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Travel and Travel Accounts in World History, Part 2


Introduction to Forum: Travel and Travel Accounts in World History, Part 2

Guest Editor: Mary Jane Maxwell


     The June Forum on Travel and Travelers' Accounts in World History is a continuation of the February Forum, with the addition of five new articles spanning the tenth to the nineteenth centuries. Readers may want to refer to February's Introduction to the Forum, where I offer a brief summary on the nature and history of travel writing. What is new to this forum's selection is its inclusion of women travelers in both Marina Tolmecheva's article on medieval Muslim women as well as examples in Dane Morrison's piece on "Glocal" history.

     Sungshin Kim leads off the Forum with an "alternative example" of Early Modern travel writing from the Far East. Like their western counterparts, the travels of three eighteenth century literati and emissaries from Chosŏn Korea to Qing China, Hong Taeyong, Pak Chiwŏn and Pak Chega, compel the authors to critique their own societies in light of the so-called "barbarian" Manchus. Kim explains that the travelers "made this voyage within the framework of the Sinocentric tributary system—one of the most traditional subjects in East Asian historiography." Moreover, she offers an excellent primary source example of Korean satire in which the travellers devise new philosophical views of "civilized" and "barbarian," as well as the current state of affairs in Chosŏn Korea as a reflection of their detailed observations of Chinese society.

     Authors Gabrielle Porter and Tom Taylor focus on the "emerging field of professional adventurer" and journalism as they recount the 13,000 mile global odyssey of Thomas Stevens—on a bicycle. A British citizen living in the United States, Stevens published his adventures from San Francisco, across Europe, Central Asia and China to an eager audience back home who devoured his exploits with "the natives" in the Orient. The bicycle, according to Porter and Taylor, uniquely shaped Steven's encounters everywhere he traveled; most Asians were familiar with westerners—even if they had never actually seen one, but none had seen a bicycle. And for Stevens, the fact that he "could ride around the world on his own power was for him a testament of western ingenuity and superiority" according to the authors. Culled from newspaper articles and Stevens' own account, Porter and Taylor skillfully recount the cyclist's exploits squarely within in the context of nineteenth century geopolitics.

     As in many other early societies, medieval Muslim women did not leave behind travel accounts, and only a few exist in the early modern era. As a result, world history can become his-story if professional scholars never stray from their archives in a particular time and place and fail to piece together seemingly unrelated fragments into a coherent whole. Yet Marina Tolmacheva refuses, thankfully, to leave these women's stories untold in her article on Muslim women's travel experiences and where, why, and how they traveled. Based on numerous accounts by male travelers who reported on their female traveling companions, Tolmacheva weaves together a portrait of Muslim women traveling, usually in caravans, throughout the dar-al-Islam before 1500. Most reports focus on the hajj, since "the requirement of pilgrimage to Mecca is equally incumbent on Muslim women and men, although women may be excused from the obligation for lack of the appropriate male escort" notes Tolmacheva. Nonetheless, many women did more than simply accompany their husbands; often elite women took advantage of their "freedom" and served as diplomats, organized charitable activities, or pursued an Islamic education while in the holy cities.

     Dane Morrison offers every world history survey instructor a means to make world history relevant to the students who wonder: what does all this have to do with me and my future career? Morrison exquisitely details how the "glocal" approach, connections between the local and the wider world, offers students a way to identify directly with the surplus of material contained in the typical survey course. From their classroom in Salem, Massachusetts, students read ship's logs and local traveler accounts of Salem's men and women who brought the East to the wharves of Salem through the Old China Trade (1784–1844) that opened up commerce between the United States and the Qing Empire. Salem students can also directly encounter East Asian "exotics" such as porcelain and silks which fill the local Peabody Museum. Although the author himself is particularly well-positioned to teach the glocal from his classroom in Salem, he nonetheless offers prescriptions to his colleagues elsewhere. Students can, for example, mine local archives or conduct oral interviews with local businesses to make the global connections in their own communities. Even more provocative, students might seek out the glocal in travel accounts from blogs of local soldiers and/or missionaries stationed world-wide. Whatever the means, making world history "glocal" is an invitation to make world history relevant to our student's present day concerns.

     In my article on Ludovico de Varthema, the well-known early sixteenth century adventurer who left behind an account on his travels through the Arabian peninsula, Persia, India and Southeast Asia, I offer an opportunity for both scholars and students to evaluate—or re-evaluate—how a particular travel account might be understood and analyzed over time by historians as well as scholars in other disciplines. Varthema's Itinerario has been touted by literary scholars as a new secular genre of literature that breaks from its medieval predecessors. I argue, however, that Varthema's account remains deeply rooted in medieval crusade ideology and its wide popularity in the early modern era served to justify Europe's colonial aspirations in South and Southeast Asia.

Mary Jane Maxwell is Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at Green Mountain College and specializes in pre-modern cross-cultural encounters, travel history and world religions. She published the travel account of a Russian merchant, "Afanasii Nikitin: A Russian Orthodox's Spiritual Voyage into the Dar al-Islam" in the Journal of World History in 2006. Her forthcoming monograph with M.E. Sharpe is titled Women and Mysticism in World History, 800–1200: An Era of Divine Love and is due for release in early 2014. She can be contacted at


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