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In your dreams…

The fifth volume of Raymond Howgego’s Enyclopedia of Exploration: Invented and Apocryphal Narratives of Travel covers 640 imaginary places, from Aak to Zu-Vendis

For every Utopia or Gulliver’s Travels, bursting with fantasy and politics, there is a book like John Brickell’s Natural History of North Carolina — an influential but banal account of the young American colony. Published in 1737, it turned out to be part plagiarism and part invention. Many of the texts Howgogo explores fall somewhere in between, toying with the limits of credibility…

Many were invented for personal gain. In 1801, under the pseudonym of Christian Freidrich Damberger, a German writer published a wildly successful and false account of travels in the African hinterland. The hoax was revealed soon afterwards, but not before the book was translated into French and English, where its sales required at least seven printings…

Other times, the profit motive was more complex. The Spanish explorer Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado, for example, claimed at the turn of the 17th century to have discovered a method of calculating longitude with a compass, and offered to divulge his methods for 5,000 ducats. Maldonado also tried to convince Philip III that he had found the Northwest Passage and argued that his “discovery” should be protected by the Crown.

Narratives with political or social ends are well-represented too. Sometimes, these stories were so powerful that they inspired real-life action. Theodor Hertzka’s Freeland was one such tract, though the 15-strong group that attempted to recreate his vision in the Rift Valley was not up to the task, and had to be rescued by the British government a few years later. The American Alexander Horr was slightly more successful, founding the Freeland-inspired town of Equality on the banks of the Puget Sound in 1896. Many utopian authors spawned similar real-life followings.

In the case of Shangri-La, utopia and profit collided. Now a common term for earthly paradise, Shangri-La was invented by the English novelist James Hilton in his book Lost Horizon. Hilton never claimed Shangri-La was real — by the 1930s, the report of the 250-year-old High Lama was a bridge too far — but the Chinese government is trying to capitalize on it, rechristening and rebuilding the Tibetan county of Zhongdian in an attempt to attract Western tourists.

The entries only get weirder. I was not aware, for example, of an entire genre of exploration writing that used travel as a thinly veiled metaphor for sexual discovery. Samuel Cock’s (another nom de plume) 1741 book A Voyage to Lethe is a classic example: on his way to deliver a cargo in Buttock-Land, he passes through “a landscape composed of female and male body-parts… replete with pintle trees and monuments, furry-mouthed caves, female natives with insatiable sexual desires and male natives with enormous, full functioning ‘machines’.”

Explore further at “A Complete History of Fake Journeys.”

Image above: “Gulliver in Brobdingnag

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As we plot our courses, we might congratulate Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia; on this date in 1678 she became the first woman to earn a PhD.  The degree was conferred after her brilliant career as a student at the University of Padua.

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Her accomplishment is memorialized in the Cornaro Window in the West Wing of the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 25, 2013 at 1:01 am

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