WHEN GEORGE ANSON returned from circumnavigating the globe in 1744, London wits had a field day. A brave and ruthless Royal Navy officer, Anson was also socially awkward and reputedly impotent. He had been all around the world but never in it, quipped one commentator. Much the same, remarked another unkindly, could be said of Anson’s relationship with his wife.
Joyce Chaplin does not quote these anecdotes in Round About the Earth, but she might easily have done so. What emerges from this strikingly original and wonderfully researched book is not just the daring and the endurance displayed by successive circumnavigators, but also how odd and often unpleasant many of these individuals were, and how mixed were the responses to their exploits. Chaplin uses as her raw material the abundant, vivid, often horrifying narratives that were compiled by some of these men during or after their voyages. (Before 1918, the vast majority of circumnavigators were male.) But this book is much more than a succession of arresting travel narratives. Chaplin’s deeper aim is to attempt a new and significant form of history—to write a geodrama, as she calls it. Historians, she remarks, usually focus on human-to-human interactions over time. The theme of Round About the Earth, by contrast, is the interaction of generations of puny humans with a vast, often inhospitable, and now much endangered planet.
Chaplin divides her book into three sections—Fear, Confidence, and Doubt; and using Fear as her first category is apt. Early circumnavigators tended to be harsh and marginal men, since the risks involved were so enormous and the chances of success—never mind of profit—were very small. Ferdinand Magellan’s first, unplanned circumnavigation in 1519 killed him, along with most of his men. By the early eighteenth century, knowledge and technology had improved sufficiently to allow William Dampier to circumnavigate the world three times over and survive, but the second of his voyages killed nine-tenths of his crew. The main culprit was scurvy.
However much early modern Europeans labored over ship design and cartography, ultra-extended voyaging continued to be perilous so long as victualing went unreformed. One late sixteenth-century Dutch voyager boasted of killing 50,000 penguins. But until the introduction of preserved fruit and vegetables, along with refrigeration and hygienic storage, even such bountiful slaughter had only limited impact on sailors’ health. The longer that voyages lasted, the more men ran the risk of being reduced to eating worm-infested biscuits, perhaps saturated by rats’ urine, and thereby gradually losing teeth, eyesight, muscle, sanity, and the will to live.
Those undertaking such risks were sometimes coerced and sometimes driven by curiosity, desperation, or the prospect of plunder and loot (such as Francis Drake, whom Chaplin sums up as a “small nobody from nowhere”). More often than not, circumnavigators were also instruments of empire. From the start, there was a close though not invariable correlation between patterns of global voyaging and the transcontinental pretensions of particular, mainly Western states. Most early circumnavigations were bound up with the ambitions of the Spanish and Portuguese empires and their Protestant competitors, conspicuously the British. In the nineteenth century, both the Russian and Japanese empires sponsored circumnavigations to demonstrate and publicize their status as great powers. And in 1907, Theodore Roosevelt, who relished most forms of aggression, dispatched the Great White Fleet around the world with the intention (not always fulfilled) of showcasing the new, trans-oceanic capacities of American naval power.
Chaplin links her second, crowded phase of circumnavigation—“Confidence,” spanning from the 1780s to the 1920s—overwhelmingly to the hegemony of the Western empires, the protracted peace after Waterloo between the major European states, and the coming of steam power. The resulting spirit of confidence and entitlement that she claims for this era is sometimes overstressed. Edwin Landseer’s brilliant canvas on the destruction of Sir John Franklin’s Artic expedition, Man proposes, God disposes (1864), is surely a reminder that even supremely assured mid-Victorian Britons knew that hubristic voyaging might prove lethal, that there were limits. But Chaplin is right to point out that the changes of this era allowed even some amateur sailors to take a successful stab at circumnavigating the globe. Ida Pfeiffer, a middle-aged Viennese widow went round the world twice on her own in the 1840s and 1850s. The pistols that she carried in her luggage seem to have been unnecessary: “I was never insulted by deed, word, or even look.”
One of the intriguing aspects of Chaplin’s book is that it captures some of the complex balance sheet of empire: the many instances of ruthless asset stripping, casual slaughter, and cultural arrogance, but also the busy new transcontinental connection-making, copious opportunities, and eager accumulation of knowledge that this period of protracted Western hegemony sometimes afforded its beneficiaries. When HMS Challenger set out on its circumnavigation in 1872, it carried masses of scientific equipment but only two cannons, which were mainly used for signaling. The voyagers returned, in perfect safety, with “the largest oceanic database yet generated.”
Sensitivity to the occasional ambivalence of matters imperial also informs Chaplin’s brilliant discussion of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, first serialized in 1872, and the initial inspiration for her book. She read it in the original French while engaged in a maritime expedition of her own off the coast of Bermuda. While circling the globe in the hope of winning a bet of £20,000, the hero of Verne’s novel, Phileas Fogg, rescues the beautiful Indian widow Mrs. Aouda from sati. (Verne is careful to point out that she is almost “white”.) Once the party is safely returned to London, however, Verne allows her to propose to Fogg and sweep him off his well-traveled English feet. By contrast, as Chaplin sharply observes, the most recent film of Verne’s novel converts Mrs. Aouda into a suitably vigorous critic of empire, while simultaneously reducing her to the passive recipient of Fogg’s manly proposal.
The final section of this splendid book is “Doubt,” and it is less gripping than the others, though unfailingly intelligent and acute. After 1914, the Western imperial self-confidence that had helped power and permit so many earlier circumnavigations began to falter. At the same time, the onset of mass travel inexorably robbed globetrotting of much of its heroic, pioneering quality. By 1939, commercial airlines had created nineteen different world routes. Blissful new liners emerged that allowed the affluent to cruise round the world with all the comforts of a luxury hotel, and with only seasickness and the occasional iceberg as remaining hazards.
There was now no need, and paradoxically less opportunity, to discover the world for oneself. Instead, the pampered souls who embarked on ships such as the Franconia were instructed by cruise-organizers and travel guides on exactly what they should look for and observe at the different ports of call, just as they were told what they should wear each day at dinner. Whereas earlier circumnavigators had compiled and published hundreds of accounts of their voyages, this new generation of world travelers rarely bothered. Much less conscious of wonder and far less exposed to peril, they also felt less need to mull over and record their experiences.
Yet, as Chaplin recognizes, it would be wrong to over-schematize the different phases of round-the-world travel. At all times, there were individuals who remained unmoved by voyages of circumnavigations, or reacted to them with cynicism and even hostility. “Whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct?” Melville makes Ishmael inquire skeptically in Moby-Dick. Conversely, as Chaplin documents, some modern circumnavigators are still able to feel wonder, even if now this is tinged with apprehension. Toward the close of her book, she discusses the Soviet astronaut Gherman Titov’s impressions of the world after orbiting it seventeen times in 1961. From his spaceship, he wrote later, the earth looked very small. He was left acutely conscious of “how careful we must be with it.” Perhaps in the future, Chaplin concludes, human beings will pay more attention to protecting the planet, instead of seeking to circumnavigate and control it.
It would be very nice if that were so. But I wonder if we are not now experiencing a new phase of circumnavigation, in which very large numbers of men and women increasingly feel able to criss-cross the world in an instant through cyberspace, but remain in some way fundamentally and worryingly disengaged from it.
Linda Colley is a professor of History and Princeton University and the author, most recently, of The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History.