Who’s Who of world exploration
The men (and four women) that Langnas profiles in this book run the chronological gamut from the first recorded ancient explorer (Sargon of Akkad, circa 2800 BC) to those active at the time of publication, such as Jacques Cousteau (pioneering undersea explorer) or Leonid Sedov (leader of the team that developed Sputnik). As one might expect, since the Western history of exploration tends to be the history of “the first white guy to go here,” the bulk of the book is populated by Europeans. Langnas, however, does demonstrate a surprising diligence in chronicling adventurers of other cultures as well, including numerous Arab, Jewish, Chinese, and Indian explorers. The discovery of New Zealand, for example, is credited to both the Polynesian traveler Toi-Kai-Rakan (about 1150) and the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (1640s). When applicable, Langnas does not shy away from mentioning the unheroic aspects of his selections, including cruelties toward the Indigenous.
If you’ve ever wondered who was the first to circumnavigate the Earth (Juan Sebastian Elcano, after Magellan died en route), who discovered Easter Island (Jacob Roggeveen), or who discovered the pygmy hippopotamus (Hans Schomburgh), this is the book for you. For most of the explorers, place of birth and cause of death are provided. The latter category is a continual source of interest, as many explorers were killed by the Natives upon whose lands they intruded, murdered by their fellow conquistadors, or executed for political reasons when they returned home. Unusual ends are often pithily described in blunt detail: e.g. “A mutiny left him a corpse with 49 bullets” (Cornelis Van Aerssen); “Xerxes had him impaled” (Sataspes). Another valuable piece of information Langnas provides is whether the explorer published a narrative of their journey, allowing interested readers to follow up on the book in question. Although the brief sketches in the Dictionary of Discoveries are not comprehensive biographies, they provide just enough information to decide whether you want to learn more about these historic figures and their expeditions.
The book is not free of errors, and much has been learned in the last six decades, so it’s unlikely anyone would cite this book as a reference in a scholarly paper. For the general reader and armchair explorer, however, this is an enjoyable read that reveals many fascinating facts. As one who enjoys reading explorers’ accounts, this book introduced me to many unsung adventurers and generated enough interest to make me want to seek out more information about them.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.