Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/May 1876/Recent Geographical Progress


By Chief-Justice DALY,


THE year 1875 completed the third quarter of the nineteenth century, a period distinguished by the activity which has prevailed in every branch of scientific inquiry, but particularly distinguished as a remarkable period of geographical exploration and discovery.

The history of geographical knowledge is a history of its rapid acquisition in periods very limited in point of time, but of great activity, and of long intervals of repose, in which comparatively little was done, or a great deal lost that had been previously acquired. For the last twenty-five years we have been living in one of those periods of exceptional activity, for at no time has an interest so wide-spread been manifested for geographical exploration since that great age of maritime discovery, that began in the early part of the fifteenth century with the exploration of the western coast of Africa by the Portuguese, and culminated in the circumnavigation of the globe by Magellan. The comparatively small limits of about a century is all that is embraced from the time (1418), when Prince Henry of Portugal, surnamed the Navigator, took up his abode upon the promontory of Sagres to devote the residue of his life to the fitting out of expeditions for the exploration of the coast of Africa beyond Cape Bojador, a region then wholly unknown, and the year 1519, when Magellan entered the Pacific by the discovery of the straits that bear his name. Within that period the captains of Prince Henry had sailed around the continent of Africa; Columbus had discovered America; his companion, Nuñez de Balboa, the Pacific; Sebastian Cabot had followed the coast of North America to the sixty-seventh parallel of north latitude; and Magellan's vessel the Vittoria, after sailing around the world, had returned in 1522 to San Lucar, in Spain, the port whence she set out.

The century that followed this period of discovery was occupied with the more particular exploration and settlement of the regions thus brought to the knowledge of mankind, and with the labors of geographers and cartographers in arranging the great mass of new materials into a reconstructed system of geography. With the exception of fruitless efforts to discover, in the interest of commerce, a northeast or a northwest passage to the Indies around the northern part of the globe, or directly across the pole, the zeal for geographical discovery abated through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the world being sufficiently occupied with what it had already acquired, either in building up great empires in the newly-discovered continents of North and South America, or by extending the rule of maritime nations over the coast of Africa, and the remoter parts of Asia, as in the settlement of the colonies established by the Portuguese, and by the British conquest of India. In fact, so large a portion of the earth's surface had become known within so short a period, that it presented enough to absorb all the activity of civilized nations for three centuries in the work of colonization, settlement, or conquest.

It was not until near the middle of the nineteenth century when this great work had produced its results in the establishment of such nations as the United States, Mexico, the republics of Central America, Brazil, the other states of South America, and of a vast dominion under British rule in India r and by the extension of Russia over a large part of Northern Asia, that the attention of mankind was again drawn to the yet undiscovered or imperfectly known portions of the earth, and a new interest awakened in geographical exploration and discovery. This may be said to have begun with the founding of a Geographical Society in Paris, in 1821; of another in Berlin, in 1828, and the establishment of the Royal Geographical Society of London, in 1830. These societies were formed to cultivate the science of geography in a more comprehensive spirit, to facilitate the acquisition of geographical information by the establishment of libraries, to disseminate it by publications, and to encourage and assist scientific travelers and explorers. Like all new things, however, it was some years before these societies produced any effect, or the world recognized the value of the purpose for which they were established; whereas the results which have since been brought about, chiefly through the instrumentality of such institutions, are beyond anything which the most sanguine of their projectors could have anticipated.

The Royal Geographical Society of London may be taken as an illustration of these societies. It has now 3,035 fellows, each paying £2 a year, a large permanent capital, and an annual income of $35,000. It has a building of its own, a fine library and map room, and is able to send, and has frequently sent out expeditions for geographical exploration and discovery, sometimes in coöperation with the government, and sometimes without it. Before, however, it reached this state it had, as I have been informed, to struggle for some years, as we have bad, to keep up its organization. The turning-point of its history, and in its influence, appears to have been the election, in 1843, of Sir Roderick I. Murchison to the presidency, then in the fullness of his fame as a geologist, but who thenceforth entered upon a new field, and one by which he was afterward chiefly known. In his first annual address, an elaborate and exhaustive production, he surveyed the then state of geographical research throughout the world, and pointed out with remarkable sagacity that the parts of the globe to which exploration and research should be directed and concentrated were central Africa, Australia, and the regions surrounding the north and south poles. Although his own fame had been made as a geologist, his course then and during the many years that he was the guiding spirit of the Royal Geographical Society showed very plainly his conviction that a thorough knowledge of the surface of our own planet, and of those physical laws that affect everything upon it, is practically of more importance to us than a knowledge of its past physical history or of other bodies in space.

It was not that he undervalued the sciences of geology and astronomy, which, in fact, form a part of the science of geography; but the earth is our own planet, the details of which are within our grasp, and there is therefore the greater reason why every effort should be directed to acquire a thorough knowledge of it, particularly as the increase of that knowledge requires widely-extended efforts over different parts of it, and a vast accumulation of details. I am not now expressing anything he may have said, but rather deducing my own conclusions of what he thought from what he did. He was evidently impressed with the conviction that sufficient attention was not then given to the advancement of the science of geography, and to his eminently practical mind it was clear that it was not to be advanced by simply studying it in the closet, but by explorations and scientific researches, requiring persistent efforts, continuous expenditures, and the labors of a numerous, zealous, and intelligent class of workers over a large part of the earth's surface. To accomplish this, the whole age had to be influenced, governments enlisted, and the different societies brought into active cooperation with each other, and it was to this work that Sir Roderick then set himself, and to which he may be said to have chiefly devoted the remainder of his life.

I have selected Sir Roderick Murchison rather as a type, for it was not to him alone, but to many other eminent men in France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and other countries, preëminent among whom was Alexander von Humboldt, that the conviction became general that the unknown, or imperfectly known, parts of the earth should be thoroughly investigated, and scientific researches actively prosecuted in respect to all phenomena coming under the general head of physical geography. This has, in fact, brought about, as I have said, a geographical age. There are now scattered over the globe thirty-four geographical societies, and, if we add other organizations devoted in part to geographical inquiry or labors, the number would be augmented to about fifty. Many of them are well endowed, large in point of numbers, and strengthened not only by the cooperation of, but by annual grants of money from, the governments of the countries in which they are situated.

How thoroughly this spirit was aroused, will appear by a brief, but necessarily imperfect, statement of what has been accomplished since this movement began.

When it commenced, the map of Africa was, with the exception of the northwestern projection, above the Gulf of Guinea, and the Nile region, almost a blank from the Mediterranean to the country in the vicinity of the Cape of Good Hope. Of the 17,000,000 of square miles in Asia, about 12,000,000 were either entirely unknown, or wholly cut off from all intercourse with mankind. The condition of Australia, with an area of 3,000,000 of square miles, is best expressed by quoting the language of a geographer of that day. "A corner of this huge mass of land," he says, "is all that is known." Twenty-five years ago the European population of Australia was estimated at about 50,000; it is now over 1,500,000, or thirty times as great.

The second island in point of size, and one of the most fruitful in the world, Papua, or New Guinea, is referred to by the same geographer Murray, as almost a terra incognita, having generally, he then said, "been viewed only by navigators from a distance;" and in respect to the next great island, Borneo, he puts the population of the colonies there under the Dutch at about 9,000. In 1870 the population of the Dutch colonies in Borneo was 189,253. The settled portion of the United States then embraced 800,000 square miles, beyond which was an area of 2,500,000 square miles inhabited by savages, and almost unknown; for we knew little of it then beyond what was known in the time of Jefferson, with the exception of Major Long's journey and Prof. Nicollet's exploration of the head-waters of the Mississippi.

This was the state of things at the beginning of the period referred to. I will now enumerate what has been done since, and especially within the last twenty-five years.

In Asia: the opening of the whole of China and Japan; the acquisition by the Russians of nearly the whole of Toorkistan, and the inauguration of a policy on their part which, either by treaty or military conquest, will throw open the whole of Northern Asia to the free intercourse of the world. The extensive explorations "by them in Northern Siberia, and of the rivers that flow into the Arctic. The many journeys, explorations, geographical and archæological, made through Southern Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, Beloochistan, and the northern regions of India, and explorations of the like character in Burmah, Siam, and Cambodia. The settlement of the French in Cochin-China, and journeys to a partial extent in Corea, and to a greater extent in Mantchooria. The Euphrates Expedition. The continuation of the great survey of India. The survey of Palestine, and the cutting of the Suez Canal.

In Africa: the discovery of the great lakes, as well those which are the reservoirs of the Nile, as those lying south of the equator. The exploration of the country south of Abyssinia, between these lakes and the eastern coast, and the discovery of the great range of mountains in that region, with their snow-capped peaks, the most elevated land in Africa. The military occupation of Abyssinia and of Ashantee by the English; the extensive journeys and researches in Northern and Northeastern Africa, by Barth, Overweg, Richardson, Rohlfs, Schweinfurth, Miani, Nachtigal, and others. The various expeditions and individual journeys along the western coast, and the explorations of its immediate interior by Du Chaillu, Burton, Baines, Blyden, Gandy, Güssfeldt, etc., etc. The two journeys across Central Africa, from east to west, and west to east, by Dr. Livingstone; his journey from the Cape upward; his exploration of the Zambezi, and of the countries by which it is watered; his discovery of the great network of rivers and lakes in Central Africa, below the equator, which he was pursuing at the time of his death, and the following up of that exploration by Lieutenant Cameron, with the latter's journey through Central Africa, from east to west. The numerous explorations in South and Southeastern Africa, from the Orange River to the Limpopo, and from that point along the eastern coast and its interior, as far as the parallel of Zanzibar, which, with the exploration of the imperfectly known parts of the Island of Madagascar by Grandidier and Mullins, is but a very general statement of what has been done in Africa. What exploration has accomplished in Africa may be judged by a single fact. In 1850 the area of cultivated land in Egypt was 2,000,000 of acres; in 1874 it was 5,000,000.

I may next refer to the numerous explorations around and across the great continent of Australia from Sturt's early journey to the last ones of Warburton and Forster. The survey of large portions of the coast of Papua or New Guinea, and explorations in the interior by Beccaria, D'Albertis, Meyer, Van Rosenberg, and MacLeay. The explorations in Formosa by Steere, Le Gendre, and others, and the settlement of colonies and the establishment of governments by the English in New Zealand and the Feejee Islands. The explorations of the Arctic to within sight of the eighty-third parallel of north latitude, including the discovery of the long-sought northwestern passage, and of its inutility. The exploration of the antarctic circle as far as the 73° of south latitude, and the remarkable discovery that the ice-bound regions, both of the Arctic and Antarctic, were, at a former period of the world's history, covered with a luxuriant vegetation, and that plants and animals then existed there in great abundance, which are found now only in the tropics, or in the more southern parts of the temperate zone.

And finally our own explorations of the great Western region, between the Mississippi and the Pacific, by Fremont, Emory, Simpson, Marcy, Stansbury, Sitgreaves, Gunnison, Beckwith, Whipple, Williamson, Parke, Warren, Ives, Reynolds, Macomb, Mullen, Wheeler, and other gallant, efficient, and distinguished military officers conducting reconnoissances or expeditions across its plains, deserts, and mountains, accompanied in these expeditions by scientific civilians, to whose labors we are indebted for our knowledge of its geology, agricultural resources, and natural history. Among strictly scientific works by civilians I should also enumerate Whitney's survey of California, followed by King and Gardner's belt of geological and topographical survey across the North American Cordilleras, Hayden and Gardner's survey in the Rocky Mountains, and Powell and Thompson's of the great canons of the Colorado, through whose united labors so much of the geography of this vast region has become known; its great mountain-ranges, extraordinary canons, wonderful geysers, deeply interesting ruins of a prehistoric and semi-civilized people of whom we know but little; its lakes, rivers, majestic cataracts, broad areas of cultivable land, already largely and to be still more extensively settled, and finally the millions it has yielded in gold and silver; a region so vast beyond the one hundredth meridian, that it will be twenty years before we obtain proper maps of it, unless the Government is more liberal in providing for its exploration and survey than it has hitherto been.

To these geographical labors and explorations within this period in various parts of the globe must also be added extensive researches of a geographical character, such as deep-sea dredgings, for the investigation of the temperature of the ocean, the movements of submerged currents, the plant and animal life existing at great depths, and the configuration of the bottom of the seas. The observation and study of oceanic currents and their cause. The distribution of heat north and south of the equator by the instrumentality of these currents, and its effects upon climate, as well as the effect of the currents from polar regions in modifying the heat of the equator. The meteorological observations in respect to the course of the winds; and the investigations of the laws and of the cause of hurricanes, cyclones, and other aerial disturbances. The magnetic observations in elucidation of the difficult subject of terrestrial magnetism. The numerous measurements of great mountain-heights in the more elevated regions of the globe. The extensive survey of coasts, prominent among which is our own great Coast Survey. The trigonometrical surveys carried on in many countries in Europe. The investigation of the cause of the glacial epoch, and possibly of inter-glacial epochs, or a succession of alternate warm and cold periods, each extending over long epochs of time, and their effect in bringing about the present condition of the earth's surface by changes in the level of the sea and the submergence of the land.

This very inadequate statement will show how great, wide-spread, and constant has been the work of exploration and research within the period referred to, and how truly it may be denominated a geographical age.

  1. From advance-sheets (introductory portion) of the President's annual address before the American Geographical Society, on "The Geographical Work of the World in 1875."