Explorers: Tales of Endurance and Exploration

Pytheas was a Greek who lived almost four hundred years before the Christian era. Perhaps it was in part his interest the mathematics of navigation which led him to sail from his home in on the Mediterranean coast of what is now France, to leave behind the limits of the known world as he passed Cape Saint Vincent in what is now Portugal, and to sail on, looking for a sea route for the tin trade. He passed Caithness, in Scotland, and sailed on to Unst, in the Shetlands, which was then the most northerly place where people lived in those islands. He saw the northern lights.

In the first part of the fourteenth century AD, Ibn Battuta set out from his home in Morocco. Set out many times, in fact, in journeys that took him as far east as China, and south as far Mogadishu and Mombassa in Africa. He went west as far as Tangier, and traveled to the Caspian Sea, India, and Timbuktu, a scholar and a judge in search of knowledge, and a man of faith who made the pilgrimage to Mecca seven separate times.

Sebastian Cabot lived in the fifteenth century, setting out from his home in England to sail around Scandinavia seeking a northeast passage to Asia, exploring the Rio de la Plata in South America, seeking spice and gold, and heading out on a voyage to North America where he explored what is now Newfoundland. Henry Hudson sought that northeast passage too, also exploring the river in New York and the bay in Canada which bear his name. Vitus Bering left his name on maps as well, as he sought a land bridge between Russia and North America. Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humbodldt were as interested in science as they were geography. Francis Xavier and David Livingstone (yes, that one, of ‘Livingstone I presume’) were missionaries taking their faith to foreign lands. Columbus, Magellan, Cook, Sir Francis Drake, Vasco Da Gama, Freya Stark, Thor Heyerdahl, John Franklin, Jacques Cousteau, Neil Armstrong –dozens of people, whose stories are told in the book Explorers: Tales of Endurance and Exploration, a joint project of The Smithsonian Institution and the Royal Geographic Society, with Ellen Namey as project coordinator.

It is a thoughtful book, with stories told — and well told — as much through map and image and graphic as through narrative. A narrative of people reaching for the limits of what they know, and reaching beyond them, set in context and in time, reaching from the story of the ancient Egyptian Harkhuf who journeyed along the Nile to expand the knowledge of the then known world to the story of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who ventured into space to do the same. Then there is Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who said “The difficult is what takes a little time. The impossible is what takes a little longer.”

At first glance, you could think that this is a coffee table book, meant to flipped through casually. It’s not. It is a work meant to be explored and savored.

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