Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbitby Joyce E. Chaplin
For almost five hundred years, human beings have been finding ways to circle the/b>
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In this first full history of around-the-world travel, Joyce E. Chaplin brilliantly tells the story of circumnavigation. Round About the Earth is a witty, erudite, and colorful account of the outrageous ambitions that have inspired men and women to circle the entire planet.
For almost five hundred years, human beings have been finding ways to circle the Earth—by sail, steam, or liquid fuel; by cycling, driving, flying, going into orbit, even by using their own bodily power. The story begins with the first centuries of circumnavigation, when few survived the attempt: in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan left Spain with five ships and 270 men, but only one ship and thirty-five men returned, not including Magellan, who died in the Philippines. Starting with these dangerous voyages, Joyce Chaplin takes us on a trip of our own as we travel with Francis Drake, William Dampier, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and James Cook.
Eventually sea travel grew much safer and passengers came on board. The most famous was Charles Darwin, but some intrepid women became circumnavigators too—a Lady Brassey, for example. Circumnavigation became a fad, as captured in Jules Verne’s classic novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.
Once continental railroads were built, circumnavigators could traverse sea and land. Newspapers sponsored racing contests, and people sought ways to distinguish themselves—by bicycling around the world, for instance, or by sailing solo.
Steamships turned round-the-world travel into a luxurious experience, as with the tours of Thomas Cook & Son. Famous authors wrote up their adventures, including Mark Twain and Jack London and Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (better known as Nellie Bly). Finally humans took to the skies to circle the globe in airplanes. Not much later, Sputnik, Gagarin, and Glenn pioneered a new kind of circumnavigation— in orbit.
Through it all, the desire to take on the planet has tested the courage and capacity of the bold men and women who took up the challenge. Their exploits show us why we think of the Earth as home. Round About the Earth is itself a thrilling adventure.
The risks for Chaplin, as the first complete chronicler of the globe-circlers, were that she would either get becalmed in a Pacific ocean of research, or lose the narrative thread in unloading all her plunder.
The reader may safely embark with eager anticipation. She can be welcomed home with garlands. Her book is a treasure of thrilling stories, replete with insights into the advances of science, technology and medicine, and it’s reflective, too. The planet we encircle and embrace is our only home in the cosmos."
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Read an Excerpt
I’ll put a girdle round about the Earth
In forty minutes . . .
—Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Imagine that you have purchased, to accompany this book, a model of a theater in which you can stage your very own around-the-world voyage. The whole setup will require special delivery because, for some reason, the theater, which is round, turns out to be about 8.25 meters in circumference (just under 9 feet across). That is only the first of several Alice-in-Wonderland surprises, as you discover when you enter the theater, which seems empty. Luckily, there is an envelope pinned to the theater door which contains a map, with “X” marking the spot where you can find the most important piece of scenery, the small ship that will make a staged circumnavigation. Once you locate the X, you must remove a magnifying glass (helpfully provided in the envelope) to see the ship. It is the size of the head of a pin and scattered with what look like bits of dust. Nearby is a microscope, and only with its assistance can you make out that the dust particles are actually tiny dolls that represent the ship’s sailors.
The theater kit has these odd components and dimensions because, correctly proportioned to each other, the theater is the Earth, the pinhead ship is the Victoria, the first ship to go around the world, and the near-invisible dolls within her represent sailors, the angels that dance on the head of this particular pin. Given the high mortality rates during most of the history of around-the-world travel, sailors were indeed angels in the making. Their tininess, and that of their ship, make a circumnavigation of the enormous globe seem impossible. And yet it happened, over and over, hundreds of thousands of times, and even more circumnavigations are taking place right now, as you read.
With those repeated embraces of the globe, from 1519 onward, human beings have established what is now a nearly five-hundred-year history of going around the world. It is the longest tradition of a human activity done on a planetary scale. Around-the-world travelers make a grand gesture, as big as the physical world itself, even though they are individually so small that the huge global stage on which they act makes them hard to find.
• • •
I found this book in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Six years ago, in St. George’s, Bermuda, I embarked on a 140-foot sailing ship, the Sea Education Association’s SSV Corwith Cramer. I would be at sea for three weeks, away from telephone, Internet, and physical libraries. Yet I was in the middle of a research project on Benjamin Franklin that required me to read material in French. I decided to use my time at sea to revive my French by reading a novel in that language. The book I chose was a small paperback edition of Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours, or Around the World in Eighty Days, first published as a newspaper serial in 1872. When I wasn’t on watch or otherwise busy, I slowly made my way through the book.
My French was good enough—to my surprise—that I actually enjoyed the story and, as a historian, I appreciated its period detail, especially the nature of the bet that sends Verne’s protagonist, the Englishman Phileas Fogg, racing around the world. At his London club, Fogg remarks that scheduled travel services could take a person around the globe in a period of eighty days. Prove it, the club men challenge him, and he’s off. That eighty-day measure was only conceivable by the late nineteenth century. In the age of sail, getting around the world had taken months or years. (The speed of my sailing ship would have lost Fogg his wager.) It was the invention of steampower, but also the creation of regimented European empires around the globe, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the emergence of commercial travel services that together made it just possible, by the 1870s, to do the global circuit in eighty days.
The second thing that impressed me about Verne’s story was how the material developments that sped up global travel required a dramatically increased use of natural resources. When Fogg leaves London, he takes his new valet (and invaluable comic foil) Passepartout. The two men board a night train which has scarcely departed London when Passepartout lets out “a real cry of despair”:
“. . . in the rush . . . my state of confusion . . . I forgot . . . to switch off the gas lamp in my bedroom.”
“Well, my dear fellow,” Phileas Fogg replied coldly, “you’ll be paying the bill.” The gas lamp is the novel’s running joke. True, it is a small part of the journey’s cost, but we present-day readers of Verne quickly realize that the joke is on us. We are, notoriously, the first generation that has realized what the planetary bill for centuries of burning fossil fuel is going to be.1
In Verne’s era, coal was a costly but essential part of modern progress. Yet Fogg’s steam-powered exploits, set at the height of European imperialism, represent a phase of the past that truly is history, over and done with. Airplanes have replaced the coal-burning engines and ships that hurtled Fogg around the world; the empires that protected some people at the expense of others have been replaced with other political regimes. It’s now difficult to cross the surface of the world in eighty days, though easy to fly around it in hours, if you can afford the
Back on land, I looked for a history of around-the-world travel. There was none. Two books have given narrative histories of circumnavigations, but only in the age of sail; a third book examines some nineteenth-century examples, among other long-distance voyages; a fourth looks at small-boat circumnavigations in the early twentieth century. That’s not much. For that reason, there is no separate Library of Congress heading for histories of around-the-world travel—the histories are simply lumped with first-person accounts of the travelers. There are many more studies of individual around-the-world travels, especially the really famous attempts by Magellan, Cook, Earhart, Gagarin, Chichester, and others. There are analyses of fictional circumnavigators, including Fogg, and even Shakespeare’s Puck. And there is Raymond John Howgego’s incomparable Encyclopedia of Exploration, which includes historical circumnavigations among its thousands of entries. Finally, there are other encyclopedias that chronicle circumnavigations or orbital travels or, especially in electronic form, just list the journeys themselves.2
All of these works take for granted that an around-the-world voyage represents a distinct human activity, something unlike other voyages or expeditions. But none of them explains why they are distinctive. Why do they matter?
The answer is not obvious. To find out what is different about around-the-world voyages requires setting aside everything they might have in common with other kinds of travel and exploration. Circumnavigators made geographic discoveries; but so did other explorers. They changed the world map, but other expeditions did too. They encountered lands and people new to them; so did many others. They expanded and defended empires—many actors did. Even if circumnavigators did more of these activities—more geographic discoveries, more cultural encounters—that is a difference in quantity, not quality.
The temptation is to find an encyclopedic solution, to inventory every around-the-world journey that took place, with details of what happened on each. But a work that simply listed all of these journeys, let alone details of what happened on them, would take a great many volumes, or a vast electronic database, yet still not establish why they are special.
They are special because any voyager who goes all the way around the world thinks of himself or herself on a planetary scale, as an actor on a stage the size of the world. This is unique. No other form of travel, and, really, hardly any other human experience, is truly planet-encompassing. In fact, an around-the-world voyage is distinctively planetary in three ways, as measured by time, space, and death.
Around-the-world travel is time travel. Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days has as its plot twist Fogg’s eastward progress around the globe, through which he gains a day that wins him his bet. Because of what is now called the International Date Line, the day gained or lost during an around-the-world voyage is a fundamental and unique characteristic of such a journey. Any traveler changes his or her place on the globe, but only circumnavigators change their date on the calendar. That experience reorients them in relation to the Sun, timekeeper of the hours and days on Earth and throughout the solar system. Circumnavigators were the first people to discover, by mind-blowing experience, that time is not universal but relative.
The space over which a circumnavigator must travel is also distinctive because it represents the whole world, which is painfully larger than any of the individual humans who might contemplate getting around it. Shakespeare’s Puck may have been able to zip round about the Earth with ease, but humans had to go more slowly, and they would always need a protected space around their small selves, whether physical, imagined, or both.
It is conventional in many cultures to consider the human body as a microcosm, a smaller, metaphorical version of the world or cosmos. So too have ships been considered microcosms, little wooden worlds that ride the waves. To put a body around the world on a ship (or in another vehicle) puts these three worlds into a dynamic relationship to each other. The mismatch in size makes the encounter both comic and cosmic, as with the ill-matched theater kit that represents world, ship, and sailors in proportion to each other, with the sailors reduced to specks of dust.
Because of the size of the planet, and the inadequacy of early sailing ships to cover global distances while protecting those within them, sailors quickly learned that a circumnavigation meant death. For the first 250 years, more people died than survived circumnavigations. The planet simply shrugged them off. Many forms of travel and exploration were badly dangerous, but around-the-world travel was the most consistently bad. Only by the end of the eighteenth century did circumnavigations begin to have lower mortality rates, even as their breathtaking risks have lingered as part of their mystique.
And yet mere mortals did manage to get their tiny bodies around the vast planet in vessels that, even if bigger than the Victoria, were (and are) strikingly small. To commemorate their achievement, the survivors established traditions for their experience. It did not happen at once—the first around-the-world voyage was too surprising, and only repeated successes teased out internationally observed conventions about what such journeys meant. Circumnavigators were represented in certain kinds of portraits, they were granted characteristic coats of arms, and their journeys were represented on maps and globes in particular ways.
Above all, the stories they told about their voyages fell into certain patterns, especially by stressing the elements of time travel, planetary distance, and frequent fatalities. Circumnavigators knew they were generating a tradition. They read each others’ accounts as models for their own voyages and narratives: William Dampier read Sir Francis Drake; George Anson read Dampier; Louis-Antoine de Bougainville read Anson; Adam Johann von Krusenstern read Bougainville; Charles Darwin read Krusenstern—and so on, even to the present day, when around-the-world sailors still read Joshua Slocum (who read Darwin). Even people who would eventually go around the world by other means—steamships, railroads, bicycles, airplanes, spaceships—would refer back to the longer maritime tradition on which they thought they were building.
As a result, circumnavigators have generated nearly half a millennium’s worth of evidence of humanity’s direct, tangible, and conscious connection to something usually perceived in the abstract, the whole Earth. Of course, humans have had a relationship to the planet for as long as they have existed. And yet consciousness of that relationship is thought to be rather recent. Most people in the past are not supposed to have been aware of themselves on a planetary scale, except metaphorically. They are otherwise supposed to have thought small, to have been tucked into cosy patches of a larger landscape, unable even to give consistent labels to continents and oceans, and incapable of conceiving of their actions in relation to the natural world on a long time scale. It was allegedly only by the nineteenth century that mastery of the oceans and penetration into continents gave western Europeans the world’s first version of a planetary consciousness, augmented by developments in science and geography, and complete with an understanding of enormous spaces and the swift yet long passage of geological time. And it was only supposedly with the famous Apollo 8 photographs of the Earth, taken in 1968, that humans first truly grasped their place on the Earth as a whole.3
Today, we are hyper-aware of our connection to the planet, given our ongoing environmental crisis, most of which can be attributed to human actions in generating matter that overheats the atmosphere, or clogs land, air, and water. We use our planetary consciousness both to praise and criticize ourselves, to emphasize our greater scientific wisdom about the Earth, for example, but also to stress our unprecented transformation of it. Plus there is our sense of globalization. Surely we must have a greater awareness of the planet, given the globalized culture in which we live, the global connections we know we now have with people all over the world?
But it may just be the case that no one has looked hard enough to find a longer history of planetary consciousness. Globalization has hogged all the attention. Global is social—it implies the social relations that extend over the globe. In contrast, planetary is physical, implying the physical planet itself. Far more studies have focused on the former than the latter. That is because human-to-human interactions have been historians’ major focus. Only recently have human relations with the non-human parts of nature been put into dialogue with those human relationships; only recently have scholars begun to reread historical documents to discover our past sense of our place within nature. Circumnavigators’ long and self-aware tradition of engagement with the planet questions our sense of uniqueness and may teach us something worth knowing about why we think of the Earth the way we do.4
Toward that end, this book defines around-the-world travel as a geodrama, from the Greek for “Earth” (Ge or Gaia) and for “action” (drama). Within the European countries that sponsored the first circumnavigations, there was an established tradition of considering the world as a theater: theatrum mundi. It was an ancient Greek idea, sustained through Roman antiquity and the Renaissance, and exemplified in Shakespeare’s claim that “all the world’s a stage.” The theatrum mundi was a metaphor, but around-the-world travelers made it a reality by presenting themselves as actors on a stage of planetary dimensions. Over time, circumnavigations would be presented as dramatic entertainments, first in print, then on stage, and later in film.
Geodrama is different from geography, meaning depictions of the Earth made by writing (graphos). While geography engages the human eye, hand, and mind, geodrama requires all of a human being, the entire body and its range of physical experiences, in relation to Gaia, the Earth. That whole-body experience of the whole Earth is well documented in accounts of circumnavigation, which describe what it felt like, from agonizing to exhilarating. Most people never go around the world but, by now, almost everyone has some idea of the big statement that such a journey makes.
For that reason, published, first-person accounts of circumnavigators are this book’s principal sources. Again, the point is not to include every available account, as in an encyclopedia, but to examine some of the most visible in order to show how to read any one of the others. And, frankly, the more famous and influential the account the better. The famous narratives disseminated a sense of what it was like to go around the world, even for people who would never make the journey themselves. Together, the accounts constitute the longest and most sustained way in which people have been able to consider themselves as actors within a geodrama, even as the drama has changed over time.
The changes can be understood as three acts in the drama, three phases in human beings’ comprehension of themselves as actors on the physical planet. In the first act, which lasted from Magellan’s departure on the first circumnavigation to James Cook’s death in Hawai’i—that is, from 1519 to 1779—mariners who went around the world did so in fear. It was reasonable for them to be fearful, given the dangers of such a voyage in the age of sail. In this initial phase, the longest in the history of circumnavigation, death prevailed. Humans might take on the planet, but the planet fought them every inch of the way.
From the 1780s until the 1920s, however, travelers who made their way around the world did so with a striking confidence that they could survive the experience. That was because Western societies had generated technology and political networks that seemed to have conquered the globe. It was not only possible to go around the world, but it had become a popular pastime. Representations of doing a circumnavigation became playful, enticing, joyous. There were costs, not all of them hidden, but they seemed outweighed by the glories of making an easy swing around the planet. One result of the new optimism was the generation of a new meaning for “around the world”: to blanket the Earth, rather than simply girdle it, even though confidence about the blanketing depended on prior success with the girdling.
Over the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first, the confidence has given way to doubt. Technologically newer forms of travel, especially airplanes and rocket-propelled space capsules, revived the sense of extreme danger that had faded during the relatively safer nineteenth century. Equally, it is now clear that imperialism had smoothed the way for most earlier circumnavigators, under political and social conditions that would be unwise and unjust to perpetuate, let alone recreate. Above all, there is a growing sense that the planet is again beginning to bite back, now that the environmental costs of planetary domination have begun to haunt us.
We live with all three legacies of around-the-world travel: a re-emerging fear that the planet could simply shrug us off; continuing confidence that we might be able to generate technologies and political alliances to dominate the planet; but doubt that it is always wise to do so. It is especially apparent that the characteristic confidence of the long nineteenth century was the shortest of planetary experiences, yet has been the most difficult to relinquish. Our current doubts seem to be taking us back to the fears of the early modern period, a circular return that matches the swings around the planet that themselves went through the three acts of geodrama.
But there were always more hopeful elements to the story. Those bright moments matter too, and they make clear that the human past is as complicated and contradictory as its present condition, whether seen on a small scale or a large one, even the largest of all, a geodrama in three acts.
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Meet the Author
Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of History at Harvard University. She is the author of four previous books of nonfiction, including The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (2006), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Science and Technology Category), and winner of the Annibel Jenkins Prize of American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.
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