The Story of Geographical Discovery

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How was the world discovered? That is to say, how did a certain set of men who lived round the Mediterranean Sea, and had acquired the art of recording what each generation had learned, become successively aware of the other parts of the globe? Every part of the earth, so far as we know, has been inhabited by man during the five or six thousand years in which Europeans have been storing up their knowledge, and all that time the inhabitants of each part, of course, were acquainted with that particular part: the Kamtschatkans knew Kamtschatka, the Greenlanders, Greenland; the various tribes of North American Indians knew, at any rate, that part of America over which they wandered, long before Columbus, as we say, "discovered" it.
Very often these savages not only know their own country, but can express their knowledge in maps of very remarkable accuracy. Cortes traversed over 1000 miles through Central America, guided only by a calico map of a local cacique. An Eskimo named Kalliherey drew out, from his own knowledge of the coast between Smith Channel and Cape York, a map of it, varying only in minute details from the Admiralty chart. A native of Tahiti, named Tupaia, drew out for Cook a map of the Pacific, extending over forty-five degrees of longitude (nearly 3000 miles), giving the relative size and position of the main islands over that huge tract of ocean. Almost all geographical discoveries by Europeans have, in like manner, been brought about by means of guides, who necessarily knew the country which their European masters wished to "discover."
What, therefore, we mean by the history of geographical discovery is the gradual bringing to the knowledge of the nations of civilization surrounding the Mediterranean Sea the vast tracts of land extending in all directions from it. There are mainly two divisions of this history—the discovery of the Old World and that of the New, including Australia under the latter term. Though we speak of geographical discovery, it is really the discovery of new tribes of men that we are thinking of. It is only quite recently that men have sought for knowledge about lands, apart from the men who inhabit them. One might almost say that the history of geographical discovery, properly so called, begins with Captain Cook, the motive of whose voyages was purely scientific curiosity. But before his time men wanted to know one another for two chief reasons: they wanted to conquer, or they wanted to trade, or perhaps we could reduce the motives to one—they wanted to conquer because they wanted to trade. In our own day, we have seen a remarkable mixture of all three motives, resulting in the European partition of Africa—perhaps the most remarkable event of the latter end of the nineteenth century. Speke and Burton, Livingstone and Stanley, investigated the interior from the love of adventure and of knowledge; then came the great chartered trading companies; and, finally, the governments to which these belong have assumed responsibility for the territories thus made known to the civilized world. Within forty years the map of Africa, which was practically a blank in the interior, and, as will be shown, was better known in 1680 than in 1850, has been filled up almost completely by researches due to motives of conquest, of trade, or of scientific curiosity.
In its earlier stages, then, the history of geographical discovery is mainly a history of conquest, and what we shall have to do will be to give a short history of the ancient world, from the point of view of how that world became known. "Became known to whom?" you may ask, and we must determine that question first. We might, of course, take the earliest geographical work known to us—the tenth chapter of Genesis—and work out how the rest of the world became known to the Israelites when they became part of the Roman Empire; but in history all roads lead to Rome or away from it, and it is more useful for every purpose to take Rome as our centre-point. Yet Rome only came in as the heir of earlier empires that spread the knowledge of the earth and man by conquest long before Rome was of importance; and even when the Romans were the masters of all this vast inheritance, they had not themselves the ability to record the geographical knowledge thus acquired, and it is to a Greek named Ptolemy, a professor of the great university of Alexandria, to whom we owe our knowledge of how much the ancient world knew of the earth. It will be convenient to determine this first, and afterward to sketch rapidly the course of historical events which led to the knowledge which Ptolemy records.
In the Middle Ages, much of this knowledge, like all other, was lost, and we shall have to record how knowledge was replaced by imagination and theory. The true inheritors of Greek science during that period were the Arabs, and the few additions to real geographical knowledge at that time were due to them, except as commercial travelers and pilgrims brought a more intimate knowledge of Asia to the West.
The discovery of America forms the beginning of a new period, both in modern history and in modern geography. In the four hundred years that have elapsed since then, more than twice as much of the inhabited globe has become known to civilized man than in the preceding four thousand years. The result is that, except for a few patches of Africa, South America, and round the Poles, man knows roughly what are the physical resources of the world he inhabits, and, except for minor details, the history of geographical discovery is practically at an end.
Besides its interest as a record of war and adventure, this history gives the successive stages by which modern men have been made what they are. The longest known countries and peoples have, on the whole, had the deepest influence in the forming of the civilized character. Nor is the practical utility of this study less important. The way in which the world has been discovered determines now-a-days the world's history. The great problems of the twentieth century will have immediate relation to the discoveries of America, of Africa, and of Australia. In all these problems, Englishmen will have most to say and to do, and the history of geographical discovery is, therefore, of immediate an and immense interest to Englishmen.

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Word Lists:

Discovery : the action or process of discovering or being discovered

Knowledge : facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject

Civilized : at an advanced stage of social and cultural development

Calico : printed cotton fabric

Conquest : the subjugation and assumption of control of a place or people by use of military force

Tract : an area of indefinite extent, typically a large one

Motive : a reason for doing something, especially one that is hidden or not obvious

Pilgrim : a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.

Successive : following one another or following others

Partition : (especially with reference to a country with separate areas of government) the action or state of dividing or being divided into parts

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Additional Information:

Words: 1093

Unique Words : 419

Sentences : 35

Reading Time : 4:51

Noun : 294

Conjunction : 102

Adverb : 61

Interjection : 0

Adjective : 82

Pronoun : 50

Verb : 168

Preposition : 174

Letter Count : 5,133

Sentiment : Positive

Tone : Formal

Difficult Words : 233

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