Society for the History of Discoveries

Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire. Edited by Felix Driver and Luciana Martins. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 280 p., 9 color plates, 59 halftones. 6 x 9 2005, Cloth $65.00 ISBN 0226164713, Paper $25.00 ISBN 0226164721.

Although the concept of a “tropical world” dates from antiquity, our knowledge about this region is largely a result of the Age of Exploration. The period from about 1450 to 1850 found explorers from the mid-latitudes of Europe sailing into equatorial regions lying between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Their goals were usually political, economic, or scientific; often a combination of all three. In encountering the tropics, they found both the real and the imaginary. As a highly diverse region that occupies parts of every populated continent except Europe, the tropics has become a metaphor for both luxuriant fertility and considerable danger — just the types of extremes that lured explorers and travelers. One might say that the ghost of tropical explorer extraordinaire Alexander von Humboldt permeates and animates every essay in this masterful collection. As the title of this interdisciplinary anthology suggests, these Europeans left a rich record of what the editors call “the visual archive of travel,” which took the form of maps, natural history illustrations, and landscape drawings. All of the essays address the rich and varied visual representations of the tropical world.

After the editors’ excellent introduction titled “Views and Visions of the Tropical World,” ten individual authors describe various aspects and outcomes of the tropical encounters. In “‘On the Spot’: Traveling Artists and the Iconographic Inventory of the World, 1769-1859,” Claudio Greppi discusses the significance of direct field observation in deciphering landscapes generally, and tropical landscapes in particular. As Greppi observes, “the scientific role of painters was enabled by the poetics of landscape that preceded it…” (p. 40) In a chapter titled “The Stimulations of Travel: Humboldt’s Physiological Construction of the Tropics,” Michael Dettelbach notes that “Humboldt’s account of the American tropics is pervaded by physiology, especially his own physiological and aesthetic responses to outside stimuli — a trait shared with many diarists and letter writers of the late eighteenth century.” (p. 45) In “‘The Struggle for Luxuriance’: William Burchell Collects Tropical Nature,” Luciana Martins and Felix Driver identify the perils involved when Europeans attempted to “synthesize the sublime rhetoric of tropicality with the comparative sensibilities of the Humboldtian naturalist.” (p. 70)

This reviewer appreciated the breadth of topics covered in this book. For example, in “Dominica and Tahiti: Tropical Islands Compared,” Peter Hulme shows how two islands of similar size half a world apart were portrayed by Europeans — the former savage and cannibalistic, the latter a peaceful paradise. In “Imagining the Tropical Colony: Henry Smeathman and the Termites of Sierra Leone,” Starr Douglas and Felix Driver compare this naturalist’s observations “on termite colonies and colonial settlement [which] presented tropical nature as a terrain to be known and domesticated” (p. 92). Douglas and Driver discuss Smeathman’s stunning illustrations of termite mounds, which prove that “[w]here images of tropicality are concerned, pictures often speak louder than words.” (p. 112) D. Graham Burnett’s wonderful chapter on “Matthew Fontaine Maury’s ‘Sea of Fire’: Hydrography, Biogeography, and Providence in the Tropics” compares two documents published in the same year (1851) — Maury’s Whale Chart and Herman Melville’s The White Whale (aka Moby Dick) — to reveal the sometimes surprising connections between fact and fiction, literature and cartography, and biography and history. In “Envisioning the Tropics: Joseph Hooker in India and the Himalayas, 1848-1850,” David Arnold shows how Orientalist and romantic motifs resonated in popular Victorian literature in a time when scientists often sought “to engage, entertain, and inform” the public. (p. 154) 

This book is rich in observations about attitudes toward the tropics. Leonard Bell’s chapter “Eyeing Samoa: People, Places, and Spaces in Photographs of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries” questions the camera “as an instrument of attempted domination” (p. 164) and notes that photographs can be “double-edged.” They can reveal “diverse and conflicting views” (p. 174) — visions of tropical paradise and intimations of simmering change — sometimes in the same image. In “Returning Fears: Tropical Disease and the Metropolis,” Rod Edmond begins by examining “the widespread belief that Europeans could not survive long in the tropics” and “the fear of so-called tropical diseases invading metropolitan centers.” Edmond concludes “with the contemporary view of European cities such as London as sharing some of the characteristics and effects of tropical zones” (p. 175) — and a revelation that “[g]lobal imperialism had opened up a new kind of material space” at home in Europe. (p. 194)

As readers might imagine, a book this diverse needs a conclusion, and so Denis Cosgrove’s Afterward on “Tropic and Tropicality” places the book’s chapters into a broader geographical and historical context. Cosgrove warns that in recounting “the ways in which Europeans so closely and outrageously have bound tropical ethnography into a mutually deterministic embrace with the physical environments of the tropics, we risk perpetuating the silencing of voices speaking from within tropical space.” (p. 198) Cosgrove urges us to recognize the tropics as both a European artifact and a geographic reality. Fittingly, Cosgrove concludes Tropical Visions with this sentiment: “As Humboldt himself might have remarked, the diversity in experiences, communication, and representation of the geographies that exist in the spaces between Cancer and Capricorn comes into sharper focus when we do not neglect the unities through which they are woven.” (p. 216) Tropical Visions is a rare accomplishment — an interdisciplinary anthology whose essays are tightly bound by a consistent theme, yet offer a creative vision in each chapter. This combination of masterful writing and careful editing make Tropical Visions easy to read despite the depth and diversity of its ideas. Tropical Visions is highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of exploration, cartography, science, art, literature, geography — and, of course, the tropical world.

Richard Francaviglia
The University of Texas at Arlington

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