Monday, June 6, 2011

David Roberts' "Great Exploration Hoaxes" (Steak Knives)

The history of exploration has always been thick with all kinds of unanswered questions, missing pieces, and ongoing controversies.  This kind of mix creates fertile ground for hoaxing, of course.  Roberts' text 'explores' several of these from the early age of discovery to the 1980's - pretty near the end of the line for 'easy' hoaxing given the ascendency of technology like GPS and satellite phones, and frankly, lack of bare places on the map to claim.

This is part of a library series on exploration edited by Jon Krakauer of 'Into Thin Air' fame (to which the highly recommended 'The Last Place on Earth' also belongs), and makes an interesting - though quick and thin - read for anybody with an active interest in the history of exploration and the personalities that make up its pantheon.

The chapters were hit or miss.  Some of the early hoaxes (esp. Sebastian Cabot and Hudson's Bay) are so removed in time that the read comes across as a list of questions rather than a deconstruction of the hoax.

Somewhat more interesting was the chapter on Defoe, suggesting that the Robinson Crusoe author may have passed off another cast-away tale based very loosely on a true but obscure tale (this time taking place in Madagascar) which was accepted as a true account.  While not a hoax in the same sense as the other chapters here, it made for good reading.

*Not* the summit of
Chapters on Cook, Peary and Byrd were closer to my own interests and recent reading.  Roberts makes a pretty definitive case that Cook couldn't have reached the McKinley summit.  Subsequent climbers have of course provided photographic evidence, so one wonders how Cook could have believed that he wouldn't be proven a liar in the passage of time.  The image to the left shows Cook's 'summit' photo on top, and a re-creation of the shot that proves it is not the summit of McKinley, but a much lower peak in the same neighborhood (there were still no photos of the actual summit at the time Cook was first debunked here).

As I noted in my post on True North, I'd dipped in early to two chapters here on Cook & Peary's claims to have reached the North Pole.  It left me wondering, if both had faked the effort, who *did* reach the pole first?  The chapter on Admiral Byrd helped answer this question for me.  Byrd attempted to be the first to reach the North Pole by airplane.  Despite claiming success, his flight time and sundry mechanical issues (all well documented) preclude the possibility that he could have reached the pole.  He lied, knowing that another team was ready to launch right behind him - not in an airplane, but a dirigible.  That dirigible team *did* reach the North Pole by air (though they didn't land, they dropped flags), and was lead by Roald Amundsen, first to traverse the Northwest Passage, and first man to the South Pole.  Sadly, all the hoaxing and nonsense around the attainment of the North Pole beforehand steals any thunder and certainty this carries - but in essence, it would mean he was first to reach both poles (albeit not actually 'setting foot' on the North Pole).  What an incredible resume - but I digress...

Amundsen's 'Norge' -
I be floatin', they be hatin'...

In his Epilogue, Roberts raises the wider, more troubling question that goes unspoken throughout these chapters... Who got away with it?  What claims and records do we recognize that were complete fabrication?

Also interesting is his observation (and lay-psychologists interpretation) that many hoaxers shared some common characteristics - loss of a parent early in life, a physical/social handicap (e.g. both Cook and Peary had lisps) - that may point to the motivations and rationale behind their hoaxes.  Indeed, as Roberts also points out, in most every case, the initial objective was to actually 'attain' their goal.  At some point, in facing the reality of failure, it may be that they actually convinced themselves that they had done it, or that the failure was marginal enough that they still deserved the laurels.  This case certainly fits Peary's false claim, and almost certainly Cooks...

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