From the margins to the main page

An exhibition focuses on the local fixers who made Western exploration possible. Matthew Reisz writes

November 5, 2009

Henry Walter Bates, a 19th-century naturalist who spent 11 years in Amazonia, described one of his local field assistants as "a glorious fellow to get wasps' nests and to dig out the holes of monstrous spiders".

That, of course, was the reality of exploration at the time. The heroic European adventurers who risked life and limb to hack their way through jungles and cross deserts were always reliant, and often totally dependent, on the support of local people as guides, cooks, porters and interpreters.

A new exhibition, held at the Royal Geographical Society in London, aims to recover the "hidden histories" of those uncelebrated fixers.

Hidden Histories of Exploration is based on a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by Felix Driver, professor of human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, building on the work of his PhD student, Lowri Jones. The exhibition, which runs until 10 December, draws on the society's almost unparalleled collection of material from Africa, Asia, the Arctic and the Americas.

The aim, Professor Driver said, is "to think about exploration a bit differently and look at the people in the margins of published accounts. What happens if we make them no longer marginal but the main story? We are trying to ask such questions of a collection in London, which is normally thought of as telling only one side of the story."

Explorers may have patronised their local collaborators as "faithful servants" or subordinate officers, while playing down their need for "native information". But beneath the surface, there is evidence of the co-production of maps and films, other professional partnerships and even "certain kinds of friendship".

Professor Driver said: "There are traces of local people in the archives, but they are never the main narrative. We have extracted a coherent narrative about their crucial role in the success of the expeditions, even if they are just a name besides a photograph, or half a sentence in a diary."

The expeditions featured in the Hidden Histories exhibition range from fieldwork in Easter Island to the search for the sources of the Nile and manifold attempts to conquer Mount Everest.

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