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The Financial Express

Discoveries: Newer horizons beckon man

| Updated: July 26, 2020 21:45:38


Machu Picchu in Peru, the centerpiece of the Inca civilisation Machu Picchu in Peru, the centerpiece of the Inca civilisation

Had the legendary explorers of the past been alive today, they would certainly have been attacked by prolonged bouts of depression - and also ennui. The state of today's amateur explorers is no better. With all the virgin territories and corners of earth already discovered in the last five hundred years, few places on the planet are left without having human footprints.  Desperate people in search of habitats have settled down on even the remote islands. Many such mid-sea territories are being used as military bases of big powers. In this situation, the disenchanted state of the aspiring 'explorers' is understood. This plight has prompted many to climb tall mountains, and reach their unexplored summits. After the conquest of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, many smaller Himalayan peaks still remain unexplored.

Compared to the frustrations of the new-age explorers, one can think of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), by birth an Italian, who set out for the Americas in expeditions sponsored by the Catholic monarchs of Spain. After discovering the American continent, mainly its northern part, he made voyages to the area three more times. But eventually he faced a plight filled with spells of neglect, trauma and obscurity. Before the start of his first expedition, Columbus had the spice-rich East Indian shores in his mind. Destiny or navigational misreading took him to the Americas. The credit for exploring the dreamland of India and the Southeast Asian countries went to Vasco de Gama (1460s-1524).

The Portuguese explorer reached the Indian coast of Calicut in 1498, only six years after Columbus' attempt to become the first European to reach India by sea. Unlike de Gama, Columbus had to spend a hectic and eventful sailor-explorer's life both in his new-found America and in Spain. He had been assigned initially by the Spanish Queen Isabelle-I based in Castile and docked his fleet of exploring ships at the Bahamas in 1492. With the opening of the sea routes to the two most vital territories, one full of resources, yet unexplored, the Europeans found their entries to endless exploitation. In the case of Columbus' expedition, the theory of the New World began to be used as a euphemism for persecution of the natives and, finally, colonisation.

In the following centuries, persecution of the forcefully picked and traded black African slaves added a dark chapter to the history of the Americas. But all this could have been different with the application of restraints and some basic human virtues on the part of the European settlers in these continents. It is highly unfortunate that the vast land of today's USA had to wait for the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century to see the end to slave trade and slavery in North America. Upon being put in a different perspective, the Indian sub-continent has also had its agonising share of ruthless colonisation for two hundred years.  

In world history, the 15th century is considered the most important era having far-reaching impacts on contemporary events that shaped the all-round socio-political and cultural evolutions of mankind. The expeditions of the time also brought before man the many positive aspects of these ventures undertaken by daredevil explorers and sailors. As history says, not all expeditions had any particular goal. To many, those were a means of giving outlet to their subconscious trait of engaging in acts shunned by the average people. Normally, they would love to come out of their home confines. Seafarers would opt for setting sail for lands they had little idea about. As part of serendipitous turns of events, a few of them may have been fortunate enough to get lost in the vast seas to finally land on an unknown coast or an island. With many, the practice remained alive as something compulsive. Except the treasure-hunters, these thrill seeking people, mostly youths, would not look to any rewards in return. Ambitious emperors or kings eventually entered the scene. They spent little time to manipulate the courage and defiance of a few of these aimless sailors; these youths would be assigned to tasks of exploring certain sea routes that would finally take them to resource-filled territories in different parts of the world.

Vasco de Gama's was an individual navigational adventure. For his successful expedition to India in 1498, he is called the first European to reach the sub-continent by sea. According to many historians, the discovery of this route opened the way for the age of global imperialism, as well as the sea-bound aspect of global multiculturalism. The successful Indian expedition finally enabled the Portuguese colonial power to set up a vast empire in South and parts of Southeast Asia. On the other hand, Christopher Columbus opened the path to European exploration and colonisation of the continents of the Americas. The Italian-Spanish sailor played the role of a catalyst to the transatlantic colonisation. Many world historians credit Columbus with pioneering the transformation of America from the era of the 'old world' to the 'new world'. Detractors, however, continue to bring up the subject of the heavy prices paid by the American natives for this change in the continents' status. They are also not prepared to gloss over the sanguinary and protracted American civil war fought between a few aspiring colonial powers.

A unique aspect of the colonisation of the Americas is that finally the Dutch Republic, England, France and Denmark joined the fray.

Keeping the turbulent American civil war and its dominant winners in view, the period emerges as a potpourri of different European interests and cultures. Eventually, all major stakeholders left the scenario leaving the theatre to mainly the Britons and the Spaniards. The 500-year-old and often-fierce fracas would not afflict the American mainland, now the USA, had Christopher Columbus not reached the American shores. Without the emergence of the 'new world' centring round the Americas, the world history would have taken a new course --- with the traditionally European great powers still ruling the roost.

With the 21st century witnessing the fast emergence of neo-colonial powers demonstrating varying degrees of military clout and geo-political interests, the nations and territories appear to be subservient to one or another superior power. They are everywhere, and in every region around the globe. In such a situation few places can be expected to be free of human presence --- friendly or hostile. The poles, both the Arctic and the Antarctic, were explored in the early 20th century. Territorial disputes have long been heating up both the vast ice-covered Arctic (North Pole) and Antarctic (South Pole) regions. Africa, the former so-called Dark Continent, was once a free-for-all. Few patches, even in the dense forests or in the midst of deserts, are now left for explorers. The Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in southern Africa was found out and extensively studied by the Scottish explorer David Livingstone in mid-19th century.

Hundreds of big and small forests, deserts and tribal settlements were explored in the so-called Dark Continent in the last couple of centuries. The finds include ruins of ancient civilisations, amazing archaeological sites besides the pyramids along the Nile and scores of now-abolished rituals practised by deep-forest natives. Intrepid explorers have long spotted the descendents of prehistoric man in the deep recesses of the Amazon Forests. Apart from the remnants of the Maya and Inca civilisations, South American countries have showcased to the world the extensions of these two archaeological sites. Explorers from different places now target the adjoining areas of Peru's Machu Picchu, the centerpiece of the Inca civilisation, in search of newer discoveries. But the range and scopes of the fruits of these expeditions are fast becoming narrower, thanks to the rush of too many explorers. The thirst for setting foot on normally inaccessible areas, or, at least, casting a look deep inside those, is integral to human traits. Now that there is little left to explore on earth, man's ventures into space and the outer space are set to widen.

 shihabskr@ymail.com

 

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