Thursday, July 26, 2012

Lawson #1

You’ve just got to love a great storyteller! 
The other day I was wandering around Denver helping a friend look for a real estate investment when I stumbled upon a map shop in the Cherry Creek area.  I had to go in.  I love maps and have several wonderful maps of Africa on my wall, including a 1587 printing of a 1570 Ortelius.  It is extraordinary – the accuracy of the shape of the continent is remarkable, particularly as it was done primarily through observation and drawing. 
Ortelius map of 1570
I chatted to the proprietor about maps in general, and maps of Africa in particular.  He showed me what he had in stock, but I found nothing to really interest me.  One of the topics discussed was how remarkably accurate very old maps were, despite no one being able to determine longitude with any accuracy.  He said the outlines of landmasses were decent but the interiors were all guesswork. 
Part of Cram's map showing Mount Hercules
He pulled out a map (circa 1895) by the well known American cartographer George Cram.  It shows the relative lengths of the world’s major rivers and the relative heights of the world’ highest mountains.  In general, it was pretty accurate, EXCEPT for one mountain: Mount Hercules in New Guinea, towering a thousand metres or so (3,700 feet) above Mt. Everest.  “Cram had never been to New Guinea,” the proprietor said.  “He believed what he was told.”
Needless to say, I had to find out why such a well known cartographer had bought into a story so thoroughly that he put a non-existent mountain on one of his maps – not just a non-existent one, but one that was significantly higher than the highest known mountain.
Let me tell you about Captain John Lawson.
Despite a European presence in the East from the late 1400’s, there was much that was unknown.  One area that had captured the imagination of Europeans was New Guinea, about which very little was known and a great deal imagined.  It was exotic and far away.
Joseph Beete Jukes, an officer on HMS Fly that explored the coast of New Guinea in the 1840s, wrote:
I know of no part of the world, the exploration of which is so flattering to the imagination, so likely to be fruitful in interesting results, whether to the naturalist, the ethnologist or the geographer, and altogether so well calculated to gratify the enlightened curiosity of an adventurous explorer, as the interior of New Guinea. New Guinea! The very mention of being taken into the interior of New Guinea sounds like being allowed to visit some of the enchanted regions of the Arabian Nights, so dim an atmosphere of obscurity rests at present on the wonders it probably contains.

In 1875 an explorer by the name of John Lawson published a book of his travels in New Guinea.  His achievements as told in Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea (Chapman & Hall) were awe-inspiring.

He had walked, save for about 30 miles, across the island at its widest point; he climbed Mt. Hercules up to its snowline (in one day); he mapped vast tracts of the interior, including Lake Alexandrina and the Gladstone and Royal rivers; and he lost three of his five assistants to horrible deaths.  For food, his party lived off the land.  They fished, at one point catching over 100 in two hours; they hunted, once bringing down 19 ducks with two shots.  And when their rifle was lost, survived by hitting quail with a stick.  He discovered many new species of flora and fauna, and shot and killed a giant striped tiger, which he called the Moolah.
Sketch from Lawson's book
His story was very believable, at least to the general public – he described species in minute detail (for example, five page to an new trapdoor spider), but often made entries in his journal such as “Passing over exactly the same kind of country as yesterday. Still less forest”.  This juxtaposing of detail and dismissive comments seemed real to readers in England.
However the story was not so believable to other explorers and scientists.  Even though the book sold well, a number of prominent publications like The Times, Geographical Magazine, and Athenaeum ran articles decrying it.  The famous British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, reviewed the book in Nature, writing that he had “a duty to inform our readers that it is wholly fictitious. It is not even a clever fiction”.
In response to a derisory review in the Athenaeum that included a statement that the coordinates of the village from which Lawson had launched his expedition were actually in the middle of the ocean, Lawson retorted: “The gentleman who wrote this article knows nothing whatever about New Guinea, except such information as he has gleaned from text-books and gazetteers of doubtful accuracy”.

Even the Alpine Club weighed in, saying that Lawson’s ascent of Mt. Hercules was three or four times faster than one could do Mont Blanc.
Lawson's response: "My ascent of Mount Hercules has, also, provoked something more than mere astonishment in the minds of the delicate city gentlemen and podgy professors who are in the habit of ascending Mont Blanc, with the aid of sherry and sandwiches, and half-a-dozen greasy, garlic-fed guides, and then devoting a quarto volume to an account of their exploits."
When the famous explorer Captain Moresby wrote a letter solemnly proclaimed that Lawson’s claims were unfounded and supported his position by saying that he (Moresby) had never seen the species described by Lawson, Lawson again went on the attack:
“A due sense of modesty should have kept [Captain Moresby] silent, especially as he is not a qualified judge as to what is or what is not to be found in the interior of New Guinea … “We never saw,” “we never saw”; when Capt. Moresby does see, he will be deeply mortified to think he is numbered amongst those who have tried to throw discredit upon my narrative.”
Lawson eventually went silent when he was invited by the editor of the Athenaeum to produce the skin of the Moolah he had shot.
Lawson’s book was obviously pulling everyone’s chain, and he must have delighted in the reactions of so many prominent people, particularly those who pontificated but had never left the shores of England.

Mount Hercules from Wallace's book
So that is the story of how cartographer George Cram got sucked in to publishing his erroneous map.  It just goes to show that even in those non-Internet days so long ago, one could not believe everything one read.  Needless to say,  I bought the map.
There’s one other footnote of interest.  There was no Captain Lawson in the English navy at the time.  To this day, no one knows who the real author was of Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea.
Next time I am going to tell you of another wondrous Lawson - an American of truly astounding vision.
Stan - Thursday
Note:  I read a lot about Captain Lawson in Oceanic encounters, a scientific collaboration between the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) at The Australian National University.


  1. Stan, WOW! What a story. What fun to read. I loved the suspense and especially enjoyed the "podgy professors who are in the habit of ascending Mont Blanc, with the aid of sherry and sandwiches." Whoever wrote the Lawson book did a lively job of it.
    A couple of coincidences that I cannot help but mention: I fell in love with maps as a child when I studied the atlas and dreamed of faraway places. They still appear to me, especially old ones, as some of the most romantic objects there are. AND, after talking with you about it, I got the Netflick of "Black and White in Color" to watch it again. There was a bonus movie on the disc, which I watched just last evening: "The Sky Above, the Mud Below," about Brits and Dutchmen traversing New Guinea!!

  2. Thanks, Annamaria. Did my build up of Black and White in Color hold up when you watched it?

  3. Thanks so much for your story and the information about the map shop in Denver. I live near Denver and have maps of several battles of the Russo-Japanese War printed in Berlin in 1908 which were in a box of books that belonged to my dad. Now I know where to find out more about them. Maps are stories within themselves.

  4. Stan, yes it held up. Just as absurdly funny as I remembered. But there are tragicomic parts too that didn't stick with me from years ago. Par for the course for my hyper optimistic attitude! I am glad to have seen it a again.

  5. Wouldn't it be delightful to learn who John Lawson really was? Now, if Murdock were around in those days...

  6. I bought Cram's Atlas in a used book store years ago. I've wondered about this Mount Hercules.