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Travelers and Traveler's Accounts in World History, Part 1



Guest Editor: Mary Jane Maxwell


     I learned about travel accounts from Jerry Bentley, who taught me how to analyze them and how to use them in the classroom. Old World Encounters (Oxford University Press, 1993) was my primer as I wrote my dissertation, and I teach a course called "Travelers Tales" that begins with Jerry's essay, "Travel Narratives," from World History Sources.1 Considering the importance of travel accounts as historical sources and their widespread use in the world history classroom, Jerry correctly observed that, "Rare, however, are studies that focus on the nature of travel accounts more generally, their historical influence, their meaning as expressions of their times, and the problems they raise as historical sources."2 This February's Forum in World History Connected, and the June 2013 Forum as well, address the above concerns in eleven articles that consider travel and travelers from the pre-modern to the modern era spanning five continents.

     Travel writing may take the form of an essay, autobiography, prose fiction, personal diary, log, journal, letter, or poem. As soon as humans could write, travel accounts emerged such as the one produced in stone (on his tomb) by the Egyptian caravan leader Harkhuf ca. 2200 BCE.3 The first thing I teach my students is that travel accounts, like any other historical document, cannot be completely trusted. Travelers usually have an agenda, they sometimes lie, and they frequently misunderstand and miscommunicate what they witness in foreign lands. Often their accounts tell us more about their own culture and audience than they do the people and places they visited. On the other hand, travel accounts also provide valuable and detailed descriptions of day-to-day activities—common habits and customs that the locals consider unremarkable. Hence some travel accounts may be our only source of knowledge of a particular culture in time. For example, Book Four of Herodotus' Histories provides the best evidence available about the ancient Scythians.

     Travel narratives are usually, but not necessarily, written in the first person about the various places visited. Many accounts just reports the facts, while others dwell on the traveler's own impressions; most strike a balance somewhere between subjective and objective reporting. Themes of "otherness" and the bizarre often appear, leaving the reader to distinguish between what is historically reasonable and not. This is particularly true in the Western tradition where Homer's Odyssey formed the foundation of travel writing, followed by fifth century BCE Greek authors such as Ctesius and Herodotus. Ctesius, often referred to as the "father" of travel romance, left behind the legacy of fantastic creatures and monsters that spiced up the genre of European travel writing up to the Renaissance.

     However, the bulk of travel accounts produced before 1500 came from the East, especially China and the Muslim world, and most of these focused on trade and pilgrimage. A mural in the Mogao Caves from the ca. 7th century recounts the famous travels of Zhang Qian, an imperial envoy of the Han emperor, who traveled across Central Asia from 139 to ca.126 BCE and returned with accurate information about the western regions, which the Han dynasty then successfully colonized. Pilgrimage, a spiritually-motivated journey distinct in many religions, prompted thousands of Buddhists pilgrims to record their travels from East Asia to sacred sites in India where the Buddha was believed to have lived and taught. In the Islamic world, Rihla literature, an entire genre of Muslim travel literature, was born out of the fifth pillar of Islam—to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. One writer, Ibn Jubayr, recorded his journey from Spain to Mecca from 1183 to 1185 and is recognized as the founder of Rihla. While more men than women wrote travel accounts in the pre-modern era, the June issue of this Forum will feature hajj accounts by Muslim women. Christian women too left behind their pilgrimage accounts, including the famous, Itinerarium Egeriae, or Travels of Egeria, a fourth-century Gallic woman who recounted her travels to Jerusalem and other Christian holy sites. She made religious travel quite popular among western European women who could afford the pilgrimage.

     After 1500, Muslim and Asian travel accounts continued in large numbers, but now accounts of European adventurers, missionaries, explorers, and merchants overshadowed their Eastern counterparts due to the newly-invented printing press and an increasingly literate Europe that was eager to explore, conquer and eventually colonize regions far beyond their borders. European publishers churned out thousands of copies while editors, such as Richard Hakluyt in the sixteenth century, began to organize and compile travel narratives. Scholarship in the past twenty years or so depicts the genre of travel writing as part of the European imperial project, yet this Eurocentric view fails to take into account the numerous non-European travel narratives, both historic and contemporary. These two Forums of World History Connected consider the abundance and varieties of travel and travelers in world history and offers not only new scholarship, but also practical applications for using travel literature in the classroom.

     The Forum begins with David Northrup's valuable suggestions for world history teachers and instructors on how to use and interpret travel accounts on Africa and/or by Africans. Many of us distribute a portion of Ibn Battuta's Rihla as primary source material for our students, but Northrup shows us how to increase our students critical thinking skills by asking them to observe when and where Battuta's own cultural values affected his observations of others. Moreover, Northrup introduces us to new categories of twentieth century travel writing on Africa such as adventure travel realistic fiction and personal memoirs--alongside his erudite assessment of old and new works and their significance and usefulness for world historians.

     Dan Waugh, a contributor for the invaluable Silk Road Foundation website as well as founding director for the educational Internet project Silk Road Seattle, has kindly provided our readers with a thorough bibliography of travel accounts along the Silk Roads and his comprehensive survey of pre-modern travelers in Central Eurasia. Scholars, teachers, and students of the Silk Road all depend on Waugh's translated sources that he has made free and accessible on the Internet.4 Waugh's scholarship in the field is directly responsible for elevating the status of the Silk Roads in world history. His article for this Forum provides readers with a rich history of the depth and breadth of pre-modern, non-European travel narratives.

     Matthew Restall's article makes obvious the appeal of travel accounts. His piece is absolutely riveting, reminding readers of why travel accounts are so enticing, enjoyable, and perhaps why they are the most accessible primary sources for our students. I could not put down "Cook's Passage: An English Spy in the Yucatan," because I found myself immersed in another time and place—Mayan villages in the eighteenth century. "Cook's Passage" exemplifies the imaginative and explanatory power of the travel account as a means to explain the past, in this instance, day-to-day life in the colonial Atlantic world.

     "The Road to Peace: Horace's Fifth Satire as Travel Literature" reveals how students (and scholars) can mine historical documents to uncover multiple levels of significance. Author Erik Jensen demonstrates how a poem about a journey written in 36 BCE divulges, on a superficial level, details about daily life and travel in the late Roman Republic. Going deeper still, Jensen interprets the meaning of travel writing in the Classical Greek and Roman world. And finally, Jensen carefully leads his readers toward the true purpose and function of satire for a Roman audience. This "peeling back the layers" approach illustrates what we ought to be teaching our students when we present them with primary source documents: how to be astute readers and how to think critically. Jensen's final and careful analysis of the satire explains what he believes to be Horace's assessment of Rome's ills during a time of social and political instability, and the solution he believes that Horace is offering his readers via a journey gone awry, offers a glimpse into Roman philosophy and values on the eve of Octavian's victory.

     Matthew Romaniello situates the role of the individual into the prevailing economic macro-history narrative of the early modern world, the legacy of Immanuel Wallerstein's Modern World System. Through an examination of seventeenth century travel accounts from Muscovite merchants, Romaniello "reorients" early modern Russia, a region Wallerstein's model designates as a "semi-periphery," into the larger global economy. He argues that while Muscovy successfully traded with Europe on equal footing, both regions "lacked notable accomplishments in Asia." Muscovy's repeated attempts to create new trade routes down the Volga and then across to Bukhara and directly into India (bypassing the Safavids) complicates the traditional story of early modern globalization which emphasizes oceanic trade. Individual travel accounts, he demonstrates, offer a fuller representation of the process of early modern globalization—a narrative too often told only by numbers and statistics.

     Our final article turns the reputed imperialistic nature of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century European travel account upside down as it recounts the travels of Sake Dean Mahomet (1759-1851), one of the 20 to 40,000 Indians who sailed west (mainly to Britain) between 1600 and 1850. Many of these travelers, author Michael H. Fisher reveals, returned to India "with their personal accounts of the West that they recounted to their relatives, friends, and acquaintances." But others, like Dean Mahomet, settled in the West to become the first Indian-born author to publish a book in English, The Travels of Dean Mahomet, in the European autobiographical style. Dean Mahomet's narrative, Fisher explains, exposes many of the "attitudes and receptions" Indians faced living in the West, while also revealing how he succeeded in both Ireland and then Britain by Anglicizing his Indian "exoticism" to a degree that appealed to his British audience and customers. Fisher's images, many from his personal collection, further illustrate how Indians strategically maneuvered their lives in Britain in accordance with British notions about Indians; Dean Mahomet opened the first Indian-run restaurant in London in 1810, complete with hookahs, bamboo furniture, and curries, and operated an "Indian Medicated Vapour and Shampooing" bath house in Brighton. Dining in London today, one might observe that Indian restaurants since have seemingly colonized London's culinary landscape.

Mary Jane Maxwell is Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at Green Mountain College and specializes in pre-modern cross-cultural encounters, travel history and world religions. She published the travel account of a Russian merchant, "Afanasii Nikitin: A Russian Orthodox's Spiritual Voyage into the Dar al-Islam" in the Journal of World History in 2006. Her forthcoming monograph with M.E. Sharpe is titled Women and Mysticism in World History, 800–1200: An Era of Divine Love and is due for release in early 2014. She can be contacted at


1 Jerry Bentley, "Travel Narratives" in World History Sources (George Mason University, 2003-2005) at

2 Ibid.

3 See the tomb at

4 See Silk Road Seattle at and Silk Road Foundation at


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