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Local Informants and British Explorers: the Search for the Source of the Nile, 1850-1875
Dritsas, Lawrence Stratton
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My thesis describes the praxis of geographical exploration in the mid-nineteenth century through the activities of members of the Royal Geographical Society of London (RGS). I focus on the First East African Expedition (1856-1859), which was led by Richard F. Burton. Geographical exploration was intended to provide data that would allow geographers in Britain to construct an accurate description of East Africa, with emphasis on the rivers and lakes that may contribute to the waters of the Nile and ethnographic research. Earlier geographies of the East African interior had relied upon a variety of sources: ancient, Arab, Portuguese, and local informants. In order to replace these sources with precise observation, the RGS provided some prescriptive instructions to explorers based upon the techniques of celestial navigation and surveying available for field research in the 1850s. The instructions emphasized careful, daily recording of data, using instruments as much as possible. However, in the field explorers experienced a diminished ability to control the consistency of their observations due to insufficient finances, politics, disease, and climate. Where unable to directly observe, they relied upon local informants for descriptions of the regional geography. These informants had a great impact upon the geographies produced by the expedition. In order to complete a full description of the praxis of geographical exploration it therefore becomes necessary to consider the expedition in its wider context--as a remote sensing tool for a scientific society and as a contingent of foreigners visiting a region for which they have little information and entered only with local permission. I propose that five steps, or contexts, must be considered during the analysis of expeditions: contact, acquisition, appropriation, reporting, meta-analysis. These steps make lucid the epistemic transformations that must take place as explorers gather data in the field. At each stage the identity of the individuals involved are contingent upon their relationship with each other and the information they desire. The relationship between explorers and local informants was especially critical to the establishment of credibility. Even when fully trusted by explorers, the British geographers who analyzed expedition data and generated maps of the region debated the veracity of local informants. Explorers (and by extension, local informants) found that other researchers, through the meta-analysis of expedition reports, appropriated any ownership of the information produced by expeditions.
- Masters Theses