The Travels Of Dr. Thomas Shaw

He remains one of the most impressive of the forgotten European explorers of the Middle East.  He was born in Westmoreland in 1692, and entered Queen’s College at Oxford in 1711.  Graduating in 1716, he accepted a position with a British commercial post in Algiers; this gave him the opportunity for a meandering journey through Europe before commencing the assignment.

He seems to have arrived in Algiers in 1719.  He remained there a year and acquired a good command of Arabic; larger vistas beckoned him, however, and he soon set out to visit Egypt.  It was not an easy excursion, for he picked a brutally hot time of the year for the trip, and overland travel in those days took physical strength.  He eventually reached Alexandria, and then Cairo, which made a strong impression on him.  Here he lingered for a few months, then moved on to Mount Sinai and the Red Sea.  Disaster struck him near the Gulf of Aqaba.  Pausing too long to study some plant specimens, he fell behind from the rest of the caravan.  As he tried to rejoin the group, he was waylaid by robbers, who stripped him of all his possessions, even his clothing.  One of the thieves took pity on him and allowed him to escape, and he eventually rejoined the caravan in a dangerously sunburned condition.  His party eventually reached Mount Sinai and he made note of the various religious sites there.

Here he describes the Sphinx, which in his day was still mostly entombed in sand:

Besides what has been already said of the Sphinx, we are to upon the head observe, that in July 1721, the sands were so far raised and accumulated about it, that we could only discover the back of it; upon which, over the rump, there was a square hole, about four feet long, and two broad, so closely filled with sand, that we could not lay it open enough to observe, whether it had been originally contrived for the admission of fresh air; or, like the well in the great pyramid, was intended for a staircase. Upon the head of it there is another hole, of a round figure which, I was told, for we could not get up to it, is five or fix feet deep, and wide enough to receive a well-grown person. The stone, which this part of the head consists of, seems, from the colour, to be adventitious, and different from the rest of the figure, which is all of the fame stone, and hewn out of the natural rock.  It must be left to future travelers to find out, whether these holes served only to transmit a succession of fresh air into the body of the Sphinx…

From Egypt he proceeded by sea to Syria in December 1721.  Near Jerusalem his party was again attacked by bandits, and he was even taken hostage for a short time until the Aqa of Jersusalem attacked the thieves and dispersed them.  He explored Syria and what is now Lebanon for some months, as well as Cyprus.  He eventually made his way back to Algiers, traveling by way of the Aegean Sea and Sicily.  Shaw at some point married the widow of the former consul Edward Holden.  In 1727 he visited the city of Tunis and its environs, exploring a great number of villages and classical ruins, places with obscure or forgotten names like Aegimurus, Promontorium Mercurii, Palus Tritonis, and Bizacium.  He would also later find time to travel westward, and explore parts of the Atlas Mountains, where he made observations on the Berber tribes located there.

The second edition of Shaw’s memoirs, published in 1757

He again returned to Algiers and remained quiet for two years.  He did make excursions into the countryside and would also explore the interior of what is today Morocco.  Here he provides a vivid description of locusts, a constant source of trouble for the inhabitants of the Maghrib region:

Those which I saw in 1724 and 1725 were much bigger than our common grasshoppers, and had brown spotted wings, with legs and bodies of a bright yellow. Their first appearance was towards the latter end of March, the wind having been for some time from the south. In the middle of April their numbers were so vastly increased, that in the heat of the day they formed themselves into large and numerous swarms, flew in the air like a succession of clouds; and, as the prophet Joel expresses it, they darkened the sun. When the wind blew briskly, so that these swarms were crowded by others, or thrown one upon another, we had a lively idea of that comparison of the Psalmist, of being tossed up and down as the locust.  In the month of May, when the ovaries of those insects were ripe and turgid, each of these swarms began gradually to disappear, and retired into the Metijiah and other adjacent plains, where they deposited their eggs.  These were no sooner hatched in June than each of the broods collected itself into a compact body, of a furlong or more in square; and, marching after ward directly forwards towards the sea, they let nothing escape them, eating up every thing that was green and juicy; not only the lesser kinds of vegetables, but the vine likewise, the fig-tree, the pomegranate, the palm, and the apple-tree…

The inhabitants, to stop their progress, made a variety of pits and trenches all over their fields and gardens, which they filled with water ; or else they heaped up therein heath, stubble, and such-like combustible matter, which were severally set on fire at the approach of the locusts. But this was all to no purpose; for the trenches were quickly filled up, and the fires extinguished by infinite swarms succeeding one another; while the front was regardless of danger; and the rear pressed on so close that a retreat was altogether impossible. A day or two after one of these broods was in motion, others were already hatched to march and glean after them, gnawing off the very bark and the young branches of such trees as had before escaped with the loss only of their fruit and foliage.  So justly have they been compared by the prophet Joel to a great army; who further observes, that ‘the land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness.’

Shaw’s map of the Tunisian coast

Shaw dutifully records the habits and manners of the peoples of North Africa, including their foods, complexions, work practices, superstitions, and attitudes towards art and culture.  He carefully records the Latin inscriptions he sees on the ancient monuments that dot northern Africa.  He returned to England in 1733, received a degree in divinity, and was soon after elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and honor he richly deserved.  The first edition of his travel memoirs was published in 1738; they aroused some disbelief and jealously in various quarters, a fact of life both then and now.  In his later years he served as a professor of Greek at Oxford.  He died in 1751 at the age of sixty, his body probably worn out by the hard living it had experienced.

Forgotten today, he was one of the first explorers to provide an unbiased modern account of the peoples of the Maghrib region.  Do we have such little regard for the achievements of those who came before us, like Thomas Shaw, that we will willingly permit such men to vanish from our collective memory?

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