Sydney Morning Herald December 28 2002
Article reproduced here with their kind permission
Into the great unknown
Fifteen years ago an Englishman set off on a voyage of discovery, along paths trodden by 7500 explorers. And there's still a way to go, writes Steve Meacham.
Raymond John Howgego doesn't fit the conventional image of an explorer. Slight, bespectacled and softly spoken, he looks more like a librarian than an adventurer.
Yet for the past 15 years Howgego - who can read "every European language apart from Hungarian, plus Arabic" - has been on a private voyage of discovery. It's a journey that has taken him to some of the most remote places on Earth. And though he has followed the footsteps of the world's most influential explorers, in a sense he has ventured where no man has gone before.
This month Hordern House, the Sydney publisher that specialises in the literature of discovery, launched the result of Howgego's labour of love - a massive tome which it claims is the first encyclopedia of exploration. Not just in English, but in any language.
Within its 1200 pages are 1.2million words reliving the accomplishments of 7500 travellers and explorers whose expeditions, voyages and journeys, literally, put our world on the map. From Abraham (whose travels around modern-day Syria and Iraq are recorded in the Bible) to Dmitry Zyrian (a little known 17th-century Cossack who wandered around northern Siberia), Howgego set out to honour the achievements of "every traveller who in some way has contributed to the geographical knowledge of our planet".
This first volume, selling for a princely $295, takes the story of exploration, travel and colonisation from the earliest recorded journeys up to 1800. Howgego - a kind of scholarly Michael Palin - says that date marks "a significant watershed". By then "most of the temperate coastline of the world was known, apart from the southern coastline of Australia and a portion around Korea. It meant I didn't have to include in this volume the exploration of central Africa, a field unto itself."
Now 56, Howgego's interest in exploration began when he started collecting travel books as a 12-year-old growing up in England. He now has some 6000 of them, squeezed into his home in Caterham, Surrey.
As a young physics teacher with two growing children, he was unable to travel widely. But in the past 15 years he's been realising his childhood ambition of "sailing down all the major rivers of the world ... I haven't got many left now". Not knowing how a particular river, bay or mountain range had been discovered annoyed him, so he began compiling his encyclopedia of who went where, when. For his own amusement; on scraps of paper.
Then, two years ago, Derek McDonnell, of Hordern House, spotted an internet essay Howgego had written on the 15th-century Venetian explorer Nicolo di Conti. Realising the commercial potential of a definitive travel encyclopedia, McDonnell commissioned the retired Englishman to write it. The result is an Australian publication which it is hoped will become a standard reference for historians, collectors and libraries around the world.
"I've always been interested in the lesser-known explorers," Howgego says among the maps and globes at Hordern House's office in Potts Point. "People know about David Livingstone, but there are much greater explorers of South America who don't appear in any books. A lot of this work has been translated into English for the first time. Who knows anything about the Swedish explorers, for example? Most Swedes don't even know. Yet virtually the whole of central Asia was surveyed by Swedish prisoners of war who were taken to Siberia after the Russians defeated CharlesXII's army in the Ukraine in 1709."
The earliest recorded traveller, he says, was Zimri-Lim, who ruled in what is now eastern Syria from 1780-60BC. French archaeologists recently excavated tablets giving details of a journey Zimri-Lim made along the Euphrates before his kingdom was sacked by the Babylonians.
While most of the explorers in the book are male, Howgego says there will be more women in his next volume, which covers the years 1800 to 1850. Jemima Kindersley is included because of a journey she made with her husband from England to Calcutta in 1765. Although she didn't discover new territory, her published letters about the slave trade in Cape Town influenced public perceptions about how whites were treating the Hottentots. Likewise Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose husband was appointed British ambassador to Constantinople in 1716, described the splendours of the Ottoman Empire in letters to the poet Alexander Pope. She is generally regarded as the first female travel writer.
However, according to Howgego, the German entomologist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian, 1647-1717, who spent two years studying and painting butterflies in Dutch Guiana, is the only woman before 1800 who made a significant impact on perceptions of travel unaccompanied by a male.
Do the characters in his book share any characteristics? "No, though most exploration before 1800 was either by traders or Christian missionaries. You didn't go exploring for the sake of knowledge before the time of Cook. You'd only set off into the unknown to trade, to further colonial power which was really just about trade, or to spread the gospel. Slavers were important, too, but that was just a different sort of trade."
Controversially, he has included "travellers" whose accounts are now thought to be apocryphal or fictitious, including Marco Polo whose tales of journeying in China are now disputed. In medieval times, European knights wrote immensely popular accounts of their journeys to Asia or Africa, with blood-curdling descriptions of the monsters they had seen. Most have been discredited, yet their impact on subsequent travel was immense. Even genuine explorers like the 15th-century German adventurer Arnold von Harff - the first European to visit Mecca - felt obliged to pretend he had also been to India, though Howgego says "it's blatantly obvious from his diaries that he didn't".
As for genuine explorers, Howgego declares the two he admires most were Sir William Dampier (1651-1715) - "a swashbuckling buccaneer who was also a scientist" - and the Arab traveller Abu ibn Batuta, (1304-68), who set out from Tangiers in 1325 to travel throughout the whole of the Islamic world, covering at least 100,000 kilometres in 40 years; "My book is particularly good on Arab and Persian travellers."
Much of his research has been made possible by the internet, which has allowed him instant access to the world's great libraries. But his own travels - usually without his long-suffering wife, Pat - to remote parts of the world have proved indispensable. He once endured a bus journey through central Bolivia for 36 hours to visit an obscure publishing house which could provide him with old leaflets about the explorations of Spanish missionaries.
However, for all his scholarly erudition, Howgego's encyclopedia comes with a warning. In a gesture worthy of Michael Palin, one of the explorers in the book is fictitious. Howgego is offering a case of champagne to the first person to spot the impostor. Even though "sufficient clues have been written into the text" to alarm "the informed scholar", so far the spoof has eluded everyone who read it before publication.
"Everything in the article is possible, and everyone else mentioned did exist, but not the subject of the article," says Howgego, who admits to "wanting to take the pee out of some so-called experts".
So, apart from himself, who else knows the imposter's identity? "No one, not even the publisher. My wife knew once, but she's forgotten!"
Marginalia: Bibliography at the Margins