Wednesday’s Book Review: “Pathfinders”

PathfindersPathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. By Felipe Fernández-Armesto. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2006. 16 pages of color illus., 44 b&w illus., 48 maps. ISBN: 978-0—393-06259-5, hardcover with dustjacket, $27.95USD. 432 pp.

It is impossible not to be impressed with this challenging narrative of terrestrial exploration written for a broad audience. A master storyteller with a penchant for offering both significant insights and shocking opinion with wit and verve, Felipe Fernández-Armesto never fails to delight in both Pathfinders as well as in earlier works. I also believe, as should become clear as you read this review, why the book might be of interest to those interested in the history of space exploration.

Fernández-Armesto’s organizational structure allows him to narrate rather deftly a comprehensive account of world exploration since the rise of Homo erectus while maintaining a strong unifying chronology. The evocativeness of the chapter titles—“Stretching,” “Vaulting,” and “Deepening,” are only three examples—characterize whole ages in the history of exploration. He moves seamlessly from region to region around the globe—from the cradle of humanity in the Tigris and Euphrates region, to the Pacific Islands, to the Middle East and Africa, to the Americas, to the poles—always offering useful anecdotes and analysis. Along the way he relates the five major elements that drove exploration: (1) quest for resources, (2) technological and scientific capabilities that made exploration possible, (3) political support/will, (4) economic stability and at least some growth, and (5) the means to incorporate what was discovered into a useful body of knowledge to sustain further exploitation. Among all the others, Fernández-Armesto emphasizes the critical roles played by economics and politics in global exploration.

I was especially impressed when the author narrows his focus to explore the histories of such individuals as Columbus and to place him in historical context. The discussion of Prince Henry the Navigator (Dom Henrique) was masterful. I had always read about him as a single-minded explorer who was searching for a water route to India, and that is true as far as it goes, but the author draws a portrait of a fame-seeking, power-grabbing brigand who was little more than a pirate. The Portuguese adventurer’s name, Prince Henry the Navigator, as Fernández-Armesto makes clear, “is misleading for a patron of navigators who himself never make more than two or three short sea trips on familiar routes between Iberia and Morocco (p. 129). Henry was “a world of shabby swagger,” while the “glamour of great deeds—grandes fectos—thrilled him” (p. 130). He was, according to the author, less interested in trade with India than in conquering the Canary Islands, creating plantations there, and enslaving Africans to work them. It was a devastating portrait, on a level in terms of skill as any by H.L. Mencken or Bernard DeVoto.

Perhaps what is most valuable about Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration is Fernandez-Armesto’s rather unique repositioning of the history of exploration as a ubiquitous, ancient, and the continuing process of de-globalization and re-globalization. In that context, his emphasis on the movement of first peoples out of the cradle of humanity in the Middle East to populate the globe and evolve into differing races, ethnic clusters, and language groups. Over time, these groups lost knowledge of their common heritage and only with the European expansion that began in the fifteenth century did the process of re-globalization begin. In essence the explorers fabled in story and song performed the critical task of bringing the world’s peoples back together—a process that continues to the present. As an overarching thesis this approach enables Fernandez-Armesto to construct a seamless history of exploration that successfully merges nations, agendas, and eras. Regardless of the era, nation, or the explorers themselves, the author deploys this thesis to unite traditional exploration narratives with such things as the Polynesian Diaspora, the Viking collapse in Greenland, and the Chinese treasure fleet.

Fernandez-Armesto’s approach raises one large difficulty. “Exploration” as a term is employed in a variety of ways to denote differing types of human behavior, everything from traditional expeditions to population migrations to full Diasporas based on fundamental climate change and other catastrophic events. Sometimes this can be tedious, and this difficulty must be balanced with the other very real accomplishments offered in Pathfinders. Overall, the book is a great success, offering a unique twist on a subject well-trod in the past.

Is there a reason for historians of spaceflight to pay attention to this book? I think so. I was struck by the broad inclusion of everything that might remotely be considered exploration into this study, and the incorporation of space exploration in this grand sweep of history seems appropriate. The story of Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 is basically a continuation of the expeditions of discovery throughout the ages. Moreover, the theme of de-globalization and re-globalization might be reinterpreted in the context of spaceflight as a broad de-cosmism and re-cosmism. Scientific theories of the origin of life on Earth often speculate on seeding from the cosmos. Like those divergent peoples that emerged during millennia after leaving the Middle East who lost track of their origins and were in essence de-globalized, humanity has been de-cosmized and has little understanding of its origins as star stuff. Space exploration offers an opportunity for re-cosmism. I don’t want to push this point too far, and admittedly it is a stretch as an interpretive frame, but I hope it is something worth thinking about and modifying and perhaps using in some way.

All in all, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration is a useful means of considering how exploration has shaped the history of the world. It is a transnational survey, and as such it is often illuminating and thought provoking.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Pathfinders”

  1. “..humanity has been de-cosmized and has little understanding of its origins as star stuff. Space exploration offers an opportunity for re-cosmism”

    This is an incredibly compelling concept in terms of the psychology of space exploration, of how it’s deeply changed the perceptions of past and current space explorers, how it may influence us in the future when we return to the moon and as we go farther, individually and collectively.

    Unfortunate that similar topics have been mangled in New Age rhetoric. I’d very much like to see this topic explored intelligently and realistically.


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