Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

“History,” writes Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in the opening paragraph of his new book about exploration through the ages, “has two big stories to tell. The first is the very long story of how human cultures diverged — how they parted and developed differences, in ignorance or contempt of one another. The second is … a relatively short and recent story of convergence — of how human groups got back in touch, exchanged culture, copied each other’s lives, and became more like each other again.”

Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration concentrates on that second story — and, in Fernandez-Armesto’s tart and elegant presentation, it’s full of surprises.

His approach is distinguished by its multicultural perspective and its meticulous rescue (or deflation) of explorers’ reputations. He seems to have pored through every conceivable archive on every continent and is often able to question handed-down myth by citing expedition receipts or obscure diaries (some of them written by famous explorers’ subordinates — always a helpful corrective).

The book is also spiced with the kind of anecdote that can help breathe life into a fact-packed opus — for instance, that the commercially minded and iconoclastically inclined Dutch became “uniquely privileged among European traders” in 1639-40 Japan because they were willing, as the Spanish and Portuguese were not, to trample on the crucifix: anti-Christian Japan’s test for foreigners wanting to do business.

Fernandez-Armesto, editor of The Times Atlas of World Exploration, does a wonderful job, too, of putting famous explorers and expeditions in context. He reminds us that circa 1000 B.C., navigators in the Pacific were undertaking trans-oceanic voyages “unparalleled elsewhere in the world at the time”; that by the eighth century, the Indian Ocean had become “a sort of Muslim lake,” with regular trading routes between China and Arabia; and that 200 years later, as the Vikings approached Greenland and Arctic North America from the east, migrants now called the Thule Inuit were moving in, just as decisively, along the southern Arctic Ocean coast from the west. In other words, exploration before the 15th century was anything but a Euro-centric affair.

Other key points he serves up with his cornucopia of information:

For centuries, maritime explorers deliberately headed into the wind — this, despite the better headway you make if you have the wind behind you. But, he notes, if the wind is behind you, your chances of getting back home are severely diminished. Hence the isolation that Hawaii, Easter Island, New Zealand and other far-flung, Polynesian-settled locales found themselves in when, once established, they were unable to keep up contact with their parent culture because of unfavorable winds over vast distances.

Oceanic exploration, he adds, depended on cracking the “code” of currents and wind systems. The Indian Ocean, with its predictable monsoonal system, was deciphered first. The Atlantic yielded its secrets next, with the voyages of Columbus and his contemporaries (including Juan Ponce de Leon, who discovered the Gulf Stream in 1513). The enormous Pacific was last to be understood and mastered.

The pursuit of chimera such as a navigable Northwest Passage or a temperate “Terra Australis” near Chile, Fernandez-Armesto emphasizes, was fueled by wishful thinking allied either with political agendas (to do with land claims or trade ambitions) or scientific theory (about the size of the Earth and the supposed necessity of Southern Hemispheric land masses equaling Northern land masses in size).

An element of amnesia was also crucial in spurring these “pathfinders” to repeatedly submit themselves to mortal danger and the agonies of scurvy: “The history of exploration,” the author quips, “might be a brief tale, but for the extraordinary property of human memory, which filters out sufferings and casts a retrospective glow over disaster.”

When Western Europe did suddenly step to the fore of world exploration in the late 15th century, advances in technology, Fernandez- Armesto argues, had little to do with it: “If such technology had been decisive, Chinese, Muslim, and Indian seafarers would have got further faster than any of their counterparts from Europe.” Instead, it was poverty in Europe that pushed ambitious men to find other opportunities in other realms — that, and “the `code’ of chivalry” that held sway in the Middle Ages, inspiring “deeds of derring-do.” Profits from Canary and Madeira islands trade in the 1480s were also crucial to making the expeditions of the 1490s possible.

The exploration and the establishment of overland trade/culture-exchange routes — along the Silk Road, or in the interior of Africa — feature prominently here, too. And for every familiar name, there are half a dozen unfamiliar figures: Adam of Bremen, who reported on the hazards of an 11th-century land route between Scandinavia and Greece, or Nestorian Mongol monk Rabban Bar Sauma, a sort of Marco Polo in reverse who traveled from China to Europe in the late 13th century.

Fernandez-Armesto’s quick-sketch artistry brings each one to life. And his side comments (“it is safer to have too many islands on your chart than too few”) make perfect sense even as they startle you. There are a few repetitions of information, and there aren’t nearly enough detailed maps (readers will want to keep a good atlas handy).

But Fernandez-Armesto’s lively mind, pithy phrasing (“Patriotic pride exempts explorers from sanity”) and stunningly thorough and diverse knowledge are a constant pleasure.