Travel Narratives

Before phones, the internet, TV, and radio, the written word was our most effective way of sharing information. This was especially true for experiences related to travel: medieval European peasants didn't exactly have the means to hop on a flight to China!

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    Enter the travel narrative. If you could not go to China or watch a documentary about China, at least you could read about it from one of the few bold explorers who had managed to get there. Travel narratives today are relatively commonplace, but for many centuries they were one of the only ways for people to experience a foreign culture.

    Grab a map and a compass and don't get lost! We're going to discuss the characteristics, purpose, and types of travel narratives—and mention a few major examples from history.

    Travel Narratives Definition

    Have you ever read a blog post about someone's vacation to a unique destination? Were there any mentions of local food or weather or animals? Believe it or not, that travel blog actually contained geographic data.

    A travel narrative is an account of a journey that provides information about the ethnographic, biogeographic, and/or physical characteristics of an area.

    Travel narratives contain spatial information—that is, information that provides insight into a specific place. Spatial information is constantly being discovered and re-discovered and interpreted and re-interpreted, and the individual travel experience is part of that great cycle of discovery. Travel narratives were especially important before the advent of the internet and television and radio; the only way to gain an understanding of an area, short of going there yourself, was to read or listen to the account of someone who had been there.

    Travel narratives are sometimes called travel literature, especially when the narrative is published as a book.

    Spatial information can also come from photographs, field notes, news articles, and government policy documents, among other things!

    Travel Narrative Characteristics

    Travel narratives are characterized by four key elements:

    • Location
    • Transportation
    • Housing
    • Weather

    What differentiates travel narratives from other written accounts is that they are telling a story—providing information—about a particular place. To that end, most travel narratives will include a description of the place itself; how the traveler got there; what weather the traveler experienced at that location; and what accommodations that traveler stayed in at the destination, if any.

    Those four things alone can provide an incredible amount of spatial data. For example, sleeping in a log cabin or a yurt can provide a lot of implicit information about the lifestyles and resources of local people.

    Purpose of Travel Narratives

    Nowadays, travel narratives are often used to document personal experiences and can be exclusively for entertainment. Modern travel narratives revolving around the natural world sometimes make an appeal to conserve nature. In most modern narratives, the spatial information being presented may be "new" to the authors and their audiences but are usually already known to the wider geographic academic community.

    However, in the 15th-17th centuries AD, during the European Age of Discovery, the purpose of formal travel narratives was to provide information about an area so that leadership could make informed decisions about economic ventures, military conquests, religious missions, or colonization.

    Travel Narratives, Purpose of Travel Narratives, Age of Discovery, World Map, StudySmaterFig. 1 - A Dutch world map circa 1659 by cartographer Hendrik Dockner

    Did an area have the climate and fertility to support a colony of settlers? Were the local people in an area receptive to trading? Would they tolerate or adopt new religious and cultural customs? Were there any valuable natural resources that could be harvested or mined?

    This type of travel narrative continued well into the 19th century, as people settled further and further west in North America, coming into contact with Indigenous groups. People recorded their experiences on the "new frontier" through journals, letters, and newspaper articles.

    Types of Travel Narratives

    Because not all travel narratives share the same purpose, it stands to reason that they would also not all share the same form. There are numerous ways to categorize the different types of travel narratives, and many categories overlap. A few major, overarching types of travel narratives are adventure stories, personal journals, and informational narratives.

    Adventure stories are travel narratives designed to entertain. Adventure stories may be based on real events, but are transmitted in a way that keeps the reader engaged. Some adventure stories may be entirely fictional, including adventure stories set in places that do not actually exist at all. Adventure stories usually do not prioritize spatial information.

    Personal travel journals (including travel blogs and travel vlogs) are a transmission of a personal travel experience. Sometimes they are private and are only discovered years later, if at all. Other times they are meant to be shared from the outset. In the 16th-20th centuries, travel journals were a great source of spatial information, and some explorers were even commissioned to maintain a travel journal to be studied by others later. Nowadays, travel journals and travel blogs can help people figure out how to navigate different countries and cultures, but are also meant to be entertaining.

    Informational travel narratives are similar to adventure stories in that they may be written in a compelling fashion, but they are also similar to personal travel journals in that their primary goal is to inform rather than entertain. Academics today may be tasked with creating informational travel narratives to analyze social or biogeographic trends. Informational travel narratives also include slave narratives, the personal travel accounts of people suffering under and fleeing from slavery in the United States during the 19th century.

    Obviously, some travel narratives are intended to share more spatial data than others. However, it is important to note that, with the exception of travel stories in completely fictional settings, virtually all travel narratives contain and transmit some spatial information.

    Travel Narratives Examples

    Travel narratives can include everything from a warship's logbook to the private journals of Christopher Columbus to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. Simply put, there are too many travel narratives to list! The following travel narratives are significant in that they presented a great deal of geographic information to a wider public, often for the first time.

    The Travels of Marco Polo

    In the late 13th century, Italian explorer Marco Polo ventured from his homeland of Venice to central Asia, where he was invited to meet Kublai Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire and founder of China's Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan had never met a European before, and, likewise, very few Europeans had ever been that far east. After several successive visits, Polo returned to Italy, where he eventually met writer Rustichello da Pisa, with whom he shared the stories of his adventures. Rustichello da Pisa compiled Polo's stories in a tome called The Book of the Marvels of the World, commonly called The Travels of Marco Polo in English.

    Travel Narratives, Travel Narrative Examples, Marco Polo, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Marco Polo in Turkic clothing

    Many of Polo's observations about Asian culture were factually inaccurate, thanks to either his own misunderstanding or due to deliberate fabrication or exaggeration. By our modern standards, where Internet-based cultural exchange can be instantaneous, his accounts probably seem fanciful and ludicrous, but around 1300, when the book was originally published, Marco Polo provided Europeans with one of the most in-depth looks at the cultures of central and east Asia they had yet known.

    Histoire de la Louisiane

    In the 1750s, French explorer Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz began publishing memoirs about his time as an adventurer in North America. These memoirs, published in installments, were called Histoire de la Louisiane and were partially translated to English in 1763.

    Interestingly, Histoire de Louisiane includes a memoir within a memoir, as it also contains the accounts of an indigenous Yazoo explorer named Moncacht-Apé. Originally from modern-day Mississippi, Moncacht-Apé is credited with completing the first recorded transcontinental journey across North America. His journey potentially pre-dates Lewis and Clark's journey by as much as an entire century.

    As with Marco Polo's accounts, many of Monchacht-Apé's descriptions of local geography do not mesh well with what we know today. For example, he described bison-like animals that lived in the water but came ashore to eat grass, as well as foul-smelling wood which could be used to make a yellow dye. How much of this was based on Monchacht-Apé's misinterpretation of what he was observing? How much of it comes down to du Pratz's exaggeration? In any case, du Pratz and Monchacht-Apé provided groundbreaking insight into native North American cultures, flora, and fauna, which inspired later explorers like Lewis and Clark.

    The Journals of Lewis and Clark

    In 1804, a year after the United States had purchased the Louisiana territory from French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, US Army officers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the land and report their findings.

    Lewis and Clark set out from Missouri and traveled to the Pacific Ocean. They led a small group called the Corps of Discovery, which primarily included US Army soldiers as well as civilians and Clark's slave York. In total, the expedition took around three years, and the Corps of Discovery was dependent upon the hospitality of the native tribes they encountered along the way. Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman and wife of French trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, frequently served as an intermediary and interpreter for Lewis and Clark in their interactions with Indigenous people.

    Travel Narratives, Travel Narrative Examples, Lewis and Clark Map, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Lewis and Clark traveled from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean

    The Lewis and Clark expedition is notable in that its explicit purpose was to collect geographic data. Lewis and Clark both kept personal journals, created maps, collected samples of flora and fauna, and recorded information about Native American tribes, all of which were turned over to President Jefferson when they returned to Washington, DC.

    The Voyage of the Beagle

    Just as Jefferson had used a military expedition to collect geographic data, so too did Great Britain's Royal Navy. In 1831, HMS Beagle got underway from Plymouth, England with the intention of heading south and documenting as much as possible on a wide range of subjects. The crew brought along Charles Darwin, a naturalist and aspiring Anglican parson. The expedition lasted around five years, with the crew going ashore throughout the Southern Hemisphere, especially in South America and the Galapagos Islands.

    Darwin's notes were recorded in a volume simply called Journal and Remarks, now commonly referred to as The Voyage of the Beagle. Darwin's biogeographic observations—in large part recorded in The Voyage of the Beagle—ultimately led him to propose the theory of evolution by natural selection, which he explored more fully in his work On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.

    Travel Narratives - Key takeaways

    • A travel narrative is an account of a journey that provides spatial information.
    • Travel narratives usually include location, transportation, weather, and housing.
    • Some travel narratives are designed to entertain, while others are designed to enable informed decision-making about an area.
    • Major travel narratives include The Travels of Marco Polo, the journals of Lewis and Clark, and The Voyage of the Beagle.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Travel Narratives

    What are travel narratives? 

    A travel narrative is an account of a journey that provides spatial information.

    What is the purpose of a travel narrative? 

    A travel narrative is meant to describe a place. In some cases, travel narratives are mostly for entertainment. In other cases, they are designed to transmit as much spatial information as possible so the reader has an informed understanding of an area.

    What are the four key elements of the travel narrative? 

    The four key elements of most travel narratives are location, weather, housing, and transportation. 

    What are the features of travel narratives? 

    Unlike other types of narrative, a travel narrative is meant to transmit spatial information. 

    How do you write a travel narrative? 

    There are many different ways to write a travel narrative. Some travel narratives are written specifically to entertain, like adventure stores. Some travel narratives may come in the form of personal journals or travel blogs. Other travel narratives are academic or informative in nature.

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