A sober look at the great—and not so great—explorers of history.
Fernández-Armesto (History/Tufts Univ.; Humankind, 2004, etc.) views exploration as the means by which the various branches of the human race that spread apart before the rise of civilization came back into contact. The story begins in ancient times, with the peoples of the Indus valley, China, Egypt and Mesopotamia establishing trade routes and spheres of influence as early as the second millennium b.c. Most of these left no written records, though Egypt's adventures into central Africa were extensively documented. Across Asia, the Silk Road diffused Chinese goods as far as the Mediterranean. And early sailors took advantage of regular monsoons to establish trade across the Indian Ocean. At the same time, the Polynesians were crossing the Pacific and the Thule Inuit conquered the Arctic in craft that would seem hopelessly primitive if they had not proven themselves in the toughest conditions. Surprisingly, except for the Vikings, Europeans were latecomers to the game of navigation. The author takes pains to show how far ahead the Chinese, Indians and Arabs were, trading over wide areas at a time when western sailors hardly dared leave sight of land. That began to change in the 14th century, as the Portuguese and Spanish—marginal societies at the time—tried to get a slice of the trade that was making eastern nations wealthy. Progress was slow, and often accidental—Fernández-Armesto maintains a healthy skepticism toward most of the famous names of history. Columbus and Magellan get faint praise; Lewis and Clark are “heroic failures”; and most of the more recent explorers fare even worse in his estimation.
For anyone who dreams of adventure in far places: Despite the author's resistance to hero-worship and romanticism, this is a colorful compendium of history's risk-takers, with a welcome emphasis on non-European and non-English-speaking pathfinders.