Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections

European Travel Accounts Printed Before 1850

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Description     Works Cited     Geographical Groups     


Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections holds over 600 books printed before 1850 that are related to travel. These books cover a striking variety of topics and are grouped according to the geographical area they pertain to in the following census.

knoxTravel writing necessarily entails the blending of different genres, as the description of a voyage can include observations on everything from history and religion to botany and zoology. The travel literature pre-dating 1850 in our collection spans all fields of interest, with even individual accounts rarely heeding modern disciplinary boundaries. Most traveler's accounts are written in the first-person, so autobiography is also brought into the mix in many cases. The writings included in the following list are considered 'factual' (in contrast with works of evident fiction), but in travel writing there often arises a tension between truth and fiction, between scientific observation, and a self-consciously literary mode designed to entertain the reader. Travel writing can range from statistical gazetteers purged of anecdote, to highly personal accounts of religious pilgrimage, and tales of survival under dangerous circumstances. During the period of European exploration of Asia and the Americas that began in the fifteenth-century many travelers attempted to achieve a balance of scientific and literary interest in their written accounts. As this phenomenon coincided with the invention and growth of printing, travelers' accounts came to be among the most widely read books available. By the late eighteenth-century they were second in popularity only to romances. As a consequence, a trend arose of compiling the most popular stories of exploration and discovery and publishing them as collections of travel literature. London publisher J. Knox's 1767 series A New Collection of Voyages, Discoveries and Travels is one such example.

Many of the earliest published travel accounts relate the experiences of European religious pilgrims to the Holy Land. Bernhard von Breydenbach's fifteenth-century Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam is the earliest printed description of a journey to Jerusalem. Tales of pilgrimage allowed non-traveling Christians to imaginatively experience the voyage to a sacred place. Although the number of pilgrimages began to decline in the Renaissance, Europeans continued traveling for other reasons.debry Commercial and colonial interests began to take precedence. The journals of Arnoldus Montanus, who traveled throughout Asia in the sixteenth-century on behalf of the East-India Company of the Netherlands, were published and lavishly illustrated. Theodor de Bry chronicled the earliest attempts to colonize the Americas in similarly grand style by incorporating elaborate engravings into his books. Leo Africanus was commissioned by the Pope to survey and describe the largely unexplored continent of Africa for the benefit of his European patrons. Europeans had access to the observations of missionaries abroad through such compilations as Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses: Ecrites des Missions Etrangeres, in which Jesuit letters were published. As Nigel Leask has noted, Europeans often couched their desire to travel and explore in terms of 'curiosity', but seemingly benign curiosity was often as much about the impulse to possess or to profit as it was about expanding human knowledge. Exploratory and scientific expeditions to distant continents were frequently lerycombined with other interests: commercial, missionary, or military. European travel accounts of this era share a marked ethnocentricity, as the authors invariably take the European world as a starting point of normalcy and observe a world increasingly strange, exotic and monstrous the further they venture from home. Travelers such as Jean de Lery, author of Histoire d'un Voyage Faict en la Terre du Bresil in 1580, delight in describing all that would be shocking to European sensibilities in these newly discovered lands. The marvels encountered by Europeans elicited responses ranging from awe and admiration to fear and mistrust.

columbusIt has always been the case that the best known explorers were those who wrote accounts of their travels, or whose journeys were written about by others. For instance, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Mungo Park all documented their explorations. Among the most famous sea expeditions were those undertaken by Captain James Cook, which were written about by John Hawkesworth and by Cook himself. Once circumnavigation had been accomplished by explorers such as Cook and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and the task of mapping the world's coastlines was well underway, the lure of intercontinental exploration took over. An era of scientific travel followed, out of which Charles Darwin's surveying voyages are perhaps most famous. Voyages into the interior of uncharted continents could bring travelers into graver danger than had hitherto been imagined as they came up against tropical diseases, harsh climates, foreign plants, strange animals, and people with whom they had no established relationship. The description of marine travel usually necessitated a great deal of technical language, but interior exploration was better suited to the reading public's appetite for entertaining tales of adventure. Meriwether Lewis' account of his explorations with Captain Clarke across the American continent, and Charles-Maire de La Condamine's Relation Abrege d'un Voyage Fait dans l'Interieur de l'Amerique Meridionale, both belong to this class of travel writing. "Survival literature" became tremendously popular in the late eighteenth-century. In some cases, the writing and publishing of harrowing tales was a strategy for the survivors of calamitous voyages to finance fresh starts. Stories of Europeans surviving foreign captivity, such as sailor Robert Adams' tale of shipwreck and enslavement on the western coast of Africa, eerily invert the far broader reality of foreign enslavement at the hands of westerners. As Mary Campbell points out, travelers' accounts are often "guilty texts" which document European colonialism and Christian imperialism. They are indeed texts with political and historical consequences, but they are also works of literary interest.

egyptianThroughout the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries leisure travel became more and more convenient for wealthy Europeans. Accounts of domestic travel were a valuable resource for those preparing to embark on the Grand Tour, an increasingly popular rite of passage. Ritchie Leitch's Travelling Sketches on the Rhine, and in Belgium and Holland is a characteristic account of such an undertaking. By the early nineteenth-century, privileged Americans were steadily following suit, producing memoirs like J. Jay Smith's A Summer's Jaunt Across the Water. America was also becoming a tourist destination for Europeans as Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley's Travels in the United States, etc., during 1849 and 1850 demonstrates. The rise in the publication of recreational travel literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries reflects these trends. An increasingly literate public proved an eager audience for the wide variety of travel accounts that were entering into publication, from guidebooks to traveler' journals, and from works focused on natural history and geography to those detailing cases of religious and political imperialism.

st christianThe census of our collection of travel books printed before 1850 includes texts that will be of interest to scholars of nearly every discipline. Travel accounts may include detailed descriptions of local crafts, costume, and religious practices. Exploratory parties often included experts on a variety of topics ranging from linguistics to local medicine to geology. Special attention in often given to art, architecture, and antiquities in early guidebooks for leisure travelers, like John Stow's A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, which were designed specifically for tourists rather than written as accounts of personal travel. Many of these texts also provide valuable insights into European political and social history. For a modern reader, European accounts of non-European lands and peoples interestingly tend to reveal more about the authors' preconceived notions about whatever they are describing than about their ostensible subjects.

Our collection has been built in large part through the generous gift of many long-time friends and benefactors of the library, especially former president Catherine McBride and Seymour Adelman.


Works Cited

Adams, Percy G. Travelers and Travel Liars 1660-1800. Berkley/Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1962.

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

Korte, Barbara. English Travel Writing from Pilgrimages to Postcolonial Explorations. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 2000.

Leask, Nigel. Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing 1770-1840. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation. London/ New York: Routledge, 1992.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, Inc., 1978.







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Last Update: January 24, 2018 , Special Collections at