In Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, historian Joyce E. Chaplin describes around-the-world voyages as geodramas in which travelers present themselves as actors on a global stage–a metaphor that she extends by dividing her history of circumnavigation into three “acts”.
Chaplin begins with the fearful sea voyages of early modern man, when mariners who attempted to sail around the world were as likely to die as not. She moves on to the confident years of the imperial age, when circumnavigation became both a tool and a beneficiary of Western domination. She ends with the renewed fears and challenges of circling the globe that arose first with aviation and then with space travel. The dangers of orbiting the earth in a space ship are surprisingly similar to those of circumnavigating the globe in a fifteenth century caravel.
Round About the Earth is more than a series of adventures, though Chaplin tells plenty of stories about both major and minor figures in a lively and engaging voice. (Magellan, who didn’t actually make it around the globe. Darwin, who never conquered seasickness. Laika, the first animal in space, whose terror, pain and death were broadcast via radio and television signals.) Chaplin intertwines her travelers’ accounts with discussions of the political contexts that defined them, the technological innovations that made them easier, and, perhaps most interesting of all, the way they were reported. From bestselling fifteenth century travelers accounts to NASA’s television broadcasts, circumnavigation has been about the story as much as about the adventure.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers