Atlantic Cities

A Complete History of Fake Journeys

A Complete History of Fake Journeys
Hessel Gerritsz

Human beings have been spinning yarns about epic journeys for about as long as we've been mobile. But in this age of the instant fact-check, even a child can pick apart tales of cyclops and harpies within minutes. Geographic fantasies are now easily debunked. Herodotus' embellishments wouldn't last a day out here; Ryszard Kapuscinski's reckoning has only just begun.

For a more subtle breed of invention, though, the Internet is the finest source imaginable. Think of how lusciously detailed Robinson Crusoe might have been had Daniel Defoe been able to access Flickr. Fanciful accounts of journeys through the African rainforest could be enhanced by zoology lessons from Wikipedia. With the aid of Google Maps, an aspiring storyteller can verify his or her own claims before someone else does.

Turns out the spread of information has played this two-faced role for centuries, undercutting tales of the absurd even as it helps pretenders craft credible falsehoods. In Raymond Howgego's thorough and fascinating new book, Enyclopedia of Exploration: Invented and Apocryphal Narratives of Travel, the spectrum of stories runs the gamut from the insane to the mundane. All of it is untrue, though some tales are taller than others.

For every Utopia or Gulliver's Travels, bursting with fantasy and politics, there is a book like John Brickell's Natural History of North Carolina -- an influential but banal account of the young American colony. Published in 1737, it turned out to be part plagiarism and part invention. Many of the texts Howgogo explores fall somewhere in between, toying with the limits of credibility.

Gulliver in Brobdingnag, Richard Redgrave.

Howgego's* previous four installments of the Encylopedia of Exploration dealt with real-life journeys, which tend to be more familiar to us: Shackleton, Darwin, Stanley, Hudson, and co. It's not that these men (and they were mostly men) told the truth all of the time — Columbus claimed to have seen three mermaids, "not as pretty as they are depicted" (historians now believe they may have been manatees) — but compared to Howgogo's latest subjects, our famous explorers were as honest as Abe Lincoln.

The fifth volume of the Encyclopedia contains 640 articles and as many imaginary places, from Aak to Zu-Vendis, by way of Schlaraffenland. To outline his selection process, Howgogo separates his narratives into eight categories: the apocryphal narrative, the invented narrative, the plagiarized narrative, the utopian narrative, the spoof, the Robinsonade (after Crusoe), the extraterrestrial voyage, and the futuristic voyage. What the stories have in common is their remarkable display of human imagination.

Many were invented for personal gain. In 1801, under the pseudonym of Christian Freidrich Damberger, a German writer published a wildly successful and false account of travels in the African hinterland. The hoax was revealed soon afterwards, but not before the book was translated into French and English, where its sales required at least seven printings.

Other times, the profit motive was more complex. The Spanish explorer Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado, for example, claimed at the turn of the 17th century to have discovered a method of calculating longitude with a compass, and offered to divulge his methods for 5,000 ducats. Maldonado also tried to convince Philip III that he had found the Northwest Passage and argued that his "discovery" should be protected by the Crown.

Narratives with political or social ends are well-represented too. Sometimes, these stories were so powerful that they inspired real-life action. Theodor Hertzka's Freeland was one such tract, though the 15-strong group that attempted to recreate his vision in the Rift Valley was not up to the task, and had to be rescued by the British government a few years later. The American Alexander Horr was slightly more successful, founding the Freeland-inspired town of Equality on the banks of the Puget Sound in 1896. Many utopian authors spawned similar real-life followings.

In the case of Shangri-La, utopia and profit collided. Now a common term for earthly paradise, Shangri-La was invented by the English novelist James Hilton in his book Lost Horizon. Hilton never claimed Shangri-La was real — by the 1930s, the report of the 250-year-old High Lama was a bridge too far — but the Chinese government is trying to capitalize on it, rechristening and rebuilding the Tibetan county of Zhongdian in an attempt to attract Western tourists.

The entries only get weirder. I was not aware, for example, of an entire genre of exploration writing that used travel as a thinly veiled metaphor for sexual discovery. Samuel Cock's (another nom de plume) 1741 book A Voyage to Lethe is a classic example: on his way to deliver a cargo in Buttock-Land, he passes through "a landscape composed of female and male body-parts... replete with pintle trees and monuments, furry-mouthed caves, female natives with insatiable sexual desires and male natives with enormous, full functioning 'machines'."

As earthly exploration neared its conclusion in the 19th century, the narratives collected by Howgego begin to reach beyond lost islands and dense jungles. Jules Verne took readers to the bottom of the ocean and the center of the earth. Other writers envisioned settlement on the moon or other planets. Today's utopian visions are set mostly in the future.

Howgego's selection tapers out around the 1950s, but not because invented narratives of travel disappear. There are now just too many to count.

Top image: Hessel Gerritsz's 1625 map of Guiana, showing the mythical city of El Dorado. Via Wikimedia Commons. Inset courtesy of Hordern House Rare Books.

*Correction: an earlier version of this article misspelled the author's name.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion