By Dane Kennedy

Harvard University Press, $49.95


Young boys growing up in the 1960s would dream of being astronauts. A century earlier, their youthful counterparts throughout the far-flung British Empire could imagine themselves as explorers: Burke, perhaps, or Stuart, Leichhardt and also, presumably, Dr Livingstone.

The word "explorer" was a 19th-century invention: it denoted a distinct type of traveller; not hedonistic holidaymakers but, rather, men on a mission, their purpose often to fill in holes on maps. Maps of Africa and Australia looked alluringly empty. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad has his narrator, Marlow, recall: "When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration.

"At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map ... I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there'."

In Lewis Carroll's epic poem The Hunting of the Snark (1874), the crew laud their brave captain for bringing the best kind of map - "a perfect and absolute blank". Dane Kennedy quotes from Carroll at the start of his, well, exploration of the impulse to explore.

His allusion to Snark offsets a tendency to lapse into academic language, as when he defines his theme as "this irreconcilable tension between exploration as experience and exploration as epistemology". Luckily, the points he loses for "epistemology" are regained by an inspired reference to the song Hooray for Captain Spaulding, from the classic Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers (1936). Anyone in danger of taking explorers too seriously need only picture Groucho in a pith helmet.

In the film, the famous Captain Spaulding has just arrived "from climates hot and scalding". His enthusiastic reception matches those afforded the explorers who ventured far afield and then managed to come back - men such as Livingstone and Leichhardt (before he disappeared) and the bewildered John King, sole survivor of the advance party of the Burke and Wills expedition, who was gawped at by huge and pushy crowds on his return to civilisation in 1861. These days, perhaps only Justin Bieber could relate to that kind of scrutiny.

King was Irish, like Burke. Wills was English; Stuart and Livingstone were Scots; Leichhardt was Prussian. Exploring was a distinctly European endeavour. A problem for most of them, and this held true into the Antarctic expeditions of the early 20th century, was all those armchair experts back in London, quite often at the Admiralty.

A theme of Kennedy's is the way explorers approached blank spaces rather like sailors confronting a huge expanse of ocean. One of their many problems, especially in the flat Australian outback, was that often an ocean would offer more distinguishing features. It can be hard to find your way in a lot of nothing.

Yet Kennedy also points to a fundamental (and often fatal) flaw in the European approach: often those blank spaces were not as empty and uninhabited as they seemed. The trouble was, existing residents had dark skins and were not, by definition, civilised. Nor were they to be trusted.

Only as a last resort (and too late) did Burke and Wills seek assistance from the indigenous people who lived where they were languishing. The more enlightened explorers, such as Thomas Mitchell, acknowledged that "we were rather unceremonious invaders of their country". A degree of resentment was therefore to be expected, especially if blow-ins with white faces felt free to plunder scarce water supplies.

From native people in both Africa and Australia, European explorers encountered more incredulity than hostility. What, exactly, were these travellers hoping to achieve, especially in barren country?

In Australia, George Grey lamented: "It is impossible to make a native understand our love of travel."

In Africa, Samuel Baker, travelling up the Nile in search of Lake Albert, was asked by a local chief: "Suppose you get to the great lake, what will you do with it? What will be the good of it?" To which Baker pompously replied: "I could only assure him, that in England we had an intimate knowledge of the whole world, except the interior of Africa ..."

There it is again, that desire to colour in blank spaces on maps. There were, of course, more materialistic motives, such as trade opportunities or the discovery of vast expanses of fertile land.

Not uncommonly, that quest for "intimate knowledge" extended to comely natives, any reference to which tended to be excised from journals by the chaps in head office. Most, including Burke and Leichhardt, hoped for fame that would set them up for life. Like Conrad's Marlow, they hoped to lose themselves "in all the glories of exploration". And instead were simply lost.

  • Alan Attwood is editor of The Big Issue and author of the novel Burke's Soldier (2003).