Did they really do that? by Julian Mackenzie
Some of the greatest feats of British exploration have occurred in my lifetime – Hilary’s ascent of Everest, Fuchs traversing the Antarctic, and Francis Chichester’s solo circumnavigation. The episode I remember most clearly however, was not a triumph but the bizarre and tragic story of the yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who, taking part in a round-the-world yacht race that he realised he would not be able to finish, faked his log books and ultimately lost his life trying to perpetrate the pretence that he had in fact completed the voyage.
Later, as a bookseller I became aware of a great body of hoax and imaginary voyages. The daddy of them all is of course Utopia by Thomas More. In this More encounters a traveller who has just returned from voyaging with Amerigo Vespucci and who tells him of the island of Utopia where various ideals dear to More such as common ownership are espoused. The idea of a voyage to an imaginary land as a means of conveying complex philosophical ideas was to prove very popular. Early editions of Utopia, first published in 1516 in Latin and 1551 in English) are uncommon.
Inspired by More, Joseph Hall’s Mundus alter et idem, is not only the first Utopia set in Terra Australis, but its descriptions of strange lands in the South Seas, such as Crapulia and Moronia, populated by gluttons, nags, fools, and thieves, is widely regarded as a source for Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Our copy is bound with two other Utopian works, Francis Bacon’s Nova Atlantis, and Thomas Campenela’s Civitas Solis. Bacon’s work, encompassing China, Japan, Mexico, and the Mediterranean, introduces us to the island of Bensalem, a place dedicated to scientific research. It is a very prophetic work that envisages electric cars amongst other future inventions (Ray Howgego, Imaginary Voyages). Campanela’s work is quite disturbing, dabbling with eugenics and summary justice. These three early editions from 1643 are attractively bound in contemporary vellum.
Andrew Ramsay’s The Travels of Cyrus, the second edition, 1727, is an example of a book of instruction in the form of a romance telling of the wanderings of the Cyrus, the King of Persia, who travels the ancient world meeting philosophers such as Zoroaster, as well as love story of Cyrus and Cassandra. This was an incredibly popular work which went through many editions. Ours is an attractive country house (Painswick House).
To return to where we came in, there is nothing like a good hoax and hoaxer-in-chief was the German, Christian Damberger. He was a specialist in hoax voyages and we have a copy of his third such works, Travels through the interior of Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Morocco (1801).
This purports to be a traversal of Africa from south to North. A feat not achieved until Grogan and Sharpe’s epic venture almost a hundred years later. Carefully constructed from known accounts, this was immediately accepted as a true account. Ours is a beautiful copy in contemporary tree calf.