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Recognition and Responsibility Hidden Histories of Exploration

Status and recognition

Although many people who assisted European explorers or undertook exploration in their own right have been forgotten, some have been identified, acknowledged and even celebrated.

The RGS provided support to independent African-American explorers Martin Delany and Robert Campbell, and recognised the contributions of African members of other expeditions through its awards. A medal awarded to 'the followers of Dr Livingstone' is pictured here, alongside the names of recipients, including Abdullah Susi and James Chuma. For his services to African exploration, Sidi Mubarak Bombay received a medal and a pension.

In 1877 the RGS presented one of its most prestigious awards, a gold medal, to Nain Singh for his contributions to the mapping of Central Asia and Tibet. One of a number of Asians who undertook covert surveys during a time when Europeans could not easily travel to these regions, 'the Pundit' Nain Singh became something of a hero.

Letter from Free Colored People of North America. By J. Myers, R. Delany & A. Dudley. MS dated 31 May 1858, 25 x 19.7cm, S0020740

In 1858, Martin Delany and other African-Americans sought RGS advice on possible sites of settlement for African-Americans wishing to return to Africa. The RGS Secretary at this time was Thomas Hodgkin, a Quaker humanitarian sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.

Martin Delany and Robert Campbell undertook a journey up the Niger in 1859-60 and lectured to the RGS. They received support from Samuel Ajayi Crowther, later the first black Bishop in the Anglican Church who himself received an RGS award in 1880. 'M. R. Delany esq. M.D.' Engraving (enclosed in MS letter dated 8 November 1862), 9.4 x 6.5cm, S0020741
The RGS gave official recognition to the ‘followers’ of celebrated African explorers. Many of these might today be described as guides, or even expedition leaders. Model presented by the RGS to the ‘followers of Dr Livingstone’, 1874. J.S. & A.B Wyon. Silver, 3.7 x 0.3 cm, S0020778-9

Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a Yao born in East Africa, was awarded an RGS silver medal for his work as protector and guide for British explorers, including Speke, Livingstone and Stanley. His name derives from an earlier period spent in India following capture by slave traders.

'Moobarik Bombay'. By J. A. Grant, 1860. Stereoscopic photograph, 9.5 x 20.4 cm, S0011718

'List shewing the names of the followers of the late Dr Livingstone for whom silver medals have been sent for presentation by the Royal Geographical Society, London'. C. B. Euan-Smith, Political Agent & Consul General, Zanzibar. Signed MSS, 1875, 46.5 x 36.6cm, S0020758

The idea of the ‘faithful follower’ was reinforced by carefully-staged photographs of David Livingstone's assistants with members of his family and the editor of his posthumously published journals.

Abdullah Susi, James Chumah and Horace Waller, with Agnes Livingstone and Tom Livingstone, at Newstead Abbey. By R. Allen & Sons (Nottingham), 1874. Sepia photograph, 14.5 x 19.8 cm, S0010346

The Schlagintweit brothers’ expedition to India was supported by the East India Company and the King of Prussia. They employed 22 Asian interpreters, collectors and scientific observers, who are all named in their expedition report, in addition to a large number of servants. Routes of the Schlagintweit expedition, 1854-8. Printed map in H., A., and R. de Schlagintweit, Results of a scientific mission to India and High Asia: atlas of panoramas and views, Leipzig and London, 1861, 69.3 x 50.3cm, S0020769
Explorers compared indigenous knowledge of trans-Himalayan routes with topographic maps of the same region. Facsimile of a Bhútia map of the commercial route from Lhássa to Assám via Távang and Narigún, drawn by Dávang Dórje, edited by Hermann de Schlagintweit. Printed map in H., A., and R. de Schlagintweit, Results of a scientific mission to India and High Asia: atlas of panoramas and views, Leipzig and London, 1861, 79.8 x 45.5cm, S0020774
Nain Singh, from the remote Kumaon Himalaya, was employed by the Schlagintweit expedition as an interpreter in Ladakh. His cousin Mani accompanied the Schlagintweits into Turkestan. The expedition ‘establishment’, including observers and interpreters. In H. de Schlagintweit, Results of a scientific mission to India and High Asia, vol. 1, Leipzig and London, 1861, 33 x 25.5cm, S0020754
Many Asian members of the Schlagintweit expedition assisted in the taking of observations, which were used to make maps such as these. Map of declination, or variation between magnetic North and true North. Printed map in H., A., and R. de Schlagintweit, Results of a scientific mission to India and High Asia: atlas of panoramas and views, Leipzig and London, 1861, 65.5 x 50.4 cm, S0020771

Nain Singh worked for the Indian Survey under the code name ‘Pundit’ (meaning scholar or teacher) until his identity was revealed in 1876. On the recommendation of retired Indian officer and historical geographer, Colonel Henry Yule, he was awarded the RGS Founders Medal.

Nain Singh, 'The Pundit'. By unknown photographer, n. d. B & W photogravure, 25.3. x 20.1cm, S0001188

The ‘Pundits’ used prayer wheels to conceal their observations. This drawing is by Sarat Chandra Das, who received an RGS award for his work. He later published a Tibetan-English dictionary and an introduction to Tibetan grammar. Silver prayer wheel. By Sarat Chandra Das, n. d. Ink on paper, 24.6 x 14.2cm, S0001207
Kishen Singh, Nain’s cousin, also worked for the British. In an astonishing 2,800-mile journey, he mapped the route North of Lhasa into Xinjiang. Also known as 'Krishna', his reports were published under the code name 'A-K'. Kishen Singh, 'A-K'. By Unknown photographer, Geographical Journal 62 (1923). B & W photogravure, 25.5 x 14.9cm, S0010380

The ethics of exploration

The methods and impact of voyages of exploration have often been debated, raising far-reaching ethical questions.

Since the days of Captain Cook, many European explorers and their sponsors have affirmed their commitment to the welfare of indigenous peoples. The realities, however, have often been very different. Controversies over the use of violence on some expeditions, notably those of Henry Morton Stanley in Africa, attracted considerable publicity within and beyond the RGS at the time.

The controversy over Stanley’s heavily-armed expeditions concerned the ethics of exploration and the rights of indigenous peoples. These issues are not simply concerns for our own time: they were hotly debated in the nineteenth century. The argument over Stanley’s work in the Congo, for example, developed into a wider debate over imperialism itself. These concerns are also reflected in the history of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), which has long issued advice to travellers concerning the practical, scientific and ethical aspects of exploration and travel.

Reports of violence on Stanley’s trans-African expedition (1874-7) provoked heated debates about the ethics of exploration. Colonel Henry Yule, an eminent historical geographer, resigned from the RGS Council in protest. Another critic was Henry Hyndman, later to found the Social Democratic Federation, a socialist political party.

Stanley’s critics. Mr Henry M. Stanley and the Royal Geographical Society, being the record of a protest, by H. Yule and H.M. Hyndman (London, 1878), 22.8 x 15.25cm, S0020715

Stanley’s fame as an explorer reached a peak on his return from equatorial Africa in 1890, in the midst of the ‘Scramble for Africa‘. However, his treatment of indigenous peoples led to increasing criticism from humanitarian organisations such as the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society. Stanley and African Exhibition. Catalogue (London, 1890), 17.6 x 12.9cm, S0020686
The American pharmaceuticals entrepreneur Henry Wellcome defended Stanley against his critics. These notes are for a speech at a public meeting on the ‘Congo atrocities’ held at the Westminster Palace Hotel, December 1890. Notes in Stanley’s defence. By Henry S. Wellcome. MSS, c. 1890, 25 x 20.3cm, S0020685
Controversies over Henry Morton Stanley’s military-style methods of exploration were fuelled by the publication of rival accounts of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in 1890, contradicting Stanley’s own version of events. In this cartoon, John Bull, speaking for England, seeks out the truth behind Stanley’s rhetoric. 'Step down Stanley and let me see behind you'. Engraving, from John Bull, 22 November 1890, 26.3 x 17.3cm, S0020681

The first edition of Hints to Travellers, published by the RGS in 1854, included the following advice: “The greatest forbearance and discretion are strongly recommended in all intercourse with the natives – never to allow an imaginary insult to provoke retaliation which may lead to bloodshed. It must be borne in mind that theirs is the right of soil – we are the aggressors”.

Hints to Travellers. Ninth edition, 1906. 17.4 x 12.7cm, S0020736/0020739

Visible histories

It is difficult to imagine a history of exploration without heroes. Yet qualities such as determination or valour are not the sole property of those who lead expeditions: they are also required of those who guide, protect or follow.

Making visible the role played by local people and intermediaries greatly enriches our understanding of the history of travel and exploration. It becomes a genuinely human story, less about the exceptional qualities of heroic individuals, and more about working relationships and intersecting lives.

Individuals like Sidi Mubarak Bombay, Nain Singh, Juan Tepano, Victoria Veriamu, Pedro Caripoco, Karma Paul and Tenzing Norgay have left their mark within the Collections of the RGS-IBG. Others, like the subjects of Thomas Baines’ sketches, leave a more shadowy trace. But traces can be followed, and in the process their histories may yet become more visible.

'Paddlers on Lake Kivu'. By Alexander Wollaston, 1905-6. B & W photograph, 7.1 x 9.7cm; glass plate, 8 x 10.5cm, S0010279
'Moehamad Jen Jamain. His own signature'. By Thomas Baines, 1856. Pencil and watercolour in sketchbook, 27.5 x 18.8cm. © Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth

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)

All text © Royal Holloway, University of London