Friday, September 5, 2014

Perspective ("The Explorers" by Martin Dugard)

This past summer, in a fit of curiosity, I began writing a book about Christopher Columbus. To be honest, I had wanted to write a history of slavery in Wisconsin, my home state, but every attempted first chapter--on Jean Nicolet, the Jesuits, John Cabot--felt flimsy and incomplete, and only when I began to study the four voyages of Columbus, none of which ever touched the continental United States, did I find the opening story that I was missing. And while this idea seems strange--Columbus died more than 100 years before Jean Nicolet made his way into Green Bay and down the Fox River, and 300 years before Wisconsin actually became a state--his story perfectly foreshadows every major theme from that later history, from hapless expeditions and complicated relationships with indigenous populations to horrid greed and the origins of widespread indoctrination and indentured servitude. To write a book about slavery in America, regardless of what century or state, is to contend with the legacy of Columbus.

In the course of researching Columbus' life and expeditions, I had the chance to read two very different kinds of texts:  firsthand accounts, including Columbus' own journals, and works of historical nonfiction from the last twenty years, which also used information from those journals but with much more finesse and context. Needless to say, the firsthand accounts were more helpful, even if it meant tirelessly attempting to separate factual events from manufactured self-promotion--Columbus was a master at the latter and terrible at the former--and looking desperately for other sources to fill in the missing pieces. That is where the recent books came into play, as they could be helpful--I hoped--in revealing paths to discovering what I had missed.

Instead, what I found in those books was nothing short of sacrilege. Based on little more than a desire to tell an interesting story rather than convey unblemished history, these modern-day writers wrote of Columbus as though he were a swashbuckling pirate or foolhardy kiss-ass. (That's not to say he wasn't both of these things at times, but rendering him as such through Indiana Jones-style prose is not the same as showing it through data.) Columbus, his crew, and the native people were ascribed with thoughts and emotions that were never recorded, only inferred, and the ecosystems of various islands were described in incredible detail, even down to the particular weather on a particular day and how it affected the trees and plans, even though those islands have not existed in those pristine, almost untouched states for centuries.

A perfect example of this habit can be found in Martin Dugard's retelling of Columbus' final voyage, which was fraught with disaster from the very beginning and never improved. Writing of Columbus' imprisonment at the end of his third voyage, Dugard writes that Columbus' ankles "had long ago been rubbed raw by iron shackles," and that "even lying flat on his back, he could feel their heaviness against his flesh and anticipate the manacles' noisy clank as he threw his feet over the bed." Dugard continues, "A verdant morning breeze wafted in through the window, on its way from the green mountains of Hispanola out to the Caribbean's turquoise waters. The fragile gust was yet another reminder that the freedom of wind and open sea--the freedom that had defined his life--beckoned less than half a mile away." All of these descriptions are contained in only the first two paragraphs of Dugard's entire book, and the remaining 250 pages are no better. If any of this information--the raw ankles, his anticipation of the shackle's clank, the fragile gust reminding him of freedom--is drawn from the firsthand literature of Christopher Columbus and his crew, it's gone unpublished.

Much of this is the fault of Dugard himself, who could have easily dispelled any accusation of over-fictionalized history with a thorough and detailed bibliography--a necessity when writing about important but controversial events and people. Many modern histories of Columbus do not contain a bibliography, and Dugard's writing is only supported by a "Notes" section and a seven-page "selected bibliography" that does not contain any specific attributions. (In many cases, Dugard lists only two or three books as the sources for his lengthy chapters, including Washington Irving's own fictionalized history of Columbus, which has been thoroughly invalidated by historians.) Had Dugard followed the examples of other, more notable historians and history writers, whose bibliographies often run over one hundred pages and cite every single quote, he might have realized the problem ahead of time.

Unfortunately, Dugard's most recent book--another history of exploration, this time focused on Richard Burton and John Speke--suffers from the same problems. At the end of The Explorers, where there should be a bibliography, Dugard offers us only a lengthy paragraph listing the titles of books he consulted; where there should be a detailed, fifty- or sixty-page list of pages and citations, there is an acknowledgement of all those whose writing influenced his own, as well as a justification for the extensive and distracting footnotes that litter every other page and add very little to the overall history. (In one instance, Dugard's footnote about explorer Sebastian Cabot becomes a discussion of the Family Affair actor of the same name; in others, he mentions the habit of South Floridians to dispose of their exotic pet snakes into the wild, offers a hypothesis on why the brain preserves some memories differently than others, explains the results of a Harvard study on daydreaming, and acknowledges all of the various places named after men like James Cook and Christopher Columbus.) Nowhere are we given direct evidence that much of the detailed, narrative-driven minutia included by Dugard actually happened or are certifiably accurate.

What's more, this is not Dugard's greatest transgression. Rather, the lack of adequate citations and his incessant need to footnote a legitimate historical topic with irrelevant bits of trivia pales next to an understanding of world history that is not only flawed but offensively blind. Much of Dugard's book is built on his inability to see beyond a Westernized version of history that values European explorers over indigenous people. Time and again, the white male Europeans in Dugard's book are "discovering" places that had already been occupied for centuries, if not millennia, while discounting those who were native to these regions. Even though these places were often the ancestral homes to millions, it took the arrival of Europeans to legitimize it, and it was those same men who were given credit. This level of Eurocentrism has dominated history books for generations, personified by Columbus' "discovery" of islands that were inhabited by people for thousands of years--an event that we celebrate every year, despite the fact that Columbus' arrival commenced the eventual exploitation and extermination of entire ethnic populations.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this mindset can be found in a tangential section on Howard Carter, who unearthed King Tut's tomb in Egypt under the supervision and funding of fellow Englishman Lord Carnovan. Keeping in mind the historical importance of this tomb to the region, not to mention its importance to the people of Egypt, Dugard's summary of this excavation is nothing short of clueless:  "All because Carter and Carnarvon wouldn't quit. All those years of perseverance paid off. The results can be viewed in museums such as the exhibit within Highclere [Carnovan's estate] dedicated to the earl's collection of artifacts discovered during the years he indulged his passion for Egyptology." (Dugard 245) The terminology Dugard employs here shows a total disregard for what Carter and Carnovan did:  they unearthed important artifacts, yes, but they did it to steal rather than preserve them or return them to the Egyptian people, since everything they found was part of that nation's history and culture. Instead, Dugard believes it's a testament to the tenacity of European explorers that these two men stole another culture's precious artifacts and either locked much of it away in stately manors for their own enjoyment or--presumably--sold it off for financial gain.

Dugard's book is organized to tell the story of men like Burton and Speke--men who put their own lives on the line to go places where they'd never dreamed of going before, all because those locations happened to be there.* But by embracing only one perspective--that of the invaders, the conquerors, the victors, the white European men--Dugard is implicitly elevating their story while disregarding the hundreds of years that preceded their arrival, yet another form of colonialism, exercised now over history itself. In fact, it was often the arrival of men like Burton and Speke that brought about the end of these native populations, and in horrible fashions:  through enslavement, violence, bloodshed, rape, exploitation, and death. And yet they're seen as the ones worthy of praise, adulation, and study.

The great tragedy of Dugard's book, beyond what has already been mentioned, is that one of his chapters--"Independence"--is absolutely beautiful. In discussing the traits needed to be a world-class explorer, Dugard discusses the science behind introversion and extroversion, concluding that those most likely to walks thousands of miles without a second thought or crawl through a deadly African wilderness for years at a time are a special breed of person set apart from the rest of society. They are not fulfilled by interactions with others--in fact, just the opposite--and find solace in solitude, where they can think over pressing issues and push themselves to becoming better, more educated people. Had Dugard balanced his worship of explorers with a hardy and serious acknowledgment of their terrible legacies, he would have done justice to the very spirit of exploration without disregarding the souls of those it ultimately harmed.

*Female explorers are featured only twice:  Isabel Godin, who walks across the Amazon to be reunited with her husband, and Amy Johnson, who earns notoriety for flying across half the globe and then dies in a plane crash within the span of only three pages