JANUARY 25, 2013
Q: WHAT DO CHARLES DARWIN, Mark Twain, Nellie Bly, S. J. Perelman, Chinese customs service employee Li Gui, Monty Python’s Michael Palin, the Hindu reformer Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, a Soviet spacedog named Laika, a goat belonging to Captain James Cook, and the participants in the first season of The Amazing Race have in common? A: All made voyages around the world and, other than the animals (who couldn’t) and reality show contestants (who didn’t), later wrote a book about the experience. Now, thanks to Harvard historian Joyce E. Chaplin, this double-barreled list’s members have something else in common: Each appears in Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, an entertaining and illuminating survey of five centuries of “globe-girdling” journeys.
If some books are like “skiffs” and others more like “dreadnaughts,” as New York Times critic Jennifer Schuessler suggested in a recent article, then Chaplin’s latest, at well over 500 pages, definitely qualifies for the latter category. It’s only fitting, then, that she populates it with a wonderfully motley crew, which, in addition to the worthies mentioned above, includes Sir Francis Drake and Howard Hughes. Chaplin’s cast even encompasses several fictional globe-girdlers: Phaeton, a tragic figure Ovid wrote about long before anyone had circled the earth, gets a berth, as does Phileas Fogg, whose imaginary 80-day trip took place just as Thomas Cook began running round-the-world tours in 1872. She saves room, too, for Shakespeare’s Puck, the sprite who claimed to be able to “put a girdle round the earth” in 40 minutes, and who is shown scampering across the planet on the book’s cover. And why not? As Chaplin notes, Puck made his debut in a theater called “The Globe” at a time of great popular interest in early voyages of circumnavigation. And Chaplin enlivens her book with many asides that might best be described as, well, puckish. These touch on everything from the identity of the first female circumnavigator (that would be Captain Cook’s goat) to the wines served on the Concorde during a round-the-world trip (those of whichever regions were being flown over at the time).
Chaplin is good at telling the tales of heroic, eccentric and record-breaking trips, including the first global circuits made via bicycle, balloon, chauffer-driven car, and submarine. Her book is much more, however, than just a compendium of such charming narratives; it also tackles broad themes and big patterns. Chaplin points out that globe-girdling journeys have progressed, over the centuries, from being enormously dangerous (a staggeringly high percentage of members of early expeditions died en route, as did Magellan) to relatively predictable, safe, and comfortable. And she limns connections between these changes and broader shifts in human attitudes toward the earth, as we left behind a Victorian-era confidence that we can use “technologies and political alliances to dominate the planet” for one in which there is a “re-emerging fear that the planet could simply shrug us off”
It’s not surprising that global circumnavigation has changed the way we think about space, but Chaplin points out that it has also altered how we think about time. She offers these insights, for example, on the challenges of fixing the International Date Line, whose location was fiddled with throughout the 19th century and would be tweaked again in 1910 and 1994:
The International Date Line, as it would be called, indicated something natural, the end or beginning of an Earth day, but its position was not determined by nature. Its political foundations were revealed in the fact that it never had the straight configuration of any line of latitude or longitude. Instead, it zigzagged. Its varying position was determined in order that the Western powers that claimed various Pacific archipelagos would not be inconvenienced by having separate time zones within one colonized region.
These were arbitrary decisions with real effects: The crossing of the Date Line, Chaplin cleverly suggests, still constitutes “the only form of time travel that has ever been proven to work.” She also notes that temporal confusions brought on by circling the globe have posed new kinds of challenges to the faithful: Christian sailors were once flummoxed about when to mark the Sabbath in distant locales; today, Muslim astronauts struggle to sort out how to observe Ramadan during orbits that muddle the meaning of sunrise and sunset.
One of the best things about Round About the Earth is that, when faced with what might seem either/or options, Chaplin often refuses to choose. She could have limited herself to actual or fictional trips, but instead she addresses both. She even looks at virtual planetary circuits made by real people, like those taken by anyone who entered James Wyld’s “Great Globe,” a climb-inside London theme park ride constructed for the first World’s Fair of 1851 (though it was too massive to actually fit inside the Crystal Palace).
A more important refusal to choose involves the book’s tone: Chaplin steers clear of a common tendency in books on globalization to be either relentlessly upbeat (the world is getting flatter and we’re all the better for it — or at least most of us are and the rest will be soon) or unremittingly dour (the end is near — and it’s all our fault). When narrating specific journeys, Chaplin is often infectiously exuberant, but she also includes suitably sober discussions of disquieting themes. She is concerned by how often global circuits have been fueled by imperialist imperatives and undergirded by unequal relations between peoples, and also by the environmental risks we now face from a rush hour’s worth of circling satellites filling our skies.
Inevitably, as on any journey, choices have to be made. Some longitudes are left unexplored; not every exotic location can be visited. Some intriguing accounts of long trips go unmentioned, including two of my personal favorites: Around the World with General Grant, written by the journalist John Russell Young in 1879, and Around the World with a King: Being the Journey of King Kalakoua of Hawaii, the First Sovereign to Circumnavigate the Globe by William N. Armstrong, a member of the titular sovereign’s cabinet. Not that Chaplin can be chided for this: her chosen terrain is so vast that she can’t possibly be expected to take in every landmark, anymore than Captain Cook’s voyages or Thomas Cook’s tours could stop at every interesting port.
Still, at the risk of seeming unfair to a book that covers so much ground so well, I can’t help dreaming of a slightly tweaked itinerary. What if Chaplin’s route had included stops at more World’s Fairs, for instance, than just that of 1851? What about the 1900 Parisian Exposition, whose popular “Tour Du Monde” display is described so vividly in Vanessa Schwartz’s wonderful Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris? Or the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair, where Walt Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride premiered? Or any of the spectacles discussed in Paul Greenhalgh’s richly illustrated Fair World: A History of World’s Fairs and Exposition, From London to Shanghai, 1851-2010, which included arrays of national pavilions that offered visitors the sense of virtually traversing the globe? This alternate route would have povided Chaplin additional opportunities for impish asides, riffing, for example, on the funhouse mirror aspect of actual globe-girdlers stopping mid-journey to take in the “Tour du Monde” spectacle of a World’s Fair and bumping into other people doing the same, as in 1876, when Li Gui broke up his global circuit with a stay at Philadelphia’s World’s Fair and, while there, met Ulysses S. Grant, who would later break up his own world tour with a visit to a Parisian Exposition.
More World’s Fair stops could have also allowed Chaplin to expand on two of her themes: inequalities between peoples, and the relationship between moving through time and across space. The national pavilions not only encouraged visitors to see far-flung countries as increasingly interconnected, but also to think of them as located at different points along a developmental timeline, with countries represented by handicrafts and antiquities placed, symbolically, in earlier time zones than those represented by the latest technological inventions. Similarly, many travel accounts, fictional and factual alike, suggest that moving across the earth can be akin to slipping back into the past at some points and vaulting into futuristic landscapes at others: this is “time travel” in a different, and more pernicious, sense than that of the international datelines that Chaplin explores so well. While the sensation of traveling through time does sometimes match up with the symbolic chronology conveyed in standard World’s Fair timelines, it can also diverge from it in specific instances. Consider, for example, Grant and Li’s respective visits to Europe in the 1870s. When Grant reached that continent, he was largely interested in ruins that evoked past golden ages. When Li toured Europe, by contrast, he sought out places like armories and telegraph offices that he thought might hold clues to the future. He wanted to take tales back to his compatriots of new machines, which recent events such as the Opium Wars had convinced him were threatening the continued existence of countries like his own that lacked such things. It is not only in outer space that what looks like a gentle sunset to one globe-girdler can seem like a blazing sunrise to another.
Still, the most important thing about most journeys — whether across vast spaces or just between front and back covers — is whether you wind up somewhere interesting, and have enjoyable and educational experiences along the way. By this reckoning, Chaplin’s book is a great success. By the time I put it down, I felt enriched by having been taken on a trip with a guide who had such varied and unfailingly interesting things to say about circumnavigators, a fascinating group of people who, the author notes, have by this point “generated nearly half a millennium’s worth evidence of humanity’s direct, tangible, and conscious connection to something usually perceived in the abstract, the whole earth.” I have no idea where she plans to take readers in her next book, but I, for one, will be happy to sail with her again.