October 2011
Monte Reel

How to Explore Like a Real Victorian Adventurer

Armed With Nineteenth-Century Traveling Tips, a Contemporary Bushwhacker in a Forlorn American Mall Is Saved from Depression—or Even Psychic Death

Discussed: Decapitation, The Strange Disease of Modern Life, Hog’s Back Versus Sugar-Loaf, Convex Rivers, The Care Bestowed upon the Bees, Efforts to Create Happier Carpenters, Counting Cats in Zanzibar, RadioShack’s Zero-Tolerance Policy Regarding Serifs

In Zanzibar, late in 1856, Richard F. Burton and a caravan of porters prepared to venture into the heart of Africa’s interior to search for the source of the Nile River. A ropy knot of scar tissue shined on Burton’s cheek—a souvenir from his most recent expedition, upon which he caught a spear to the face during an ambush by Somali tribesmen.

An English diplomat on the island tried to warn Burton against pressing his luck a second time. The diplomat told Burton that a wandering French naval officer recently had been taken prisoner by tribal warriors. The natives had tied the luckless pilgrim to a tree and lopped off his limbs, one by one. The warriors, after dramatically pausing to sharpen their knives, relieved the Frenchman of his misery by slicing off his head. A true story, the diplomat insisted.

Burton wasn’t fazed. Severed limbs, rolling heads—even the grisliest of portents couldn’t deflate his spirit, not before a journey into uncharted territory. He’d spent his life cultivating a world-worn persona that confronted anything resembling naïveté with open hostility, but a blank space on a map could reduce him to giddiness: “Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands,” he wrote in his journal before that trip inland. “The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood.”

Africa, as it turned out, would wring much of that blood out of him. In the months ahead he would suffer partial blindness, partial paralysis, sizzling fevers. Hallucinations crowded his brain with ghosts. A swollen tongue got in the way of eating. But the bottom line: he would survive to explore again. And years later, flipping through that worn journal from 1856, he would pass retrospective judgment on his pre-expedition enthusiasm: “Somewhat boisterous,” he concluded, “but true.”

This kind of aimless gusto for all things unexplored defined the golden age of inland travel, which roughly coincided with Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901) in England. It’s no coincidence that these were the same years when steamships and telegraphs began to shrink the globe. Industrialization transformed urban landscapes and fueled the expansion of colonial empires. Railroads standardized the world’s clocks, and a new strain of hurried angst—what poet Matthew Arnold labeled “this strange disease of modern life”—began to devour souls by the millions.

Enter a new breed of adventurous explorer, which Burton perfectly exemplified. These men filled the membership rolls of the “geographical societies” that started to pop up in London, New York, Paris, Berlin, and most other capitals of the industrialized world. Geographical expeditions became the antidote to an increasingly ordered, regulated, and unmysterious way of life.

But what purpose would be served if the person who finally entered terra incognita couldn’t handle its unpredictable challenges? What was the point of travel if the person who finally laid eyes on the previously unseen didn’t really know how to look at it?

It quickly became clear that far-flung voyagers, even those as hearty as Burton, needed focus when confronting the riddles of undiscovered worlds. They needed guiding hands. They needed how-to manuals.

Victorian adventurers rarely took a step into the wild without hauling a small library of how-to-explore books with them. Among the volumes Burton carried into East Africa was a heavily annotated copy of Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: or, Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries. Originally conceived as a handbook for explorers, and sponsored by En-gland’s Royal Geographical Society, the book was required reading for any self-respecting Victorian traveler. Before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to the hard business of exploring, he could turn to page 134 to learn the best way to do exactly that:

When you have occasion to tuck up your shirt-sleeves, recollect that the way of doing so is, not to begin by turning the cuffs inside-out, but outside-in—the sleeves must be rolled up inwards, towards the arm, and not the reverse way. In the one case, the sleeves will remain tucked up for hours without being touched; in the other, they become loose every five minutes.

The amiably neurotic Galton left nothing to chance. His index is studded with gems like “bones as fuel” and “savages, management of.” If Burton couldn’t find the advice he was looking for in Galton, he could always consult one of the other books in his trunk that were written with explorers in mind.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Monte Reel lives in Buenos Aires. His first book, The Last of the Tribe, was published by Scribner last year.

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