A few years ago I wrote a book called Impossible Journeys, which was a collection of travellers tales about journeys to places which do not exist. Some of those places are relatively well known; indeed El Dorado has passed into the language as the very definition of a chimeric destination. Others, such as Norumbega and Saguenay in the newly discovered Americas, or the Atlantic island of Buss, have been forgotten.
The idea came to me as I took my son on his umpteenth visit to the dinosaur rooms at the Natural History Museum. Wandering among the remains of these evolutionary cul de sacs, I idly began to wonder about other kinds of scientific dead ends, and started trying to conceive of what a map of the world would look like if it were wiped clean, with all the known points erased and replaced with the many speculative locations from the beginnings of cartography. It sounded like an interesting world to explore. I even coined a term for the exercise: counter-factual geography. (It has yet to catch on.)
It’s a subject that continues to fascinate me, and one that I continue to research. One of the the things that makes it such a compelling subject is the courage and character of those people who were willing to travel into the blank spaces on the map, to risk their lives on hearsay and rumour. I came across this passage the other day, from the 11th-century writer Adam of Bremen. I think it captures very well the perilous idea of travel into what he calls ‘the misty darkness’ of uncharted seas. But more than that, it makes me wonder again about the risk-friendly worldview of men who might have read such an account, and think the dangers worthwhile. Was it really all about the money?