The Work of Exploration Hidden Histories of Exploration

Most of the non-Europeans who accompanied, guided, supported or led expeditions did not actually write about them and indeed these people are often more or less invisible, as individuals, in the accounts written by Europeans. Despite this, and rather than being the work of Europeans alone, exploration was a joint project of work. We can uncover traces of this collaboration and co-production in the records these expeditions have left behind.

A page from a 1936 Everest album includes many sherpas who took part in the expedition, wearing their newly issued identity discs. Interpreter Karma Paul is in the third row, fourth from the right, next to expedition leader Hugh Ruttledge. A young Tenzing Norgay is in the fourth row, first on the left. Everest album. By J. M. L. Gavin, 1936. Album of B & W photographs, 37.7 x 50.2 cm, S0020782

European dependence

The assistance of inhabitants and intermediaries employed on expeditions was vital to the very survival of European explorers as they travelled through unfamiliar environments.

Most explorers depended on the knowledge, skills and physical labour of others, for guidance and protection, negotiation with local authorities, transport of baggage and provision of food and shelter along the route. These extended beyond a dependence on local labour, to a reliance also on local expertise. Often, however, the individuals performing such roles were invisible in published exploration narratives.

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

Local knowledge

When making maps and writing narratives, travellers often relied on the knowledge of local inhabitants.

In Missionary Travels, the explorer David Livingstone went out of his way to emphasise the value of ‘native information’. Describing a journey across the Kalahari Desert, for example, he highlighted indigenous skills in locating and preserving water sources which would not be known to outsiders. He constantly asked questions of local inhabitants about the geography of river systems and in some places persuaded his informants to sketch rough maps on the ground. Throughout his writings, Livingstone insisted on the worth of such evidence.

Local information helped explorers to find their way and to learn about places and peoples beyond the route they travelled. Relying on such evidence, however, could prove controversial. John Hanning Speke, for example, faced criticism for relying on local testimony to establish Lake Victoria as the source of the Nile. Emphasizing the reliability of his informants, Speke presented Africans such as George Tembo as living proof of the credibility of his claims.

This manuscript map records the route taken by John Hanning Speke and James Grant from the East African coast around the north-west of Lake Victoria. Speke was prevented from actually charting the northward course of the Nile from the lake, leading some to doubt his claim to have finally located the river’s source. Route from Zanzibar to Sudan, 1860-3. Manuscript map drawn by J. A. Grant, with explanatory note by J. H. Speke, dated 26 February 1863. Ink and watercolour on paper, mounted on linen, 38.2 x 30.5 cm, S0013902

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

Tembo can also be tentatively identified as one of the two young African men in this depiction of one of the crowded public meetings organised to celebrate the return of Speke and Grant. Their presence was presumably intended to confirm the possibility that black Africans could provide useful evidence for geographical research. Reception for Speke and Grant organized by the RGS at Burlington House, Piccadilly, 22 June 1863. By M. Jackson. Engraving, Illustrated London News, 4 July 1863, 19.9 x 23.7 cm, S0015046

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

Uneasy partnerships

The business of exploration brought outsiders and locals together, with intermediaries often acting as interpreters, guides or brokers.

Naturalists like Alfred Russel Wallace relied on collectors such as Ali (pictured below) to gather materials in the field. Ethnographers such as Katherine Routledge needed good working relationships with key sources like Juan Tepano and his mother Victoria Veriamu on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Some of the most successful partnerships gained wider public recognition, as in the case of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, who climbed Everest together in 1953.

These partnerships depended on mutual respect, but they were not always easy. The unequal resources available to explorers and locals could cause tension, and not all explorers acknowledged their dependence on local support. Intermediaries, meanwhile, had to ensure their status was not compromised by cooperation with outsiders.

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

The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who described Ali as the best assistant he ever had.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). Sepia photograph, Maull & Co, 10.2 x 6.3cm, S0010146

Thomas Baines, the artist on the RGS-sponsored North Australian Expedition, made a series of paintings of local inhabitants in Timor, in December 1856. While the identity of the subject of this portrait is not revealed by its title, from evidence in Baines’ journals we can name him as Mohammed Jen Jamain, a former police magistrate in Kupang. 'A Malay native from Batavia at Coepang'. By Thomas Baines, 1856. Oil on canvas, 66.2 x 45.4 cm. © Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth
The only known photograph of Katherine Routledge on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). She is shown working with a field assistant to measure the foundations of a house. 'Strong foundations of canoe-shaped house'. B & W photograph, 17.8 x 12.7cm, S0020561

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

Portrait of Victoria Veriamu (Paulina), mother of Juan Tepano. She provided Katherine Routledge with valuable information about cultural traditions on the island.

'Viriamo - Clan Ureohei'. [By Katherine Routledge, 1914]. B & W photograph, 17.8 x 12.8 cm, S0020560

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

Tenzing Norgay joined seven Everest expeditions from 1935 to 1953, by which time he was one of the most experienced Himalayan climbers in the world. This picture of Tenzing on the summit was taken by Edmund Hillary on 29th May, 1953. 'Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Mount Everest'. By Edmund Hillary, 1953. Colour photograph, 30.5 x 20.3cm, S0001056

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

This exhibition is part of the work of Felix Driver and Lowri Jones at Royal Holloway, University of London, in collaboration with Vandana Patel at the RGS-IBG, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

All images © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) unless stated otherwise

All text © Royal Holloway, University of London