Behind the Adventurer’s Legend by Helen Bliss

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How do you tell and present the history of world exploration? Long considered a European scientific adventure, undertaken by men willing to take all dangers to gather information on distant worlds, exploration was the pretext for a narrative fueled by heroes and “virgin” lands.

Since 1821 in France and then elsewhere in Europe, geographical societies have been distinctive sites for building a culture of exploration. Explorers are the subject of admiration conveyed by the photojournalism and popular literature: Jules Verne makes them romantic heroes, rare immortalizing the most famous in situations that inspire respect.

In addition to the myths that fuel the fascination with distant adventure to this day, history can be revisited, for we now know that the company was less individual than it seemed: exploration was made possible through cooperation, somewhat restricted, often a large number of representatives Invisible when Expeditions return (1). Thus, it was not only males: in 1900, Octavi Kodrow, who continued to explore the Amazon tributaries after the death of her husband, asserted that she “Explorer”sorry “This word does not stand up to femininity.”. Europeans were not the only ones who started and made journeys to discover the world (2). Exploration was a scientific enterprise, and it was also closely associated with the colonial expansion of Europe in the nineteenth century.And century, and this sometimes ambiguous relationship between appetite for knowledge and conquest deserves to be analyzed more systematically.

Mapping, collecting plants, or taking temperatures implies establishing contacts in the places explored, working with guides and interpreters, and sometimes hiring armed escorts, since infiltration into foreign lands is sometimes violent. On the occasion of the exhibition “Faces of Exploration” at the National Library of France (from May 10 to August 21), it is necessary to insist on the less obvious aspects of this date, by striving to give the vision of the invisible and the representations of exploration, often unknown, and whose traces are scarce .

The exhibition is based on the archives of the Geographical Society, but also on the collections of Quai Branly, the Museum of Natural History, the Guimet Museum and even the National Archives Abroad. Focusing on what was actually happening on Earth, it is about showing the intensity of interactions, the dependence of the “heroes” on local geopolitical conditions, and the relative nature of “discovering” places that are often well known to their guides. The latter, together with the porters, interpreters and restaurateurs, are part of the unseen objects of the history of exploration, which can be highlighted by a detailed re-reading of the archive.

Thus, the Book of Wages from the expedition of Fernand Furiot, revealing the payments of assistants, leads to an exploration economy, just as the effects of the exchange of objects now preserved in European museums testify to the transactions with the populations encountered, but also to illicit appropriations. The explorer Clapperton relies heavily on maps drawn for him by the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Bello, in 1824. And if many representatives remain unknown, in the blurry background of the pictures, others have a name and a story, even if they did not tell it themselves: Apatu, comrade ” The Savior” of Jules Krivo, a former slave who escaped from the plantations of Suriname to Guyana, helped the explorer for five years, was present at the conference of the Geographical Society in 1879. It was labeled “Friday” by the press at the time in reference to William’s novel Defoe, it is the portrait of these doubles of explorers and primary representatives of the company, that the exhibition attempts to recreate a place for them, even if their life paths retain large bits of mystery.

  • Helen Bliss is co-curator of the exhibition Faces of Discovery at 19And a century. From legend to history”, BNF, Paris, 10 May to 21 August, Editing the catalog with Olivier Loiseau.

(1) Hidden Exploration History. Search in RGS-IBG groupsFelix Driver and Laurie Jones (Editors), RGS-IBG / Royal Holloway, 2009.

(2) Explore the world. Another story of great discoveries, Romain Bertrand, Helen Blaise, Guillaume Calafat and Isabel Helant Donut (Der) Soil, 2019.

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