Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Celebrated Travels and Travelers, Volume I: The Exploration of the Word by Jules Verne

Adventures in conquest, colonialism, and commerce
Jules Verne is best known as the preeminent science fiction author of the nineteenth century, but he also wrote at least one work of nonfiction. Published in three volumes from 1878 to 1880, Celebrated Travels and Travellers is a history of the explorers and adventurers who voyaged to the far reaches of the globe, discovered the wonders of exotic lands, and filled in the blank spaces on the world map. Travel and exploration are recurring themes in Verne’s novels, with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days being the most obvious examples. Verne was very well-read in the accounts of real-life explorers, and here he provides an overview of some of history’s most important and exciting voyages. Volume I: The Exploration of the World covers travelers from ancient times through the seventeenth century.

While few would question Verne’s talents as an author of fiction, his skills as a summarizer of historical information are not quite as praiseworthy. Granted, he is at the mercy of his source material, which in this case is centuries old. Quite a few of these travel narratives, particularly the ancient ones, are little more than lists of place names, as in, “He went here, and then he went there.” The text often reads as if bogged down in a morass of detail. If an explorer led an expedition with five ships, Verne feels the need to tell you where all five ships were at any given time and to detail the various conflicts between their captains. What these voyagers actually found in the lands they discovered often gets lost in the process. Nevertheless, though the literary quality of these expedition narratives varies widely, they are consistently informative.

The more renowned the explorer, the more ink Verne devotes to him, so household names like Marco Polo, Columbus, and Magellan get extended chapters all to themselves. Other chapters are comprised of briefer narratives about explorers from a particular nation or the exploration of a specific region of the world. Verne discusses at least 70 different explorers in Volume I, which runs about 450 pages. Most editions of Celebrated Travels and Travellers, including the ebooks available for free download from Project Gutenberg, are generously illustrated with reproductions of historic engravings, woodcuts, and maps.

The stories in this first volume are not so much about scientific exploration as they are about the claiming of territory, the conquest of Indigenous peoples, and the exploitation of resources. To his credit, Verne displays attitudes toward colonialism and race that are surprisingly liberal for his time. He expresses frank disgust over slavery and the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples. Although he seems to consider the conversion of pagans to Christianity a good thing, he acknowledges that Christian missionaries were also guilty of cruelty and cultural destruction.

Like Verne, I enjoy reading the firsthand accounts of historic expeditions. From this book, I hoped to discover some interesting and unfamiliar travel narratives so that I might seek out the primary sources and read them on my own. Even though some of Verne’s retellings are rather dry and lifeless, this book does succeed as a comprehensive reference on the history and geography of European exploration. It enlarged my knowledge of the more famous explorers and drew my attention to some intrepid voyagers whom I had never heard of before. I am more interested in scientific discoveries than I am in conquest and trade, so I look forward to Volumes II and III of Celebrated Travels and Travellers, which cover the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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Travelers discussed in Volume I

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