Harvard Classics, Volume 33: Voyages and Travels

Well, I certainly blew threw this volume of the Harvard Classics. It was the perfect storm of free time and a subject I greatly enjoy.

Voyages and Travels covered two main topics: ancient descriptions of foreign cultures, and contemporary accounts of Elizabethan-era English exploration.

The first reading was Herodotus’ description of Egypt. The description was of Egypt in its final days as a nation ruled by the original native Egyptians and culture. In the time period Herodotus covers, Egypt is annexed by Persia. From here, Egypt is handed off to Greek, Roman, and Arab rule. In these last days, Egypt is a very ancient place, with very ancient customs, more ancient than any nation on Earth today. Egypt is a spent power that maintains its wealth and ability to feed far more than its own population. Everyone in Egypt is crowded around the Nile, and this creates a dynamic of stasis in society. Egyptian religion is explained through a Greek pagan context by Herodotus, but it nevertheless seems to be more modernized and syncretic with surrounding pagans than one might expect. It certainly doesn’t seem like either the Greeks or Egyptians considered their religions mutually exclusive.

Moving on from Egypt, there is also an account of Germany provided by the first century AD Roman historian Tacitus. The Germans are barbarous through and through. Their dress, their manners, their institutions and their ways all scream “barbaric” to the modern reader. Of course, if you’re European, there’s a good chance these people are your ancestors.

After these ancient accounts comes several writings about the career of Francis Drake. The first covers Drake’s privateering along the Spanish Main and his overwhelming success. His trip around the world is also highlighted, but I wish it had been longer and held more detail. The last piece on Drake covers the aftermath of the Spanish Armada where Drake leads an English fleet on a punitive campaign against the Spanish colonies in the West Indies that was ultimately unsuccessful. It is not hard to see through all of this why Drake is such an important figure in English history. These works largely add another piece of the puzzle, in addition to The Voyage of the Beagle and Two Years Before the Mast, on the nature of Spanish colonialism in the Americas.

After Drake, there are two more voyages covered, whose captains were half-brothers. Gilbert’s attempts at colonizing Newfoundland are covered, even if they ended up in failure. This proved interesting for its discussions of whether or not the East Coast was a place fit for Europeans to live. I think that answer has been decisive in the affirmative.

The final voyage was the exploration of Guiana by Sir Walter Raleigh, notable for his establishment of the Roanoke colony and introduction of tobacco to Europe. Raleigh, at the end of his life, had fallen out of favor and went on an expedition up the Orinoco river in search of El Dorado. In an insane case of confirmation bias, Raleigh claims to have actually proven the city of gold existed and was ripe for the taking. The aftermath of that journey was that the newly coronated King James sent Raleigh and an expeditionary force to take El Dorado. In the return trip, they attacked a Spanish outpost when they were forbidden to fight the Spanish, and then everyone realized there was no city of gold in the interior of Venezuela. As a result, Raleigh was hung. All of that doesn’t detract from the real-life Heart of Darkness of his adventure into parts unknown.

With the conclusion of the 33rd volume of the Harvard Classics comes three volumes of very well known Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment era philosophy, along with a volume of Medieval literature for good measure.

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