EXPLORERS AND THEIR QUEST FOR NORTH AMERICA

December 1, 2018
Posted by: David Childs

There is an historic irony in the Trump administration’s policy of curtailing border crossings by Mexicans into the United States for the land that they wish to move to was once theirs, discovered and explored by their Spanish predecessors and part of a greater Mexican nation that encouraged American immigration until the northerners turned against them and seized where they had been sojourners. Indeed, for centuries the English American settlement in North America occupied far less territory than that held by the Spanish, the French and even the Russians.
This book looks at that time through the biographies of fourteen explorers from Columbus, in 1492, to Meriwether Lewis in 1806. Without listing them it is pertinent to note that four were Spanish, three French, one Russian, two American, and four English. What is also noteworthy is how many of them died prematurely from exhaustion, disease, suicide, violence or just disappeared. Exploration was never a soft option. One of those early, and indeed unexplained deaths, was that of John Cabot, who was neither English nor an explorer, taking fright after a few footsteps in Newfoundland in 1497 fled to return no more. Neither did other Englishmen, for over a century, while the Spanish opened up two continents, the islands between them, conquered three empires and shipped homeward wealth the like of which the world had never seen. Even when the English returned in 1606, it was only that glorious scoundrel, John Smith, who showed any desire to explore beyond the coastal fringe and barrier rapids.
The dust cover claims that this book is the result of over fifty years of research which is evident in the detail and accuracy of each biography. However, that does not make it an easy read for fact follows fact with neither surmise nor interpretation. Its nature can be gleaned from the opening words of many of the paragraphs: ‘While’, ‘As’, ‘Shortly’, ‘After,’ ‘Prior’, ‘In early’, ‘During’, ‘In late.’ This is the language of a book of reference, a Dictionary of National Biography, not a gripping read for an armchair adventurer during a winter’s evening.
It is true that few readily available accounts tell the sad tale of Vitus Bering, of the synonymous Strait, but for many of the other explorers more stimulating works exist. It is noteworthy that the name of David Beers Quinn, the doyen of all historians of the early American settlements, does not feature even in the book’s bibliography. This is a pity for Quinn’s erudition, most pertinently The Discovery of North America would have poured much needed water on this arid prose. An interesting comparison in style might be with Andrew Lambert’s ‘Admirals’, a collection of ten biographies, unified by the overarching question, ‘Why for centuries was the British Navy the most successful organisation in the world? What does it take to lead such a force?’ Sadly ‘Explorers…’ asks no such similar questions of this major era of exploration and the one inadequate paragraph Conclusion offers no answers.
A book for the Reference Section of a Geographical Society or the North American aficionado, but probably not for the general reader of The Naval Review.