The Last Blank Spaces: Exploring Africa and Australia

Dane Kennedy. Harvard Univ., $35 (360p) ISBN 978-0-674-04847-8
Triumphalist narratives of European trailblazers leave out complexity and conflict, along with the contributions of indigenous peoples, according to this probing social history of 19th-century imperialist British exploration. Kennedy, a historian at the George Washington University, surveys dozens of expeditions into the African and Australian interiors, from the famous epics of Stanley and Livingstone to unsung treks that ended in death and obscurity. Ostensibly, he notes, these journeys were “scientific” investigations that used techniques developed by oceanic explorers—including the punctilious recording of navigational and weather data, and specimen gathering—to illuminate uncharted territories. The explorers viewed the landmasses they were crossing as vast uninhabited “oceans.” They also partook of the nascent scientific community’s vicious theoretical and professional rivalries. But in reality, the author argues, explorers were only metaphorically at sea, as they were among natives, on whom they relied for safe passage, food, and crucial knowledge of the way forward. Kennedy shrewdly dissects the ideology of exploration as the adventurous standard-bearer of progress and sets it against the record of British explorers confronting sophisticated, canny, contentious locals with their own agendas and formidable resources. These locals helped, thwarted, and sometimes even took command of European expeditions. Kennedy’s erudite yet highly readable study restores much of the nuance and drama that has been airbrushed out of standard accounts of Western exploration. 15 halftones, 2 maps, 1 table. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/14/2013
Release date: 03/01/2013
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