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The society of explorers

Scientific expeditions in the 19th and 20th centuries often prefaced empire-building. As one of its remaining vestiges, the Royal Geographical Society in London, tries to reinvent itself, Lounge pays a visit

Ernest Shackleton as he embarks on the Shackleton-Rault Expedition to the Antarctic in 1921. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Ernest Shackleton as he embarks on the Shackleton-Rault Expedition to the Antarctic in 1921. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

If journalism is the first draft of history, then surely geography must be the first draft of politics. Explorers after all served as the foot soldiers of colonialism, which is one of the reasons why millions of schoolchildren, including Indians themselves, are taught that Vasco da Gama discovered India. When in fact he did not. Not only did Vasco da Gama not discover India, he did not even really discover the sea route to India. Instead, Da Gama hired the services of an experienced seaman who guided him on the last leg of his journey from Malindi in Kenya to Kozhikode in Kerala. The experienced seaman remains nameless in the annals while Da Gama made a tidy profit on his expedition, went away, came back again and promptly began to loot and murder.

Sometimes the politics of exploration and geography leaves its mark in peculiar ways. Mount Everest gets its name not from any of the indigenous names used for it in the region, or the man some believe estimated its height, Indian mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, but after a retired surveyor general of India who had sailed back to England more than a decade before Sikdar’s measurements. Despite George Everest’s vehement, and sensible, opposition to the foreign naming, the highest mountain on Earth was christened after him. The decision to do so was taken by a body with an unparalleled history of promoting, supporting and advancing exploration and the geophysical sciences—the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London.

Nain Singh Rawat explored the Himalayas for the British.

A few weeks ago, I went to the inestimably posh Kensington neighbourhood of London to catch a glimpse of this historic institution. First established in 1830, it is only in the 21st century that the RGS truly opened its doors to the general public. In 2004, it did this in three main ways. First, it opened up its collections of historical documents, photographs and manuscripts to the public for the first time. Second, it opened up a new class of membership—Ordinary—for “anyone who wishes to be inspired by and stay informed about our planet, its peoples and environments". And, third, it inaugurated a new wing featuring a cosy reading room, a new exhibition space and an atrium and reception area, all designed to the most up-to-date architectural style favoured by the modern art gallery: “Swiss Cosmetic Surgery Clinic".

It is all very pleasant indeed. But the inner explorer in me was intrigued before I even stepped in. Up on the outer walls of Lowther Lodge, the late 19th century building that houses the RGS, are statues of two great explorers. David Livingstone, leaning with defiant exhaustion on a walking stick, gazes across the road, presumably at the Albert Memorial. Around the corner, and next to the public entrance, Ernest Shackleton looks out over Exhibition Road, grim and cold in polar clothing. Perhaps the idea is to remind visitors and passers-by of the extremes that explorers have to deal with. Not just of hot and cold but also of fortune and legacy.

Livingstone, the great Africa explorer and missionary, died a Victorian hero in 1873. He had spent the last three decades of his life exploring and mapping central Africa over the course of three arduous expeditions. For Livingstone, exploration was a means to an end. He hoped that his exertions would open up Africa for the civilizing influence of the West. Indeed, Livingstone told his friends that he was prepared to spend many years in punishing conditions searching for the source of the Nile, only so that the ensuing fame and connections would help him campaign for the abolition of slavery. Throughout his life, Livingstone made numerous geographic observations and reaped rewards and recognition, not least from the RGS.

Shackleton’s statue at the RGS, on Exhibition Road. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Livingstone and the RGS shared a long association and he remains one of its favourite sons. When his mortal remains were shipped to London from a village in present-day Zambia in 1873, minus his heart, which was buried under a tree, they were displayed at the society’s offices before being interred at Westminster Abbey.

Livingstone’s work also marks a terrible inflection point in the history of the African continent. In 1870, merely 10% of Africa was under European control. When World War I broke out in 1914, less than 50 years later, just 10% of Africa was free. The people of that continent suffered and continue to suffer countless depredations as a fall-out of colonialism.

Shackleton, whose polar explorations were perhaps even more strenuous than Livingstone’s, was almost immediately forgotten on his death in 1922. Shackleton was part of what is known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, along with the Australian Douglas Mawson, fellow Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and the man who would ultimately reach the South Pole first, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, among many others. Shackleton broke several records, overcame astonishing odds and achieved truly heroic things without actually reaching the South Pole—the feat that would have won him eternal acclaim. Instead, he strung together a string of unsuccessful business ventures before planning one final expedition, during which he died. He instantly passed into the shadow of Scott’s far greater celebrity. While popular acclaim eluded Shackleton, the RGS continued to vouch for his case and legacy. It was only many years after his death, from the 1960s or so, that Shackleton’s reputation underwent a dramatic reappraisal. Today Shackleton, along with Livingstone, Charles Darwin and Edmund Hillary, is one of the RGS’ brightest lights. Artefacts belonging to this explorer who had a knack for getting out of a tight spot are some of the society’s most celebrated holdings. This includes several photographs and Shackleton’s Burberry helmet.

A painting of Henry Stanley and David Livingstone on the Ruzizi river in central Africa in 1871. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The RGS enjoys, as you might imagine, several links with the history and geography of the subcontinent. Two of these links are particularly striking. The first is the explorer Nain Singh Rawat, who won the society’s Victoria or Patron’s Medal in 1877 for “his great journeys and surveys in Tibet and along the upper Brahmaputra, during which he has determined the position of Lhasa, and added largely to our positive knowledge of the map of Asia", according to the 1877 issue of the RGS journal.

Nain Singh Rawat was, without a doubt, a world-class explorer. But what followed next was all too predictable. Eager to gain a foothold in Central Asia and outmanoeuvre Russia, Britain invaded Tibet in 1904. Tibetan troops were massacred with machine guns. The Treaty of Lhasa was imposed on the Tibetans by one Francis Younghusband, later a president of the RGS himself.

It is another president of the society who is the second striking link: Lord Curzon. A few years after returning from India after a stint as viceroy, Curzon took over the leadership of the society and infused it with greater purpose and energy. Curzon was someone who was well aware of the political and imperial ramifications of exploration and geographic outreach. Shortly before leaving India in 1905, he told a friend that despite having the “two highest mountains in the world for the most part in British territory we, the mountaineers and pioneers par excellence of the universe, make no sustained and scientific attempt to climb to the top of either of them". Curzon was an early campaigner for expeditions to summit Everest, and it would soon become one of the society’s pet projects. It was on Curzon’s watch that the society moved to its current headquarters, and, in far more controversial circumstances, opened its membership to women in 1914.

These links with India persist. In 2003, Harish Kapadia, the veteran Indian mountaineer and editor of Himalayan Journal, became the second Indian, after Rawat, to win the Patron’s Medal. Geographers and researchers of Indian origin routinely win some of the society’s many prizes and awards. Indeed, when I went to visit the society, it was hosting an exhibition of artworks by Natasha Kumar and Paul Vanstone that “illustrated the essence of India".

Today the RGS is no longer, so to speak, the vanguard of the British empire. Instead, it has an astonishingly wide array of interests, from geographical sciences to climate change and art. There is a regular series of exhibitions and lectures, many of which are open to the public. Visitors to London with a penchant for extraordinary travel will not regret keeping a tab on the RGS website. But most of all, it has that reading room with its astonishing collection of expedition reports, manuscripts and maps.

I am almost tempted to sign up as an Ordinary Member just to occasionally browse those historic archives. But then I remember, with a hint of shame, that I am not quite explorer material. Earlier that morning I had spent a good 15 minutes walking around Kensington looking for the society’s building. This despite having Google Maps open on my phone. I walked around in several concentric circles before spotting Livingstone’s statue. He seemed to look down at me and roll his eyes.

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