A Civilization of Explorers

Ricardo Duchesne

Measuring the Accomplishments of Civilizations

The claim that there were “surprising similarities” between the West and the more advanced regions of Asia as late as 1800–1830, and that the Industrial Revolution was the one transformation that set Europe apart from Asia is central to the arguments of multicultural historians such as Kenneth Pomeranz, Bin Wong, Jack Goldstone, John Hobson, and Peer Vries. These historians theorize the “rise of the West” as if it were only a question of explaining the onset of mechanized industry, the use of inorganic sources of energy, and the overcoming of Malthusian limits to growth. One critical argument of my book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization,1 is that the divergence of the West cannot be abstracted from the developmental history of the Greek and Roman assemblies of citizens; the parliaments, municipal communes, universities, and estates of the medieval era; and the reading societies, representative institutions, journals, and newspapers of the Enlightenment. The rise of liberal democratic institutions was a defining characteristic of the West’s uniqueness and its rise to supremacy.

Another argument of Uniqueness is that it is not any particular renaissance, revolution, or liberal institution that marks out the West but its far higher levels of achievement in all the intellectual and artistic spheres of life. I relied on Charles Murray’s book, Human Accomplishment: Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, to make this argument.2 This is the first effort to quantify “as facts” the accomplishments of individuals and countries across the world in the arts and sciences by calculating the amount of space allocated to these individuals in reference works, encyclopedias, and dictionaries.

Murray recognizes that one cannot apply a uniform standard of excellence for the diverse artistic traditions of the world, so he creates separate compilations for each of “the giants” in the arts of the Arab world, China, India, and Japan, as well as Europe. However, he produces combined (worldwide) inventories of the giants for each of the natural sciences, since world scientists themselves have come to accept the same methods and categories. The most striking feature of his list of giants in the sciences (the top twenty in astronomy, physics, biology, medicine, chemistry, earth sciences, and mathematics) is that they are all (excepting one Japanese) Western (84, 122–29). Murray concludes that “whether measured in people or events, 97 percent of accomplishment in the scientific inventories occurred in Europe and North America” from 800 BC to 1950 (252). One can debate the order of ranking of the top twenty, as Murray acknowledges, but in general, I think these lists capture rather well the most important figures and events.

The overwhelming role of Europe does not alter when one considers only the arts inventories, particularly after 1400. Although Murray does not compare their achievements but rather compiles separate lists for each civilization, he notes that the sheer number of “significant figures” in the arts is higher in the West in comparison to the combined number of the other civilizations (113, 131–42). In literature, the number in the West is 835, whereas in India, the Arab World, China, and Japan combined the number is 293. In the visual arts, it is 479 for the West as compared to 192 for China and Japan combined (with no significant figures listed for India and the Arab World). In music, “the lack of a tradition of named composers in non-Western civilization means that the Western total of 522 significant figures has no real competition at all” (259).

Limitations in Murray’s Accomplishments

In this essay, I challenge Murray’s restricted view of individual greatness. He pays no attention to accomplishments in other human endeavors such as warfare, voyages of discovery, and heroic leadership. His achievements come only in the form of “great books” and “great ideas.” In this respect, Human Accomplishments is akin to certain older-style Western Civilization textbooks in which the unfolding and embodiment of the ideas of reason and liberty are the central themes. David Gress dubbed this type of historiography “the Grand Narrative.”3 By teaching Western history in terms of the realization of liberal democratic values, these texts “placed a burden of justification on the West…to explain how the reality differed from the ideal.”4 Gress called upon historians to move away from this idealized image of Western uniqueness, and address the realities of Western geopolitical struggles and mercantile interests. Norman Davies, too, has criticized the way early Western Civilization courses tended to “filter out anything that might appear mundane or repulsive.”5

My view is that Europeans were not only exceptional in their literary endeavors but also in their contentious and expansionist behaviors. Their scholarly achievements, including their liberal values, were inseparably connected to their aristocratic ethos of competitive individualism. There is no need to concede to multicultural critics, as Norman Davies believes, “the sorry catalogue of wars, conflict, and persecutions that have dogged every stage of the [Western] tale.”6 The expansionist dispositions of Europeans were themselves driven by an intensely felt desire to achieve great deeds. Conversely, the “great ideas”—Archimedes’s “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world,” Hume’s “love of literary fame, my ruling passion”7—were associated with aristocratic traits, disputatiousness, and defiant temperaments.

The Faustian Soul of the West

It has been said that when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization he answered, “I think it would be a good idea.” Academics today interpret this answer to mean that the actual history of the West—the Crusades, the conquest of the Americas, the British Empire—belie its great ideas and great books. Below I challenge this naive separation between an idealized and a realistic West, using Oswald Spengler’s image of the West as a strikingly vibrant culture driven by a type of personality overflowing with expansive, disruptive, and creative impulses.

Spengler designated the West as a “Faustian” culture whose “prime-symbol” was “pure and limitless space.”8 This soul type was first visible in medieval Europe, starting with Romanesque art, but particularly in the “spaciousness of Gothic cathedrals”; “the heroes of the Grail and Arthurian and Siegfried sagas, ever roaming in the infinite; and the Crusades,” including “the Hohenstaufen in Sicily, the Hansa in the Baltic, the Teutonic Knights in the Slavonic East, [and later] the Spaniards in America, [and] the Portuguese in the East Indies.”9 “Fighting,” “progressing,” “overcoming of resistances,” battling “against what is near, tangible and easy”—these are some of the terms Spengler uses to describe this soul.10 This Faustian being was animated with the spirit of a “proud beast of prey,” like that of an “eagle, lion, [or] tiger.”11 Much like Hegel’s master, who engages in a fight to the death for pure prestige, for this being “the concerns of life, the deed, became more important than mere physical existence.”12

This spirit infused every cultural sphere of Western life. As John Farrenkopf puts it,

the architecture of the Gothic cathedral expresses the Faustian will to conquer the heavens; Western symphonic music conveys the Faustian urge to conjure up a dynamic, transcendent, infinite space of sound; Western perspective painting mirrors the Faustian will to infinite distance; and the Western novel responds to the Faustian imperative to explore the inner depths of the human personality while extending outward with a comprehensive view.13

Spengler thus writes of the “morphological relationship that inwardly binds together the expression-forms of all branches of Culture.”14 Rococo art, differential calculus, the Crusades, and conquest of the Americas were all expressions of the same restless soul. There is no incongruity between the “great ideas” of the West and the so-called “realities” of conflict, antagonism, and vainglory.

The history of European explorations stands as an excellent subject matter for the elucidation and the teaching of Western civilization. Most explorers in history have been European. Concise Encyclopedia of Explorations lists a total of 274 explorers, of which only fifteen are non-European, with none listed after the mid-fifteenth century.15 In the urge to explore the unknown, in the striving to claim new regions of the earth and map the nameless we can detect, in a crystallized way, the “prime-symbol” of Western restlessness: the desire for “limitless space” and the “derivatives” of this prime symbol: “Will,” “Force,” and “Supreme Deed.”

We can also detect the Western mind’s desire—if I may borrow the language of Hegel—to expand its cognitive horizon, to “subdue the outer world to its ends with an energy which has ensured for it the mastery of the world.”16 As we reach the history of exploration after the 1700s, this urge to explore eventually transcended the urge to conquer other spaces, or benefit economically, becoming an urge to explore for its own sake, an intense psychological desire to reach a certain peak or goal, to be “the first to set foot there.” By witnessing this type of exploration, driven by a desire that exceeded military, economic, or religious interests (which we commonly associate with human beings and cultures in general), we may be able to ascertain in a definite form the distinctive psyche of the West.

Exploratory-Geographical Activities of the Greeks

The science of geography was initiated by the Greeks. But just as pertinent is how this science was driven by individuated and contentious characters born in a culture engaged in widespread colonizing and travelling activities between 800 and 500 BC. Hecataeus (550–476 BC), author of the first book of geography, Journey Round the World, thus based his knowledge on his exploratory travels along the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, as well as the tabulation of countless news and rumors he had heard from a long generation of colonizing Greeks. To be sure, starting around the first millennium BC, the Phoenicians established colonies through the African shores in the western Mediterranean, Sardinia, Malta, and as far west as Gadir (or Cádiz in modern Spain), for an approximated total of thirty colonies by the sixth or fifth century BC. However, more than thirty Greek city-states each established multiple colonies, with the city of Miletus alone establishing about ninety colonies. All in all, Greek colonies extended throughout the Mediterranean coasts, the shores of the Black Sea, Anatolia in the east, southern France and Italy, Sicily, and in the northern coast of Africa—not to mention the long colonized islands of the Aegean Sea.

A popular explanation why the Greeks launched these overseas colonies is population growth and scarce resources at home. But the evidence shows that many of these colonial operations were small-scale undertakings rather than mass migrations led by impoverished farmers. Population, in any case, was not uncontrollable in principle. Commercial interests and the incentive to gain new agricultural lands were undoubtedly motivating factors.17 However, one cannot ignore the folklore of the times, the story of the Odyssey and other legends recounting the adventure and dangers of travelling through the Dardanelles and Bosporus, the legends of the Argonauts and Heracles, the nymph of Arethusa, and the goddess of Syracuse.

Centuries of overseas ventures undoubtedly produced a pioneering spirit among the Greeks. I am in agreement with A.G. Woodhead’s emphasis on the “general spirit of adventure” that permeated “the dawn of classical Hellas”:

This personal element, indeed, probably deserves more stress than it has received. It is fashionable to look for great impersonal causes and trends which, singly or in combination, produce a human response, and the economic considerations already discussed fall into that category.18

As Woodhead goes on to show, “many of the colonies had their origins in purely individual enterprise or extraordinary happenings.”19

Hecataeus envisioned the world as a disc surrounded by an ocean, with the Celts placed in the west, the Scythians on the north shores of the Black Sea, Libya in the south, and the Indus in the east. But soon there would be a challenger: Herodotus, born in 484 BC, the author of Histories. He, too, offered numerous geographical and ethnographic insights based on his adventurous expeditions down the Nile, eastwards through Syria to Babylon and Susa, and north to the world of the Scythians and Thracians, including an expedition to Italy. In explicit awareness of his contributions, and in apparent criticism of his predecessor, Herodotus wrote:

For my part I cannot but laugh when I see numbers of persons drawing maps of the world without having any reason to guide them, making, as they do, the Ocean-stream to run all around the earth, and the earth itself to be an exact circle as if described by a pair of compasses.20

This competitive desire of individuals to stand out from others was ingrained in the whole social outlook of classical Greece: in the Olympic Games, in the perpetual warring of the city-states, in the pursuit of a political career and in the competition among orators for the admiration of the citizens, in the Athenian theatre festivals, where numerous poets would take part in Dionysian competitions amid high civic splendor and religious ritual. New works of drama, philosophy, and music were expounded in the first-person form as an adversarial or athletic contest in the pursuit of truth.

During the Hellenistic centuries, explorers would venture into the Caspian, Aral, and Red Seas, establishing trading posts along the coasts of modern Eritrea and Somalia. Perhaps the most successful of Hellenistic explorers was Pytheas (380–306 BC). Born in the Greek colony of Massalia (Marseilles), he was the first to undertake an ambitious journey upwards through the Atlantic into the North Sea, and in so doing provided direct information on the shape of Europe. In his book, On the Ocean, which no longer survives but is known from quoted fragments, Pytheas recounts a journey to Brittany across the Channel into Cornwall, through the Irish Sea, the Baltic Sea, along the coast of Norway, and even to Iceland (“Thule”) around 320/300 BC, as recounted later by Strabo.

These explorations encouraged astronomical and geographical scholarship leading to the full conceptualization of the shape of the earth by Eratosthenes (276–185 BC), who not only contextualized the location of Europe in relation to the Atlantic and the North Sea, but also calculated the spherical size of the earth (within 5 percent of its true measure), with the obvious implication that the Mediterranean was only a small portion of the globe. This spirit of inquiry continued through the second century AD, in the Hellenistic city of Alexandria, when Ptolemy wrote his System of Astronomy and Geography. In these works Ptolemy carefully explained the principles and methods required in mapmaking, and in Universalis tabula produced the first world map depicting India, China, South-East Asia, the British Isles, Denmark, and East Africa below the Horn of Africa.

There was far less desire to explore the world’s geography and landscapes among the peoples of the non-Western world. While in the first century BC the Han dynasty extended its geographical boundaries south into Vietnam, north into Korea, and east into the Tarim Basin, the Chinese showed little geographical interest beyond their own borders. What is striking about such Chinese maps as Chu Ssu-Pen maps of 1311 and 1320 AD is how insular they were in comparison with the much earlier maps of Ptolemy (120–170 AD). The ability of Chinese geographers to apply grids to maps to determine the positions and distances of local places is well-attested. Yet, even a sixteenth-century reproduction of Zheng He’s sailing maps lacks any apposite scale, size, and sense of proportion regarding the major landmasses of the earth.

The Chinese supposition that the earth was flat remained almost unchanged from ancient times until Jesuit missionaries introduced modern ideas in the seventeenth century. C. Cullen writes:

The lack of instances of arguments for a spherical earth is, of course, compounded by the lack of instances of any counter-argument at all; the flat earth remained unquestioned. This situation persisted until well into the seventeenth century.21 (Emphasis added)

In stark contrast, the argumentative Milesian philosophers of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Thales, Anaximander, and Hecataus were already persuaded that the earth was a sphere; it is reported that they were the first to have made globes. Philolaus (470–385 BC), a Pythagorean, asserted that the earth was spherical and in motion, not around the sun, but around the “central fire” of the universe. Aristarchus of Samos (approximately 310–230 BC), went so far as to postulate the Copernican hypothesis that all planets, including the earth, revolve in circles around the sun, and that the earth rotates on its axis once in twenty-four hours. While the majority held Aristotle’s view (384–322 BC) that the earth is immobile at the centre of the universe, and while through the Middle Ages Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy was widely accepted, Cullen is correct in reminding us of the dialogical and contested manner in which views were held in the West:

There was, however, never any chance of such a powerful and successful hypothesis as the sphericity of the earth being abandoned so long as rational discussion continued.22

The Egyptians, the Maya, and the Chinese were relatively restricted to their homeland and immediate surroundings in their movements. The Chinese ventured momentarily into the Indian Ocean, but even after European ships had sailed into the harbors of the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Oceans, “no Indian or Chinese ship was ever seen in Seville, Amsterdam or London.”23 Indian civilization showed little curiosity about the geography of the world; its maps were symbolic and removed from any empirical concern with the actual location of places. Maritime activity among the relatively isolated civilizations of America was restricted to fishing from rafts and canoes; there was no contact between the two major cultural centers, the Aztecs and the Incas; the Inca Empire was crossed by two thousand miles of well-made mountain roads, but no maps were ever made of any of them. The Polynesians navigated across millions of square miles of the Pacific, but as gifted as they were in practical and experiential matters, they did not cultivate a body of geographical knowledge. The Phoenicians left no geographical documents of their colonizing activities.

The Viking Age of Exploration

The Vikings “discovered in their gray dawn the art of sailing the seas which emancipated them”—so says Spengler.24

During the last years of the eighth century, marauding bands of Vikings pillaged their way along the coastlines of Northern Europe. No obstacles could halt these warlords who went on to round Spain and fight in the Mediterranean, Italy, North Africa, and Arabia. Some hauled their long boats overland from the Baltic and made their way down the great Russian rivers all the way to the Black Sea. During the ninth and tenth centuries, the Vikings (or Norsemen, to be precise)25 continued their ventures, but increasingly their primary aim was finding new lands to settle rather than to plunder. The voyages of Norsemen far into the North Atlantic were “independent undertakings, part of a 300-year epoch of seaborne expansion” that resulted in the settlement of Scandinavian peoples in Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides, parts of Scotland and Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland (present-day Newfoundland).26 They colonized the little-known or unknown lands of Iceland from 870 AD forward, Greenland from 980 forward, and Vinland by 1000 AD.

The Norse settlers came with their sturdily made hafskip, vessels designed to be loaded with goods, implements, and domestic animals, over the open sea for long distances and capable of sailing faster speeds in high winds than the earlier Gotstad, which were coastal vessels of shallow draught. The hafskip was the ‘Knarr’ of the heroic North Saga literature.27 The shipbuilding techniques of the Norsemen were possibly the best at the time. The Landnamabok, a twelfth-century record of the Norse Atlantic settlements, contains information on a method of reckoning by which a sailor tried to steer his ship on more or less the correct line of latitude until reaching his destination.28 The Icelandic geographers of the Middle Ages showed considerable detailed knowledge in their descriptions of the Arctic regions, stretching from Russia to Greenland, and of the eastern seaboard of the North American continent. This is clearly attested in an Icelandic Geographical Treatise preserved in a manuscript dating from about 1300 AD, but possibly based on a twelfth-century original.

Whitfield speculates that “some conscious impulse towards exploration and conquest” must have motivated these voyages, “prompted by harsh living conditions at home.”29 The most reliable account may well come from the excellent Viking Age Iceland, in which author Jesse Byock explains that the settlement of Iceland was led by sailor-farmers seeking to escape population pressures in the Scandinavian mainland. In turn, the settlement of Greenland was initiated by Icelanders escaping Malthusian pressures in Iceland, which by 930 AD already had an estimated population of 30,000 inhabitants. At the same time, the cultural world Byock reveals through careful reading of the famed numerous sagas associated with Viking voyages and colonial life—Njál’s Saga (set in tenth-century Iceland), Greenlanders’ Saga (dated from latter in the twelfth century), Eirik’s Saga (mid-thirteenth century)—is populated by chieftains, free farmers, valorous deeds, enemies slain and territories taken, aristocratic-democratic forms of government, concerns for the honour and ethics of the individual and his family, the epic ideal of an individual’s sacrifice to duty to liege lord, and the heroic experiences of sailor-farmers colonizing Greenland and North America.30

In addition, Marco Polo’s (1254–1324) extensive travels through what is known today as Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China, Singapore, Indonesia, and India found expression in the Catalan Atlas of 1375. While this map reflected the beliefs of medieval geographers who espoused topographical myths and legends and were unaware of Ptolemy’s work, it was also innovative, and contained compass lines and accurately delineated the Mediterranean coasts. Ibn Battuta (1304–1374), the greatest Muslim traveler, visited every Muslim country and neighboring lands. But unlike Polo, who wished to travel through lands never visited by Europeans and learn about the many strange and unknown tribes of Asia, including the numinous land of Cathay,31 Battuta’s “overmastering impulse,” to use his own words, was to visit “illustrious sanctuaries.”32 On the strength of Ptolemy’s work, Islam fostered a geographical tradition that also benefitted by extensive Muslim dominions and travels. The greatest Islamic cartographer, Al-Idrisi, produced in 1154 a large planispheric silver relief map that was original in that it did not portray the Indian Ocean as landlocked and presented more precise knowledge of China’s eastern coast. But Islamic geography would go no further.

Portuguese versus Chinese Explorers

Spengler writes that the Spaniards and the Portuguese “were possessed by the adventure-craving for uncharted distances and for everything unknown and dangerous.”33 By the beginning of the 1400s, the compass, the portolan chart, and certain shipping techniques essential for launching the Age of Exploration were in place. These included the widespread adoption of the pintle-and-gudgeon rudder at the start of the 1300s, the mizzen mast and the foremast, as well as steady increases in ship tonnage toward the fourteenth century’s end.34

Under the leadership of Henry the Navigator and spearheaded by the ventures of Genoese sailors into the Atlantic and their discovery of Madeira and Azores, the Portuguese would proceed during the fifteenth century to round the southern tip of Africa, impose themselves through the Indian Ocean, and reach Japan in the 1540s. At first they relied on medieval maps, and possibly on Ptolemy’s newly rediscovered Geography, which was translated in 1418 and mistakenly assumed that southern Africa was joined to some Terra Incognita. But soon the Portuguese would create accurate maps of west Africa as far as Sierra Leone, and then rely on Fra Mauro’s new maps, one of which (1457) charted the entire Old World with unmatched accuracy while suggesting, for the first time, a navigable route around the southern tip of Africa. A mere two years after Diaz sailed around the Cape, Henricus Martellus created his World Map of 1490, which showed both the whole of Africa generally and the specific locations (with assigned names) of numerous places across the entire African west coast, detailing the step-by-step advancement of the Portuguese.35

“What motivated the expeditions of the Portuguese?” is a classic question. Conversely, so is “Why did China abandon the maritime explorations started by Zheng He?” Why were Zheng He’s expeditions less consequential historically than those initiated by Henry the Navigator? Let’s take a look at the answers found in Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, winner of the 2007 World History Association Book Prize—a work that mirrors the way the history of the West is taught today.

Fernández-Armesto’s response may be organized along the following four basic points. One, Zheng He’s voyages were a display of “China’s potential as the launching bay of a seaborne empire: the capacity and productivity of her shipyards; her ability to mount expeditions of crushing strength and dispatch them over vast distances.”36 These expeditions, however, “combined an imperial impulse with the peaceful inspiration of commerce and scholarship” (114). The objective was “impressing the ports he visited with Chinese power,” as well as “stimulating the awe of the emperor’s home constituency with exotica which the Chinese classified as the tribute of remote peoples” (112). Zheng He’s expeditions did not last, and were less consequential, because China’s Confucian government assigned priority to “good government at home” rather than “costly adventures” abroad, particularly in the face of the more immediate danger of barbarian incursions from the north (114).

Two, China was “governed by scholars [who] hated overseas adventures” (115). At the same time, Fernández-Armesto portrays China’s mode of exploration in rather admiring terms: her peaceful commerce, scholarship, good government, and even “vital contributions to the economies of every place they settled” (115). The academic world admires this style of exploration. But did Zheng He really explore anything or was he navigating well-known sea routes in the Indian Ocean?

Three, Fernández-Armesto would have us believe to the contrary, that the Chinese, not the Europeans, were the true explorers, on the grounds that Zheng He’s expeditions along the Indian Ocean were far more difficult than European voyages through the Atlantic:

The limits of Zheng He’s navigation [were due to the fact that] maritime Asia and coastal east Africa form a remarkably extensive monsoonal region….[I]n the Southern Indian Ocean, or beyond southeast Asia, into the Pacific, they would be compelled to sail against the wind; or, in other directions, they would face the risk of sailing with a following wind and probably never getting home. (p. 116)

The termination of Zheng He’s expeditions “was not the result of any deficiency of technology or curiosity” (116). Chinese shipping technology through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was superior. There was no point navigating beyond the known routes into such dangerous waters. The Chinese or any of the other navigators of this region could have gone down under Africa, but the risk was not worth the potential gains and, in any case, they already had what they needed—unlike the Europeans, who “came as supplicants, generally despised for their poverty” (116). Fernández-Armesto even says that the evidence that the Chinese crossed the Pacific into the Americas “is, at best, equivocal, it is perfectly possible that they may have done so” (116).

Four, Fernández-Armesto points out that Europeans had the motivation to explore. He makes much of the marginalized position—“poor or of limited exploitability” and “restricted opportunities to landward” areas—of the maritime peoples who have engaged in exploration throughout history (119).

There are many problems with Fernández-Armesto’s analysis, starting with his overestimation of the size and capacity of Zheng He’s ships. Not long ago, it was an oft-repeated statistic among Chinese scholars that the dimensions of Zheng He’s flagships were 138.4 meters long and 56 meters wide, but in recent decades these numbers have been lowered. In her popular When China Ruled the Seas, Louise Levathes points to early Chinese calculations, stating that “a wooden ship of this length [138.4 meters] would be very difficult to manoeuvre,” adding that “most scholars now believe that the [largest of the] treasure ships…were 309 and 408 ft long and 160 to 166 ft wide,” that is, 118.9 to 124.4 meters long and 48.8 to 50.6 meters wide.37

Fernández-Armesto does not offer any numbers on length and width, but adopts the tonnage displacement figure of 3,000, and says that this was ten times the size of the largest ships in Europe. However, in contrast to all these estimations, Sally Church points out that in 2001, Xin Yuanou, a shipbuilding engineer and professor of the history of science at Shanghai Jiaotong University, proposed the modest measurements of 59.1 meters long by 14 meters wide as the actual size of the ships—in others words, he reduced their size to less than half of what they were formerly thought to be. I cannot help having greater confidence in Church’s expertise and Xin Yuanou’s estimations than in the popularly accepted estimations.38

The second major flaw in Fernández-Armesto’s account (as in all current accounts of Zheng He’s expeditions) is the unquestioned presumption that the Chinese expeditions were “explorations” and, conversely, that the Portuguese expeditions were primarily economic in motivation. In actuality, the Chinese did not discover a single nautical mile—the Indian Ocean had been regularly navigated for a long time, unlike the Atlantic and the western coasts of Africa. The Portuguese were relatively poor and many of the sailors manning the ships longed for better opportunities, but what drove the leading men above all else was a chivalric (Faustian) desire for renowned and superior achievement in the face of the economic costs, persistent hardships, and high mortality rates.

I hope to make these claims more persuasive via a debate with the more studious arguments of Joseph Needham on the incentives/disincentives in the explorations of the Chinese and the Portuguese. Needham had already observed that one of “the primary motives of the [Chinese] voyages” was a “desire to impress upon foreign countries even beyond the limits of the known world the idea of China as the leading political and cultural power.”39 There was also “a proto-scientific function,” an “increase in knowledge of the coasts and islands of the Chinese culture-area” (131).

Needham is impressed as well by the “peaceful character of the Ming voyages” (132), adding that “the Chinese expeditions were the well-disciplined naval operations of an enormous feudal-bureaucratic state” (143). The “impetus” behind the expeditions was thus “primarily governmental,” “their trade (though large) was incidental” (143)—from which point Needham moves on to consider the reasons (motives) why the expeditions were terminated. First, the Confucian landed bureaucracy was skeptical of the aggrandizement of the Grand Eunuchs tied to the Court, believing that the funds used in the expeditions could be better spent on public projects at home. Second, the “serious deterioration on the north-western frontiers diverted all attention from the sea” (147). Thus far, Needham says pretty much what Fernández-Armesto says, though he is more analytical.

The Portuguese expeditions, Needham continues, were driven by very different motives. First, they hoped to sail around Africa and open links with the Indian Ocean and East Indian producers of silks and spices. Historians emphasize this motivation the most; it seems to be almost self-evidently true and ties so well with the materialist outlook of academics. Is not human nature driven by economic need, and is not the ruling class particularly keen on accumulating more than their fair share? Second—and here the contrast with the Chinese was “an extraordinary one”—the Portuguese set out with a warlike mindset: “it was the settled policy of the Westerners to destroy the Arab African-Indian trade root and branch” (142). This was accompanied by a “conquistador mentality” and a desire to make “one’s personal fortune” (143). Finally, missionary activity accompanied the Portuguese expeditions, so that “by the end of the fifteenth century the war against all Muslims was being extended to all Hindus and Buddhists too” (145).

“What a contrast” to the Chinese! Could not the Portuguese have behaved peacefully, going about their explorations in a bookish way, showing respect for other faiths, like Zheng He and the Chinese, who “conversed in the tongue of the Prophet and recalled the mosques of Yunnan, in India…presented offerings in Hindu temples, and venerated the traces of Buddha in Ceylon” (145)?40 In a culture in which the object of learning is to “create global citizens”41 and promote cultural harmony, it stands to reason that the Chinese methods of exploration would be preferred over the Portuguese.

But the historical truth is, the Portuguese accomplished many explorations, the Chinese none. A careful reading of Needham reveals this.

Needham was a Marxist writing in the 1950s, before the onset of political correctness. He enjoyed greater freedom to express the truth and was not compelled to address extra-scholarly goals and the socializing obligations of multicultural teaching. Needham acknowledges, for one, that “the Chinese achievement of the fifteenth century involved no revolutionary break with the past, while that of the Portuguese was more original” (139). While the Chinese were ahead of Europe in technology at the outset of the 1400s, their technology thereafter “remained for the most part unchanged” (141), whereas the Portuguese would advance continuously. Furthermore, “the Portuguese showed seemingly more originality than the Chinese, and this was the use of the régime of winds and currents” (141). And, Needham adds, in contrast to Fernández-Armesto’s imaginings, “the problems they had to face were more difficult, and they rose gallantly to the challenge” (141):

Almost as far south as Madagascar the Chinese were in the realms of the monsoons, the “junk-driving winds” with which they had been familiar in their own home waters for more than a millennium. But the inhospitable Atlantic had never encouraged sailors in the same way, and though there had been a number of attempts to sail westwards, that ocean had never been systematically explored. (p. 141, emphasis added)

The Chinese traversed well-known waters; their “voyages were essentially an urbane but systematic tour of inspection of the known world” (148, emphasis added).

While Needham recognizes that the Portuguese discovered new routes and navigational techniques, mapped out the entire western African coastline, and rounded the southern tip of Africa, he thinks that their “motives were primarily religious and economic” (148) rather than exploratory, and suggests that their voyages are therefore best understood in economic (and second, in religious) terms. By “geographical explorations” Needham seems to have in mind a relatively peaceful scholarly curiosity. In suggesting that the Chinese were truer to the art of exploration because they toured peacefully while the Portuguese were driven by greed and missionary zeal, Needham sometimes sounds like Fernández-Armesto.

I argue that the motives of the Portuguese explorers cannot be adequately explained in economic and religious terms without considering the feudal, chivalric, and warlike spirit of the aristocratic fidalgos (or hidalgos in Spanish). In Pathfinders, Fernández-Armesto actually highlights the “chivalry-steeped world” of the Portuguese and Spanish explorers (129). He recognizes this chivalric spirit for what it was, writing that “the glamour of great deeds thrilled” Henry the Navigator, citing Henry’s words that to make “great and noble conquests and to uncover secrets previously hidden from men” was his goal (131). Fernández-Armesto even writes:

we have seen evidence of one feature of European culture which did make the region peculiarly conducive to breeding explorers. They were steeped in the idealization of adventure. Many of them shared or strove to embody the great aristocratic ethos of their day—the “code” of chivalry.42 (p. 145, emphasis added)

But for Fernández-Armesto, this was an ethos “of the day” rooted in medieval romances exclusive to Portugal and Spain. And these comments on chivalry are located in a section entitled “The European Miracle?” which argues precisely against any notion of Western uniqueness. Moreover, Fernández-Armesto does not properly explain the differences and connections between economic, religious, and chivalric motivations, but confounds them all.

The Spaniards

As I see it, the chivalric motivations of the Portuguese colored and intensified their other motivations, and this is why they (and other European explorers) exhibited an excessive yearning for spices and gold, a crusading zeal against non-Christians, a relentless determination to master the seas. The chivalry of the Portuguese was a knightly variation of the same Faustian longing the West has displayed since prehistoric times. In its barbaric, uncivilized expression, this yearning can be described, in Spenglerian terms, as “the feelings of an energetic human being, the fierceness and the joy of tension, danger, violent deed, victory, crime, the triumph of overcoming and destroying.”43 The willfulness of Henry the Navigator, Bartholomew Diaz, Vasco Da Gama, and Pedro Cabral has been evident throughout Europe’s history. The ancient Greeks, who established colonies throughout the Mediterranean, the Macedonians, who marched to “the ends of the world,” the Romans, who created the greatest empire in history, the Franks, who carved out Charlemagne’s Empire, the Crusaders, who wreaked havoc on the Near East, and the Portuguese, who pushed onto the tranquil world of the Indian Ocean with their gunned ships, were all similarly driven by an “irrepressible urge to distance.”44

The Portuguese were not unique among their contemporaries. No sooner did Columbus sight the “West Indies” in 1492, one European explorer after another came forth, eager for great deeds. In 1497, John Cabot secured the support of Bristol merchants for a voyage during which he discovered Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Between May 1499 and June 1500, Amerigo Vespucci navigated up to the coast of Guyana, and then on May 1501 sailed again from Lisbon to Brazil. By the 1520s, the Spanish and other navigators had explored the eastern coast of the two Americas from Labrador to Rio de la Plata. From 1519 to 1522 Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese, led the first successful attempt to circumnavigate the earth through the unimagined vastness of the Pacific Ocean. “Magellan’s energy and vision,” writes Whitfield, “equaled that of Columbus, and he shared with his great predecessor the tenacity of a man driven by something deeper than common ambition.”45

Between 1519 and 1521 Hernán Cortés consciously put himself at the command of an expedition that would result in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Today, many regard Cortés as a kind of criminal, which is true. The campaigns he conducted against the Mexicans reached shocking levels of atrocity and barbarity. At the same time, Cortés was a prototypical Western aristocrat or, as described by his secretary, a man “restless, haughty, mischievous, and given to quarrelling.”46 Cortés was born in 1485 in Medellin, Spain, one of the strongholds used in the Reconquista; his father was a poor hidalgo. Cortés studied Latin at the University of Salamanca, but, like other members of his class, he was lured by tales of new discoveries in America, and sailed in 1504 for the New World. Fifteen years later, he would go on to conquer the Aztec empire with a few hundred “chivalrous men bred on war and adventure” (10).

The running story on Cortés, who is belittled or despised within the academic world today, is that if he had not conquered Mexico someone or something else would have: the real agents were the harquebusiers, the steel swords, the horses, and the germs. Far more persuasive is Buddy Levy’s fascinating account, Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. Without denying any of these external factors, Levy portrays Cortés as a man who repeatedly displayed an astonishing combination of leadership, tenacity, diplomacy, and tactical skill (328–29). Even after La Noche Triste, when nearly six hundred Spaniards perished in one night, including a great number of horses, and all the cannons were lost, his men responded earnestly to Cortés’s vigor, charisma and gravity of purpose.

Drawing on Cortés’s letters, the biography written in 1552 by Francisco Lopez de Gomara (Cortés’s secretary), the highly reliable memoirs of Bernal Diaz del Castillo (a soldier present in all three expeditions to Mexico and a participant in Cortés’s hundred-plus battles) published in 1568 under the title True History of the Conquest of New Spain, not to mention numerous additional sources, Levy brings out in dramatic prose Cortés’s nerve, boldness, and resilience. Cortés’s impassioned speeches and the character descriptions of his contemporaries testify to his aristocratic ethos:

I have no other favor to ask of you or to remind you of but that this is the touchstone of our honor and our glory for ever and ever, and it is better to die worthily than to live dishonored. (p. 156)

[T]he letter stated that Cortés’s pursuit of the present conquest was driven by “his insatiable thirst for glory and authority,” and that “he thinks nothing of dying himself, and less of our death.” (p. 203)

[His] men were morally and spiritually exhausted. His only recourse was to lead them by example. He would not allow the expedition to crumble and fail. He must rally their sense of duty, pride, and above all honor….“Victories are not won by the many but by the valiant”….“fortune always favors the bold.” (p. 204)

Finding gold was undoubtedly a priority for Cortés and his men from the beginning; in the words of one Nahualt Indian, as translated by a Dominican friar, “they thirsted mightily for the gold, they stuffed themselves with it, and starved and lusted for it like pigs” (100). However, Cortés appealed not only to the greediness of his soldiers, but also to their faithfulness and honor. These motives were, in his apt words, part of “the same package” (224–25). For all the immense wealth, estates, and eulogies Cortés came to enjoy later in life, the “Gran Conquistador” “never lost his adventurous spirit” (327). Cortés discovered the peninsula of Baja California in 1536, attempted an expedition to Honduras in 1524 bedeviled with disease, mutiny, and the death of most of his men, and carried out a final, disastrous, expedition to Algiers in 1541 (329).

A similar account can be given of Francisco Pizarro. In January 1531 he embarked with 168 men (sixty-two on horseback) for Peru. Pizarro’s character was molded in a region known in Spain as “Extremadura,” an impoverished feudal area covered in arid scrub, known for producing men “who showed little emotion and who were known to be as tough and unsympathetic as the landscape which nurtured them.”47 In the 1980s animated series, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Pizarro is depicted as an unscrupulous criminal who valued gold above else.

The accomplishments of Pizarro are nonetheless remarkable. An illegitimate son of a colonel of the Spanish infantry, he faced the Incas with a smaller army and fewer resources than Cortés at a much greater distance from the Spanish Caribbean outposts than could easily support him. Jared Diamond thinks it was all about “guns, germs, and steel.”48 I would underline the chivalric ethos of Pizarro’s world, the way Columbus’s fantastic tales fired the imagination of the teenaged Pizarro, a member of the feudal nobility yet without title, a hidalgo with a superlative longing for honorific recognition. The lust for gold clearly existed among the Spanish conquerors, who dreamed of what they would do with their ingots if they survived, but the central character of this saga, Pizarro, was motivated, like Cortés, by something altogether immaterial.49

The same spirit that drove Cortés and Pizarro drove Luther in his uncompromising and audacious challenge to the Papacy’s authority: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” It drove the “intense rivalry” that characterized the art of the Renaissance among patrons, collectors, and artists, which culminated in the persons of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian.50 It motivated Shakespeare to outdo Chaucer and his finely chiseled characters to create more than 120 of his own—“the most memorable personalities that have graced the theater—and the psyche—of the West.”51

Let us remember that the age of the conquistadors was Spain’s El Siglo del Oro, and that together with the explorations there was a veritable revolution in cartography. As early as 1507, the German cosmographer Martin Waldseemuller depicted a coastline from Newfoundland to Argentina and showed the two American continents clearly separated from Asia.52 By 1569, the Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator had solved the extremely difficult problem of converting the three-dimensional globe into a two-dimensional map, or projecting figures from a sphere onto a flat sheet. His world map of 1569 was the product of decades of harmonizing a vast number of sources and travel narratives into a single geographic picture of the planet, including the Antarctic landmass.53

Human Nature Has No Urge to Explore

In the face of a list of motivations like the desire to acquire wealth and conquer new lands, it is very difficult to capture the Faustian character of the explorers. Even so, the history of exploration during and after the Enlightenment era offers an opportunity to detect and apprehend this soul. From about 1700 forward, explorers were increasingly driven by a will to discover regardless of the pursuit of trade, religious conversion, or even scientific curiosity. It is not that the pure desire to explore exhibits the Faustian soul as such. The urge to accumulate vast riches and promote new ways to explain the nature of things may exhibit this will just as intensively. The difference is that in the desire to explore for its own sake we can see the West’s psyche striving to surpass the mundane preoccupations of ordinary life, proving what it means to be an aristocrat rather an ordinary mortal satisfied with mere existence and biological longevity.

The desire to “be the first human to set foot there” and not to yield to any obstacle provides a revealing index of (or window into) the unique dynamics of the West. In the case of Cortés and Pizarro, it is difficult to look through this window, because their insatiable desire for great deeds was tightly wrapped up (in the “same package”) with economic and military desires we tend to regard as typical among all peoples and cultures. But when considering the eighteenth century we find that exploration for its own sake becomes the dominant motivation over the search for spices and gold, lands to colonize, and souls to convert, it affords the opportunity to highlight this uniquely Western Faustian impulse.

The minimization of any substantial differences among human beings cultivated by the modern model of human nature has clouded our ability to apprehend this Faustian soul. The original outlooks of Locke and the French philosophes, themselves the product of the persistent Western quest to interpret the world anew, fostered a democratic model that regarded humans as indeterminate and more or less equal, “white paper or wax,” malleable beings determined by outside circumstances, without tradition and culture. This egalitarian view was nurtured as well in the philosophy of Descartes, Leibnitz, and Kant, with its emphasis on the innate and equally apriori cognitive capacities of humans qua humans. And in Hume, despite his emphasis on the will as opposed to reason, since he did not focus on possible cultural differences in the mode (whether individualist or collectivist) and intensity of expression of the will, but spoke of intentional actions as the immediate product of the “human passions,” naturally.

It should come as no surprise, then, that historians constantly write of passions and motivations as essentially alike across all cultures. In terms of exploration, we are typically informed that “the desire to penetrate and explore the world’s wild places is a fundamental human impulse.”54 Frank Debenham’s Discovery and Exploration, a broad survey published in 1960, is subtitled An Atlas-History of Man’s Journeys into the Unknown. The text has the air of many published in the twentieth century dedicated to the edification of the lay public: “The Ascent of Man,” “The Great Ages of Man,” “The History of Man.” The introduction to Discovery and Exploration, written by Edward Shackleton, son of the great explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, states:

Man has always been inquisitive. Sometimes he has crept, and sometimes he has marched boldly to the limit of his known environment; then some have been courageous enough to risk going beyond…The real story of discovery and exploration begins with those early travelers who went in search of trade, who felt compelled to disseminate religious ideals, and who wanted to claim new lands for the glory of their country. Yet many explorers have set out without such apparent motives, and if we ask why these particular men went travelling, we might just as well ask why man undertakes anything. Sometimes they went out of simple curiosity, which is the basis of scientific exploration today....It is the striving to know, this inquisitiveness that lies deep in man’s nature that has been a mainspring of discovery and exploration.55

There are three thoughts running through this passage: (1) certain non-exploratory motivations such as trade, missionary work, and “scientific” knowledge drive men into exploration, but (2) exploration appears to be driven as well by “simple curiosity,” which is not clearly distinguished from the pursuit of “scientific” knowledge, but is nevertheless something else—“inquisitiveness”—and (3) these non-exploratory motivations and exploratory/inquisitive motivations are part of “man’s nature.”

But later on, in trying to explain the end of “Cheng Ho’s” voyages, Debenham says that the Asians “apparently lacked an urge to explore.” In the next sentence, he falls back on the standard explanation why they had “no need” to seek out new trade routes, and thus to explore: they were already a “self-sufficient” and highly civilized people.56 Yet, much of Discovery and Exploration is about (modern and wealthier) Europeans hiking across the globe for no apparent reason other than the urge to explore the unknown. An appendix, “Famous Explorers and Their Routes,” lists a total of 203 names, of which only eight are non-Western.57

Similarly, in Peter Whitfield’s New Found Lands, every explorer mentioned after Zheng He is Western. In the last two sentences, as if finally aware of this overwhelming statistical reality, Whitfield almost says outright that exploration is uniquely European “in spirit” and not intrinsic to the “oriental spirit,” citing an “oriental sage” for whom:

The next place might be so near at hand that one could hear the cocks crowing in it and the dogs barking, but one could grow old and die without ever wishing to go there.

After which he concludes:

This [Oriental] spirit is fundamentally opposed to the European drive for knowledge and for the power that knowledge brought with it. All the various phases of European exploration [military, commercial, scientific, romantic…] form a revealing index to the dynamic but flawed psychology of European civilization.58

Current academics reject ab initio any notion of an exclusively “European psyche.” Yet the existing sources, biographies, encyclopedias, and histories tell us that almost all the explorers were European. Robin Hanbury-Tenison, an explorer, filmmaker, and conservationist, recently edited The Great Explorers, to which an “international group of distinguished travel writers, broadcasters, and historians” contributed short biographical essays on the foremost explorers of “the oceans,” “the land,” “rivers,” “polar ice,” “life on earth,” and “new frontiers.” Only one of the forty biographies is about a non-Westerner, Nain Singh (1830?–1882), who mapped the great plateau of Tibet.59 Nonetheless, the inside jacket of The Great Explorers opens with this sentence:

It has always been mankind’s gift, or curse, to be inquisitive, and through the ages people have been driven to explore the limits of the worlds known to them—and beyond.60

The “Inward Purpose” of Western Exploration

Europe’s singular achievements are unbearably disconcerting to promoters of diversity. When in Pathfinders Fernández-Armesto reaches the modern era with only European explorers standing, there is an odd change in his tone. He wanted a survey of “human exploration from prehistory to the present,” as an Atlantic Monthly reviewer describes it. Likewise, in her New York Times review Candice Millard designates Pathfinders a “study of humankind’s restless spirit.”61

Fernández-Armesto seems rather enthusiastic in the opening chapters as he recounts “the first trail finders” from prehistoric times, the “communications” between civilizations, and Polynesian exploration of the Pacific. He uses “elegant” and “felicitous” words (to borrow another reviewer’s language) for these “trailblazers.”62 But as his narrative passes through the fifteenth century, past the Chinese expeditions, there is a conspicuous change in attitude toward the whole business of exploration. As Fernández-Armesto reaches the 1700s, when the European voyages start to take on a more scientific and humane character, the tenor of Pathfinders becomes extremely cynical and disparaging. Chapter 8, which deals with the period between 1740 and 1840, opens with this sentence: “What good came of all this exploration?” After which Fernández-Armesto uses Diderot’s words to denounce the “base motives” that drove the explorers: the “‘tyranny, crime, ambition, misery, curiosity’” (290).

The most illustrious member of this emerging group of “criminal” explorers was Captain Cook. As a young apprentice on a navy merchant ship, Cook applied himself to the study of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation, and astronomy. During the course of his three legendary Pacific voyages between 1768 and 1779, Cook showed that New Holland and New Guinea are two separate lands or islands, dispelled belief in the long-imagined southern continent, discovered New Caledonia, charted Easter Island, and discovered the Hawaiian Islands. It is said that Cook explored more of the earth’s surface than any other man in history. His methods were “painstaking, practical, and humane,” and he prided himself on feats achieved “without loss of life among his crew as in the discoveries themselves.”63 Cook was undoubtedly a heroic figure filled with a zeal for greatness and adventure, a man with “indomitable courage.” In his own words, what Cook wanted above all else was the “pleasure of being first”: to sail “not only farther than man has been before me but as far as I think it possible for man to go.”64

Fernández-Armesto’s disapproving tone takes on a heightened character regarding the most benign forms of exploration, those to the Polar Regions and the interior of Africa. As he bluntly puts it at the end of Pathfinders, “almost all the explorers who have featured in this chapter [from 1850 to 2000] were failures…hampered by characteristic vices: amateurism, naivety…credulousness…bombast, mendacity… sheer incompetence” (394).

I have argued here to the contrary, that the history of exploration provides us with a profoundly revealing index of Western heroic self-fashioning. There is much to be learned about the uniqueness of the West in the life experiences and motivations that drove such men as Roald Amundsen to be the first to traverse successfully the fabled Northwest Passage and the first to reach the South Pole. We should not undervalue the “spirit” or “soul” that underlies Amundsen’s own self-understanding:

Strangely enough the thing in Sir John Franklin’s narrative that appealed to me the most strongly was the suffering that he and his men endured. A strange ambition burned within me to endure those same sufferings.65

Fernández-Armesto, winner of the Caird Medal of the National Maritime Museum (UK) and the Premio Nacional a Investigacion of the Sociedad Geográfica Española, delights in the use of mocking phrases against Robert Falcon Scott’s somber expressions of boldness, risk, duty, and resolve during the last days of his tragic expedition to the South Pole in 1911–1912. Max Jones offers a far more incisive assessment of the significance of Scott, less as a “great” explorer than someone who “composed the most haunting journal in the history of exploration…a last testament of duty and sacrifice.”66 Jones extols the captivating power of the journals, the mounting tension, the constant anxiety as the ship battles to reach the Antarctica coast, and the epic-like account of the relentless march to the Pole.

Jones situates Scott within a wider cultural setting, tracing the intellectual influences on Scott’s writing: his immersion in polar literature, his awareness of characters in major novels who sought to prove themselves, his copy of On the Origin of Species and Scott’s “bleak vision of the universe as a struggle for existence,” the literary influences of Henrik Ibsen and Thomas Hardy and their fascination with the dependency of the human will on the indifferent power of nature and necessity (xxxiv–xxxvii).

Overall, the pervading idea of the journals is the heroic vision of exploration as a test of individual worthiness and national character. From his early manhood, Scott was filled with anxiety and doubts about his adequacy in life’s struggles: “I write of the future; of the hopes of being more worthy; but shall I ever be—can I alone, poor weak wretch that I am bear up against it all” (xix). Expedition narratives through the nineteenth century became ever more focused on the character of the explorer rather than the economic externalities, as exploration became an inner journey, “a journey into the self, nowhere more so than in the emptiest of continents, Antarctica” (xxxiv). Scott understood this: “Here the outward show is nothing; it is the inward purpose that counts” (xxxv). There was nothing to meet in the center of Antarctica except the reflection of the inner Western quest to face the struggle of life in a heroic fashion.

I hope to persuade some readers that an awareness of the uniquely Faustian and exploratory spirit of Westerners provides us with a great opportunity to ignite interest in the teaching of this civilization beyond the false opposition between an “idealized” and a “realistic” West. There is no such separation: the good ideas and the aggressive acts of the West have grown together inextricably—but they have also developed in a more humane direction.

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