A Brief Excursion


The course of an adventurous sea-voyage represents one of the endur-ing myths of the English imagination. It is charted in the pages of Utopia, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels; the fact that all are fiction has not mitigated the effect. Islanders pride themselves on their ability to travel through inhospitable regions of the earth. When Abbot Brendan and his cohort of monks sailed across the cold and lonely ocean, “and all the while they had nothing to look at but the sea and the sky,” 1 they are anticipating the plight of English seafarers everywhere; in particular they are the harbingers of The Ancient Mariner.

One of the earliest travel books in the English language was written between 754 and 768, and related the journey of Willibald to Jerusalem. In a sea-locked island such expeditions smack of the marvellous. That is why the Norwegian Ohthere and the Dane Wulfstan were taken to King Alfred’s court, so that they could inform him at first hand of their adventures in the White and Baltic Seas. There are beasts called reindeer in the land of the Lapps; in Estonia the dead are “refrigerated” for six months before the ceremonies of cremation. These may be deemed factual accounts, while Anglo-Saxon productions such as the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and the Wonders of the East are filled with centaurs and man-monsters, dragons and satyrs. Other accounts, such as the Voyage of St. Brendan himself, hover characteristically and ambiguously between “fact” and “fiction.” As in many other English narratives, the comparative status of reality and vision is fundamentally in doubt.

This will help to explain the popularity and success of Mandeville’s Travels; it was written in Anglo-Norman French but by 1400 it had been translated into a number of European languages. The “insular version” of the text was confined to England, however, from where its author was generally supposed to have come. He claimed to be “Sir John Mandeville” but this was an assumed or fictitious name. It is sometimes suggested that the Travels is the work of a Frenchman, but then why did he adopt the pose of a rusted old English knight who was born and bred in St. Albans? In its preface the anonymous compiler insists that he has translated the book out of Latin and French “into Englyssch, that every man of my nacioun may understonde it.” There was a great deal to “understonde.” Its principal focus is Jerusalem and the immediate neighbourhood of that sacred area. In that context travel books could become manuals of devotion, but that was not Mandeville’s intent. In true English fashion he borrowed and adapted sections from earlier and more authentic travels, most notably from William de Boldensele and Friar Odoric of Pordenone, before conflating them within his own homely style. His most daring innovation, however, lay in his suggestion that he himself had participated in the travels and voyages which he disclosed to a no doubt credulous public. He has “cerched manye full strange places.” He has travelled the land of the Amazons and entered the Imperial Palace at Constantinople; he has been a guest in the household of the Great Khan, and describes the mythological dominions of Prester John. He has seen diamonds that sweat in the presence of poison; he has seen gourds of fruit that, when opened, reveal the bodies of creatures like “a lytill lomb, withouten wolle.” He was given a thorn from the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus and with thirteen other travellers had entered the Vale Enchanted, otherwise known as the Vale of Devils or the Vale Perilous, “but at our going out we were but nine.” This fictional valley later re-emerged as the Valley of the Shadow of Death in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

This joy in the arcane places of the earth is shared by other writers. In a Cosmography published in 1652, reference is made to a hill of “Amara”; it is “a day’s journey high, on the top whereof are thirty-four palaces.” The high and sacred spot then emerges in the fourth book of Paradise Lost as

Mount Amara, though this by som suppos’d True Paradise under the Ethiop Line

Amhara is the name given by Samuel Johnson to the country of the “Happy Valley” in his short novel Rasselas, itself a fine addition to the English delight in fictional travel-writing. This valley was “in the kingdom of Amhara, surrounded on every side by mountains.” There is an element of snugness, or cosiness here, which is the obverse side to the passion for the dangers and hardships of imagined travel. If the same region helped to inspire Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” where in a vision the poet sees a maid “singing of Mount Abora,” then the fantastic mountain is a truly distinctive feature upon the map of English literature.

Many medieval romances included long passages of description upon the perils and marvels encountered by heroes wandering in far-off lands, but this attraction to enchanted or distant ground may be part of a larger desire for escape. There may be some atavistic longing among islanders to “get away.” England was from the Anglo-Saxon period an intensely governed country; if it has also been at various times an over-administered one, the desire of many travellers may have consisted in a flight from the conditions of English civilisation itself. The English penchant for the dream and the vision may in turn be part of a general escape from the conventions of practicality and common sense which make up so much of the native psyche. The tradition of empiricism or pragmatism is not in contradiction to the equally large inheritance of ghosts, dreams and visions; they are opposite sides of the same coin of the realm. The evidence may be found in the surviving examples of English cartography; these maps are replete with detailed and accurate information but of course they are flanked by angels, gods, and only semi-human figures.

The traveller depicts all that England is not. Thus Raleigh invokes “the most beautiful country that ever mine eyes beheld” along the Orinoco, with “plains of twenty miles in length.” Another traveller, Peter Martyr, confessed that “Smooth and pleasing words might be spoken of the sweet odors, and perfumes of these countries, which we purposely omit, because they make rather for the effeminating of men’s minds.” There are dangers, as well as delights, in these new-found worlds. The women “be very hot and disposed to lecherdness . . . they live commonly 300 years.” In Sierra Leone resides “an empress of all these Amazons, a witch and a canniball who daily feeds on the flesh of boys.” The appetite for the marvellous is sufficiently powerful to need no explanation but, in addition, the English affection for such literature springs in part from the need to comprehend and master that which is not English. We may say that English travel-writers define their nationhood by describing other nations; it is an instinctive form of reassurance.

It also reflects, of course, the native passion for seafaring. The title page of Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna contains the engraving of a ship setting forth upon unknown waters beyond the Pillars of Hercules; it is the ship of knowledge, sailing upon strange seas of thought, and is the emblem of an island race which sees water as the natural frontier. Hawkins and Drake, Davis and Frobisher and Raleigh have entered the national consciousness because of their association with the things of the sea; their adventures as pirates, explorers and masters of the burgeoning English empire became the staple material of English fiction and English poetry. These Elizabethan adventurers were joined in later years by Scott and Oates, representative English heroes who faced an uncharted and inhospitable wilderness of ice.

Richard Hakluyt’s compilation The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation was enormously influential from its first publication in 1589. These sea-works “created a taste for exotic lands across the sea which in time would become more familiar to English people than the heart of Europe.”2 J. A. Froude described The Principall Navigations as “the prose epic of the modern English nation,” in which England itself becomes the principal actor or character. Hakluyt indeed knew that he was fashioning an epic, and deliberately introduced epic material, but in the words of Richard Helgerson in Forms of Nationhood, his principal purpose was “to reinvent both England and the world to make them fit for one another.”3 He achieves this feat of collation in a very English spirit, in his own words by attempting “to bring antiquities smothered and buried in dark silence, to light” and by creating “this homely and rough-hewn shape” of a discourse. Amateurism and antiquarianism are thus aligned in an embarrassed but spirited apology.

His is not a moral or heroic venture, however, but one established upon profit and commerce. His first work was entitled A Discourse of the Commodityof the Taking of the Strait of Magellanus, and is an account of putative damage to the English cloth trade; his is a highly pragmatic and practical apologia for sea-travel. Hakluyt’s “later collections are compendia of information . . . organised by geographical region for the easy use of travellers and strategic planners,”4 and he regards “England as an essentially economic entity, a producer and consumer of goods.”5 So in this sense tales of travel become shop-windows for putative purchasers; The Principall Navigations is a prose epic of commerce. Its two thousand pages, its 216 voyages, its hundreds of supporting documents, are witness to England’s “great trade and traffic in merchandise.” There are no high sentiments or noble rhetorical flourishes; the work is sensible and practical. Where there are two headings on the virtue of spreading Christianity, for example, there are twenty-eight upon the details of trade. Hakluyt himself disparaged the ornate aspirations of the Spanish and Portuguese “pretending in glorious words that they made their discoveries chiefly to convert infidels to our most holy faith (as they say)” when essentially they were seeking “goods and riches.” This is the true voice of an English writer who retreats in the face of high sentiment or high language. Instead of quoting books of divinity and scholarship, he employs the archives of the great trading companies. His principal characters are not saints or heroes, or even military adventurers, but London merchants. This is of great significance in any account of the English imagination, where the work of tradesmen is continually being amplified. Even Robinson Crusoe is a kind of merchant. The greatest English enterprise of the age was the East India Company.

The style of Hakluyt’s narrative does nothing to dispel this impression; letters of wares and lists of prices are printed in the same “black-letter folio with decorated capitals”6 as dedicatory poems. The three volumes contain an “extraordinary variety of documents ranging from epic fragments of Parmenius and Chapman to commercial lists like Newberg’s.” 7 It has been said that the sea-voyages of the sixteenth century were primarily concerned with colonisation and subsequent plunder; the same acts of piracy may be recognised within the English imagination itself, which appropriates the vocabularies of strange lands only to engorge them within its existing structure.

Yet the emphasis in collections of travel literature of the seventeenth century shifted from the marvels of Mandeville to the poetry of fact. William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round the World, published in 1697, pledges “the Truth and Sincerity of my Relation.” In “this plain piece of mine,” Dampier has chronicled “such Observables as I met with.” In his insistence upon “observable” particulars and circumstantial detail Dampier manifests the English preoccupation with living truth, most profitably to be glimpsed in minute particulars. The pose of the narrator is that “of the ordinary man of common sense whose personal observations may be trusted by virtue of his lack of specialist skills (especially literary ones).”8 In a later volume, Voyage to New Holland, Dampier prefaces his narrative with the claim that it is “a Plain and Just Account of the true Nature and State of the Things described”; the fact that he dedicated this book to the President of the Royal Society suggests his emphasis upon the practicality and usefulness of the information he was concerned to impart. He also had an interesting habit “of eating most of the strange animals he describes,” 9 which might be considered as the height of English pragmatism.

It is also worth noting here that the inventions of English technicians such as the wind gauge, and the discovery of English scientists concerning the properties of magnetism, materially assisted the capacity of sea-voyaging. Volumes such as William Gilbert’s De Magnete (1600) and Edward Wright’s Certaine Errours in Navigation (1598) can be said to have “set the seal on England’s supremacy in the theory and practice of navigation.”10 In that sense travel literature can be understood as an example of native triumphal-ism. The narratives of eighteenth-century travel, for example, included volumes by explorers and by natural scientists, by clerics and by scholars, by archaeologists and by novelists. The voyages of Cook, Bligh and Vancouver were documented. Fielding described his journey to Lisbon, while Sterne embarked upon “a sentimental journey” through France and Italy, and William Beckford dallied in Portugal. Tobias Smollett composed his own Travels through France and Italy. We might include Samuel Johnson’s journey to the Western Islands of Scotland in this company, if only because the great arbiter of English letters had an especial fondness for travel literature. His first published work was a translation of Father Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia , which helped to fashion his own image of that exotic culture in his subsequent novel The History of Rasselas, the Prince of Abissinia. Johnson owned an atlas, for which he compiled his own index at the back, and sustained an enormous appetite for travel literature of every description. Rasselas, despondent in the “happy valley,” finds his amusement in portraying “to himself that world which he had never seen”; this might be considered as one of the principal delights of travel literature itself, especially for those immured upon an island. The prince’s guide, Imlac, had travelled to Agra, the capital of Indostan, as well as Persia and Syria; he had resided in Palestine and Egypt, and sailed upon the Red Sea. Like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver, however, he was also an explorer of human nature. In one suggestive passage Imlac, on surveying the Red Sea, confessed that his “heart bounded like that of a prisoner escaped. I felt an unextinguishable curiosity kindle in my mind, and resolved to snatch this opportunity of seeing the manners of other nations.” Here is exemplified the passion of the English mind. The depths of insular melancholy have already been sounded, and in this passage from Johnson we may glimpse another fount and origin of English travel literature.

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