The strange tale of the invisible mountains that disappeared

01 April 2011

Extraordinary tales of invisible mountains that prevented the discovery of the North West passage in 1818 and the diaries of one of the first Europeans to set foot in Timbuktu both feature in the latest set of manuscripts to be released by the Royal Society Centre for History of Science as part of its Turning the Pages™ manuscript collection.

Other surprising stories featured in the manuscripts released online include Benjamin Franklin pouring oil on troubled water in Cumbria and a description of Tongan nose flutes (a kind of pan pipe played through the nose) brought to the UK from Captain James Cook’s second Pacific expedition.

If this sounds like an April fool’s day hoax, don’t be deceived – all of the manuscripts are genuine travel journals, diaries and letters from the Royal Society’s archive.  While some of the accounts released by the Royal Society might seem fanciful today, they are all important travel records from the dawn of the age of global exploration and travel.

Edward Sabine travelled with Commander John Ross in the ill-fated 1818 Arctic expedition to discover the North West passage into the Pacific Ocean.  The expedition was cut short when Ross insisted that ‘Croker’s mountains’ blocked their way.  In fact, only Ross could see these ‘mountains’, and they later proved to be entirely fictitious.  Sabine writes about the incident in his expedition journal, which also describes a whale dissection, taking magnetic measurements and robbing the graves of Inuits.

Major Alexander Laing became famous when he was murdered shortly after leaving the fabled Malian city of Timbuktu.  His diaries and expedition notes contain details of his early investigations into the source of the Niger.  Laing’s search for the river source eventually led him to his death near Timbuktu in 1826.

Keith Moore, Head of Library and Archives at the Royal Society Centre for History of Science, said: “The publication of these fascinating diaries and travel journals in their original form allows anybody with access to the internet to explore a forgotten world of travel and exploration, just as if they had the manuscripts there in front of them.”

“Edward Sabine’s account of his part in John Ross’s disastrous damp-squib expedition is particularly intriguing.  Rather than pushing forward in the properly heroic manner John Ross declared simply that their ships’ passage was blocked by a mountain range and promptly went home.  Sabine – along with the rest of the crew – seriously doubted Ross’s assertion and the diary rehearses the arguments that would become public property on the expedition’s slightly ignominious return to port.”

The presentations are created using innovative software which allows users to do much more than just turn pages – manuscripts can be magnified and rotated, and commentaries appear on many of the pages.