The Travelling Imagination: A Comparison of Real with Imaginary Journeys of Exploration

A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Christa Knellwolf, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, August, 2002

Culture and Imagination

We tend to believe that, over the past three or four centuries, Europe has steadily improved its knowledge of all remote parts of the world. It is certainly true that its interest for everything exotic grew into surprising dimensions between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But this does not mean that the publication industry replaced ignorance with well-founded information. It churned out hundreds of richly illustrated books but descriptions of the newly discovered parts of the world continued to be spiced with travellers’ yarns and imaginary projections, even when more accurate knowledge was available. The popular craving for sensational news by far outweighed the demand for informed descriptions of the customs and natural environments of the native inhabitants of remote places.

Publication costs were a major factor behind some hair-raisingly bad portrayals of peoples and places. But painfully hostile stereotypes were also disseminated through cheap reproductions that completely distorted the gist of the original publications. Quality reproductions were restricted to an educated, wealthy elite while the often grossly distorted cheap reprints reached the average household of nineteenth-century Europe. Interestingly enough, there was no outcry about their substandard quality. Far from indicting them as tools of dehumanizing fellow human beings, the contemporary colonial climate endorsed the stereotypes that were reinforced by such images.

As Bernard Smith and Rüdiger Joppien have shown, even the most serious scientific efforts by early explorers were strongly coloured by cultural preconceptions. It is also important to realise that in spite of the scientific emphases of the Enlightenment period, the dissemination of factual knowledge was not necessarily in the interests of nineteenth-century Europe. During the period of colonial expansion, most European nations were struggling with their role as colonial masters and therefore urgently needed contemporary culture to support their colonial aspirations.

The narratives and projections of popular culture, therefore, serve the purpose of coming to terms with challenges to contemporary norms and conventions. This is not to say that artistic and literary representations were subject to a self-inflicted form of censorship. But cultural engagements with exploration and discovery nevertheless aimed to ensure that contemporary consciousness could cope with the radical changes occasioned by colonialism. Cultural responses therefore had the task of digesting the news about remote parts of the earth at the same time as they ensured that Europe could persuade itself of its own superiority.

The publication of ethnographic accounts and atlases containing profiles of coastlines and fortifications was of immense importance to the ships that set out on the journeys dictated by expansionist politics. However, I want to argue that it was an equally important task to describe the exotic lands, their inhabitants, customs and artefacts in a manner that squared with the political and cultural aspirations of Europe.

Imaginary Travellers

Cultural representations of travel and exploration have the task of filtering new information in a manner that enables its easy assimilation. In his contribution to the Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age, Nicholas Thomas has also argued that travel narratives have an inherent tendency to challenge contemporary norms and standards. While they may severely criticise their own cultural environment, they still present their travelling heroes as superior beings. The novel Peter Schlemihl (1813) is an interesting literary example of this. Its author, Adalbert von Chamisso, was both a novelist and a scientific explorer who accompanied the Romanzoff expedition from 1815 to 1818 in the role of scientist and botanical artist.

To give you a brief summary of Chamisso’s novel: Schlemihl sells his shadow to the devil in exchange for inexhaustible riches. But wherever he goes, he has to conceal his shadowless existence because it betrays his radical difference from the rest of society. When the devil approaches him a second time and offers to return his shadow in exchange for his soul, Schlemihl rigorously turns him down. In order to liberate himself from the claws of the devil, Schlemihl decides to get rid of the devil’s magical source of gold coins. With his last money he buys a pair of boots which turn out to be 7-league boots and so he spends the rest of his life travelling round the earth.

While Schlemihl gives up the physical marker of social belonging, his shadow, he is adamant about keeping his soul or identity. And this turns him into a social outcast. Since the traveller or explorer can exist outside the norms of his society, becoming a traveller is the last resort available for him. Fired by almost boundless energies, he can go wherever he wants but he is unable to settle anywhere. Schlemihl personifies the social outcast who is both too poor and too sensitive to be accepted by his native environment. On the other hand, he never experiences any doubt that the world is there to be appropriated. For him it is a matter of collecting scientific knowledge about even the remotest nooks and crannies of the earth. Gathering this knowledge is interesting and exciting but it is not quite satisfactory for the alienated intellectual. However extraordinary his findings may be, they are only a substitute for his native environment. Interestingly enough, he is not looking for a home far away from the society that branded him an outcast. He may be amused and fascinated by awe-inspiring sights but he hardly interacts with the remote lands he travels through. He essentially shows an attitude that is akin to that of the colonisers: like them he appropriates foreign demesnes by superimposing his own culture, science and belief systems. In other words, the novel describes the kind of intellectual appropriation that prepares the ground for colonial ventures.

Early Travel Accounts

In order to explain the role of the imagination in the history of colonisation, I would like to go back to an earlier period. Right from the early seventeenth century, there are complex entanglements between the call for factual information about the world at large and the desire to rule over it and possess its riveting, strange and alluring curiosities. There are interesting developments in the fraught coexistence of the desire to know and the desire to possess. Books published between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries show that the conflict between these two motives is long-standing. The schizophrenic dynamics, then, account for some extravagant curiosities in the cultural reception of travel and exploration.

When we examine the changing shapes and aspirations of scientific projects undertaken during the main age of exploration (1760–1840), we notice that they tried to achieve neutral scientific descriptions. Journeys of exploration, however, were the sensation of the period and we observe an immense demand for illustrated news about their discoveries. There was an enormous demand for authentic descriptions, pictures and dramatic performances about the mores and life-styles of the newly discovered exotic peoples. Needless to say, sometimes even the grossest distortions were claimed to be authentic renditions. To some extent, the visual mismatches are due to the fact that most engravers worked with rough sketches without communicating with the artists who had drawn them. Another reason for these mismatches is that they are grist to the mill for the colonial usurpation of the New World. So even while distortions and strange stories were largely due to the publishers’ attempt to cash in on a popular demand, they also served to deprive this new world of its difference and indeed its identity. The reason for this is that the act of cutting a large amount of strange and extraordinary news down to size enabled Europe to obtain and maintain intellectual and political control.

In order to explain the tensions between realism and fantasy, I now want to take a look at the first generation of illustrated publications about the four corners of the world. In the course of the seventeenth century, the Dutch and British East India Companies had developed into significant presences in South-East Asia. Most European countries participated in the struggle over different slices of the New World. For a certain time, Holland took the lead in political and propagandist terms and supported its claims with richly illustrated publications, proudly showing off the most recent printing technologies. Dutch atlases had demonstrated outstanding accuracy of detail since the late-sixteenth century.

While the atlases by William and Joan de Blaeu (1647–1650) and Pieter Goos (1669) boasted frontispieces with elaborate allegorical scenes, their maps of individual parts of the earth were also decorated with indigenes in national costume. These practices were copied almost immediately; the English atlas by John Speed, entitled The Theatre of the Empire of Great-Britain (1676), for instance, is illustrated with maps featuring both male and female figures for each part of the world.

The Dutch were not only pioneers in atlas and map making, but they also spearheaded the publication of lavishly illustrated travel accounts. The popularity of such works can be gauged by the large number of folio publications, many of which containing well over 100 illustrations. The resemblance between numerous views of towns in China, Japan or Africa betrays the fact that the engravers in a workshop like that of Jacob de Meurs, in Amsterdam, had never seen these foreign places and worked in a veritable production line. In fact there was such a demand for illustrated books that there arose an extensive trade in copperplates as well as already printed sets of images from which books were sometimes put together in a different country. In spite of this, the knowledge about Asia, America and Africa was extensive. Even while seventeenth-century travellers rarely managed to go far inland, they were able to give surprisingly detailed and accurate descriptions of the landscape, people, animals and plants they encountered. Since their audience was potentially interested in investing in foreign trade or perhaps was considering travel to a far-off trade junction like Batavia, these works show a great deal of attention to ethnographic detail. Since the prime objective is that of finding out whether the beliefs, customs and conventions of a particular society would facilitate commercial negotiations with Europe, such publications expanded the knowledge about the sophistication of foreign cultures. But gaining more extensive knowledge also went hand in hand with a sense of admiration that fostered a spirit of equality.

Some striking early accounts of foreign peoples and places came out of the entrepreneurial workshop of John Ogilby. While he was an inferior writer, Ogilby was a businessman with immense vision. In the introduction to his beautifully illustrated folio volume Africa (1670), he explains his objectives as follows:

[I have] undertaken, according to my Mean Abilities, no small Business, a Work of Time, requiring some Years to Publish, being … a New Model of the Universe, an English Atlas, or the setting forth, in our own Native Dress, and Modern Language, an accurate Description of all the Kingdoms and Dominions in the Four Regions thereof.

The title page of Ogilby’s Africa explains that the book is ‘Collected and translated from most Authentic Authors and Augmented with later Observations; illustrated with Notes, and Adorn’d with peculiar Maps, and proper Sculptures’.

Ogilby already includes a realistic image of the orang-outang and describes this curious animal as follows:

The woods of this Kingdom, are much frequented by the Beast call’d by the Africans, Quoias Morrou, and by the Indians, Orang-autang, that is Satyrs, or Wood-Men, found also in the Kingdom of Quoia … and in the Island of Borneo in the East-Indies. This Beast in Shape so much resembles a Man, that some have held opinion, that it is the humane mixture with the Ape …; which fancy nevertheless the blacks themselves explode. Such a creature was some years ago brought from hence into Holland, and presented to Frederick Henry Prince of Aurange. It was as tall as a Child of three years old, neither fat nor slender, but square-set, and well-proportioned, very nimble and quick, with strong, and brawny Limbs …

Ogilby’s work is full of arrogant and opinionated statements. However, the fascination that radiates from his illustrations and descriptions suggests that his generation could imagine that there were non-European peoples that were as civilised as those of Europe. The craving for foreign material culture was to grow to immense dimensions during the eighteenth century. However, carved weapons and beautifully plaited headdresses brought back, for instance, from Pacific voyages became divorced from the idea of a thriving social context. This development helped Europe to appropriate not only the land but also the cultural identity of their makers.

Lord George Anson

We now move forward to the early days of the British history of exploration.

Lord George Anson’s A Voyage round the World of 1740–1744, compiled from Anson’s notes by Richard Walter, the chaplain of the Centurion, was promoted as an immediate publication success. So much so that in the same year, it appeared in both elegant quarto format, with the complete set of 42 plates, and in a cheaper smaller format containing only a couple of charts. It was also translated into German and Dutch in the same year and went through numerous reprints in the following years.

A small picture strip (12.7 x 19 cm; is part of the Nan Kivell collection of the National Library. The fact that it is frayed on one side and contains several folds suggests that it was originally included in an octavo publication of Anson’s travels, published in colour to satisfy the popular demand for a greater sense of immediacy. Considering that this item compresses all major feats of Lord Anson’s voyage into one strip and also includes the publication details at the bottom, it would seem that the printer foresaw it would have a life of its own. The National Library holds only this sheet of paper and I have not yet been able to find out whether this story-map was simply sold folded (to make it less vulnerable during transport), or whether it was accompanied by a brief narration of Anson’s life (which is what I’d like to think).

The five panels included on this strip of paper look like precursors of the comic strip. They are small renditions of the plates that illustrate the expensive edition. Economizing on space, however, produced a strange effect in the last panel. Here Anson is framed by a couple of seal-lions. The expensive quarto version contains a large image of a male and female pair of sea-lions borrowed from Richard Walter’s edition of A Voyage round the World in the Years 1740, 1, 2, 3, 4 by George Anson Esq (1740, pp. 122–123;

The public appeal of these figures must have been sensed from the first. The text comments on the role of male of these ‘amphibious creatures’ to be found on the Island of Juan Fernandez:

He was the master of the flock, and from his driving off the other males, and keeping a great number of females to himself, he was by the seamen ludicrously stiled the Bashaw.

These animals divide their time equally between the land and sea, continuing at sea all the summer, and coming on shore at the setting in of the winter, where they reside during that whole season.

The comic-ferocious aspect of this engraved image makes it easy to understand why the sea-lions turned into an icon considered to be a seminal part of Anson’s adventures. Whoever commissioned this picture strip, not only sought to compress the entire story of Anson’s circumnavigation into one sheet of paper but also turned an act of marine and coastal surveying into a heroic story. For an audience that was unfamiliar with the habits of sea lions, the act of taking them out of their native habitat in order to serve as emblems for Anson’s greatness does not detract from glorifying Lord Anson as a national hero.

Fictions about the Tropics

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre wrote an eloquent attack on slavery as part of the account of his travels to Isle de France (now Mauritius) in 1773. Some 15 years later he wrote his immensely popular sentimental vision about the tropics, Paul et Virginie (1788). In his introduction to this claustrophobic vision about an enclave of European civilization among the natives of the island, Bernadin de Saint-Pierre explains:

I am aware that travellers of taste have given us enchanting descriptions of many islands in the South Sea, but the manners of the inhabitants, and still more of the Europeans who visit them, frequently belie the page. I am desirous to blend with the beauty of nature between the tropics, the moral beauty of a little society: thence I mean to deduce the fullest evidence of some important facts; and, among others, this—That our felicity consists in living conformably to nature and to virtue.

Bernadin de Saint-Pierre’s novel celebrates a harmonious relationship with nature while it denies any genuine cross-cultural contact. It celebrates the natural environment as paradisiacal but projects European cultural traditions as a foil for unspoilt human behaviour. Paul and Virginie are the children of two white women living in neighbourly harmony on a tropical island after their husbands have deserted them. The story about their innocent way of life was very popular and inspired numerous imitations. Their tropical island—modeled on Mauritius—is positioned both at a distance from the contamination of European civilisation and the colonial reality of the place. The only evidence of their environment consists of tropical vegetation. In this secluded place, they live a Rousseauvian idyll in the bosom of a maternal nature and, for some inconceivable reason, spend all their energies on preserving the moral standards of Europe, as they had been before civilisation corrupted them. The story ends on an utterly perverse note when Virginie dies the death of a martyr because she refuses to take off her cumbersome petticoats so that she can be saved from a sinking ship. For Virginie, propriety is a categorical imperative, which means that the cultivation of sentiment has deteriorated into meaningless sentimentality. Nevertheless, it is an essential condition for keeping at bay the threats of non-European modes of life. If the brutal energies of animal existence were not restrained, the novel argues, they would reduce civilisation to chaos. Not even the surface may be scratched, or the whole cultural edifice will crumble and decay. Through her death, Virginie saves the sense of propriety that had been threatened by reports about non-European peoples. Her death, however, also confirms that the standards represented by her are not compatible with a living experience of a tropical island.

During the nineteenth century, the bulk of publications about non-European lands and peoples grew to immense size. Scientific studies went to great lengths to classify the different varieties of Man and to rate their civilisations and intellectual capacities according to strictly Eurocentric standards. While the regularly reprinted and illustrated natural historical studies by Buffon and Cuvier popularised a rigidly classified understanding of the animal kingdom, the publication industry invented the genre of the portrait gallery that collects all the peoples of the earth between the two covers of one book. This type of publication focuses almost exclusively on the costumes worn by these people. The European features of the figures represented reduce ethnic difference to a matter of costume and thus erase the human characteristics of non-European cultures. The implied claim was that coming to possess them was no great problem since the figure in the image already looked like the viewer of the image.

The etching Mr Fisher As Tereeboo 1818; ( demonstrates an eerie type of realism. While attempting a realistic portrayal of an indigenous character, the absurd gesture by the London actor, Mr Fisher, emphasises the curiosity of costume while eradicating the human character contained beneath. It immortalises the performance of a role whose dramatic persona is reduced to the point of insignificance. The actor’s gesture bears no relation to carefully documented research about the appropriate behavior of the original wearer of the costume, if that was accurate at all. The etching, therefore, discourages a sympathetic identification with the indigenous society invoked by the dramatic character. Cultural difference is a matter of costume, and costume emphasises an alienating sense of cultural otherness. But who is this odd character? The etching refers to a performance of The Death of Cook (the tiny sailing ship in the margin is Cook’s Endeavour). So the narrative concerns Cook’s discovery of people like Tereeboo, which is to say that this etching is about Cook and not about Tereeboo. The latter is merely an extra to Cook’s story, and the people and places discovered in the course of Cook’s journeys are reduced to accoutrements in the celebration of British achievements. This image blurs the boundaries between fact and fantasy. By emphasising the comic nature of characters like Tereeboo, it deprives them of their cultural difference and argues for their inferiority. One cannot help but question the integrity of Mr Fisher’s ludicrous performance. While this etching is part of an attempt to usurp foreign cultures, it also reveals that a puerile spirit underpinned the colonial project.

De Rienzi’s Océanie et Australie, cinquième partie du monde (1860) is one of many publications that seek to give a comprehensive account of all the continents in a small set of volumes. This book embellishes its descriptions with anecdotal accounts of extraordinary adventures and, among other things, includes the story of a sailor who had bought an orang-outang for the equivalent of 40 francs. Answering to the name of Bagou, he is describes as follows:

He was docile, had great imitative skill, and was affectionate towards my servant who looked after him … My orang assisted at my table; he appeared proud and well pleased when I allowed him to dine with me and to smoke my hookah, and he gladly drank a glass of port to my health. He also greatly resembled little Eudamene (an inhabitant of New Guinea) at the age of 15 to 16 who was deaf and dumb.

Unlike the animal in Ogilby’s much earlier publication, De Rienzi’s orang-outang bears no resemblance to the real creature and instead suggests a bizarre hybridity between man and ape.

The Pillars of the Colonial Attitude

It goes without saying that the contact between Europe and the rest of the world was a profoundly unsettling experience for all parties involved. The task of consolidating the idea of European superiority required that doubts and misgivings had to be overcome. This is why publications about travel and exploration played an important role in the psychological appropriation of foreign territory. That they did so can be demonstrated through their contents and their presentation, binding, illustrations, etc. Analysis of the dialogues between text and images, particularly, has led me to argue that print culture not only disseminated facts and fictions but also influenced the thought processes of the colonial masters and implicitly justified Europe’s expansionist aspirations. Of course, critical arguments were also expressed but popular publications render an essentially uncritical attitude.

Comparing different editions of the same texts in various editions—some of them in lavishly illustrated folio formats, others in cheap small formats without images, in the original languages and in translations—opened up a completely new understanding of the European wrangling over the newly discovered parts of the world. First-hand experience of the ‘feel’ of old books gave me an immediate sense that the glorification of the explorers was closely linked to the propagandist claim that Europe had the right —or indeed duty—to bring civilisation to the people to whom it liked to categorise as savages.

The justification of the European presence in Africa, Asia and the Pacific frequently followed on from evocative fantasies about these far-off lands. The title page of The Circumnavigation of the Globe (1852) is a representative example of many histories of exploration, a genre which had already established itself in the seventeenth century. The frontispieces of many early histories followed the tradition of the famous Dutch atlas makers. They employed theatrical emblems in order to draw attention to their works as spectacles that should satisfy the curiosity of their audience. However, the metaphorical equation between the book and the stage is abandoned during the eighteenth century. The title pages and frontispieces of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books became more subtle in their use of preliminary spaces as playgrounds for the imagination. They no longer drew attention to the act of representing but instead blended facts and fantasies, almost imperceptibly, even if the book purported to be sober and factual.

At first sight, the double-sided title page of The Circumnavigation of the Globe appears to have taken no licence with its subject. Three images are arranged in triangular fashion: a portrait of James Cook is shown on the left page while the right page contains a small image of a European sailing boat at the top and an indigenous canoe in the center of the page. The title, captions and bibliographical details positioned around the images forge a close relationship between the two different types of boat. The presence of Cook on the facing page provides the rationale of this link. Cook’s overarching role in the book is signposted by an engraved version of the portrait painted by Nathanael Dance in 1776, the year when Cook set out on his last circumnavigation. The portrait shows a thinker whose penetrating look is aimed into the distance, while his right hand is confidently resting on one of his own charts. Given that books are not normally opened fully, but held at an angle, his gaze is directly focused on the six natives setting off in a canoe on the main image of the title page. In the absence of tropical scenery in his native England, his mind’s eye may be occupied with the memory of such scenes. This image, then, can all the more eloquently evoke idyllic visions about the pristine nature of exotic realms since it is non-specifically located on any one of the many beaches where Cook experienced his encounters with natives. The largest of the three images is not only the immediate object of Cook’s but, through him, of the reader’s gaze. Its untouched and unspoilt quality, however, is mediated by multiple frames: the title Circumnavigation of the Globe, the tiny but decisively European ship at the top of the page, and of course the gaze of Cook, who projects his nation’s desire for such places. The arrangement of the images affirms European presence through a trick of the imagination. It suggests that the yearning for exotic lands is almost tantamount to possessing them, reminding us that desire is a preliminary step to appropriation.

Another elaborately illustrated title page appears in A.W. Grube, Bilder und Szenen aus Asien und Australien (1870). Its frontispiece displays a complex balance between the physical space of the page and the space represented by several images. They are held together by an architectural design which bridges realism with fantasy. The title of the book appears in the form of an imaginary bridge suspended between two columns supporting the traditional focus of Western imagination: Jerusalem. The picture contains two vistas: Asia in the middle and Australia at the bottom. The supportive devices for the imaginary edifice are trees, reflecting that Australian architecture has not gone beyond simple wooden huts. The Asian image is framed by the most representative stereotypes about this continent: the elephant, the tiger and the snake charmer. The Himalayas pull the gaze of the viewers into the far distance and invite them to let themselves be charmed by the colorful miracles of this remote part of the world.

This frontispiece appeals powerfully to the imagination, even while it contains no blatantly false elements. The kangaroos may be a bit too plump and may look a bit too much like dogs, and the elephant looks African rather than Indian. But this does not detract from the seductive lure of the image. By arranging evocative icons from different parts of the earth, it not only assembles facts but reduces them to the level of stereotypes. By pointing the imagination into recognisable directions, such images directed and controlled the emotional responses towards those remote parts of the world which, by the mid-nineteenth century, had become an integral part of Europe’s colonial enterprise.