Eric Tagliacozzo is a professor of history at Cornell University, and his new book In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds From Yemen to Yokohama outlines five centuries of maritime history in the Asian world. In this wide-ranging interview, we discussed how China created trade routes that stretched all the way to Africa’s Swahili coast, the ocean-going history of Vietnam, and the role of consumer goods, piracy, slavery, and religion in the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Pacific, and beyond.
The disappearance of the Roanoke colony is one of America’s oldest mysteries. However, the story of the Roanoke colony was only a major pillar of American historiography after the 1830s, and later on in the 1800s Virginia Dare, the granddaughter of colonial governor and artist John White, became a symbol of the American South and white supremacy.
For more on the Roanoke colony check out Andrew Lawler’s excellent new book The Secret Token, which I heartily endorse.
Shakespeare’s Tempest is a fantasy, but it’s backgrounded by European encounters with the New World. When the play was written in 1610 or 1611 European sailors had already been exploring the Americas for over a century. References to the New World show up in both the play’s text and themes, and scholars have often viewed the tempest through a colonial or postcolonial lens, though it still escapes easy allegory.
This episode was recorded live at The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, a Portland art space.
There’s no shortage of things on old maps that turned out to be fictional. Regions such as the Mountains of Kong or the continent of Lemuria dot antiquated maps, and the obviousness of their fictional nature seems quaint today. However, some fictional features of old maps were more subtle. Benjamin Morrell was an American sailor in the early 1800s who, in his memoirs, A Narrative of Four Voyages, invented islands out of whole cloth, most prominently Byers Island in the Pacific, and New South Greenland, a nonexistent region he placed off the coast of Antarctica.
For about 250 years, Europeans thought that giants lived in Patagonia. The inventor of this myth was Antonio Pigafetta, a member of the Magellan expedition who, in his memoir of the circumnavigation, reported seeing a huge man approximately ten feet tall. Later European accounts of Patagonia repeated tales of immense people living there, and Patagonian giants were a common illustration on maps from the 1500s until the late 1700s. There are (obviously) no giants in Patagonia, but the native Tehuelche population are some of the tallest people on Earth. However, they average only about six feet, not a towering ten.
There is a statue on the moon. In 1971 the crew of Apollo 15 placed a small figurine and a plaque on the lunar surface to memorialize American and Soviet astronauts who had died in the pursuit of space exploration. The memorial, dubbed “Fallen Astronaut,” was meant to enshrine their memory in space. However, the artist who made the figurine itself, Paul Van Hoeydonck, had other ideas.
Van Hoeydonck did not see the statue as a memorial. Instead, he wanted to make a statue that represented all of humanity reaching for the stars. He also wanted to be known as the man who made the statue on the moon, and hoped to sell replicas of the work in his New York gallery. The public reaction to Van Hoeydonck’s attempt to commercialize space was mostly negative, and he never gained the fame or success that he thought the moon statue would bring him.
No one knows who wrote The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There is no record of an English knight alive at the right time with that name who could have written it. One oft-repeated theory is that Mandeville retired to Belgium, lived under a pseudonym, and only confessed his authorship of the Travels on his deathbed. Other than the uncorroborated word of a Liege notrary, though, we have nothing to substantiate this theory.
What we do know is that the work was not wholly original, and combined elements of several pre-existing fantasies and romances into a single narrative. And, despite or maybe because of the fantasy elements, it did so well. It remains a fascinating look at what it means to encounter the unfamiliar, to travel, and to see the world that lies just beyond the lands you know.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
Supposedly, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is about an English knight who sets out for the Holy Land in the 1330s. However, the journey to Jerusalem and the surrounding environs are only a small part of a larger narrative that involves fantastical creatures, foreign kingdoms, and wonders both inspiring and gross. During the first part of his journey Mandeville describes the life and religion of the Greeks (including their opinions on beards), a woman who was turned into a dragon (and the knights who failed to save her) and the temple of the Pheonix. That’s only the beginning, though. Next week, we’ll stay with Sir John Mandeville as he ventures further into the unknown and into even more bizarre foreign lands.
Among the pseudohistory of Mandeville’s travelogue is the theory that the pyramids were meant to store grain, pictured below.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by The Vivisectors
In January of 1992 international trade routes, bad weather, and a shipping container full of bath toys all collided to form an amazing natural experiment in oceanography. 28,800 bath toys known as Friendly Floatees spilled into the Pacific Ocean, and over the years the easily-identifiable toys washed up on shores throughout the world. Though often referred to as “rubber duckies,” the toys were in fact made of plastic, and, in addition to yellow ducks, also included red beavers, blue turtles, and green frogs.
The oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer (pictured below) seized upon the opportunity to study the effects of so much readily-identifiable flotsam released into the Pacific, and eventually found that the Floatees didn’t just circulate in the Pacific. They also made their way to the Arctic, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. The brightly-colored, cute little bath toys had gone international, and eventually were being scooped up by beachcombers worldwide.
Nowadays, Lewis and Clark are lionized and mythologized as American heroes, but their reputation was not always so grandiose. The expedition was initially considered a failure after their return, they were virtually un-talked about in the 1800s. In the early twentieth century they gradually began to molded and shaped into figures of American myth (in particular by a large, World’s Fair-style 1905 expo in Portland that bore their name) but it wasn’t until the sixties that they actually became popular. The painting below, Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russel, is from 1905 and shows the first glimmer of Lewis and Clark as mythological figures, as opposed to strictly historical figures.
This live event was part of Stumptown Stories, a monthly lecture series that focuses on Portland and Oregon history.
Maps used to have blank spots. California used to be drawn as an island. The Mercator projection makes Greenland look fat. One of the biggest and strangest cartographic errors of all time, though, has to be the Mountains of Kong, a nonexistent continent-spanning mountain range that Europeans kept putting on African maps all the way until the late 1800s.