Dead Reckoning - edited by Helen Whybrow

"During the 1800s, the Western world's knowledge of the earth's geography, natural sciences, indigenous peoples, and flora and fauna took a quantum leap. In the century's youth, no one knew where the Nile had its source, or what effect altitude had on the body, or whether the North and South poles consisted of land or sea, or whether the Northwest Passage through North America to Asia was real or imagined

There was no such thing as radar or radio, an icebreaker or artificial oxygen, synthetic clothing, or nylon rope. 

If you lost your compass and the sky was cloudy, you resorted to:"

Tales of the Great Explorers 1800 - 1900, edited by Helen Whybrow

Dead Reckoning (2005) is a collection of adventure narrative from the nineteenth century. The term itself has many meanings, but as I first came across it in my Captain Cook reading, I associate it with the imperfect methods used to establish longitude while at sea before the invention of the marine chronometer. More generally, it refers to not knowing exactly where you are on the surface of the globe / precisely where you're headed but getting a decent idea from other factors. 

It's divided into three parts: Voyages of Discovery, Personal Odysseys, and Lifelong Quests.

You can see the full Table of Contents here.

Once I picked my favorites, I discarded those that came from larger works that should be read in their entirety - not that I am discouraging or endorsing not reading the full work of any discussed below, just that while excellent, the excerpts from Mark Twain, Travels with a Donkey, Lewis and Clark, Darwin, Sir Richard Burton, etc. cannot compare to the delights of the larger works - and any thematic redundancies. For example, I knew Fridtjof Nansen's saga was my favorite of the Arctic Disaster readings, so that's the one I cover below. Which meant, unfortunately, omitting discussion of George Wallace Melville's exceptional In the Lena Delta or Dillon Wallace (et al's) experiences trying to lay telegraph wire in Labrador.

From 2003 to about 2006 I read little but Age of Exploration stuff. For many years, I was a member of the Captain Cook Society, a damn fine organization, but I never plunked down the membership fee for the Hakluyt Society, a superior (no shade on the CCS, of course - two totally different animals) organization. It's a bit pricey but the benefits are fantastic, if you like this kind of stuff. I figure since I will likely never go to any of these places and since I almost certainly will never plunge into the unknown areas on a map or join the French Foreign Legion, joining the Hakluyt is the closest thing to it. Maybe even better than the real thing actually - less malaria. Anyway, said membership is earmarked for later in life.

Your taste, however, may not run to these things. The "white men adrift in the wilderness" genre is not a particularly popular one in 2016. And certainly the racism and Eurocentrism that informs much of the context of these expeditions and excursions should be unpopular in 2016. 

But there's less of that here than you might think. Some, certainly - the nineteenth century is by my reckoning the third or fourth Most Racist and Eurocentrist Century Ever - but Whybrow's selections are well-chosen not just for their content and quality of their prose, but for the often way-ahead-of-their-time perspectives of their narrators. Is it so surprising that most of these men and women did not share their era's common prejudices? These are the narratives of explorers in an age where a provincial attitude was, just as a practical matter, often a fatal handicap. (For the diplomats and opportunists and missionaries that came in their wake, it's a different story, of course.) "Travel," as Twain famously wrote, "is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."  

Or as Edward Rothstein put it in his review for the NYT:

"What emerges again and again in the writings Whybrow has compiled are not the ways in which an explorer destroys or inflates or distorts but the ways an explorer comes to see."

Let us begin.
Excerpt from Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872)
- Clarence King (1842 - 1901) 

"Morning dawned brightly upon our bivouac among a cluster of dark firs in the mountain corridor opened by an ancient glacier of King's River into the heart of the Sierras."

I probably should include Mountaineering and Clarence King, a Rhode Islander who rode horseback across the continent to take part in the first geological survey of California, among those books and authors not discussed on account of not having the space to cover the whole work from which this excerpt comes. And while I certainly recommend reading the whole thing, the twenty pages included in Dead Reckoning are fantastic. King's facility with language effortlessly transports the reader to the heights of the High Sierras:

"Under the powerful sudden leverage of frost, immense blocks were dislodged all along the mountain summits and came thundering down the slopes, booming upon the ice, dashing wildly upon rocks. Under the lee of our shelf we felt quite safe, but neither Cotter nor I could help being startled, and jumping just a little, as these missiles, weighing often many tons, struck the ledge over our heads and whizzed down the gorge, their stroke resounding fainter and fainter, until at last only a confused echo reached us."

Among the Sierra Nevadas by Alfred Bierstadt.

It is easy to see the eye of what has been dubbed "Sierra Literature" cracking open in passages such as these. (What a difference 144 years make.)

Clarence King has been remembered more recently for the remarkable double life he led as "James Todd, an African-American Pullman porter," as chronicled here. Fascinating guy, a great writer, and admirably ahead of his time.

Excerpt from Farthest North (1897)
- Fridtjof Nansen (1861 - 1930)

"Winter is setting in, making travel south to the depot on the tip of Franz Joseph Land impossible. They are forced to spend the winter in a three-foot-deep stone and dirt hovel covered with walrus skins, living on seal blubber and blood pancakes."

Is there an image more evocative of the misery of polar exploration in the 1800s than living on seal blubber and blood pancakes in a stone and dirt hovel? Lawdy.

Fridtjof Nansen, as many luminaries have noted, "was a tough-as-nails Norwegian psychopath with an impossible-to-spell first name and an unstoppable desire to constantly freeze his balls off and risk his life in the name of science and kickassery." His plan - pioneering at the time - was to intentionally get his personally-designed ship, the Fram, stuck in the ice and let the Arctic currents carry him across the Pole. It didn't work, but it was an innovation used successfully by later explorers of both the Arctic and Antarctica. 

Unbelievably, the insane Arctic trek chronicled in Farthest North was just one of many singular achievements from Nansen's life. He later won the Nobel Peace Prize (back when it was less People's Choice Awards-y) and was Norway's representative in the League of Nations. The passport - that ubiquitous feature of our lives that would have seemed unimaginable only a century-and-a-half ago - can be traced to him.

As Whybrow writes in her introduction to this excerpt, "Nansen's eighteen-month-saga of shifting lanes of rotten ice, white storms, disorientation, monotony, exhaustion, and uncertainty is one of the most suspenseful, intimate, and eloquent Arctic narratives ever written." It can be read in its entirety here

Excerpt from The Malay Archipelago (1869) 
- Alfred Russell Wallace (1823 - 1913) 

During his eight-year-sojourn in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace, one of the most daring thinkers and explorers of the nineteenth century who independently conceived of the same theory of natural selection as Darwin did, collected 125,600 specimens, traveled 14,000 miles within the archipelago - much of that distance on foot or by native dug-out canoe - and acquired a tremendous knowledge of the region's flora, fauna, and local tribes.

This excerpt covers two treks, one into the jungle and one at sea. The first is trying to find the elusive the bird of paradise, that bizarre bird with the radical plumage of the Indian and South Pacific oceans. As he patiently stalks the bird, he becomes philosophical about the entire mission of science and the conceits of the Victorian Age:

"It seems sad, that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. 

"This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him."

* "Although Wallace's opinion that Western cultures were more evolved than indigenous ones is entirely in keeping with his Victorian society, his suggestion that other species are not subordinate to humans was radical for his day."

The second of the excerpts details being stuck in the currents off one of the islands, unable to land or communicate with those on shore, for days. As a result, the window of that particular expedition closes, but then they have a new problem: either paddling out to try and get past the current (suicidal) or trying for the shore. (Twice as suicidal.) Days (!) later, exposure and lack of provisions and exhaustion impel them to make for the shore.

"We had been already eight days among the reefs and islands of Waigiou, coming a distance of about fifty miles, and it was just forty days since we had sailed from Goram." 

Excerpt from Through the Dark Continent (1878) 
- Henry Morton Stanley (1841 - 1904)

"There was only one way to resolve the problem, and that was to meet the Bakumu and dare their worst, and then to drag the canoes through the dense forest on the left bank."

In 1869 Henry Morton Stanley, then a newspaperman, traveled deep into Africa to search for Dr. David Livingstone, who hadn't been heard from in England since leaving in 1865 to trace the headwaters of the Nile. Stanley found him ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"), but the question remained unanswered. Was Lake Victoria the source of the Nile, as John Hanning Speke thought, or was it Lake Tanganyika, as Sir Richard Burton thought? And did the Lualaba River flow into the Nile? (Spoiler alerts: Yes, no, and no.)


The constant tension of this excerpt is amazing. When three members of the expedition are trapped on a rocky islet, everyone rejoices when they are saved, temporarily from drowning, though forced to spend the night on a rock amidst the rapids.

"Though we hurrahed and were exceedingly rejoiced, their position was still but a short reprieve from death. There were fifty yards of wild waves, and a resistless rush of water between them and safety, and to the right of them was a fall of three hundred yards in width, and below was a mile of falls and rapids, and great whirlpools and waves rising like little hills in the middle of the terrible stream, and below these were the fell cannibals of Wane-Mukluk and Asama."

I should mention I know absolutely nothing about the people Stanley referred to as the Bakumu, Wane-Mukluk, and Asama. It's understandable that "the savages" would push back violently against an incursion into their land of which they had no understanding. All the action is described from the expedition's point of view, of course, and it's hard not to be moved, if only as a page-turner, by the action and their determination and ingenuity in surmounting the considerable obstacles thrown at them.

Though some of the more outrageous offenses attributed to Stanley were undoubtedly exaggerated if not falsified outright, his assistance to Leopold II of Belgium in establishing the Congo Free State certainly does his legacy no favors. He claimed to be ignorant of Leopold's larger ambitions of turning the place into a hellhole. I see no reason to doubt that the inner workings of monarchs' minds were unknown to him.

He is the only Welshman - perhaps the only person altogether - who served in the Confederate Army, the Union Army, and the Union Navy. That alone would distinguish the man. Add in all of the above (and a dozen things I haven't mentioned) and Stanley emerges from his era as one of its most accomplished, conflicted, and fascinating personalities.

Excerpt from An Account of the Crossing of the Continent of Australia (1861)
- William John Wills (1834 - 1861)

From the editor's intro:

"In 1861, Robert O'Hara Burke, William Wills, and John King reached the Gulf of Carpentaria, having made the first transcontinental crossing of Australia. The men's historic moment was made less jubilant by the knowledge of the arduous return trip yet to come. This excerpt from Wills' journal begins as the men reach Cooper's Creek in central Australia in an already severely weakened state. Expecting to find a critically important support party with food and supplies, they are just eight hours too late. Too exhausted to overtake their rescuers (who happened to be only fourteen miles away), Wills and his mates start down Cooper's Creek (...)"

"Only King survived, and several months later he was found living among the aborigines who saved him. His journal is a chronicle of that slow ebb of his confidence, strength, and life."

Death of Burke by Arthur Loureiro.

Yeah, so this one is a real pick-me-up. Nowadays you can holiday along the same route. Truly surreal. I don't blame you if you'd rather break your knuckles with a pool cue rather than immerse yourself further in this tragedy, but the full text can be downloaded here. It's a sobering reminder amidst the other excerpts of how easily exploration could turn into tragedy.

Excerpt from A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879) 
- Isabella Bird (1831 - 1904) 

One of the surprises of Dead Reckoning is the number and variety of narratives from women. I don't mean it's surprising that women are just as capable of having fascinating adventures, of course, only that I had no idea so many of them existed, particularly from the 19th century. I had heard of Bird before, though, on account of one of her books being on the shelves of somewhere I worked. (I can't remember the book or the job - sorry, McCompletists.)

Isabella Bird left England for health reasons in 1854 and immediately her health improved. Sometimes that's how it goes. She ended up traveling around the world several times. Her many books - among them Six Months in the Sandwich Isles, An Englishwoman in America, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, and Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan - were well-read in her time but her reputation apparently faded over the course of the twentieth century. No one I've ever mentioned her to has heard of her, even some native Coloradans. Such are the vagaries of fame. Thankfully for her posterity, her writing is just as delightful to discover in 2016.

In this excerpt, she joins a cattle drive, then sets out to explore remote regions of the Rockies  "on her beloved mare, Birdie, just as winter arrives with full force." The cattle drive part of it is particularly fascinating to me, as I couldn't help thinking of Lonesome Dove when reading some of the passages:

"The system is one of terrorism, and from the time that the calf is bullied into the branding-pen, and the hot iron burns into his shrinking flesh, to the day when the fatted ox is driven down from his boundless pastures to be slaughtered in Chicago, the fear and dread of man is upon him."

Quite a bit of difference to how they did things back in Devonshire. Also notable is a stop in a mountain pass inn, where she observes a boorish British traveler and is so vexed by the other travelers that she sleeps with a revolver on her pillow. 

Why someone hasn't made a movie about Isabella Bird is beyond me. Her life story seems tailor-made not just for a great films but also for that all-important Oscar-bait. Where's my Bat-phone to the head of Warners?

At least the Alcorn Gallery agrees she should be better-known in 21st century times. (Note: the verbiage at the link makes me think representing it here might be frowned upon. I'll remove it, of course, if anyone complains. Gorgeous, though, isn't it?)

And finally:

Excerpt from My Life as an Explorer (1925) 
- Sven Hedin (1865 - 1952) 

"Rice, flour, toasted flour, dried meat, and Chinese brick tea constituted our provisions. My Mongolian cloak, ox-blood red, had secret pockets for my aneroid, compass, watch, notebook, and a book in which I sketched out a map of the route. (...) Off for Lhasa! If successful, we would see the Holy City, unvisited by Europeans since Huc and Gabet (briefly, accidentally, in 1847) If we failed, we would be entirely at the mercy of the Tibetans, becoming their prisoners with no inkling of how that captivity might end."

Very little actually happens in this excerpt. Hedin and his companions make it successfully to the outskirts of Lhasa and are then detained, peaceably but firmly, before being turned away. It's a fascinating look, though, at the end of one age and the beginning of another in the region's history. (The road to Lhasa would, like so many, be forced open with guns in the years to come.) 

Hedin's aim in getting to Lhasa was simple curiosity - scientific, certainly, but the same impulse that drives anyone to  pierce the forbidden veil shared (or shunned) by people the world over. I was charmed by his tale, especially in context of his other adventures and achievements in the region. Hedin was a popular figure of his age whose journeys still resound today. (And there's some kind of camper named after him.)

His legacy was compromised later in life by support for Hitler, though he was publicly and passionately pro-Semitic. As noted here: "Hitler seems to have blackmailed the famed explorer into publishing pro-Nazi tracts by imperiling some of Hedin’s Jewish friends still inside Germany. But it’s difficult to believe Hedin encouraged Sweden to ally with Germany during WWII to save a few friends. He just apparently didn’t want to recognize the evil. A disease of the eye caused Hedin to become partially blind in 1940, an apt metaphor for this period of his life."
A fitting chapter to close the pages of Dead Reckoning, reminding us that more ominous personalities and events surround many of these narratives, even when their narrators are unaware of them. 

If your Dad likes historical reading, this would make an excellent Father's Day gift.


  1. An interesting bit of synchronicity makes this a fitting subject just at this moment.

    At the moment I find myself engrossed in the biographies of various Victorian children's and adventure authors. Among the number are A.E.W. Mason, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling (also Lewis Carrol if that makes any difference (probably not).

    From a lit. critical/historical perspective it's interesting to delve into the world these guys had, pretty much the only one they ever knew. The best way to describe it is something like Modernist Era Paris, except liking children's/adventure tales isn't frowned upon as "bad taste".

    In other respects, their lives read a lot like the kind of explorers you talk about here. I think it can be argued that the activities of the one influenced the literary output of the other.

    In terms of the social outlook of their stories, the most problematic remains Kipling, while Haggard is the most interesting.

    On the surface, a novel like "King Solomon's Mines" could read like your standard colonial text. A closer look however reveals a slight subversive streak. There are hints of inter-racial romance between a white Anglo-Saxon and an African girl. It's a small element, but noticing gives the entire story an interesting element.

    To be continued.


    1. Others seemed to have noticed this element in Haggard's novel and brought it out into the open with the 1937 MGM adaptation of the book.

      That version I find the most interesting for several inter-related reasons. The film's star is Paul Robeson (more on him in a minute), it was filmed in South Africa with the cooperation of not one, but several African tribes, who performed some of their ritual ceremonies for the cameras. Finally, the film also has a link to Cecil B. Demille, in the form of actor Cedric Hardwick.

      The reason this version seems so significant is because its pretty clear there's a hidden Civil Rights message at the center of the film. This is demonstrated nowhere better than in the casting of Robeson (a notable pioneer in the Rights movement, and pretty accomplished polymath) as both the star and hero of the picture.

      I don't know if that was Haggard's intent all along, or not. It's possible he had hopes of some kind of dim idea of a "coexistence", although if so, that idea was probably much expanded in the film.

      To be concluded.


    2. When it comes to Kipling, well, I can't pretend some of his sentiments don't earn a cringe from me.

      At the same time, I can't deny his genuine talent. The funny thing is some of his fantasy work almost read like a repudiation of his own colonialism. In fact, some of it reads almost like the sentiments of Russell Wallace above.

      I don't know if there is any real solution for dealing with authors like Kipling except to keep an awareness of his failings while reading him, but also be aware of his real talents and just make sure to know they are a separate element from the man.

      Incidentally, the problem with the recent Disney remake is one of both language and plotting, really.

      If you're familiar with the original Mowgli stories, then the current film is going to suffer, as there just seems to be more imagination in the original short story collection than the cast are giving to work with in the film.

      As for the original 1967 version, well, the problem their is the same one with Disney's take on "Alice in Wonderland". For whatever reason, they've diluted the impact of two great books, and they can't seem to match up to the source material.

      I've seen at least one compare and contrast that gives a clue as to how the Disney adapt is limited compared to the novel, look for one loopy image in the vid below and you'll get the kind of idea of where the film could have gone, but sadly never did:


      If you want a better Alice adapt, I'd go with the 1966 version by Jonathan Miller (featuring Leo Mckern, Angelo Muscat and Eric Idle, plus music by Ravi Shankar).


  2. Of the authors you mention, I am familiar with Conan Doyle's Sherlock stories, all of which I love. (Well, most of which I love, all of which I definitely "like".) I've read no A.E.W. Mason. I've read some H. Rider Haggard - King Solomon's Mines and the She and Ayesha stories. I enjoyed them, though I honestly can't recall too much.

    The cinematic history of "King Solomon's Mines" is definitely interesting. I loved the 80s version with Sharon Stone and Richard Chamberlain and John Rhys-Davies as a youngster. (It hasn't aged all that well. But it had little to do with the original story to begin with). I never saw the Paul Robeson version.

    (If you never saw "The Emperor Jones," that's essential Paul Robeson viewing.)

    1. As for Kipling, it's funny you mention him, as I picked up his "Collected Stories" and have that as my "laundry reading." Like a drunk who has stashed bottles all around the house, I have different books I've assigned to accompany certain tasks. Kipling's my laundry-day-guy! Slowgoing but great. Brings the age and its people and attitudes to life as brilliantly as Dickens. I've never read Jungle Book, actually - one for the proverbial rainy day.

      The past is a different country. We are all just visitors there. I approach its books (and films, for more recent history) as an anthropologist and not a missionary. Or try to.

    2. I should mention it is my progress (as piggybacked to laundry-day) that is slowgoing, not Kipling's style or any comment on the writing.

      He sometimes has too much dialect-writing in there. A trait he shares with many authors, to be sure, not the least of which is Stephen King.

      I've noticed some similarities between Dickens and King before, but I might have picked the wrong guy. Maybe the true parallel is Kipling. Not as individual men/ writers, but as men/writers of their respective eras.

  3. "The "white men adrift in the wilderness" genre is not a particularly popular one in 2016." -- That's almost certainly true, and yet, so much of 2016 seems to be based on versions of it (some white men feeling metaphorically adrift in the wilderness, others feeling as if their kind would be better off adrift in the wilderness while everyone else stayed in civilization) that you wonder if it oughtn't make a comeback. Maybe that's what The Revenant was!

    Reading this makes me realize how woefully narrow my own focus is as a reader. Not just as a reader, either, of course: also as a person (the one tends to reflect the other). It's always a bummer when I remember that. I've been feeling that particular brand of melancholy more and more lately as I continue to realize that time is limited.

    Give me enough of it, though, and I'd love to explore any number of topics like this one. Hell, I'd settle for even a shallow exploration!

    Speaking of exploration, it occurred to me while reading this -- and I apologize for the slight change in topics -- that there is probably a hell of a fine book waiting to be written that compares writings of this kind to "Star Trek" as an examination of the changing American attitudes toward exploration. Or maybe the result would be to find that it was more a case of "unchanging."

    1. The closest thing to such a book that I can think of is Tony Horwitz's "Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before." It doesn't really harp on the Trek angle outside of the title and a few mentions here and there, though, but thematically, it explores similar parallels. Great read.

      I'd love to read a specific as-viewed-through-Trek-TOS-lens book, though, most definitely.

      Sounds like a book like "Dead Reckoning" (or "Blue Latitudes," for that matter) might be up your alley, not just for the material but as a way to explore such terrain with a limited window of time.

    2. Indeed! I've bookmarked it for consideration of that very nature.