A journey from armchair to ice-ridden seas

Voyages of Delusion

May 16, 2003

A marketable book on travel and exploration, as every traveller and explorer knows well, needs a headline - and this one is neatly encapsulated in its title and subtitle. How was it that the age of enlightenment, in which a rational scientific approach should have replaced the myths and superstitions of an earlier age, saw the revival of fantasies of a Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and South Seas? The answer, says Glyn Williams, lies in the all-consuming ambitions, hopes and dreams of generations of European schemers as they sought commercial, political and scientific justifications for further expeditions to the northern regions, either through Hudson Bay, or via the northwest coast of North America.

Voyages of Delusion appears under the imprint of HarperCollins, signalling that its intended audience is broader than the academic. The much-dreaded footnote is banished in favour of a guide to sources deposited in an appendix. The book tells a series of absorbing tales, from the obscure and pathetic through to the grandiose and definitive. It moves from the armchair geographers and theorists in their cosmopolitan salons to those hardy navigators who set out to confirm, or to challenge, their theories in the frozen north. This contrast between "those effortless voyages of the imagination and the daunting experiences of the 18th-century explorers" is what really drives the book; indeed, says Williams, it is what first prompted his interest in the subject more than 40 years ago.

In the end, he is very much on the side of the practical navigator, and more especially those who got it right. His sympathy for men such as the enterprising yet unfortunate Christopher Middleton, whose relatively accurate maps failed to bear out the dreams of his sponsors, contrasts markedly with his cooler treatment of well-connected metropolitan schemers. Reading the accounts of hazardous voyages through ice-ridden seas, and of desperate crews wintering in forbidding environments, it is not difficult to see why. The life of an 18th-century sailor was hardly easy, even when in well-known waters, and the rewards promised for discovery of the Northwest Passage never came. The figure of the "armchair geographer" was an object of much derision from the navigators, notably Captains Cook and La Pérouse, and if there is much in this attitude to sedentary scholarship that appeals to contemporary sensibilities, there is also a risk of underestimating the links that tied cartographers and navigators, geographers and voyagers together.

Williams is particularly good on the interdependencies among the different communities living, trading and passing through the vast territories claimed by the Hudson's Bay Company. Here, the tensions and conflicts between company officials and explorers, and between Europeans and Indians, are described in a way that acknowledges their mutual dependence for goods, resources, labour and knowledge. Similarly, attention is paid to the ways in which indigenous geographical knowledge in the form of Cree and Chipewyan testimony informed and inspired European map-makers; and to the collaboration as well as the competition between English, French, Russian and Spanish navigators, the last represented most notably by Alejandro Malaspina. Perhaps the same sense of sensitivity to complexity might shed more light on what Williams describes as the "mutual dependence and shared interests" of 18th-century explorers and geographers.

The Malaspina expedition itself provides fitting evidence of the intersections between theoretical, political and practical aspects of 18th-century voyages of discovery. Might even that much-derided figure of the armchair geographer be worth rescuing from the condescension of posterity?

Felix Driver is professor of human geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Voyages of Delusion: The Search for the Northwest Passage in the Age of Reason

Author - Glyn Williams
ISBN - 0 00 257181 1 and 653213 6
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £15.99 and £8.99
Pages - 467

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