I’ve been aware for a long time how the heroic age of discovery by European explorers, from the late 15th century onwards, raised the curtain for the imperialist conquest and exploitation of the populations and territories of other countries. But I suppose I’ve also clung to a romantic notion of the idea of exploration itself, as an inspiring and admirable activity of adventurous individuals. Maybe the relationship changed a little for more recent explorers, but the first volume of Aldus Books’ History of Discovery and Exploration – The Search Begins – presents geographical exploration as almost synonymous with imperialist conquest. This is so from the ancient Egyptians’ pushing back the frontiers of the territory they controlled, all the way to the ocean-crossing voyages of Portuguese and Spanish mariners which culminated in Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1519–22.
Just a few exceptions stand out from this imperialistic norm. The Irish monks who explored the Atlantic islands, reaching Iceland before the Vikings, seem to have been motivated by a desire for spiritual seclusion in wild places. Some religious travellers to and from China were evidently motivated more by spiritual or scholarly interests than by the ambitions of sponsors – notably Hsuan-tsang, who departed from China against his emperor’s orders and brought back and translated many Buddhist writings from India. Marco Polo also comes out relatively well, despite his mercantile motives and his service of Kublai Khan, as a traveller genuinely interested in everything he saw. The detailed book of his travels was the result of his ending up in a prison cell, upon his return to Italy, with an accomplished romance writer, Rusticello, who had an ear for a good story.
The military expeditions of Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar put an overtly imperialist face on the notion of exploration. But very often the imperialism is interwoven with the purposes of trade. So it was with the dogged efforts of Portuguese navigators to find their way around the coast of Africa to reach India and the Spice Islands (the Moluccas). The Search Begins was published in 1971, when it was still quite normal to celebrate the determination and ingenuity of these mariners, to present their achievements as crucial to human progress. This while calmly narrating how, in the course of their voyages, these men with a small number of well-armed ships initiated the Atlantic slave trade, took by force a series of coastal outposts, and disrupted the entire economy of Asia by conveying valuable commodities directly to Europe.
It has now become routine to decry the evils of imperialism, of slavery, of military aggression. We’ve seen in 2020 the toppling of statues of slave traders and the affirmation that Black Lives Matter. Yet there remains a disconnect. It seems to me that the world has some way yet to go to truly comprehend the dynamics of history, the nuances of their ongoing consequences, and the way that aggressive practices in trade and the exploitation of resources continue to be valorised as normal, only in different forms. Or to put it another way: to face up to the history of imperialism and find a way to atone for this which will help to make a kinder world.