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Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

The history of exploration has for too long been a history of “Western” exploration, hence the ridiculous argument about who “discovered” America, Christopher Columbus or Leif Erikson, or even (courtesy of Gavin Menzies) the Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He. The place was, of course, fully populated long before any of them got there.

Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron
Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (W. W. Norton & Company, October 2007); Shadow of the Silk Road, Colin Thubron (HarperCollins Publishers, July 2007; Vintage, October 2007)

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has accomplished two worthy tasks in Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration: first, it is true to its title and is truly global, giving space to Muslim, Chinese and Polynesian “explorers”. Second, he has defined “exploration” as “convergence … how human groups got back in touch…”, a definition that skirts the question of politics and precedence that have dogged this topic.

This is a survey history: there is lots of ground to cover, and Fernandez-Armesto covers all of it, understandably in less detail than some of the subjects warrant. As a result, he states some things—such as Columbus’s Genoese origins—which are now (or still or again) subjects of some debate.

But Fernandez-Armesto has an eye for the fascinating fact, such as the observation that ancient explorers sailed outward against the wind which, while limited the distance they could go, assured them that they could always return. Or that as of the beginning of this century, there were still more than forty “uncontacted Indian communities” in Brazil.

All metaphysical or metaphorical extensions aside, the era of exploration is almost certainly over: what remains is mere mopping up. Remoteness has receded, but some people, such as Colin Thubron, keep looking. Thubron returns to the Central Asia in Shadow of the Silk Road; the transport and hotels have improved since the last time he was there.

Thubron writes awfully well (except when he engages an imaginary Sogdian merchant in conversation) and has an eye for interesting person and anecdote. There were of course many interleaved silk roads, and Thubron can only travel on one of the many possible paths and must, by necessity describe only a small number of places in any detail. The book however serves as a useful reminder of two things: that what we now call the West for many centuries relatively peripheral, historically and economically, and what a diverse place Asia was and still is.

Although Shadow of the Silk Road can be read on its own, readers familiar with Thubron’s other books will find it far more rewarding.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.