50th Anniversary Virtual Special Issue Terrae Incognitae: The Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries

Terrae Incognitae

The Frontier of Discovery and Exploration Research in 2017

Lauren Beck, Mount Allison University, Canada

The opportunity to celebrate our journal’s 50th anniversary in print also allows us to reflect on how we arrived to this moment and where we need to go next. The present issue addresses these questions by exploring important moments in our chrysalis, which began in 1969 with the first editorial, titled “In the Beginning,” by Bruce Solnick. Our objectives as a publication devoted to scholarship on the history of geographic exploration and discoveries are clearly laid out by the editor, who invites contributions from geographers, historians, literary scholars, and scientists. These disciplines remain the journal’s primary constituencies as authors, readers, and members of the Society for the History of Discoveries. And more than geographic discovery and exploration, the journal now addresses ways that cultures encountered and went about discovering each other; we are increasingly interested in extraterrestrial and oceanic exploration; and we revisit past scholarship for ways that it can be enhanced using newly-discovered primary sources as well as critical thought. The journal began with this environment of inclusivity, as the editor clearly stated that despite the Society’s interests in European periods of expansion, the journal’s scope would not be confined to those interests.

It is through the prism of our first editor’s assertion that Terrae Incognitae will be a journal that has global relevance—a journal whose scholarship has an observable impact on research whether it takes place in or on Latin America, Africa, Asia, or any other place—that we can re-discover some of the most important pieces of scholarship as well as model contributions published during the last fifty years.

John Parker authored the first of these articles, which appeared in 1981, and his concerns about the authority of the source persist today as a concrete problem with which scholars are confronted. John likely did not know that the internet would transform how we access sources for our research, but certainly our interrogation of a source’s quality remains a necessary step within our scholarly praxis. His observation that scholars rely less and less on original sources and instead on translations and modern editions of them continues to be relevant today, although with the internet we have a plethora of digitized possibilities at our fingertips from around the world. As Ortelius’s editor once remarked with respect to the geographer’s innovative atlas, and echoing the words of Richard Kagan on this subject, we have become armchair archivists and are no longer required to physically move about the earth in order to consult the sources so needed for our research. From another perspective, primary sources—particularly those ones that have been so often-cited that some scholars feel they cannot contribute any more to expanding our knowledge today—can find new uses when critical and engaging questions are posed. As John concludes in his article—the western world finished discovering the rest of the world about a century ago. What new approaches should we be taking to scholarship in our discipline?

The next article bathes light on the importance of developing critical vocabularies and of re-examining their use in exploration and discoveries research. Charles Gibson’s article appeared in 1980 and it problematizes the term conquest much as predecessors critically examined the use of discovery. It is precisely this topic that informed my last editorial for this journal, which in itself demonstrates the relevance today of revisiting scholarly vocabularies and furthermore understanding how they can impact primary sources undergoing revision and translation over the centuries.     

A challenge to reading works such as Gibson’s, however, is that despite the high-quality and thoroughly-researched material on the subject of conquest, no time was spent understanding the definition of conquest through the eyes of the subjectified. The desire to make the exploration and discovery experiences and perspectives of the conquered and marginalized forms one of the bases of the two final articles in this issue. The first, by David B. Quinn, explores the appearance of some “Virginians” on the Thames River in 1603 from a European perspective and using recently-uncovered archival documentation. David’s work does not provide any first-hand observations or experiences from the point of view of Indigenous men but nonetheless it increases their visibility in scholarship that often finds documentation an obstacle to better understanding Native American experiences after 1492. His focus on Native American experiences in Europe is moreover an important avenue for future scholarly work.

The final article by Dee Longenbaugh re-focuses our attention on Métis and Creole contributions to mapping the Americas. Her treatment of the sons of Inuit and Athapaskan mothers who had coupled with Russian explorers yields important insight into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cartography of the region, as these Russian-Indigenous sons played a key role as cultural intermediaries and in ensuring the smooth-functioning of Russian settlements in Alaska. Often treated as an outsider to Europe, her work furthermore highlights the activities of people beyond Europeans and contrasts the practices of the Hudson’s Bay Company traders against those of the Russian American Company, particularly in terms of the latter’s collaboration with Indigenous people.

Together these articles remind us where we came from and where we need to go next. The frontier of discovery and exploration history is no longer found in Europe or the even the western world, or at least not unless the perspective belongs to a non-westerner. Rather, critical approaches to better understanding how our world and its environs (whether below the oceans or above the stars) became known or knowable to men and women anywhere in the world remains our key objective. We continue to seek this knowledge using the vehicles of gender, race, materiality, politics, geography, cartography, religion, language, economics, sociology, and anthropology, as pathways that contextualize the experience of pre-modern discovery and exploration history.