It’s an irresistible mix of human fortitude, science and exploration, a story for our times.
Latitude and Longitude sit side-by-side on my bookshelf. They’re the dissimilar twins that fixed our place on Earth. The quest to measure one degree of latitude was undertaken before Harrison completed the clock that won him the longitude prize. Together they form the accurate grid that makes it possible to map and to navigate the surface of the world.
Your book features several major discoveries, such as quinine and rubber. Just how important was the voyage beyond the discovery of Latitude?
By the time the expedition returned to Europe, it had demonstrated beyond doubt the value of interdisciplinary research by an international team, a model that has endured to this day. Expedition members collected data on everything from gravity and the speed of sound, to human rights and archaeology.
As an explorer yourself, in particular having located the pole of inaccessibility, are you in any way envious of previous eras – this particular voyage ended up taking more than a decade, and the expedition did not return intact.
It’s difficult to be envious of an era that cured ‘gangrene of the rectum’ with a pessary of peeled lemon infused with gunpowder and pepper, but I would have enjoyed the surveying and mountaineering. And we’re not short of modern exploration challenges Adapting to rapid climate change will require us learn more about our planet’s ecosystems.
Was there a piece of research that you uncovered that gave you a thrill during the writing of the book?
For a long time, I was perplexed by Charles Marie de La Condamine’s references to a ‘canonnière’. It’s not a word in common French usage. Eventually, I found the answer in the Volume 6 of the 1883 Boy’s Own Annual, which I happened to have on my bookshelves. A canonnière is not a weapon but a small tent once favoured by French infantry.
Which of your characters would make the most entertaining dinner guest?
La Condamine by a mile, but I’d ask him to bring his friend, Voltaire. Then, at last, I’d find out how much money the two of them made on the lottery scam they masterminded, and whether it was this money that La Condamine used in South America to bankroll the expedition.
The strapline for the book is, the Voyage That Shaped the World. Did it?
Yes! The Geodesic Mission to the Equator was the world’s first international scientific expedition. It was an extraordinary feat of scientific perseverance that produced at last an accurate figure for the length of one degree of latitude. And it proved beyond doubt that Earth was not egg-shaped but flattened at the poles.
Can you recommend any books on exploration for the readers of Aspects of History?
I’m looking forward to reading The Art of Exploration by Levison Wood, published in June 2021. Before pedalling to the Pole of Inaccessibility, I read The Gobi Desert, by the indefatigable Mildred Cable and Francesca French. In The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard takes the reader on Scott’s 1912 expedition to the South Pole. Marco Polo’s Travels are a reminder that human beings have always explored.
Are you working on a new project, and can you tell us about it?
Latitude the Movie (in my dreams).
Nicholas Crane is an explorer, broadcaster and writer, and is the author of Latitude: The Astonishing Adventure that Shaped the World published by Michael Joseph. You can read his piece on the scientific struggle here.