Thursday, May 7, 2020
Celebrated Travels and Travellers, Volume II: The Great Navigators of the Eighteenth Century by Jules Verne
From Captain Cook to Humboldt
During his prolific authorial career, Jules Verne penned a series of 54 novels entitled Extraordinary Journeys, which included such famous works as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Not all of Verne’s books qualify as science fiction, but the one common theme that unites all of his adventure novels is travel and exploration. It is therefore fitting that Verne’s only nonfiction work should be a history of the explorers who have broadened our geographic and scientific knowledge of the world. Celebrated Travels and Travellers was published in three volumes from 1878 to 1880. In Volume I: The Exploration of the World, Verne covered European explorers and travelers from ancient times through the seventeenth century, which brings us to Volume II: The Great Navigators of the Eighteenth Century.
About a third of this volume is devoted to the three Pacific Ocean voyages of Captain James Cook, the British explorer who was the first to extensively explore Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and a number of other Pacific islands. One immediately senses a change in tone from the previous volume. While Volume I was all about conquest, colonization, and commerce, in Volume II we’re starting to see explorers making voyages for specifically scientific motives. Granted, trade and natural resources are still very much of interest to these explorers, so their dealings with the Indigenous inhabitants of these exotic lands are often directed towards those ends. Verne includes a lot of fascinating details about the first encounters between European and Oceanic cultures, with anthropological observations on the appearance, customs, and personalities of the Natives. Verne displays the same remarkable cultural sensitivity he showed in the first volume by speaking as an advocate for Indigenous peoples and chastising occasions of European brutality.
Verne follows Cook’s story with a series of briefer accounts of lesser-known explorers who also explored the South Pacific. He tends to favor his fellow countrymen, so he devotes a lengthy chapter to French explorers such as La Perouse, d’Entrecasteaux, and Baudin. Because these explorers followed much of the same path as Cook, their voyages are less interesting, and it feels like you’re visiting the same islands over and over again. The only differences lie in the degrees of hospitality or hostility with which the Natives greet their visitors. Verne frequently states that he is omitting portions of the explorers’ narratives due to redundancy and irrelevance, as if even he realizes that this portion of the book is dragging. Beyond narrating the history of exploration, Verne almost seems to be writing these books as a guide to those wishing to sail the South Seas themselves. As such, he pays more attention to geographic information such as coordinates and safe harbors, rather than to any zoological or botanical discoveries made along the way.
Fortunately, Verne rescues the book from tedium by devoting its final third to explorers of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. These chapters are too brief, but the variety is welcome. Scottish explorer Mungo Park features prominently in the African chapter. The Asian chapter deals primarily with early visitors to the imperial court of China. The American chapter finishes the book on a high note with an account of Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition. This is likely the book’s most compelling voyage, due both to the ambitiousness of the journey and the quality of the writings Humboldt left behind.
On the whole, Verne’s skills as a historical summarizer do not measure up to his talents as a novelist, but I have enjoyed the first two books of Celebrated Travels and Travellers and look forward to Volume III: The Great Explorers of the Nineteenth Century.
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