The name Jacob August Riis is an obscure one today, known only perhaps to scholars of American journalism and photography. He was a Danish-American journalist, and he lived from 1849 to May 26, 1914. He produced excellent work in his day; his photographs of the New York slums were influential in helping promote social reforms that eased the lives of the urban poor. His 1890 volume How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among The Tenements Of New York constitutes an important record of the squalid conditions of the Gilded Age’s downtrodden.Continue reading
By the close of the fifteenth century, the maritime enterprise of Portugal had established a reliable network of trading routes from the Iberian peninsula to the Indian Ocean. These routes were won at great cost; we note the results of the budding Age of Exploration, but forget the fearsome human toll that this Age exacted. Shipwreck, loss at sea, loss of life on land, loss of property: any one of these misfortunes—or a combination of them—could befall the intrepid explorer or trader at any time.Continue reading
The ability to survive is dependent on both a strong physical constitution and an unshakeable determination. While both of these ingredients are necessary, experience has shown that the will to live easily surpasses physical robustness in relative importance. He whose actions are in accordance with his nature, truly lives. Sir Thomas Browne was entirely correct when he said in his essay Religio Medici:Continue reading
In January of 1841 the twenty-two-year-old Herman Melville shipped aboard the whaler Acushnet for a multi-year cruise. He had many motivations for doing this. There was, in the first place, a desire to see the world and test himself against its challenges; then there was a need to escape the stultifying confines and restrictions of a nineteenth-century “proper” American household; and finally, a longing to cleanse himself of his father’s failures, disgrace, and early death.Continue reading
In 1902 Jack London resolved to travel seven thousand miles from California to England. His stated purpose was to lose himself in the docks and slums of London’s squalid East End, and see what he might learn from the experience. One might reasonably ask why he would do this, when numerous examples of urban misery could be observed in the cities of his own country, such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or any of a dozen others. But the idea was actually presented to him by his British publisher after the release of London’s first book in England.
Sidonius Apollinaris, who died in 489 A.D., was a diplomat, literary figure, and ecclesiastical official of fifth-century Gaul. He was also a letter-writer of impressive fecundity and erudition; and his powers of memory were so great, we are told, that he was able to recite long liturgies from memory and deliver orations without notes or preparation. One of his letters (II.10), written to a friend named Hesperius, contains the following noteworthy sentence:
The jurist, poet, and scholar Baha Al-Din Ibn Shaddad (بهاء الدين ابن شداد) was born in the city of Mosul, Iraq in 1145. He was a close friend of the famed commander and statesman Saladin, and wrote a highly valued biography of that eminent conqueror. He served for a time as the qadi (judge) of Aleppo, and in this capacity had much opportunity to acquaint himself to the realities of human behavior; it seems that, no matter the country or culture, career lawyers and judges make remarkably astute observers. Ibn Shaddad’s biographer Ibn Khallikan says that the judge often liked to quote this line of verse from the poet Ibn Al-Fadl (known as Surr-Durr):
The traveler Ibn Battuta visited north India in the early 1330s to seek the employment of the sultan Mohammad Ibn Tughluq. At some point during his residence in the city of Delhi, he had occasion to observe the practices of the Indian holy men, whom he called jugis (i.e., yogis).
The medieval Arab traveler Ibn Battuta passed through Persia during his many years of wanderings. One of the regions he visited there was Lorestan, which is today a province in western Iran, situated in the Zagros mountains. Lorestan was at that time ruled by Muzaffar Al-Din Afrasiyab, a member of the Hazaraspid dynasty, which was a line of Kurdish Sunni composition. The sultans who ruled this country carried the title atabek, a hereditary Turkic and Persian title of nobility.
The motivations of intrepid travelers are not difficult to discern. The desire to get out, to get away from everything that reeks of contemptible familiarity, to smash through obstacles and barriers both mental and physical, to be confronted with stimuli both terrifying and strange: these would be primary impulses. Following close behind them would be a thirst to seek one’s fortune, to take a certain measure of the world and its people, and to test one’s mettle against the mettlesome natures of others. It has been so for centuries.