Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In Search of the Lost World

Modern Mechanix has a copy of a September 1929 article about Dr. S. H. Williams' exploration of the jungles of British Guiana looking for dinosaurs.
It was only a few years ago that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book of the same name and subject was hailed as a highly imaginative piece of work, but far afield from legitimate science. But despite this fact, Dr. Williams, himself a conservative scientist, decided that there must be some measure of truth in the native legends he had heard so frequently during previous trips in the general region. So with only a couple of incomplete maps and a compass to guide him, besides a native black, unfamiliar with the interior, to carry his provisions, the explorer set out from Georgetown on the coast of British Guiana, on a perilous journey the like of which probably has never been attempted before—so far, at least, as that thickly forested territory is concerned.

Strictly speaking, Dr. Williams failed in his quest, for he did not actually set foot in the “Lost World”. But he is convinced that he came within only about 15 miles of its exterior—near enough to catch a glimpse of it from the top of a high hill—and in all events considerably nearer than any other white man had ever been. Whereupon, stricken with malaria, almost entirely out of food, and covered from head to foot with thousands of itch-provoking insects, he was forced to turn back.
It sounds like Dr. Williams perhaps took his SF reading a bit too seriously.

The casual racism of the article is a bit shocking, but I found this passage amusing in its seeming cluelessness:
“Since I do not know the language of the yellow Indians, nor did my faithful black, since he was from the coastal district—you may well ask, how did I make myself known without unduly antagonizing them? My answer is that there is a universal language of trinkets that practically every primitive race, if approached with reasonable gentleness, is able to understand. With me I had taken care to bring sundry bright-colored beads and bits of calico, and by their careful use was able to persuade a good many of the Indians to transport myself and my black via the canoe method to otherwise inaccessible places.
I like to imagine the "yellow Indians" taking the trinkets and leading Williams in circles through the jungle for a few weeks. I suspect that spotting the possible "Lost World" plateau in the distance may have made him happier than if he had explored it and found it lacked prehistoric critters.
Illustration from the article: The caption reads "Fantastic creatures such as these, which trod the earth millions of years ago, are credited by local legend with inhabiting the "Los World" plateau of British Guiana, made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his book of he same name. At the left is a photo of the plateau taken by Dr. Williams just before he was forced to turn back within sight of his goal.

Read The Lost World for free at Project Gutenburg.

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1 comment:

Zephyr said...

Wow, nice find.

The "Lost World" plateaus of British Guiana did inspire a lot of expeditions between about 1885 (when the botanist Im Thurm first returned from there with some new plant species) to the 1930s. Conan Doyle was jumping on the band-wagon a bit by 1912. It's thought that the character of John Roxton is based on Roger Casement, who did a load of exploring in that area (before being hanged as a traitor).

Most of the accounts cite local legends and rumours, although none give details as to exactly what is rumoured. And most journey's of the period weren't greatly successful, finding much the same problems as Dr Williams.

A Jstor (or Google) search for Roraima brings up loads of interesting material, and if you can find it, the May 1989 National Geographic has a really nice feature on the region.