The age of discovery: Inside private notebooks of world’s great explorers

Editor’s Note: Huw Lewis-Jones is a historian of exploration and photography. Kari Herbert is a travel writer and photojournalist. This is an edited excerpt. from their book “Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery & Adventure,” published by Thames & Hudson.

CNN  — 

What really makes an “explorer?” You might conjure a mental image of a figure dressed in tweed or khaki, telescope under one arm, chart or rifle in another; and you’d be close to the truth for a typical kind of Victorian traveler in Africa.

But appearances, of course, are as varied as motives. Most nonetheless were driven to make contributions to knowledge.

That was usually the first justification, but it is well to be wary of this word “exploration.” James Cook spoke of making “voyages of discovery,” John Hanning Speke aimed for “geographical discoveries,” others talked of “journeys,” “travels,” even mere “wanderings.”

As men of science came to the fore, new species were valued as much as new territories. Yet, the more that was discovered it seemed the less we came to know.

The true nature of discovery

An 1500s map of the North America's east coast, including major coastal features and various aquatic species, by John White.

For those at home, filling in the blank spaces of foreign lands was true exploring, but foreign to whom? And what place in this narrative for those local guides and porters who made such discoveries possible?

What of those people who knew these lands before the Westerners came with their over-stuffed expeditions, and who had, in many cases, seen most of these wonders before?

Their histories are mostly lost to time. They left few records, scarce trace.

But by taking as inclusive a definition of exploration as possible we can broaden this story, at least a little. We can meet all manner of pioneers and travelers, but also artists, adventurers, missionaries, surveyors, scholars, geographers, whalers, mariners, geologists, biologists, fossil-hunters and engineers, diplomats and mercenaries, administrators and colonists, entrepreneurs and photographers, through to some modern-day travel writers.

All have captured something of their first sight of a land in a memorable or meaningful way – immediate and unmediated.

What unites everyone in this book is that they all, at some stage in their varied lives, took a risk; they chose to defy the conventional, to brave a difficult voyage, to leave the comforts of home and explore.

They all let the promise of the unimaginable lead them over the horizon and they were willing to embrace the unknown. And they all set down a record of what they’d seen for others following after them.

Layers of meaning

By opening the notebooks of others, we are able to join them on significant historic journeys. Notebooks clearly matter. They are invested with intricate practical and personal value, and many layers of meaning.

Yet we need not think too hard. In this simple celebration of travel told though special journals, we can also enjoy the pictures. Here is art for its own sake, images that speak of the thrill and the boredom of the field, and the joys and frustrations that are encountered.

Watercolour by Olivia Fanny Tonge 1858-1949.  180 x 260mm. From one of sixteen sketchbooks presented to the Museum in 1952.

There must always be room for the old-fashioned habit of writing on paper.

Next time you go on a journey, pack a little notebook in your rucksack alongside all that electronic gear, or better still, leave all that stuff at home.

Fill the pages of your notebooks with adventure and experience. Follow your curiosity. Just make sure you come home to share your story.

“Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery & Adventure” by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert, published by Thames & Hudson, is out now.