FROM MACHU PICCHU TO DARKEST AFRICA
BY WAY OF THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE:
The Unexplored Delights of the Historical Travel Books of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia
Intrepid 19th-century women explorers, the British Raj in its heyday, first ventures to the sources of the Nile, Napoleon on Saint Helena, early Royal Visits by Queen Victoria’s family members to the far-flung outposts of the British Empire, dotty Great White Hunters happily slaughtering the wildlife of Africa and India, efforts to find the Northwest Passage, with the entire history of the lost Franklin Expedition to the Arctic, earnest missionaries endeavouring to convert the natives from Hawaii to Papua New Guinea and back again, their bishops writing detailed accounts of diocesan visits to Newfoundland, Labrador, the Cape of Good Hope, Barbados, Australia, New Zealand... These are just some of the unexplored delights of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia’s extensive collection of 19th and early 20th century published works of “travels”.
Up until now these books have only been documented by an ancient card catalogue, largely handwritten. (An interesting artefact in itself!) Consequently the travel books have remained a well hidden secret, though the RGSSA Library is open to the public. But the catalogue of the entire collection, which includes manuscripts, photographs, artefacts and maps, is now being published on the Internet (http://rgssa.slimlib.com.au:81/vufind/ or follow the link at the Society’s web page, http://www.rgssa.org.au/ ). The complete book collection, about 20,000 titles, is twice the size of the travel collection, and includes a large number of old, rare and valuable volumes, plus a lot of early Australiana and a huge number of publications relating to the exploration and history of South Australia. Thanks to the good offices of the State Library of South Australia ready-made electronic catalogue records were available for these, and they are now in the Society’s web catalogue.
Currently cataloguing of the travel books is under way, and so far we’ve done about 5,000 titles, with about as many still to go. It's been a fascinating and rewarding exercise! New curiosities pop up every day of the project and for me, as Chief Volunteer Cataloguer (I think I need a hat like a volunteer fireman’s), a lot of the interest is in checking and correlating incoming records so that the catalogue successfully links like materials. You could easily be misled by the Society’s name into assuming the collection is an entirely geographical one, but as you can see from the examples above, it isn’t. Well, geography in the very widest sense, yes! Some sage once told me that while maths is maths and English is English and biology is biology, geography covers everything—and that’s about it! Our travel books aren’t just accounts of what was seen and where, they’re intriguing social documents, throwing a bright (and often scary) light on the attitudes and conventions of the time. It’s okay to kill off another country’s unique fauna, archaeological artefacts exist for the purpose of being brought Home (to England, natch!), lesser breeds without the law are mildly amusing and definitely in need of conversion to Our religion, “unexplored” countries exist for the purpose of opening up and of course economic exploitation, and here’s a lovely manual, early settlers, telling you what to expect when you emigrate to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa... (We’ve got a bunch of those, at a guess written by an Englishman whose sole experience of long voyages was punting on the Isis.) It’s a world where wogs begin at Calais, abroad for the majority stops at Monte, Victoria’s on her throne and all’s right with the world.
Yes, we can condemn it as jingoistic, racist and White Imperialist, and it is all of these things when looked at from our perspective, but the really fascinating thing is that the books show us that world as its contemporaries experienced it. The collection is a compelling documentation of the social history of the period.
THE SAD CASE OF THEODORE VOGEL, 1812-1841
And some of that history is very frightening – giveth one seriously to think, kind of thing. Take the Darkest Africa books, of which we’ve got a-many—not just the standard volumes from the pen of Henry Morton Stanley (the “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” man, the guy who coined the phrase “darkest Africa”), but lots from lesser writers, or perhaps writers who weren’t such successful self-publicists as the enterprising and energetic Stanley! Sometimes the biographical information turns up in unexpected places, too, as in the case of Theodore Vogel. The Royal Geographical Society of South Australia holds a copy of the book Niger Flora. More properly,
Niger flora, or, An enumeration of the plants of western tropical Africa : collected by ... Theodore Vogel, botanist to the voyage of the expedition sent by Her Britannic Majesty to the river Niger in 1841, under the command of Capt. H.D. Trotter, R.N., &c.; including Spicilegia gorgonea, by P.B. Webb, and Flora nigritiana, by Dr. J.D. Hooker ... and George Bentham, with a sketch of the life of Dr. Vogel / edited by Sir W.J. Hooker. London : H. Bailliere, 1849.
Theodore Vogel was born in Berlin on 30 July 1812. He attended the University of Berlin, particularly studying natural history, and obtaining his doctorate in 1837, his thesis being on the genus Cassia. He then published many articles and essays, especially on the Leguminosae. In August 1839 in Bonn he met a member of the African Civilization Society, set up in London under the patronage of Prince Albert as an anti-slave trade endeavour. The British government was fitting out three ships to go up the Niger River from its entrance at the Bight of Benin on the western coast of Central Africa to make treaties and set up a trading post. A botanist was needed (largely for economic botany) and Vogel agreed to go, being eager to explore a region whose plant life was almost unknown. The expedition finally took off in May 1841. Vogel kept a journal and wrote copious notes and letters as they went. On the way he collected a lot of plants from Sierra Leone. The expedition reached the mouth of the Niger on 9th August, and the confluence of the Niger and the Tschadda on 11th September. When they bought a piece of land he began to amass a large plant collection. About a month later the members of the expedition, who had been unwell off and on, came down with a violent tropical fever, and they went downriver to Clarence Cove on the island of Fernando Po in the hopes of benefiting from sea air. Vogel’s last letter was written from there on 22 November. In December the heavy monsoonal rains hit and, still weak from his earlier bout of fever, Vogel came down with dysentery. He died, peacefully according to the account in Niger Flora, on the 17th December.
Poor Theodore Vogel! It’s such a sad little story, isn’t it? What a brilliant, earnest and dedicated young man he must have been.
The RGSSA’s collection is full of such intriguing insights into the very real dangers of travel in the 19th century. I often think it’s a wonder any of the early explorers survived. No proper medicine, no communications, no decent transport... Since working with the collection I’ve developed a strong impulse to tell the know-it-alls of the 21st century who state loftily that Burke and Wills would have survived their journey north through the centre of Australia if they'd been better bushmen, or that Robert Scott should of course have used sled-dogs to reach the South Pole, to choke on their ruddy mobile phones and put their GPS systems where they’ll do the most good. They’ve got no idea what it was really like! Sure, the 19th-century writers’ style is often long-winded and verbose, and their pontificating can be hard to take—but heck! They were there! They did it. Their world won’t come again.
I’m very gradually upgrading the catalogue records with biographical notes about the travellers and explorers. You can read them by searching for a catalogue record (you’ll get the short display format) and then looking at the full display. Any contributions would be gratefully received, as I’m not going to get through 10,000 titles this century! Email me (Kathy) at firstname.lastname@example.org And we’re always looking for volunteer cataloguers! Know MARC and AACR2? Cringing at the thought of switching to RDA? Me, too! Contact me or the RGSSA Library - email@example.com - if you’d like to help out.
More posts about shoes and ships and sealing wax from the RGSSA collection to come...