The visual record does not always reflect the hard physical labour and extreme danger involved in major climbing expeditions.
'Porters enjoying the late afternoon sunshine at Camp II on the East Rongbuk Glacier, while Peter Oliver practices his step-cutting on one of the glacier's spectacular ice pinnacles'. By Hugh Ruttledge, 1936. B & W photograph, 8.7 – 6.3cm, S0004993.
Assistance from local guides was essential in identifying potential dangers - poisonous species, unpredictable rivers, uncharted territories - which could literally mean the difference between life and death. In Amazonian exploration, Europeans needed their local field assistants far more than the latter needed Europeans. Local workers were often in a strong bargaining position, hence the frequent complaints of Europeans about obstruction or refusals to continue.
'An island passage of the River Amazon. By L. Haghe after William Smyth'. Lithograph, in W. Smyth and F. Lowe, Narrative of a journey from Lima to Para, across the Andes and down the Amazon (London, 1836), 10.5 x 17.3 cm, S0020640
In the 1920s, George Dyott relied heavily on a Bakairi Indian guide named Bernadino. Guides and interpreters were often themselves outsiders to the inhabitants of areas through which expeditions moved: they played the vital role of mediator between the explorers and the locals. In their descriptions of such go-betweens, explorers moved all too quickly from praise to disdain, unwilling perhaps to expose the sheer extent of their own dependence.
'First day down the Kuluseu, carrying the baggage'. By G. Dyott, 1928. B & W photograph, 21.6 x 16.5 cm, S0005881
Some of the more detailed descriptions of non-European contributions are to be found in the case of African exploration. The recruitment of porters and soldiers was a vital moment in the organisation of any major expedition, and explorers in East Africa often began this work in Zanzibar. Subsequent accounts by the European team leaders will often make reference to key African team members. Uledi, a Muslim from Zanzibar, was employed by Stanley on all his major African expeditions.
'Uledi, coxswain. Being an excellent swimmer, he saved many lives'. By Lily Frere, 1877. Watercolour, 14.1 x 20.2cm, S0020689
These expedition parties also often contained significant numbers of women and children, working alongside their husbands and fathers. Unusually, Catherine Frere's 1877 sketch of the women in Henry Morton Stanley’s trans-African expedition party makes careful note of their names.
'Some of the Zanzibar and other natives of Mr H. M. Stanley's party'. By Catherine Frere, 1877. Watercolour, 35.4 x 50.6cm, S0020691
It is possible that this photograph depicts a young George Francis Tembo, an African who worked with Speke and Grant to sift through available evidence to determine the sources of the Nile.
'Head Janissary of the British Consulate, Zanzibar with two emancipated slave boys; the smaller of the two is from "Uniamesi" or the Country of the Moon'. By J. A. Grant, 1860. Stereoscopic photograph, 7.6 x 16.5 cm, S0010495
Many European and American navigators searching for the North-West passage relied on Inuit for supplies and directions. The latter can be seen in this drawing which appears in John Ross’ Narrative of a second voyage in search of a North-West passage (1835). The image shows Inuit navigators, named as 'Ikmalick and Apelagliu', sharing their observations with the expedition’s European officers. Inuit charts were reproduced in expedition reports.
'Ikmalick and Apelagliu. By J. Brandard, after a drawing by John Ross'. Lithograph, in J. Ross, Narrative of a second voyage in search of a North-West passage, London, 1935, 8 x 12.7cm, S0020058
Local knowledge and skill was appropriated by Europeans, especially where it could easily be fitted into existing forms of knowledge, such as a topographic map or a land survey. The development of surveying in colonial India depended heavily on pre-colonial traditions of survey as well as indigenous labour.
'Surveying in India'. By Maclure, Macdonald & Macgregor after W. S. Sherwill. Lithograph, in R. Smyth & H. L. Thuillier, A Manual of surveying for India, London, 1855, 9.6 x 16.7cm, S0001216
European explorers collected information about many aspects of local cultures, notably languages, material objects and techniques of travel. This remarkable map was compiled by missionary Sigismund Köelle on the basis of hundreds of interviews with former slaves in Sierra Leone, as part of his research into over one hundred African languages. Köelle's field research remains relevant to historians working on the geographical reach of the Atlantic slave trade.
'Map of the tropical regions of Africa…showing the approximate localities of the languages collected by the Revd. S. W. Köelle'. By Augustus Petermann. Fold-out printed map, in S. W. Köelle, Polyglotta Africana, or a comparative vocabulary of nearly three hundred words and phrases in more than one hundred distinct African languages, London, 1854, 66.8 x 99.1cm, S0020775
Ali, a sixteen-year old from Borneo, became a skilled specimen collector in his work for Alfred Russel Wallace. Like all field naturalists working in the tropics, Wallace depended on local assistance.
'My faithful Malay boy - Ali, 1855-1862'. B & W photograph, in A. R. Wallace, My life: a record of events and opinions, London, 1905, 22 x 14.4cm, S0020488
Portrait of Juan Tepano, Katherine Routledge’s most important informant during her researches on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), 1914-15. Tepano had previously served in the Chilean military and was a respected figure on the island.
'Juan Tepano – Clan Tupahotu'. By Katherine Routledge, 1915. B & W photograph, 17.8 x 12.8 cm, S0020559
Katherine Routledge used interviews with Rapa Nui residents to reinterpret ethnographic materials gathered by previous travellers. She recorded local testimony in her notebooks, alongside photographs of artefacts from the British Museum.
British Museum Easter Island collection. By Katherine Routledge, date unknown. MSS notebook, two pages with photographs, 31.7 x 40cm, S0020742
During the later 20th century, the language of partnership came to dominate accounts of scientific exploration and fieldwork in the non-Western world. In the case of mountaineering, the neo-colonial treatment of Sherpas as ‘coolies’ that characterized the early Everest expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s was increasingly challenged – by some climbers as well as the Sherpas themselves – so that by the 1950s they were increasingly regarded as partners as much as porters.
'Coolies on the North Col'. By J.B.L. Noel, 1922. B & W photograph, 7.7 x 10.8cm, S0001022, © RGS-IBG/Sandra Noel Collection
The ascent of Everest depended on close working partnerships, as well as climbing skill and sophisticated equipment. As Tenzing Norgay later recalled, ‘All the way up and down we helped, and were helped by, each other – and that was the way it should be. But we were not leader and led. We were partners”.
'Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary drink a celebratory cup of tea at Camp IV in the Western Cwm after their successful ascent of Mount Everest'. By George Band, 30 May 1953. B & W photograph, 15.9 x 24.1cm, S0001063