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Expanding horizons August 29th, 2014 by

The Other World. I still recall my amazement when visiting a castle in the English countryside with my family some ten years ago. One of the 16th century Flemish tapestries hanging on the wall showed a workhorse with a two-meter long neck. It must have been hard for weavers in the 1500s to visualise new creatures, such as a giraffe, just based on other people’s descriptions.

The early European travellers lacked words to describe all the new things they were seeing. With few people travelling to far off countries, early travel writers had no peer reviewers. Many read what others had written before them, and then added more fantasies (like blue people, or folks with faces on their bellies) and exaggerations (ants as big as dogs) or hybridisation (wild animals with ears of a donkey, wool of a sheep and feet of a bird) For more examples of weird creatures “invented” since medieval time, visit Strange Science. As historian Mary Campbell puts it, for travel writers, the “Other World” was a tapestry or a blank page where they could let their imaginations run wild.

The audience is King (and Queen). During his first voyage Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) landed on Hispaniola and later cruised the coast of Cuba, where the Admiral obliged his men to sign a statement saying that they had travelled to Asia, although at least some of them must have suspected that they were not in China. Christopher was on a mission for the Spanish Crown (Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) at a time when colonial rivalry with Portugal was at its highest. Within weeks of Columbus’ return to Spain in March 1493 copies of his letter were picked up by publishers, translated and printed throughout Europe. The recent invention of the printing press revolutionised the way the word spread, like social media does nowadays. But Columbus’ writing was rather dull and did not appeal to a wide public, mainly because it lacked human interest. When Columbus wrote his letter, his audience was the Queen and the King, whom he tried to please as much as possible (“the fields are very suitable for planting and cultivating, for raising all sorts of livestock herds and erecting towns and farms”).

Knowledge is power. But Columbus also wrote a travel diary (the so-called Journal), which remained unpublished until a reworked version of it was printed in the 19th century. The original was never found, in part because the royal couple had decreed the death penalty for anyone who sent a map or part of the Journal abroad.

Blogging for development. Fortunately, protectionism in today’s publishing world has changed. But development literature still has fairly few readers, partly because papers and reports are written for academics, donors and policy-makers. The norms of scientific writing still promote a dry style where narrative and human interest are seen as distractions. Farmers are too often depicted as beneficiaries of interventions, not as people with own ideas, inventions, fears and aspirations. A more human style of writing will hopefully one day unleash a more people-centred development, where creativity, discovering human potential and even a sense of wonder are as important as planning and crunching numbers.

For further reading:

Campbell, Mary B. 1988. The Witness and the Other World. Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 285 pp.

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