact that we are running out of time for this week’s AW session. Fortunately, this last historical figure is someone whom I have only just discovered, and so I haven’t had a chance to read much of his work. What I do know about him comes from an obituary written by Colonel George Earl Church, which was published in The Geographical Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, July 1896: pp. 77-79. His name was William Chandless (1829-1896).

According to his obituarist, Chandless was: “Generous, quiet, unassuming, and entirely regardless of self, his hand was ever open to unostentatiously assist others.” This does sound more like the qualities of a social worker, or just  a ‘really nice guy’, as opposed to an explorer. That is, until we learn: “To these qualities he added great courage, caution, patience, tact, and love of adventure – just the man for an explorer.”

Before Chandless was  an explorer, he studied law, which he found he didn’t really like that much. So instead, and being quite wealthy and not really needing a ‘real job’, he took himself off to explore rivers. (I’m given to understand that the exploration of rivers was quite a popular pursuit at that time.)

In time, he ended up in Brazil (it’s like there’s a pattern here, or something). Not in Rio De Janeiro, but in what is now modern day Manaus. (As an aside, that city was called Manaus in the Nineteenth-Century too, it was just spelled differently: Manaos.) For those of you who don’t know, and there is no reason why you should, Manaus is in the area normally called the Amazon, or, alternatively, Amazonia. While there, Chandless began studying the network of rivers of that region; but only two of these are relevant here.

The first of these two water-ways, is known as the Tapajos. This he successfully traced – or in the language of the time, “ascended” – to its source. The second river, and this was the one that seems to have interested him most, is the Purus. He was so interested in the Purus, he funded expedition with his own money; which just goes to show you how eager he was to know more about it. Unhappily, while he did cover 1,866 miles of the Purus’ course, he was eventually “…stopped for want of water for his canoe.” That has to a serious bummer for a dedicated explorer, no question.

Nevertheless, his detailed observations from the aborted Purus expedition proved to be very useful to other like-minded gentlemen. In particular, those observations that related to the value of the river as a “…commercial artery …” and “…the products of the region traversed…” were probably extremely well received by certain members of the general public.

While the people that write obituaries are supposed to say nice things about the dead, it is perhaps not always true that they mean them. In Chandless’ case, however, I think Colonel Church really was being sincere, and he paints a figure of a man of great and remarkable achievement. Here’s what the Colonel had to say about the significance of William’s Life’s work:

It is probable that Mr. Chandless’ explorations of the Tapajos and Purus, and the attention which the Society called to them, largely influenced the issue of the decree of the Brazilian Government (December 7, 1866) opening a great part of the Amazon river to all flags.

The ‘Society’ mentioned here is simply the Royal Geographical Society, from which Chandless received a Gold Medal for some of his explorations. The reference to opening the river to ‘all flags’, is just Nineteenth-Century speak for opening it to all nations for trade; most likely, trade in some of the ‘products of the region’. I have no doubt that this was good news for everyone living in the Amazon at the time … especially all the trees.

As I still know very little about him, its hard to know what sort of connection I have with William Chandless. Well, perhaps it is just that I really like rivers, too. Also, I’ve been to Manaus – I’ve even seen the sculpture in the historical precinct that commemorates the opening of the Amazon to ‘all flags’. So, I suppose we those two things in common. Probably, and because I was excited to have ‘discovered’ him, I just wanted to see if I could sneak him into this post.

Perhaps I should have gone with a set of more contemporary explorers I recently came across. Yes, now that I think about, the Downward and Mustnot expedition might have been a better choice. It’s an amazing story, actually: Downward and Mustnot were two bank employees that accidentally mounted an expedition to explore an already explored river. Rather hilariously, they did this because they misunderstood their boss’ directive to “explore that, will you” … Ah, but I see we are out of time. I’ll have to make that the content for next week’s post.


Recent Posts



Subscribe to Arthur Wingsmith via Email

It'll be worth it ... probably. I think it is. I mean, I subscribed to myself and enjoy getting the email to let me know that I posted something new. Go on, what have you got to lose?

Arthur Wingsmith Written by:

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.