Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

James Cook – The Journals

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

I was not sure what to expect when I started to read The Journals (1779) by James Cook, the famous explorer. It is an abridged version covering his three expeditions into the Pacific Ocean. The book is more than 600 pages long, so there is plenty coverage of events.

While it is an official journal describing the daily progress and technical details and complications of the journey, Cook adds in a lot of observations. He is not simply recording where they are and what they encounter, he also tries to understand the people and cultures he meets and explain it in the right frame of mind. He is not simply an explorer, he pursues scientific research. He is careful in his approach, prefers to hold back and not judge too quickly, avoiding violence if possible even if the people he encounters have rather barbaric habits. He tries to understand them and does not push his values upon them. He is knowledgeable on previous explorations of the unknown and the errors that were made in those, leading to enmity and misunderstanding between explorers and natives. He tries not to abuse them from his superior position, although his expedition is limited in resources he always needs to trade for food in the most profitable way as he does not know how long his journeys will be.

While writing his accounts on what takes place, the reader gets insight in his character and behavior. He also gives his opinion on the situations he encounters. Often he seems very lenient towards the natives he encounters. This is only as long as they don’t cross certain boundaries that might cause undesired side effects. When this happens he immediately steps into action and does not stop until matters are resolved to his satisfaction while making sure he limits any negative impact from his actions. This approach made me reminiscent of the so-called Prime Directive from the Star Trek series. Cook himself reminded me much of captain Picard from the Next Generation Star Trek series. It almost seemed to me that his character had to be inspired by Cook. Because of his personal contribution to the journal it also resembles much of a diary. So this is not just a travel book, but also a partial autobiography.

The journals cover three expeditions. The first is to the Pacific Ocean. This is very new territory and most of the serious discoveries take place on this first journey.  It is also the most dramatic of the three journeys. Cook encounters more dangers and hardships than on the other expeditions.

The second expedition aims at finding the unknown southern continent. As we already know there is only ice there is not much to discover. Even so, Cook returns to some of the places he has been before and some new ones in between his attempts to find the southern continent. As he spent much less time in those places during the first journey we get a better view.

The third journey aims at exploring the northern Pacific Ocean, especially the Arctic. This is a quite different kind of journey. In the first place is the style of the journal. Cook lets go of the daily notifications and tries to write more of a travel story than a journal. Before heading to the northern Pacific he returns to earlier places and spends much more time there, giving many more details of rituals and other local matters. In his behavior Cook has also changed. He has less patience with the nasty habits of the natives and he treats them harsher. Perhaps he believes they should know better after several visits.

The abridged version focuses mainly on the discoveries and the events the expedition encounters. General descriptions of the lands and details that are similar to earlier ones that have been described are mostly left out. Only in a few cases I wanted to have read them. In most cases I was fine with the chosen cuts.

The edition I read kept Cook’s original writing style. Most prominent is the lack of consistency in the way he writes his words. Often he uses a phonetic version and this version can vary as well as if he is not sure how to write certain words. Fortunately it does not hamper the readability of the journals. One just has to get used to it and then it reads easily enough. Despite the use of phonetic words Cook’s prose is quite readable. I’ve read old journals before and I had much more trouble with them. I had expected I would need several to many months to finish this book, but it went much faster. Nevertheless this is not a book to read in long sessions. I simply read for like an hour per day and that worked fine.

The Journals of James Cook is certainly a very interesting read to anyone wanting to know about late eighteenth century shipfaring and the Pacific cultures and peoples of those times, even when you don’t know what it all means, but you know as much as the explorers do so you feel like you are part of the mission. It is a fine story of a careful and scientific approach to exploration. I enjoyed it quite a bit, much more than I expected.


Marco Polo – The Travels

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Few people these days will not have heard of Marco Polo, the mediaeval merchants who travelled to the hardly known court of Kubilai Khan, at the time supreme lord of the greatest empire in the world: the Mongol Empire, an took back to Europe amazing tales of what he saw there.

Few people these days however, will have actually read his account of those travels. So famed, yet so unknown. For me a reason to buy the book and find out the truth behind his fame.

Marco Polo was barely an adult when he joined his father and uncle who had returned from a first visit to Kubilai Khan when they were soon sent for a second mission. This was the year 1271. It would take 24 years before Marco Polo would finally return home to Europe. It was clearly no brief visit. As merchants and foreigners they were highly esteemed by Kubilai Khan, who was apparently interested in any topic. It actually took some bit of convincing until they were finally allowed to return to Europe.

The story of The Travels is medium-sized. Not short but also not overly large. It is divided into different parts, each describing a number of related topics. First it starts with the journey to the court of Kubilai Khan, from the Levant through Central Asia, entering China from the west (also known as the Silk Route) to Beijing. Then follow tales of the greatness of Kubilai Khan and his immense power and wealth, before two travels are told which Marco Polo undertook as an emissary for Kubilai Khan to the southwest and southeast of his empire. The final parts detail the travels back to Europe, which went via South-Asia and India. There is an extra part relating to several wars among the Mongols, but there does not seem a special reason why this was added.  Overall Marco Polo saw a huge part of the hardly known Asia. Being an emissary of Kubilai Khan he was received respectfully in many places, even as he was a strange foreigner.

So this is the setup: stories from travels through all of Asia. This should allow for some interesting tales. Alas, it is not so much the case. The stories are mostly about travels. Marco Polo is a merchant. For him the things which are interesting are the things people produce and trade in and which customs they have. So the stories tell about trade and wealth, the production of food, be it game, drinks and gains from the lands and the local industries, usually gems, gold or silver, silk and furs. The customs relate to the beliefs, the political structure and odd habits. In numerous cases he breaks this list with some tale of wars or history, which authentity leaves a bit to question. In most cases Marco Polo did not know the languages so that he had to rely on his interpreter. One can guess how accurate much of this would have been. Even in the case of religion he often does not seem to have a good idea and in only some tales we recognize familiar things.

So as Marco Polo travels from city to city, declaring their distance and direction, from country to country, there is often a long repetition of very similar things. Especially in China, which was heavily populated, most things were very uniform. In most cases it’s all the same. The fact that in between he tells about other events and sights, prevent the reader from getting bored.

What I hoped to read about was what Marco Polo did during his stay of 24 years. The book however is very impersonal. Little is said about what Marco or his father and brother actually did in China. We know they acted as emissaries. We also know Marco Polo ruled one of the larger cities for some time. This city, like Beijing, is described in detail because he lived there for a long time, but most other cities remain vague and anonymous. These are also the better parts of the stories.  So I mostly got disappointed. Luckily odd customs are interesting to me, so those kept me going. In the end it was really a book about travels with some side informations if it was deemed interesting. I guess for the mediaeval people tales about strange customs and great wealths with some short tales of wars were far more interesting. For the modern reader it’s a bit dull.

With my account of the reading being repetitive, is it well written? Actually, the book was ghostwritten for Marco Polo, who mainly related what he remembered. The ghostwriter, a man of no fame, wrote everything down quite literally. The stories are written as they would have been told to an audience. As such the audience is addressed indirectly quite often, as if the teller of the stories wants to keep their attention. Although the different parts are nicely structured, now and then it happens that something must be told what was forgotten earlier. For a book this seems silly.

In a sense I guess the book would work well when read aloud for children. This way only parts would be told at a time. Reading it all almost continuously like I did is less fun. The story should have been rewritten, but of course, at that time, such things were not very important.

A book for children. That does not sound like great tales which created such fame for Marco Polo. At that time they might have, but today’s reader will be rather disappointed. There are others books from the Middle Ages which tell of much greater events, but none of them are about the riches, customs and lands of Asia. The book is interesting for those who like to know about trade and customs in 13th century Asia. There are plenty of strange things. Historically the stories about conflicts and wars are often somewhat inaccurate and vague. Also those tales are often rather very similar.

For me it was interesting enough to have read a somewhat classic story, but I would not really recommend it. That probably explains why it has become fairly unknown these days and only the legendary fame remains. Lucky for Marco Polo. There were plenty of ingredients for a legendary story, but most of it has been left out. The dish remains rather plain than high cuisine.

Dabbling in old classics

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

It’s not unusual that I am reading several novels at the same time. Usually it is because they are tough to read, even if they are interesting. Most common in this category are old classics. Books from before the time that reading was normal among commoners and when there was an even bigger lack of editors fixing the style of the writer.

At the moment I am reading 3 books, with the remarkable feat that for every one of them there is no clear publication year.

The first one is the Dutch translation of The Jewish War (De Bello Judaica) by Titus Flavius Josephus (c. 74). I have already read (the interesting part) of it’s prequel Antiquities of the Jews (written after this book), so I am actually reading it in the right order. I am getting near the end, although I will skip the bonus novel My life, which is a partial repeat of a part of The Jewish War. Maybe sometime later. I only bought it for the main book.

The second book I am reading is The Travels, ghostwritten for Marco Polo (c. 1300). The famous work about his journey to China and what he saw there. I am already halfway.

The third book is Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (Chronographia) by Michael Psellus (c. 1085). The book describes the rule of a set of Byzantine Emperors between 976 and 1078. The nice thing about the book is that Psellus was a contemporary of the time, being born in 1018 and living in the environment of the emperors after 1028 and playing a part in government from 1042 onwards. Maybe not always that objective, but fairly accurate.

I hope to finish them within a few weeks.