Posted by: Steve Coplan | September 28, 2006

Great Explorers

The BBC Web site earlier this week published this fascinating profile on the Italian-born founder of Brazzaville, occasioned by the return of his ashes to the city across the Congo River from Kinshasa.

I was one of those kids that shed early on any infatuation with firemen and policemen to fixate on the great explorers. Part of it may have been that I grew up in South Africa, where we learned about the ‘discovery’ of South Africa by Vasco da Gama and Bartholomew Dias, the navigators who circumnavigated the Cape of Storms (later renamed Cape of Good Hope in a stroke of marketing genius) thanks to the foundation of Prince Henry the Navigator’s sponsorship of voyages of discovery. Plettenberg Bay, the location of the family holiday home, was originally called Baia Formosa (‘beautiful bay’) when Portuguese sailors came across it in 1576. The idea of rounding the headland and have this pristine, breathtaking view of a gentle sloping bay with the statuesque Outeniqua Mountains unfolding as the backdrop all to yourself (apart from a few semi-nomadic KhoiKhoi cowherds) was probably the most appealing thing I could think of as an eight-year old.

I was reminded by my childhood fascination with explorers over the weekend when I was in Seagate, a picturesque gated community at the western end of Coney Island, nestled next to the not so picturesque Coney Island housing projects. Seagate looks out directly toward the Verrazzano Narrows, now dominated by the Verrazzano Bridge, and named for the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano who sailed under the French flag in the 16th century. I simply assumed that the bridge was named for a prominent Staten Island citizen until by chance we drove through the town where Verrazzano hailed from in Chianti. By chance I mean I wanted to try the backroads on our second trip to the Prada outlet in Montevarchi from Montegufoni where we were staying for a friend’s wedding, and Greve in Chianti is roughly the midpoint between the two (As an aside, the highway is a much better bet). If I grew up in a noble family in 16th century Tuscany, I doubt I’d be motivated to do much but eat and drink. To leave that charm and beauty behind to seek out the ends of the earth shed some light for me on the intensity required to be a great explorer.

Verazzano is also commemorated in a memorial in Battery Park City. Lyndon Johnson’s speech at the opening is an explicit appeal to vote Democratic to counter Republican intentions to limit immigration from Italy. Plus ca change…

My peripateticism is more of the variety of the Wandering Jew (preceeded by two generations that lived across three continents) than the intrepid traveller — unlike The Mexican who also has an uncanny ability to capture the sense of place. Also, as I grew older and got more of a sense of the perspective of the ‘discovered’, I understood that the great explorers were essentially the vanguard of European hegemony and irrevocable change. The KhoiKhoi that Diaz encountered in Mossel Bay were decimated by disease, enslaved or deracinated by the early 1800s.

So what does remain from that earlier fascination? Well, for one thing I live in New York City, and the world comes to New York. So while I haven’t had the experience of feeling utterly alien and seeing remote places, I’ve become part of the one of the most diverse places on the planet. But I ask myself: what places can my son explore and feel like he is a discoverer? The only real sense is that he can become a discoverer is to put himself in grave danger like going to Kinshasa (like this blogger) or metaphorically seek out new territory. Humanity has never before seen such enormous transfers of population across vast distances or into such vast agglomerations. Charting a path to a sustainable and generally amicable future seems like a pretty appealing idea too.

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