Book: Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit by Joyce E. Chaplin (2012)
This is a big book. No surprise there, since it is about traveling around the world and every significant round the world trip from 1519 (not counting mythical creatures) to the 21st century.
In Round About the Earth, Joyce Chaplin divides human efforts to circumnavigate our planet into three emotional states we have passed through. At first fear predominated since most of what was “out there” remained a mystery and the tools of transportation and navigation were primitive. Next, confidence, as man learned how to make ships more seaworthy and voyages safer for the sailors. Finally doubt, as we see more of the globe and understand more of earth’s workings and lose our 19th century hubris about domination of the Earth.
The book is encyclopedic in its coverage of the subject, and if you need to brush up on the explorers and straighten out some of the untruths that filled your geography books, you’ll find this a terrific source. But not only that, the author has a healthy sense of humor. She relies on records kept by shipboard travelers in a time when fewer than half of the sailors returned home and the majority of the tiny wooden ships that set out were reduced to splinters along the way. Speaking of the record from the first voyage to go all the way around the world, she says
Given that the Magellan/Elcano expedition had been a war of attrition against the vastness of the globe, it is amazing that whatever else it had run out of on its long, tortured way, it never ran out of paper. Tattered he may have become, reduced to eating rats, but Antonio Pigafetta had packed so much paper that he had about half a ream to spare as gifts to dignitaries in Brunei.
All these adventures also spawned early travel writing, with travel books proliferating starting in the very early 17th century. In 1625 and early travel writer coined the word “circumnavigation”–a much more agreeable coinage than “staycation,” wouldn’t you agree?
Incidentally, you know that despite the fact that his is the name we remember–Magellan did NOT go around the world. He headed out to do that, but was killed along the way and his right hand man Elcano took over and completed the voyage. But did you ever hear of Juan Sebastian Elcano? Probably not.
It is that kind of information, and even more obscure bits that made me keep turning the pages of this book.
We owe the early exploration to the Portugese and the Spanish and their lust for trade with the East and devotion to killing Muslims. Other countries got in the game later, but no less enthusiastically, and eventually, Britain topped the rest.
- Did you know that Sir Frances Drake, whom legend brings to us as a gallant, was actually a pirate (with the blessings of Queen Elizabeth)? Not surprising, since most of the early adventurers were in it for loot and war–not scientific exploration.
- Between 1697 and 1708, William Dampier became the first triple circumnavigator, and cashed in by multiple publications.
- In 1785, Jeanne Baret (or maybe Bonnefoy) was the first woman to sail around the world, having been secreted on board disguised as a boy servant.
- Widow Ida Pfeffer, on the other hand had the money to purchase passage as a rare solo female rount-the-world traveler in the 1840s. By then ports had been established and civilized all around the world and commercial traffic had increased, including passenger traffic. Although the journey was far from the cushy cruise of today, “ordinary” people could make the voyage.
- Next came Phileas Fogg in the novel Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne and the race was on to make the journey (which included rail jaunts across North America since the Panama Canal was not available and rounding South America would take too long.) Phineas, a master of packing light, carried “a raincoat, a travel rug, an overnight bag with two spare shirts and three pairs of socks, plus a big stack of bank notes.” This reliance on British money would not have been available before the British ruled the waves and British pounds were accepted most everywhere.
- Another book, Around the World on the Yacht, “Sunbeam” by Lady Anna Brassey, might be the first book devoted to family travel. She and her husband with family, servants and pets sailed round the world on their very large personal yacht in 1876 How things had changed since the 16th century.
Although ships are the main preoccupation of early circumnavigation, Chaplin also covers some interesting attempts by bicyclists, balloons and airplanes. And we meet a gallery of known (Mark Twain, Nelly Bly) and lesser known (the woman she dubs the first round-the-world con artist).
Chaplin considers all these journeys and their motivations, including the final section which extends our circumnavigation into space, and her final chapter takes us around the world, pausing at important stops where she can remind us of the history of around the world travel. Our motivations have changed,but we still have the urge to circle the earth–to embrace it and make it our own. She concludes
…over the past five hundred years, the physical globe has been as central to our collective history as it was to each individual around-the-world traveler. Even if we might somehow survive elsewhere in the cosmos, we should probably not draw a final curtain around the Earth, but instead take very good care of it. We might miss it.
If you’re planning a trip around the world, or just curious about those who pulled off the feat, you’ll want to add this book to your travel library.
Note: the publisher provided a review copy of this book, but as usual, my opinions are totally my own. Photos here are from Flickr, used with Creative Commons license. Click on the photo to learn more about the photographers. Links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you choose to shop on line, I appreciate your using these links as it helps me pay the rent for the library.