Peter C. Mancall on "Why a Fourth Grader Knows More About Henry Hudson Than You Do"

Historians in the News

When the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's landing in New York takes place this month, there is a good chance that an elementary-school student will know more about the man than you do. Why? Simply put, explorers fascinate children (and other nonacademic readers) but rarely make their way inside the walls of the university. Academic historians tend to analyze the forces that shaped earlier societies, such as colonialism or imperialism. We train our graduate students to investigate new approaches and topics. We leave adventure stories—and all they can teach us—to popular writers or authors of children's books.

That was not always the case. Christopher Columbus, for instance, figured prominently in academic histories in the 20th century. Charles McLean Andrews, a professor of American history at Yale, began his four-volume history of the Anglo-American colonies with a chapter on Columbus and other explorers. A generation later, Samuel Eliot Morison, the most avid modern biographer of Columbus, organized a Harvard expedition to retrace the route of the man he called the "Admiral of the Ocean Sea."

By 1992, the 500th anniversary of his world-changing voyage, Columbus had become the spiritual father of the European assault on American Indian peoples and landscapes as well as the architect of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. He attracted attention because he represented the dark side of the age of discovery. Poor Columbus, one commentator wrote—mugged on the way to his own party.

Henry Hudson, by contrast, has long languished in obscurity. He gets barely a mention in college-level American-history textbooks. The last substantive biography of Hudson appeared in 1928, a striking fact given that his namesake river borders Manhattan, home to the American publishing industry. But publishers of children's literature have kept Hudson's memory alive in series like Groundbreakers and the Great Explorers. Crabtree Publishing Company released a volume on Hudson in its In the Footsteps of Explorers series, which includes a map that uses footprints to depict Hudson's journeys. Because he crossed the Atlantic, the map suggests that the English explorer was the first person since Jesus to walk on water.

The lack of scholarly attention paid to Hudson and other explorers is unfortunate for two reasons. First, Hudson's life makes for a great yarn, and narrating it fulfills one of the ancient duties of the historian: to tell a good story. Second, his experience has much to tell us about European expansion in the Americas. Hudson failed—he never found the Northwest Passage—but the knowledge he brought back to Europe inspired economic dreams that were later acted on by outfits like the Hudson Bay Company...

... To most scholars, explorers are peripheral to the serious issues that historians of the era study, like how Old World diseases spread in the New World and how trans-Atlantic trade developed. More, the leaders of expeditions were often elite white men whose main goal was to bring honor to themselves and to increase the wealth and power of the nations or companies that sponsored them. Many of them acted barbarously toward indigenous peoples. Scholars rightly recoil from popular biographies that celebrate such individuals.

But writing about explorers does not require an act of ancestor worship. Many of them left behind accounts that shed valuable light on the past. The reports from Hudson and his crew provide crucial details about the North Atlantic in the early 17th century. Such documents allow us to reconstruct his relations with indigenous peoples, as well as the environment—especially in places like the Arctic, where global warming has brought devastating ecological changes. In fact, the scientist Robert Boyle's book Experimental History of Cold, published in 1665, drew on accounts of James Bay, site of the mutiny against Hudson.

Scholars understandably tend to emphasize the successful experiences of Europeans who landed in the Caribbean or eastern North America, giving the impression that newcomers to the Western Hemisphere knew where to go to profit. But that is not correct. Once Europeans convinced themselves that they had the right to take possession of American land—despite the fact that it was already inhabited by other peoples—explorers set off to figure out where the next source of wealth might be found. Hudson was desperate to discover a water route to the spice markets in the East Indies. But cartographers did not yet know if such routes actually existed. It took the efforts of individuals willing to endure extreme hardship—frozen skin and eyes, scurvy, drowning on a ship whose hull could be pierced by an iceberg—to expand Europe's understanding of North America and exploit its riches.

So what propels a person to repeatedly risk his life in uncharted waters? The scholarly literature largely ignores the personal qualities and quirks that drove explorers forward. By highlighting those attributes, authors of children's books teach lessons that academic historians would do well to emulate. In addition to the underlying social, cultural, and economic forces that shaped the past, we might also think about those whose efforts, however doomed, expanded the mental horizons of their worlds. That is a task worthy of any historian, within academe or beyond.
Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

comments powered by Disqus