" And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald./
And through the drifts the snowy cliffs
Did send a dismal sheen;
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken -
The ice was all between./
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound ."
Coleridge's icy wasteland in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a vividly imagined nightmare world of desolation and isolation, but it is not created from imagination alone. As Tim Fulford and Peter Kitson, the editors of Travels, Explorations and Empires , point out, travel writing inspired the Romantic poets, providing them with extremes of experience, endurance and landscape through which to pursue their own inner explorations. When he was a boy, Coleridge had been taught by William Wales, the astronomer on board James Cook's second voyage to the Southern Ocean, and the Ancient Mariner is indebted to their accounts of their perilous journeys to the Arctic and Antarctic. Cook wrote that he had no words to describe the "horrible and savage aspect" of "lands doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness; never to feel the sun's rays". Coleridge, in turn, used Cook's geographical descriptions in finding his own words for the interminable ice.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Robert Walton's Arctic journey in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein may be the most famous examples of Romantic literature drawing directly on exploration narratives but they were not the only ones, nor was it only the polar expeditions that inspired writers. The four volumes of Travels, Explorations and Empires cover the Middle East, the Far East and North America as well as the North and South Poles, and journeys that fed writers' imaginations and fuelled their political vitriol are scattered throughout. From Mountstuart Elphinstone's justification of Christian territorial expansion in Afghanistan, vehemently refuted by Shelley in Prometheus Unbound , to William Bartram and Samuel Hearne's idyllic pictures of America, which in turn coloured Wordsworth and Southey's idealised portraits of the free, physical, egalitarian lives of the native American Indians, travel writing was a key influence on the literature of the period.
Fulford and Kitson claim 1770-1835 as the age of the exploration narrative. Beyond its relationship with literature, readers relied on travel writing for scientific research - botany, paleontology, ethnography and especially theories of race and human difference - and it was intimately connected with the expansion and administration of the empire. They point out that during these years there was "no fully formed single version of imperialism, and no fully crystallised stereotype about the peoples who were subjected to empire". These ideas were in the process of being formed, shaped to a great extent by exploration writing. China, for example, had been a much-admired power in the late 18th century but gradually, through the next century, reports from western diplomats whittled away European respect for the Chinese. In his account of the Far East, Sir John Barrow disparaged Oriental craftsmanship, finding in the Chinese emperor's court "several miserable attempts at sculpture", described a cruel, tyrannical government and summed up the Chinese character as "a strange compound of pride and meanness, of affected gravity and real frivolousness, of refined civility and gross indelicacy". This, and other negative dispatches, certainly helped lead to the Opium wars in the 1840s and 1850s and to the portrayal of the Chinese in fiction as the "yellow peril", most famously in the character of the evil, moustachioed Dr Fu Man Chu.
In much the same way, travellers passing comments on skin colour and physiognomy institutionalised ideas about racial inferiority across the empire. Even Bartram's picturesque description of Florida and Carolina, showing Indian men as Romantic noble savages and Cherokee maids dancing in a "sylvan scene of primitive innocence", played its part in the process of colonisation. Bartram never bought or owned land, but the pastoral idyll he presented made the region seem familiar and enticing to others, thus unwittingly encouraging the appropriation of land belonging to indigenous people.
Travels, Explorations and Empires reflects the complexity of the relationship between exploration and colonisation and the diversity of views that was the natural result of the sudden proliferation of travel writing. Ambassadors and adventurers are featured in these volumes, but so are the reports of trappers, physicians, missionaries and traders. And although this collection largely and inevitably comprises the testaments of white men, the occasional female voice rings out. Women might have been less frequent explorers and writers in the Romantic period but they had access to places, such as the harem, where men were not allowed, and found that their sex could be an advantage as well as a hindrance in inhospitable areas. The Baptist Ann Judson, for example, used her influence with the wives of Burmese ministers to help rescue her evangelist husband from prison. Her popular text, published in 1829 after her death in Burma, encouraged countless middle-class American women to follow the cause abroad.
What these books show is that the genre of travel writing was wide enough to encompass the different and sometimes contradictory views of men of commerce and men of God, and of scientists and soldiers. But the books also show that these men shared a common effect at home, and exploration narratives contributed enormously to the process by which America and England came to think of themselves as imperial centres. Through the virtual reality of armchair travel from the safe distance of London government ministers, missionaries and eventually entrepreneurs grew convinced that they had enough knowledge to control and consolidate the colonies.
Inevitably, these documents tell us almost as much about what happened at home as what happened abroad. The effect of travel writing on government policy and the reading public makes these collections invaluable to historians as well as students of literature. As the explorers describe the customs and manners of peoples in distant lands, they offer implicit information about the culture they have journeyed from and the tastes and expectations of their readers. In the early days of exploration writing, military and naval men such as Cook, Bligh, Franklin and Parry wrote at the command of government agencies and their reports have a dry, official tone, filled with statistics, dates and charts testifying to their objectivity and honesty. But as the popularity of the genre grew, public demand began to shape the patterns of exploration and its literary representation.
Thus, narratives such as James Morier's Journey through Persia became the biggest sellers. Morier revelled in the lush landscape he journeyed through. "If a writer of romance would describe beautiful scenery, he might select our departure from Ali Shah" - and made no attempt to hide his curiosity about the intriguing locals. "The women here barely cover their faces; and, as we afterwards learnt, are notorious for depravityI The men are wild as savages and seem to be under no law." Readers craved high adventure and exoticism, and publishers became adept at providing both, even if it meant gilding the original material. Jonathan Carver's account of his travels through North America helped to define an image of the native American Indian that still lingers today and that influenced poets such as Coleridge and Southey. Although it made Carver a celebrity, it is now known that his journal had been heavily rewritten by someone who added graphic descriptions of Indian customs drawn from other narratives to make a more engaging and marketable product. In other extreme cases, editors did not limit themselves to embellishing existing journals but took the brave step of fabricating entire journeys to please their readers.
Readers' tastes, too, affected exploration narratives and these writings in turn affected their readers' knowledge and taste in literature, policies and power. North American travel narratives such as The Adventures of Hugh Glass played an important part in forming a national character. The journal documents a trapper's adventures up the Missouri and westward along the Grand River in a tone of high excitement and danger. Glass's terrifying encounter with a grizzly bear recalls a desperate situation. "All depended upon the success of his first and only shot; - with an aim, cool and deliberate, but quick, lest greater rapidity in the animal should render it more uncertain, he fired his rifle. The shot was a good one; eventually mortal; but its immediate effect was only to raise to its utmost degree, the ferocity of the animal, already greatly excited by the sight and opposition of its intended prey; it bounded forward with a rapidity that could not be eluded, in pursuit of its flying adversary." Glass survived the attack after his fellow trappers had left him to die. But while descriptions of Glass's courage and endurance in perilous situations, which were repeated in newspapers and memoirs as well as in travel books, clearly satisfied the readers' appetite for derring-do, they were also fundamental in establishing the idea of the West as a place where brave men were tested and in creating a prototype of the all-American, self-reliant, courageous hero who came to figure so prominently in American fiction.
For all that some of the writers included in these volumes were the William Dalrymples and Bill Brysons of their age and many of the thorny subjects they raise - from female circumcision to race relations - are still tackled in the foreign news pages of broadsheets today, Travels, Explorations and Empires is not aimed at the popular market. Authenticity rules strictly over ease of perusal as facsimiles of the original publications have been used, with "f" written where we should now use "s" and typographical quirks intact. Within the academic market, however, Fulford and Kitson's target is wide. These are writings they believe should be read across the disciplines, as befits the broad influence of Romantic exploration narratives. The diversity of this collection of journeys makes their case clearly: is it history? literature? science? politics? - the only difficulty university libraries should face is deciding where to shelve it.
Christopher Ondaatje is a council member, Royal Geographical Society, and author of Journey to the Source of the Nile .
Travels, Explorations and Empires 1770-1835 Volumes One to Four
Editor - Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson
ISBN - 1 85196 720 6
Publisher - Pickering and Chatto
Price - £350.00
Pages - 1,563