To call this book a history of exploration may seem at once both overly optimistic and slightly redundant. It is by no means a complete account of the expeditions it covers, nor is it a history per se, focussing more on the will, desire, and often the tyranny and arrogance of the early explorers. Men who forged their way across uncharted seas, walked across vast continents, and suffered at the hands of nature at every turn. Glorifying these early-day explorers is easy and thankfully something that Fergus Fleming steers clear of, preferring to give an accurate portrayal of their character no matter how loathsome.
For their in lies the fascination, what drives these men?
Each explorer is given a chapter, roughly laid out in chronological order, which takes us from Marco Polo’s wanderings in the Mongol Empire to the conquering of Everest, a journey of some 500 hundred years. Some names leap off the page – Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Barents, Bering, Cook, Livingstone, Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton – and some stories are familiar to many but amongst the familiar lies the true story. Death, squalor, cannibalism, murder, all feature and the fact that these stories are based on the journals of the survivors of these expeditions just makes them all the more gruesome.
What this book does cover, and cover well, is the spirit of exploration that each and every man felt. It neatly charts the fall and rise of empires and the aspirations that each had for ‘owning’ as much of the world as possible, and it covers (somewhat trivially in some cases) the impact and influence of the natives.
In scale and expectation it’s a grand book and, whilst there are certainly omissions, it covers each journey with enough detail and verve to be engrossing. It would be easy to dwell on hyperbole – almost every act in this book is truly heroic, even if the underlying reason for some of the situations is truly idiotic (one of the climbers tackling Everest would ‘forget’ to take his ropes with him) – but thankfully this book resists becoming a glorious recounting of wonderous tales.
As we jet across the globe at hundreds of miles and hour, zoom from city to city in hours, it’s easy to forget that most of the modern world was discovered before the invention of the engine. Whilst you probably wouldn’t invite many of the men featured in this book to dinner, you have to marvel at their achievements.