Travel literature review: A Voyage Long & Strange

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz


Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Neil Manders

In A Voyage Long and Strange, author Tony Horwitz sets out to fill in the missing detail around the sketchy chronicles of the very earliest European visitors and settlers on the North American continent. These are stories which have remained largely unrecorded in mainstream history, in stark contrast to the more widely accepted and universally recognised pioneering efforts of Columbus, Vespucci et al. In doing so he manages to create something that is rigorous, informative and engaging in equal measures.

He exposes the cavalier way in which national interests have distorted the recording of events to suit the propaganda needs of the nations involved and how some historical locations have incorporated their own conveniently marketable fictions to enhance their touristic credentials, while others have remained supremely indifferent to the evidence of early European settlement.

Horwitz steps up to the challenge with zeal, sniffing out both the recorded evidence and the local folklore, piecing together a very credible and humane vision of the conquests, trials and failures. He examines the motivations both honest and dubious of the different waves of settlers from Newfoundland in the north down as far as Hispaniola in the south.

There are two intricately interwoven stories here. One is the researching and recording of the historical detail which has been largely over-simplified through time, the other examines how the legacy impacts on today’s descendants. It is this second part that gives the book its main appeal. It shows how governments, councils, entrepreneurs, descendants, re-enactors and agnostics all draw their own interpretation or impose their own particular spin on past events, sometimes for profit, sometimes for an understanding of who they are and how they came to be where they are.

This is undoubtedly the untold story of North America’s evolution as a place of settlement for the intrepid, the desperate, the persecuted and the ambitious. It also gives due consideration to the plight of those who were already there. There are few examples of positive outcomes for the pre-European inhabitants, although the biography of the character - later immortalised as Pocahontas - who became a rare example of harmonious co-existence with the settlers is one exception. She travelled to London and was accepted by London society before falling victim to the harsh climate. She was buried by the River Thames east of London.

Horwitz’s account is highly readable not only for its careful treatment of the broad historical picture, but also for its humour and the abundance of fascinating snippets, such as the derivation of the word nicotine from the French Ambassador Jean Nicot.  I would unreservedly recommend this book to anybody with an interest in travel and/or history of the Americas.

Neil Manders is a sales manager at the Lonely Planet London office. Formerly based in Madrid for 16 years, he has travelled to every nook and cranny of Spain and Portugal, in addition to making approximately 30 visits to South and Central America.

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