Geography and Some Explorers

(Published in Last Essays, ed. Richard Curle (London: J.M.Dent & Sons, 1926) 10 -17)

Source : Conrad, Joseph. "Geography and Some Explorers." National Geographic, March 1924.



It is safe to say that for the majority of mankind the superiority of geography over geometry lies in the appeal of its figures. It may be an effect of the incorrigible frivolity inherent in human nature, but most of us will agree that a map is more fascinating to look at than a figure in a treatise on conic section -- at any rate, for the simple minds which are the equipment of the majority of the dwellers on this earth.

No doubt a trigonometrical survey may be a romantic undertaking, striding over deserts and leaping over valleys never before trodden by the foot of civilized man; but its accurate operations can never have for us the fascination of the first hazardous steps of a venturesome, often lonely, explorer jotting down by the light of his camp fire the thoughts, the impressions, and the toil of his day.

For a long time yet, a few suggestive words grappling with things seen will have the advantage over a long array of precise, no doubt interesting, and even profitable figures. The earth is a stage, and though it may be an advantage, even to the right comprehension of the play, to know its exact configuration, it is always the drama of human endeavor that will be the thing, with a ruling passion expressed by outward action marching perhaps blindly to success or failure, which themselves are often undistinguishable from each other at first.

Of all the sciences, geography finds its origin in action, and, what is more, in adventurous action, of the kind that appeals to sedentary people, who like to dream of arduous adventure in the manner of prisoners dreaming behind their bars of all the hardships and hazards of liberty, dear to the heart of man.

Descriptive geography, like any other kind of science, has been built on the experience of certain phenomena and on experiments prompted by that unappeasable curiosity of men which their intelligence has elevated into a quite respectable passion for acquiring knowledge. Like other sciences, it has fought its way to truth through a long series of errors. It has suffered from the love of the marvelous, from our credulity, from rash and unwarrantable assumptions, from the play of unbridled fancy.

Geography had its phase of circumstantially extravagant speculation which had nothing to do with the pursuit of truth, but has given us a curious glimpse of the medieval mind playing in its ponderous, childish way with the problems of our earth's shape, its size, its character, its products, its inhabitants....

All this might have been amusing if the medieval gravity in the absurd had not been in itself a wearisome thing. But what of that! Has not the key science of modern chemistry passed through its dishonest phase of alchemy (a portentous development of the confidence-trick), and our knowledge of the starry sky been arrived at through the superstitious idealism of astrology looking for men's fate in the depths of the infinite! Mere megalomania on a colossal scale. Yet, solemn fooling for solemn fooling of the scientific order, I prefer the kind that does not lay itself out to thrive on the fears and the cupidities of men.

From that point of view geography is the most blameless of sciences. Its fabulous phase never aimed at cheating simple mortals (who are a multitude) out of their peace of mind or their money. At the most, it has enticed some of them away from their homes &-; to death, maybe; now and then to a little disputed glory, not seldom to contumely, never to high fortune. The greatest of them all, who has presented modern geography with a new world to work upon, was at one time loaded with chains and thrown into prison.

Columbus remains a pathetic figure, not a sufferer in the cause of geography, but a victim of the imperfections of jealous human hearts, accepting his fate with resignation. Among explorers, he appears lofty in his troubles and like a man of a kingly nature. His contribution to the knowledge of the earth was certainly royal.

And if the discovery of America was the occasion of the greatest outburst of reckless cruelty and greed known to history, we may say this, at least, for it, that the gold of Mexico and Peru, unlike the gold of alchemists, was really there &-; palpable, yet, as ever, the most elusive of the Fata Morgana that lure men away from their homes&-;as a moment of reflection will convince any one; for nothing is more certain than that there will never be enough gold to go round, as the Conquistadores found out by experience.

 I suppose it is not very charitable of me, but I must say that to this day I feel a malicious pleasure at the many disappointments of those pertinacious searchers for El Dorado who climbed mountains, pushed through forests, swam rivers, floundered in bogs, without giving a single thought to the science of geography.

Not for them the serene joys of scientific research, but infinite toil, in hunger, thirst, sickness, battle; with broken heads, unseemly squabbles, and empty pockets in the end. I cannot help thinking it served them right. It is an ugly tale, which has not much to do with the service of geography....

The discovery of the New World marks the end of the fabulous geography, and it must be owned that the history of the conquest contains at least one great moment &-; I mean a geographically great moment &-; when Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, while crossing the Isthmus of Panama, set his eyes for the first time upon the ocean the immensity of which he did not suspect and which in his elation he named the Pacific. It is anything but that; but the privileged Conquistador cannot be blamed for surrendering to his first impression.

The Gulf of Panama, which is what he really saw with that first glance, is one of the calmest spots on the waters of the globe. Too calm. The old navigators dreaded it as a dangerous region, where one might be caught and lie becalmed for weeks, with one's crew dying slowly of thirst, under a cloudless sky. The worst of fates, this, to feel yourself die in a long and helpless agony. How much preferable a region of storms, where man and ship can at least put up a fight and remain defiant almost to the last....

...Balboa could not possibly know that this great moment of his life had added suddenly thousands of miles to the circumference of the globe, had opened an immense theatre for the human drama of adventure and exploration, a field for missionary labors, and spread an enormous canvas on which some geographers could paint the most fanciful variants of their pet theory of a great southern continent.

I will not quarrel with the post-Columbian cartographers for their wild but upon the whole interesting inventions. The provocation to let oneself go was considerable.

Geography militant, which had succeeded the geography fabulous, did not seem able to accept the idea that there was much more water than land on this globe. Nothing could satisfy their sense of the fitness of things but an enormous extent of solid earth, which they placed in that region of the south where, as a matter of fact, the great white-crested seas of stormy latitudes will be free to chase each other all round the globe to the end of time....

What is surprising to me is that the seamen of the time should have really believed that the large continents to the north of the Equator demanded, as a matter of good art or else of sound science, to be balanced by corresponding masses of land in the southern hemisphere. They were simple souls. The chorus of people all singing the same tune made them blind to the many plain signs of a great open sea. Every bit of coastline discovered, every mountain top glimpsed in the distance, had to be dragged loyally into the scheme of the Terra Australis Incognita.

Even Tasman, the best seaman of them all before James Cook, the most accomplished of seventeenth century explorers and navigators, that went forth to settle the geography of the Pacific -- even Tasman, after coming unexpectedly upon the North Island of New Zealand, and lingering long enough there to chart roughly a bit of the coast and lose a boat's crew in a sudden affray with the Maoris, seemed to take it for granted that this was the western limit of an enormous continent extending away toward the point of South America....

Tasman's journal, which has been published not so very long ago, gives us some idea of their perplexing difficulties. The early navigators had no means of ascertaining their exact position on the globe. They could calculate their latitude, but the problem of longitude was a matter which bewildered their minds and often falsified their judgment. It had to be a matter of pure guesswork.

 Tasman and his officers, when they met on board the Heemskirk, anchored in Murderers' Bay, to consider their further course in the light of their instructions, did not know where any of the problematic places named in their instructions were; neither did they know where they themselves were.

 Tasman might have sailed north or east, but in the end he decided to sail between the two, and, circling about, returned to Batavia, was received coldly by his employers, the honorable governor-general and the council in Batavia. Their final judgment was that Abel Tasman was a skillful navigator, but that he had shown himself "remiss" in his investigations, and that he had been guilty of leaving certain problems unsolved.

We are told that Tasman did not expect this criticism; and indeed, even now, it seems surprising to an unprejudiced mind. It was the voyage during which, among other things, Tasman discovered the island by which his name lives on the charts, took first contact with New Zealand (which was not seen again till 130 years afterwards), sailed over many thousands of miles of uncharted seas, bringing back with him a journal which was of much value afterwards for his exploring successors.

It may be he was hurt by the verdict of the honorable council, but he does not seem to have been cast down by it, for it appears that shortly afterwards he asked for a rise of salary and, what is still more significant, he got it. He was obviously a valuable servant, but I am sorry to say that his character as a man was not of the kind to cause governors and councils to treat him with particular consideration....

Remiss or not, Tasman had in the course of his voyages mapped 8,000 miles of an island which by common consent is called now a continent, a geologically very old continent indeed, but which is now the home of a very young Commonwealth, with all the possibilities of material and intellectual splendor still hidden in its future....

No shade of remissness nor doubtful motive rests upon the achievements of Captain Cook, who came out of a laborer's cottage to take his place at the head of great masters of maritime exploration who worked at the great geographical problem of the Pacific. Endeavour was the name of the ship which carried him on his first voyage, and it was also the watchword of his professional life. Resolution was the name of the ship he commanded himself on his second expedition, and it was the determining quality of his soul. I will not say that it was the greatest, because he had all the other manly qualities of a great man.

The voyages of the early explorers were prompted by an acquisitive spirit, the idea of lucre in some form, the desire of trade or the desire of loot, disguised in more or less fine words. But Cook's three voyages are free from any taint of that sort. His aims needed no disguise. They were scientific. His deeds speak for themselves with the masterly simplicity of a hard-won success....

 [The nineteenth century] was the century of landsmen investigators. In saying this I do not forget the polar explorers, whose aims were certainly as pure as the air of those high latitudes where not a few of them laid down their lives for the advancement of geography. Seamen, men of science, it is difficult to speak of them without admirative emotion.

The dominating figure among the seamen explorers of the first half of the nineteenth century is that of another good man, Sir John Franklin, whose fame rests not only on the extent of his discoveries, but on professional prestige and high personal character.

This great navigator, who never returned home, served geography even in his death. The persistent efforts, extending over ten years, to ascertain his fate advanced greatly our knowledge of the polar regions.

As gradually revealed to the world, their fate appeared the more tragic in this, that for the first two years the way of the Erebus and Terror expedition seemed to be the way to the desired and important success, while in truth it was the way of death, the end of the greatest drama, perhaps, played behind the curtain of Arctic mystery.

The last words unveiling the mystery of the Erebus and Terror expedition were brought home and disclosed to the world by Sir Leopold M'Clintock in his book, "The Voyage of the Fox in the Arctic Seas."

It is a little book, but it records with manly simplicity the tragic ending of a great tale. It so happened that I was born in the year of its publication. Therefore I may be excused for not getting hold of it till ten years afterward. I can only account for it falling into my hands by the fact that the fate of Sir John Franklin was a matter of European interest, and that Sir Leopold M'Clintock's book was translated into every language of the white races.

My copy was probably in French. But I have read the book many times since. I have now on my shelves a copy of a popular edition got up exactly as I remember my first one. It contains a touching facsimile of the printed form filled in with a summary record of the two ships' work, the name of "Sir John Franklin, commanding the expedition," written in ink, and the pathetic underlined entry "All Well." It was found by Sir Leopold M'Clintock under a cairn, and is dated just a year before the two ships had to be abandoned in their deadly ice-trap and their crews' long and desperate struggle for life began.

There could hardly have been imagined a better book for letting in the breath of the stern romance of polar exploration into the existence of a boy whose knowledge of the poles of the earth had been till then of an abstract, formal kind, as the imaginary ends of the imaginary axis upon which the earth turns.

The great spirit of the realities of the story sent me off on the romantic explorations of my inner self; to the discovery of the taste for poring over land and sea maps; revealed to me the existence of a latent devotion to geography which interfered with my devotion (such as it was) to my other school work.

Unfortunately, the marks awarded for that subject were almost as few as the hours apportioned to it in the school curriculum by persons of no romantic sense for the real, ignorant of the great possibilities of active life; with no desire for struggle, no notion of the wide spaces of the world -- mere bored professors, in fact, who were not only middle-aged, but looked to me as if they had never been young.

And their geography was very much like themselves, a bloodless thing, with a dry skin covering a repulsive armature of uninteresting bones.

 I would be ashamed of my warmth in digging up a hatchet which has been buried now for nearly fifty years if those fellows had not tried so often to take my scalp at the yearly examinations. There are things that one does not forget.

And, besides, the geography which I had discovered for myself was the geography of open spaces and wide horizons, built up on men's devoted work in the open air, the geography still militant, but already conscious of its approaching end with the death of the last great explorer. The antagonism was radical.

Thus it happened that I got no marks at all for my first and only paper on Arctic geography, which I wrote at the age of thirteen. I still think that for my tender years it was an erudite performance. I certainly did know something of Arctic geography, but what I was after really, I suppose, was the history of Arctic exploration. My knowledge had considerable gaps, but I managed to compress my enthusiasm into just two pages, which in itself was a sort of merit. Yet I got no marks. For one thing, it was not a set subject. I believe the only comment made about it to my private tutor was that I seemed to have been wasting my time in reading books of travel instead of attending to my studies.

I tell you, those fellows were always trying to take my scalp. On another occasion I just saved it by proficiency in map drawing. It must have been good, I suppose; but all I remember about it is that it was done in a loving spirit.

I have no doubt that star-gazing is a fine occupation, for it leads you within the borders of the unattainable. But map-gazing, to which I became addicted so early, brings the problems of the great spaces of the earth into stimulating and directive contact with sane curiosity and gives an honest precision to one's imaginative faculty.

And the honest maps of the nineteenth century nourished in me a passionate interest in the truth of geographical facts and a desire for precise knowledge which was extended later to other subjects.

For a change had come over the spirit of cartographers. From the middle of the eighteenth century on, the business of map-making had been growing into an honest occupation, registering the hard-won knowledge, but also, in a scientific spirit, recording the geographical ignorance of its time.

And it was Africa, the continent out of which the Romans used to say some new thing was always coming, that got cleared of the dull imaginary wonders of the Dark Ages, which were replaced by exciting spaces of white paper. Regions unknown! My imagination could depict to itself there worthy, adventurous, and devoted men nibbling at the edges, attacking from north and south and east and west, conquering a bit of truth here and a bit of truth there, and sometimes swallowed up by the mystery their hearts were so persistently set on unveiling....

I stand here confessed as a contemporary of the Great Lakes of Africa. Yes, I could have heard of their discovery in my cradle, and it was only right that, grown to a boy's estate, I should have in the later sixties done my first bit of map-drawing and paid my first homage to the prestige of their first explorers. It consisted in entering laboriously in pencil the outline of Tanganyika on my beloved old atlas, which, having been published in 1852, knew nothing, of course, of the Great Lakes. The heart of its Africa was white and big.

Surely it could have been nothing but a romantic impulse which prompted the idea of bringing it up to date with all the accuracy of which I was capable. Thus I could imagine myself stepping in the very footprints of geographical discovery.

And it was not all wasted time. As a bit of prophetic practice, it was not bad for me. Many years afterwards, as second officer in the Merchant Service, it has been my duty to correct and bring up to date the charts of more than one ship, according to the Admiralty notices. I did this work conscientiously, of course, and with a sense of responsibility; but it was not in the nature of things that I should ever recapture the excitement of that entry of Tanganyika on the blank of my old atlas....

Not the least interesting part in the study of geographical discovery lies in the insight it gives one into the characters of that special kind of men who devoted the best part of their lives to the exploration of land and sea.

In the world of mentality and imagination which I was entering, it was they, and not the characters of famous fiction, who were my first friends. Of some of them I had soon formed for myself an image indissolubly connected with certain parts of the world. For instance, Western Sudan, of which I could draw the rivers and principal features from memory even now, means for me an episode in Mungo Park's life.

It means for me the vision of a young, emaciated, fair-haired man, clad simply in a tattered shirt and worn-out breeches, gasping painfully for breath and lying on the ground in the shade of an enormous African tree (species unknown), while from a neighboring village of grass huts a charitable black-skinned woman is approaching him with a calabash full of pure cold water -- a simple draft which, according to himself, seems to have effected a miraculous cure.

The Central Sudan, on the other hand, is represented to me by a very different picture: that of a self-confident and keen-eyed person, in a long cloak and wearing a turban on his head, riding slowly toward a gate in the mud walls of an African city, from which an excited population is streaming out to behold the wonder -- Dr. Barth, the protégé of Lord Palmerston and subsidized by the British Foreign Office, approaching Kano, which no European eye had seen till then, but where forty years later my friend Sir Hugh Clifford, the Governor of Nigeria, traveled in state in a day to open a college!

I must confess that I read that bit of news and inspected the many pictures in the illustrated papers without any particular elation. Education is a great thing, but Dr. Barth gets in the way.

Neither will the monuments left by all sorts of empire-builders suppress for me the memory of David Livingstone. The words Central Africa bring before my eyes an old man with a rugged, kind face and a clipped gray mustache, pacing wearily, at the head of a few black followers, along the reed-fringed lakes toward the dark native hut on the Congo headwaters in which he died, clinging in his very last hour to his heart's unappeased desire for the sources of the Nile.

That passion had changed him in his last days from a great explorer into a restless wanderer, refusing to go home any more. From his exalted place among the blessed of militant geography and his memory enshrined in Westminster Abbey, he can well afford to smile without bitterness at the fatal delusion of his exploring days, a notable European figure and the most venerated, perhaps, of all objects of my early geographical enthusiasm.

Once only did that enthusiasm expose me to the derision of my schoolboy chums. One day, putting my finger on a spot in the very middle of the then white heart of Africa, I declared that some day I would go there.

My chums' chaffing was perfectly justifiable. I myself was ashamed of having been betrayed into mere vaporing. Nothing was further from my wildest hopes. Yet it is a fact that, about eighteen years afterwards, a wretched little stern-wheel steamboat I commanded lay moored to the bank of an African river.

Everything was dark under the stars. Every other white man on board was asleep. I was glad to be alone on deck, smoking the pipe of peace after an anxious day. The subdued thundering mutter of the Stanley Falls hung in the heavy night air of the last navigable reach of the upper Congo, while no more than ten miles away, in Reshid's camp, just above the falls, the yet unbroken power of the Congo Aras slumbered uneasily....

...And I said to myself with awe, "This is the very spot of my boyish boast."

A great melancholy descended on me. Yes: this was the very spot. But there was no shadowy friend to stand by my side in the night of the enormous wilderness, no great haunting memory, but only the unholy recollection of a prosaic newspaper stunt and the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration. What an end to the idealized realities of a boy's daydreams!

I wondered what I was doing there, for indeed it was only an unforeseen episode, hard to believe in now, in my seaman's life. Still the fact remains that I have smoked a pipe of peace at midnight in the very heart of the African Continent, and felt very lonely there.

But never so at sea. There I never felt lonely, because there I never lacked company -- the company of great navigators, the first grown-up friends of my early boyhood. The unchangeable sea preserves for one the sense of its past, the memory of things accomplished by wisdom and daring among its restless waves.

It was those things that commanded my profoundest loyalty, and perhaps it is by the professional favor of the great navigators, ever present to my memory, that, neither explorer nor scientific navigator, I have been permitted to sail through the very heart of the old Pacific mystery; a region which even in my time remained very imperfectly charted and still remote from the knowledge of men.

It was in 1888, when in command of a ship loading in Sydney a mixed cargo for Mauritius, that one day, all of a sudden, all the deep-lying historic sense of the exploring adventures in the Pacific surged up to the surface of my being.

Almost without reflection, I sat down and wrote a letter to my owners, suggesting that, instead of the usual southern route, I should take the ship to Mauritius by way of Torres Strait. I ought to have received a severe rap on the knuckles, if only for wasting their time in submitting such an unheard-of proposition.

I must say I awaited the reply with some trepidation. It came in due course, but instead of beginning with the chiding words. "We fail to understand, etc., etc.," it simply called my attention in the first paragraph to the fact that "there would be an additional insurance premium to pay for that route," and so on and so on. And it ended like this: "Upon the whole, however, we have no objection to your taking the ship through Torres Strait if you are certain that the season is not too far advanced to endanger the success of your passage by the calms which, as you know, prevail at times in the Arafura Sea."

I read, and in my heart I felt compunctions. The season was somewhat advanced. I had not been scrupulously honest in my argumentation. Perhaps it was because I never expected it to be effective....

I won't pretend that I regret my lapse from strict honesty, for what would the memory of my sea life have been for me if it had not included a passage through Torres Strait, in its fullest extent, from the mouth of the great Fly River, right on along the track of the early navigators.

The season being advanced, I insisted on leaving Sydney during a heavy southeast gale. Both the pilot and the tugmaster were scandalized by my obstinacy, and they hastened to leave me to my own devices while still inside Sydney Heads.

The fierce southeaster caught me up on its wings, and no later than the ninth day I was outside the entrance of Torres Strait, named after the undaunted and reticent Spaniard who in the seventeenth century first sailed that way without knowing where he was; without suspecting he had New Guinea on one side of him and the whole solid Australian Continent on the other (he thought he was passing through an archipelago), the strait whose existence for a century and a half had been doubted, argued, squabbled about by geographers, and even denied by the disreputable but skillful navigator Abel Tasman (who thought it was a large bay), and whose true contours were first laid down on the map by James Cook, the navigator without fear and without reproach, the greatest in achievement and character of the later seamen fathers of militant geography.

If the dead haunt the scenes of their earthly exploits, then I must have been attended benevolently by those three shades -- the inflexible Spaniard, of such lofty animus that in his report he disdains to say a single word about the appalling hardships and dangers of his passage; the pig-headed Hollander who, having made up his mind that there was no passage there, missed the truth by only fifty miles or so; and the great Englishman, a son of the soil, a great commander and a great professional seaman, who solved that question, among many others, and left no unsolved problems of the Pacific behind him. Great shades, all friends of my youth!

It was not without a certain emotion that, commanding very likely the first and certainly the last merchant ship that carried a cargo that way, from Sydney to Mauritius, I put her bead at daybreak for Bligh Entrance and packed on her every bit of canvas she could carry.

Windswept, sunlit, empty waters were all around me, half veiled by a brilliant haze. The first thing that caught my eye upon the play of green white-capped waves was a black speck marking conveniently the end of a low sand bank. It looked like the wreck of some small vessel. I altered the course slightly in order to pass close, with the hope of being able to read the letters on her stern. They were already faded. Her name was Honolulu. The name of the port I could not make out. The story of her life is known by now to God alone, and the winds must have drifted long ago around her remains a quiet grave of the very sand on which she had died. Thirty-six hours afterwards, of which about nine were spent at anchor, approaching the other end of the Strait, I sighted a gaunt, grey wreck of a big American ship lying high and dry on the southernmost of the Warrior Reefs. She had been there for years. I had heard of her. She was legendary. She loomed up, a sinister and enormous memento mori raised by the refraction of this serene afternoon above the far-away line of the horizon drawn under the sinking sun.

And thus I passed out of Torres Strait before the dusk settled on its waters. Just as a clear sun sank ahead of my ship I took a bearing of a little island for a fresh departure, an insignificant crumb of dark earth, lonely, like an advanced sentinel of that mass of broken land and water, to watch the approaches from the side of the Arafura Sea. But to me it was a hallowed spot, for I knew that the Endeavour had been hove to off it in the year 1762 for her captain, whose name was James Cook, to go ashore for half an hour. What he could possibly want to do I cannot imagine. Perhaps only to be alone with his thoughts for a moment. The dangers and the triumphs of exploration and discovery were over for that voyage. All that remained to do was to go home, and perhaps his great and equable soul, tempered in the incessant perils of a long exploration, wanted to commune with itself at the end of its task. It may be that on this dry crumb of the earth's crust which I was setting by compass he had tasted a moment of perfect peace. I could depict to myself the famous seaman navigator, a lonely figure in a three-cornered hat and square-skirted lace coat, pacing to and fro slowly on the rocky shore, while in the ships boat, lying off her oars, the coxswain kept his eyes open for the slightest sign of the captain's hand.

Thus the sea had been to me a hallowed ground, thanks to those books of travel and discovery which had peopled it for me with unforgettable shades of the masters in the calling which in a humble way was to be mine, too -- men great in their endeavor and in hard-won successes of militant geography: men who went forth, each according to his lights, and with varied motives, laudable or sinful, but each bearing in his breast a spark of the sacred fire.