The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Authorship and Authoritative Voice of Travel Narratives

In seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, travel narratives became a way for Europeans who did not have the privilege to explore the world that experience.  Europeans would read travel narratives as a way to engage in popular geography and learn about the non-European world.  While many explorers set out to discover new scientific knowledge, Europeans at home treated the records of these travels as popular literature.  Some historians argue that travel narratives became so popular because of the style in which they were written.  In her article, “Travel Narratives and the Familiar Letter Form,” Amy Smith argues those eighteenth century narratives were better received when they were written in the same style as a letter (Smith 81).   She claims that this form of writing is more likely to “produce a stylistically enjoyable narrative” that has “an inherent sense of audience” (Smith 83).  However, other historians argue that a less personal, more inoffensive style of writing made travel narratives more appealing.  As Benjamin Schmidt argues, the impersonal and decentralized nature of Dutch geographies made them much more popular (Schmidt 361).  In contrast to Smith, he claims that the Dutch geographies were even more popular because the author’s voice was virtually removed from the writing.  While both writing styles may have met criticisms, travel narratives remained extremely popular in the eighteenth century. 


Captain James Cook

One major factor that made travel narratives more popular was the authority of the voice writing the narrative.  In order for Europeans to believe a narrative, they had to trust the voice of the explorer.  This very much depended upon the reputation of the explorer in Europe, and his actions during his voyage to non-European countries.  It also depended on what information the travel narrative contained.  For example, images in travel narratives were extremely important in establishing the authority of a narrative.   Accompanying images significantly enhanced the text of any narrative.  Also, without images, Europeans would have been generally less interested in the narratives. 

One of the most popular, trusted, and widely read travel narratives in Europe during the eighteenth century were those of James Cook.  James Cook was born on October 27, 1728 in Yorkshire, England.  Cook’s father worked for a living, and his family was not very wealthy.  In 1755, Cook enlisted in the Royal Navy. 


Depiction of James Cook's death from Cook's Voyages

Because of his service, the Royal Society commissioned Cook to observe the transit of Venus in 1768.  This led to Cook’s first voyage, which took him around Cape Horn and to Tahiti.  However, he was given secret instructions for this journey to not only observe the planets, but also confirm the existence of a philosophized continent and find out new information about the people, culture, plants, and animals in the lands where he would travel.  Cook ended up making two more voyages after his first.  However, he was killed during a fight with the indigenous people of Hawaii on his third voyage in 1779.  However, his findings and writings were still extremely important to Europeans.


Cover Page of Cook's Atlas

The stories of Cook’s voyages were in such high demand they sold out almost instantly in Europe.  However, when Cook’s writings were edited and published, they were significantly changed to fit the popular narrative.  While this meant that Cook’s narratives were highly admired, some of the accounts were also distorted.  Yet, it was these changes that made Cook’s voyages so popular to Europeans.

 In contrast, Bruce’s works were not well received at all.  While there are many potential reasons for this, some are highlighted in the differences between Cook and Bruce.  First, in general, Cook was better liked in Europe.  Cook had a humble and modest reputation.  Bruce, on the other hand, had arrogant and aggressive reputation.  Therefore, Europeans were less willing to accept Bruce’s narratives.  As a result, Bruce did not establish the same authoritative voice as Cook.  Many Europeans saw Bruce’s narrative as a too personal and narrowly focused account of his journey, and did not like this style of writing.  Cook’s writing, on the other hand, contained a more broad description of the places he travelled. 





Works Cited

Schmidt, Benjamin.  “The Project of Dutch Cartography and the Marketing in the World, c. 1700” in Merchants and Marvels: Commerce Science and Art in Early Modern Europe, 347-369.  New York: Rutledge Press, 2002. 

Smith, Amy Elizabeth.  “Travel Letters and the Familiar Letter Form in Mid-Eighteenth Century.”  Studies in Philology 95 (1988): 77-96.  

Australian Dictionary of Biography. “Cook, James (1728-1779).”  Accessed May 17, 2015.

Authorship and Authoritative Voice of Travel Narratives