Great Expedition Hoaxes. David Roberts. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1982. 182 pages, 14 black and white photographs, 8 maps, bibliographies. $12.95.
Dave Roberts has here produced another one of his very readable books. He has chosen what he regards as ten great historic exploration deceptions and psychoanalyzed the leading actors in each. The book begins with Sebastian Cabot who, in 1508-9, reported he had discovered a Northwest Passage to Cathay and that he had also explored the North American coast down to the tip of Florida; Roberts thinks that this Cabot never left England and may simply have been seeking to appropriate and expand the actual explorations of his father, John Cabot.
Undoubtedly, the most curious story in this collection is the case of James “Abyssinian” Bruce, 1769-73, who was regarded as a complete fake almost immediately upon his return to England and was mocked and scorned through the remainder of his life. Not until years after his death, in 1796, was it discovered by subsequent travelers to Abyssinia that Bruce had indeed done essentially what he claimed—thus providing us with a sort of mirror image of the frauds in Dave Roberts’ other tales, this time of why people refused to believe what, in fact, was true.
Our most famous old faker, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, is in the collection, with his bogus 1906 “Summit of Mount McKinley” picture—perhaps the most controversial single photograph in the history of exploration. Roberts offers essentially the same interpretation as most of us who have climbed to the top of McKinley and examined the outrageous 1906 claim.
Other hoaxes include the slyly faked “first ascent” of Cerro Torre in Patagonia and the most recent world-class fraud, the 1968 London Sunday Times round-the-world race for solo sailors. During seven months at sea, Donald Crowhurst, sent back periodic radio reports of his progress, supposedly all the way around, though in fact he never got farther than cruising about in the South Atlantic!
The character analyses are necessarily based upon secondary sources throughout and may, therefore, be questionable; they are, nevertheless, fascinating.