The Last Blank Spaces: Exploring Africa and Australia
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The Last Blank Spaces
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Ask a librarian. This strengthened the emerging tendency to treat both continents, like the oceans themselves, as blank spaces; and it was much more effective and instrumental than a metaphor because it added impetus to the custom of seeing the great continental spaces, if not without people, then without political boundaries or systems of land tenure. In Australia, this approach merged effortlessly with the doctrine of terra nullius , even though explorers themselves became aware of the ubiquitous Aboriginal presence, the power of traditional custom and the intense sense of territoriality.
The explorers became heroes in both Britain and Australia. In part this was due to the fact that they were seen as much more than mere travellers. The ideal explorer was a man of many parts: a surveyor, a map-maker and a botanist, with some acquaintance with geology and meteorology.
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This helped distinguish land exploration from the oceanic variety. Sailing ships could carry stores and equipment unavailable to even the largest inland expeditions and they commonly provided berths to assorted scientists and artists.
But the explorer became a heroic figure of the Victorian era because they were seen as harbingers of civilisation and Christianity. In Africa, exploration had the additional motivation of carrying the crusade against slavery into the heart of the continent.
In Australia, the process was reversed: explorers paved the way for pastoralists who subjected generations of Aborigines to a system of forced labour little different from slavery. The apotheosis of the explorer left little room for the inconvenient fact that on both continents most expeditions were heavily dependent on the guidance and expert advice of assorted Indigenous advisers.
Far from demonstrating the great power of the British Empire, explorers in fact discovered its limits and learned that their success and, indeed, their very survival often depended on their ability to obtain local assistance and acquire local knowledge. And the same was true of the innumerable and largely unrecorded private parties who ventured into Aboriginal Australia throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Topics: books history Indigenous affairs.