Cassell's Tales of Endurance

by Fergus Fleming
ISBN: 0304357472

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A Review of: Tales of Endurance
by Christopher Ondaatje

There have already been two good anthologies on exploration in the last two years: Travels, Explorations and Empires 1770 - 1835 (Four volumes) edited by Tim Fulford and Peter Kitson; and The Faber Book of Exploration edited by Benedict Allen. Both these books offer sensitive and thought-provoking discussions on the writings of the world's greatest explorers, as well as providing us with a wide selection of the explorers' own writings. Now, however, Fergus Fleming, the author of the best-selling Barrow's Boys, has produced another anthology, Tales of Endurance, writing it himself and covering over 40 stories of courage, stamina, resourcefulness and the will to survive. He has successfully divided these tales of hardship between "The Age of Reconnaissance", "The Age of Inquiry" and "The Age of Endeavour", "equating roughly to the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Industrial eras ." Each of the three sections is prefaced with an essay by the author introducing aspects of the age and identifying themes in the stories that follow. They alone are worth the price of entry and give readers a comprehensive summary of the "ages" of exploration.
What Fergus Fleming has set out to do is to structure "a sort of history of exploration" and in this he has succeeded. He begins his history in the 14th and 15th centuries "with the birth of exploration literature," and ends it in the 1920s "when the combustion engine transformed the raw nature of the quest."It must have been difficult for Fleming to make his selections, but, the total elimination of female explorers notwithstanding (Fleming states simply "that they either didn't meet the spec. or weren't as exciting as the many others that did"), the author has chosen wisely. Sensibly he has not tried to include the early Arab, Greek, Chinese and Viking explorers-an almost impossibly difficult task.
All the great adventurers are included: Marco Polo (1271 - 95), Columbus (1492 - 1506), Vasco da Gama (1497 - 9), and Magellan (1519 - 22) are all part of the author's Age of Reconnaissance; James Cook (1768 - 79), Lewis and Clark (1803 - 6), and Franklin (1818 - 25) belong to the Age of Inquiry; and the stories of Burton and Speke (1857 - 65), Scott and Amundsen (1911 - 12), Shackleton (1914 - 16) and Mallory and Irvine (1924) are told in the Age of Endeavour. Other explorers are also included and there is enough here to wet the appetite of less seasoned armchair explorers who will want to delve further into the careers and achievements of those covered in this anthology. An excellent bibliography of primary and secondary sources will provide curious readers with ample direction. Mr Fleming has given us by far the best read of the three anthologies I have mentioned. This is popular history at its best-entertaining, uniquely accessible and a magnet for casual reading. I am certain many a schoolboy will want to dig into Fleming's anthology when served with the task of summarising one or other of the classic expeditions.
Certainly I learned more about Marco Polo's journey into the heart of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century-at that time the largest land-based empire in the history of the world. After returning home to Italy Polo was captured in a battle at sea between the Genoese and Venetian fleets and was not released until 1299. In prison he produced the exaggerated A Description of the World which became the most influential work of its age. "It was the bedrock on which European exploration was built." And how many of us know the true story of Columbus-the archetypal adventurer who, shipwrecked off Portugal, after incorrectly assuming that the earth's circumference at the equator was 20,400 miles- decided that as ships had already travelled between Portugal and Africa they would be able to sail a short distance further to Cathay, China or, to what was generically known as the "Indies". With a small fleet of three vessels he covered 3,066 miles in 33 days and landed at last in the "Far East" on an island he named San Salvador. The island still bears this name but is not found in the exotic East but in the Bahamas. Columbus never did see America; nor did he ever find Cathay or the rare spices of the East for which he was searching. He led two more expeditions to the "Indies", falsifying claims that he had reached the mainland. Upon returning to Spain in 1496 he was accused of incompetence and tried. He died in 1506 still believing he had found China. He had not. Instead he had brutally "instigated the annihilation of the indigenous Caribbean population." However as an explorer his failure eventually turned to success. A few decades later, Spanish and Portuguese navigators did complete his journey to the mainland, and thereby discovered not China but a continent of far greater wealth, America.
Vasco da Gama's opportunistic journey east via Africa in 1497 "in search of Christians and spices," and Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe in the early 16th century, are two other journeys Fleming superbly describes in his Age of Reconnaissance section before turning his attention to James Cook's magnificent quest for the Great Southern Continent from 1768 - 1779. It is possible that Cook was the most professional explorer of them all. If not, he certainly was the first to document and chart his findings and his voyages were the first ever to benefit science. Fleming writes: "For 80 years until sail was ousted by steam, he was the example against which all sea explorers were compared." Lewis and Clark's epic four-year journey across the American wilderness, starting in 1803, and the gruesome hardships endured by Sir John Franklin as he crossed Canada's Badlands (1818 - 25), where his men reverted to cannibalism while he attempted to chart the North-West Passage, make incredulous reading, as does Franklin's disappearance twenty years later in a final expedition to the Arctic and the subsequent search for him. It may have been Britain's most notorious expedition but its legacy is indelible.
Finally, in his Age of Endeavour Fleming recounts, among other stories, Burton and Speke's ill-fated attempt to find the source of the Nile in 1857; Scott and Amundsen's race for the South Pole (1911 - 12); Shackleton's imperial transatlantic expedition in 1914; and the still mysterious conquest of Mount Everest by George Mallory and Sandy Irvine in 1924. We may not agree with all of Fergus Fleming's conclusions. For example, geographers still question whether Lake Victoria is in fact the source of the Nile, while agreeing that it is one of the two great reservoirs of the Nile, the other being Lake Albert, and that these two reservoirs are fed by two important rivers, the Kagera and the Semliki, which drain the Burundi highlands and the Ruwenzori mountains respectively. And what of Mallory and Irvine? The jury is still out. Was Edmund Hillary right when he boastfully claimed, "We knocked the bastard off"? Or did Mallory and Irvine get there first?
Tales of Endurance is an intriguing anthology of exploration dealing, in Fergus Fleming's unique, lively style, with geographical, political, historical and personal aspects of the world's great journeys. Glory, greed, character and scientific inquiry all contribute to a masterfully entertaining history.

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