In this first full history of around-the-world travel, Joyce E. Chaplin brilliantly tells the story of circumnavigation. Round About the Earth is a witty, erudite, and colorful account of the outrageous ambitions that have inspired men and women to circle the entire planet.
For almost five hundred years, human beings have been finding ways to circle the Earth—by sail, steam, or liquid fuel; by cycling, driving, flying, going into orbit, even by using their own bodily power. The story begins with the first centuries of circumnavigation, when few survived the attempt: in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan left Spain with five ships and 270 men, but only one ship and thirty-five men returned, not including Magellan, who died in the Philippines. Starting with these dangerous voyages, Joyce Chaplin takes us on a trip of our own as we travel with Francis Drake, William Dampier, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and James Cook.
Eventually sea travel grew much safer and passengers came on board. The most famous was Charles Darwin, but some intrepid women became circumnavigators too—a Lady Brassey, for example. Circumnavigation became a fad, as captured in Jules Verne’s classic novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.
Once continental railroads were built, circumnavigators could traverse sea and land. Newspapers sponsored racing contests, and people sought ways to distinguish themselves—by bicycling around the world, for instance, or by sailing solo.
Steamships turned round-the-world travel into a luxurious experience, as with the tours of Thomas Cook & Son. Famous authors wrote up their adventures, including Mark Twain and Jack London and Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (better known as Nellie Bly). Finally humans took to the skies to circle the globe in airplanes. Not much later, Sputnik, Gagarin, and Glenn pioneered a new kind of circumnavigation— in orbit.
Through it all, the desire to take on the planet has tested the courage and capacity of the bold men and women who took up the challenge. Their exploits show us why we think of the Earth as home. Round About the Earth is itself a thrilling adventure.
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Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of History at Harvard University. She is the author of four previous books of nonfiction, including The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (2006), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Science and Technology Category), and winner of the Annibel Jenkins Prize of American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I’ll put a girdle round about the Earth
In forty minutes . . .
—Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I magine that you have purchased, to accompany this book, a model of a theater in which you can stage your very own around-the-world voyage. The whole setup will require special delivery because, for some reason, the theater, which is round, turns out to be about 8.25 meters in circumference (just under 9 feet across). That is only the first of several Alice-in-Wonderland surprises, as you discover when you enter the theater, which seems empty. Luckily, there is an envelope pinned to the theater door which contains a map, with “X” marking the spot where you can find the most important piece of scenery, the small ship that will make a staged circumnavigation. Once you locate the X, you must remove a magnifying glass (helpfully provided in the envelope) to see the ship. It is the size of the head of a pin and scattered with what look like bits of dust. Nearby is a microscope, and only with its assistance can you make out that the dust particles are actually tiny dolls that represent the ship’s sailors.
The theater kit has these odd components and dimensions because, correctly proportioned to each other, the theater is the Earth, the pinhead ship is the Victoria, the first ship to go around the world, and the near-invisible dolls within her represent sailors, the angels that dance on the head of this particular pin. Given the high mortality rates during most of the history of around-the-world travel, sailors were indeed angels in the making. Their tininess, and that of their ship, make a circumnavigation of the enormous globe seem impossible. And yet it happened, over and over, hundreds of thousands of times, and even more circumnavigations are taking place right now, as you read.
With those repeated embraces of the globe, from 1519 onward, human beings have established what is now a nearly five-hundred-year history of going around the world. It is the longest tradition of a human activity done on a planetary scale. Around-the-world travelers make a grand gesture, as big as the physical world itself, even though they are individually so small that the huge global stage on which they act makes them hard to find.
• • •
I found this book in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Six years ago, in St. George’s, Bermuda, I embarked on a 140-foot sailing ship, the Sea Education Association’s SSV Corwith Cramer. I would be at sea for three weeks, away from telephone, Internet, and physical libraries. Yet I was in the middle of a research project on Benjamin Franklin that required me to read material in French. I decided to use my time at sea to revive my French by reading a novel in that language. The book I chose was a small paperback edition of Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours, or Around the World in Eighty Days, first published as a newspaper serial in 1872. When I wasn’t on watch or otherwise busy, I slowly made my way through the book.
My French was good enough—to my surprise—that I actually enjoyed the story and, as a historian, I appreciated its period detail, especially the nature of the bet that sends Verne’s protagonist, the Englishman Phileas Fogg, racing around the world. At his London club, Fogg remarks that scheduled travel services could take a person around the globe in a period of eighty days. Prove it, the club men challenge him, and he’s off. That eighty-day measure was only conceivable by the late nineteenth century. In the age of sail, getting around the world had taken months or years. (The speed of my sailing ship would have lost Fogg his wager.) It was the invention of steampower, but also the creation of regimented European empires around the globe, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the emergence of commercial travel services that together made it just possible, by the 1870s, to do the global circuit in eighty days.
The second thing that impressed me about Verne’s story was how the material developments that sped up global travel required a dramatically increased use of natural resources. When Fogg leaves London, he takes his new valet (and invaluable comic foil) Passepartout. The two men board a night train which has scarcely departed London when Passepartout lets out “a real cry of despair”:
“. . . in the rush . . . my state of confusion . . . I forgot . . . to switch off the gas lamp in my bedroom.”
“Well, my dear fellow,” Phileas Fogg replied coldly, “you’ll be paying the bill.” The gas lamp is the novel’s running joke. True, it is a small part of the journey’s cost, but we present-day readers of Verne quickly realize that the joke is on us. We are, notoriously, the first generation that has realized what the planetary bill for centuries of burning fossil fuel is going to be.1
In Verne’s era, coal was a costly but essential part of modern progress. Yet Fogg’s steam-powered exploits, set at the height of European imperialism, represent a phase of the past that truly is history, over and done with. Airplanes have replaced the coal-burning engines and ships that hurtled Fogg around the world; the empires that protected some people at the expense of others have been replaced with other political regimes. It’s now difficult to cross the surface of the world in eighty days, though easy to fly around it in hours, if you can afford the
Back on land, I looked for a history of around-the-world travel. There was none. Two books have given narrative histories of circumnavigations, but only in the age of sail; a third book examines some nineteenth-century examples, among other long-distance voyages; a fourth looks at small-boat circumnavigations in the early twentieth century. That’s not much. For that reason, there is no separate Library of Congress heading for histories of around-the-world travel—the histories are simply lumped with first-person accounts of the travelers. There are many more studies of individual around-the-world travels, especially the really famous attempts by Magellan, Cook, Earhart, Gagarin, Chichester, and others. There are analyses of fictional circumnavigators, including Fogg, and even Shakespeare’s Puck. And there is Raymond John Howgego’s incomparable Encyclopedia of Exploration, which includes historical circumnavigations among its thousands of entries. Finally, there are other encyclopedias that chronicle circumnavigations or orbital travels or, especially in electronic form, just list the journeys themselves.2
All of these works take for granted that an around-the-world voyage represents a distinct human activity, something unlike other voyages or expeditions. But none of them explains why they are distinctive. Why do they matter?
The answer is not obvious. To find out what is different about around-the-world voyages requires setting aside everything they might have in common with other kinds of travel and exploration. Circumnavigators made geographic discoveries; but so did other explorers. They changed the world map, but other expeditions did too. They encountered lands and people new to them; so did many others. They expanded and defended empires—many actors did. Even if circumnavigators did more of these activities—more geographic discoveries, more cultural encounters—that is a difference in quantity, not quality.
The temptation is to find an encyclopedic solution, to inventory every around-the-world journey that took place, with details of what happened on each. But a work that simply listed all of these journeys, let alone details of what happened on them, would take a great many volumes, or a vast electronic database, yet still not establish why they are special.
They are special because any voyager who goes all the way around the world thinks of himself or herself on a planetary scale, as an actor on a stage the size of the world. This is unique. No other form of travel, and, really, hardly any other human experience, is truly planet-encompassing. In fact, an around-the-world voyage is distinctively planetary in three ways, as measured by time, space, and death.
Around-the-world travel is time travel. Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days has as its plot twist Fogg’s eastward progress around the globe, through which he gains a day that wins him his bet. Because of what is now called the International Date Line, the day gained or lost during an around-the-world voyage is a fundamental and unique characteristic of such a journey. Any traveler changes his or her place on the globe, but only circumnavigators change their date on the calendar. That experience reorients them in relation to the Sun, timekeeper of the hours and days on Earth and throughout the solar system. Circumnavigators were the first people to discover, by mind-blowing experience, that time is not universal but relative.
The space over which a circumnavigator must travel is also distinctive because it represents the whole world, which is painfully larger than any of the individual humans who might contemplate getting around it. Shakespeare’s Puck may have been able to zip round about the Earth with ease, but humans had to go more slowly, and they would always need a protected space around their small selves, whether physical, imagined, or both.
It is conventional in many cultures to consider the human body as a microcosm, a smaller, metaphorical version of the world or cosmos. So too have ships been considered microcosms, little wooden worlds that ride the waves. To put a body around the world on a ship (or in another vehicle) puts these three worlds into a dynamic relationship to each other. The mismatch in size makes the encounter both comic and cosmic, as with the ill-matched theater kit that...
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