Queen of the Desert
Our last explorer was a larger than life figure whose work and fame in her own life time were so great that her now relative obscurity is hard to fathom. Gertrude Bell was an archaeologist, mountaineer, explorer, and lover of Arab culture and history as well as being a linguist, a spy and an important political player. Renowned for her courage and endurance, she was known as the most famous female mountaineer of the early 20th century, and one of the most comprehensive explorers of the then Arabian desert. It was noted in 1915 that,
‘Miss Gertrude Bell knows more about the Arabs and Arabia than almost any other living Englishman or woman.’
This knowledge would lead her, along with T.E. Lawrence, to champion the creation of the independent kingdom of Iraq. Howell’s book details the exploits of this extraordinary woman, and her thirst for knowledge and adventure. There is certainly a lot of ground to cover, with so many facets to her life, but Howell’s book revels in the details, giving a wealth of information and context to Bell’s life. Howell’s depiction may border on the effusive, but when faced with such a remarkable figure, it’s easy to be drawn into her fascinating and variegated life.
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The Adventures of Ibn Battuta
Moving from a fleet to single person, Ibn Battuta was a 14th century traveller from Morocco, who is recognised as the greatest traveller of the premodern era. His journeys took him farther than Marco Polo, across 44 modern-day countries, from China to Spain and as far south as Tanzania. Yet at the time he was still only travelling throughout ‘the abode of Islam’ and so his writings were a mixture of his adventures in his travels and his anecdotes of his work as a judge for the governments of these places. These memoirs have long been confined to those with specialist interest.
Dunn’s book, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century, though still relatively scholarly, was the first attempt to make Ibn Battuta’s story more accessible. Dunn mixes Battuta’s often vague memoirs with their historical context, giving a huge amount of information. The book’s biggest criticism is that it could do with being longer to allow the information a bit more breathing room. Despite this, it remains a fascinating profile of a man, for whom the world seemed unaccountably within his reach.
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When China Ruled the Seas
History remembers the Age of Exploration as beginning in the early 15th century with the European expeditions to the New World, however a hundred years before, it was China whose fleets were exploring the world. Admiral Zheng He led seven voyages with his enormous treasure fleet to a range of far-flung locations including the islands of Indonesia, the Persian Gulf, down the Africa coast, and possibly even to Australia. Unlike our previous recommendations, this is less the story of a singular expedition or person than the story of a nation reaching out into the unknown world, and the knowledge and treasures that awaited them there. Past the fascinating exploits of the fleet, the book also addresses what led lead China to retreat from their global position and abandon their fleets to the tides of forgotten history. Levathes’ book masterfully captures the details of the political, social, and technological realities of this period. One of the most fascinating aspects is Levathes highlighting of the craftsmanship and engineering of the Chinese Empire. The European expeditions pale in comparisons, where Columbus took three ships, the largest of which was 58 ft long, Zheng He travelled with over 200 ships, some of which were 400 ft in length. Levathes book is insightful and informative, and remains compelling through the wealth of detail.
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Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World tells of the adventures of two very different women. Nellie Bly was a pioneer of investigative journalism, who had faked insanity in order to write an exposé on mental health institutions. In 1888 she set out to be the first person to succeed in completing the feat suggested in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Writing for the New York World, Bly travelled mainly alone, and with only the bare essentials. When her planned voyage was announced, Cosmopolitan decided to set itself in competition with the World, sending their own young female reporter Elizabeth Bisland on a race to outrun Bly.
Bisland, travelling the opposite way around the world, was a counterpoint to Bly in more than this. Where Bly was scrappy, adventurous and ambitious, Bisland was genteel and literary, but both were trailblazing in their own way. The world looked on with bated breath to see who would arrive at the finish line first. Goodman’s book does a great job of balancing these figures, in particular reinstating the noteworthiness of Bisland, who has been quite neglected by history. The book is fast-paced and enthralling, capturing the spirit of the Verne’s whirlwind adventure which inspired these voyages in the first place.
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The River of Doubt
Our next explorer is not so much unknown as unexpected. While Theodore Roosevelt is well remembered as a politician and president of the United States, what is often omitted is that in his life Roosevelt championed a robust idea of masculinity that put adventure and pioneering to the fore.
After his crushing political defeating in 1912, Roosevelt joined with Brazil’s most famous explorer Cândido Rondon to explore the River of Doubt, a 1000 mile river situated deep within the Amazon basin. Despite the experience of both Roosevelt and Rondon, the expedition was woefully underprepared, and the group was plagued by illness, lack of food or proper equipment. It was a long and arduous expedition, one which Roosevelt never fully recovered from. Millard’s book delves into this story of two renowned figures on a fascinating journey with a drive to prove themselves. The writing captures the vigour and warmth of Roosevelt’s character, the narrative moves at a gripping pace through the hardship and beautiful of the mysterious landscape. Yet what is perhaps most appealing the attention Millard gives due attention to each participants of on the voyage. Rather than allowing Roosevelt to eclipse the story, Millard gives us an ensemble cast of beaten down but determined explorers.
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An Unsung Hero
For our first forgotten explorer, we need look no further than Shackleton’s own crew. A seemingly unlikely man from Kerry in Ireland, Tom Crean played a major part of the British Heroic Age of Exploration, and served under both Scott and Shackleton on their most famous (or infamous) expeditions. Crean’s story serves as reminder to the fact that neither Scott nor Shackleton stood alone, they were supported by the bravery and endurance of those around them. Crean had a hand in his own obscurity, a faithful but unassuming man, he was a hero who retired to the shadows. After his Antarctic explorations he led a quiet life, opening a pub in Kerry called the South Pole Inn. Michael Smith’s biography is a well-crafted and gripping account of Crean’s extraordinary life.
His historical and geographical context gives just enough to place the reader immediately in the situation but without getting bogged down in a litany of detail. The figure of Crean remains, at the front. While Smith is unrestrained in his commendation of Crean’s character, it is perhaps deserving, and all the more appealing given Crean’s unsung status.
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