Little, Brown 25 (532pp) 22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

A Corkscrew is Most Useful, by Nicholas Murray

Energised by Empire

Do you have nightmares about what you might say if sitting down for dinner at the Royal Geographical Society between Michael Palin and Sir Christopher Ondaatje? This book will banish all such anxieties. It is a trunk packed full of tales of high adventure by a determined tribe of eccentric, quirky, self-willed British travellers. There are terrific stories: of William Baldwin, celebrating his first kill by feasting on heart that evening followed by brawn at breakfast, prepared by baking an elephant's foot in embers. Of how travel transformed Isabella Bird from an insomniac with a spinal complaint and nervous headaches to a creature her husband (10 years her junior) would define as having the "appetite of a tiger and the digestion of an ostrich".

Lewis Wingfield, a slim, delicate Irishman with a feminine but musical voice, travelled across Japan in a convoy of 12 rickshaws: four were filled with baggage, three held his shopping while one carried his "man", Otto. Mansfield Parkyns ate, slept and dressed like a native Abyssinian. His advice, "avoid noisy, demanding, petulant European travellers and instead try and practise the quiet manners of the indigenous people", remains as relevant today as in 1843. There are insufferable villains aplenty, with a lack of interest, language, knowledge and sympathy, often combined with a burning desire for converts or to be back home on the grouse moors by the 12th.

Murray has widened his canvas to include idlers, guidebook writers, deluded missionaries and travel agents. The Victorian travellers who are still a delight to read leave us in no doubt about their interest and passionate response. Fanny Parkes, travelling and sketching her way around Mughal India for 42 years, was so moved by her first sight of a native (naked in Nicobar) that she wrote that "he was like Adam when he tasted the forbidden fruit". Charles Darwin, as he botanised around the world on HMS Beagle, confessed that his first day in a Brazilian jungle had been "a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again".

Murray's book also brings to life those travellers whose pride, racism and heavy prose make their own books unreadable now. Dr Livingstone may have been a humourless obsessive, driving his wife to drink and his son to change his name. But when one looks at his self-taught knowledge in Latin or medicine (both acquired while working as a Glasgow mill-hand) and at the dozen African dialects he mastered, he was a man filled with energy, decency and achievement. Richard Burton, as ever, dominates every continent, whether researching the boy brothels of Karachi, journeying to Mecca or struggling to find the source of the Nile. Typically, he had already explored entirely new frontiers the erotic secrets of the mind as he was helping fill the last blanks on the map of the world.

Some travellers revel in that endearing British habit of self-mocking humour which curbs pomposity and pretension. But do not be fooled. Whether following Curzon around the monasteries of the Levant, Mary Kingsley through the jungles of West Africa or Amelia Edwards down the Nile, to understand these characters it is vital not to be hoodwinked by their self-deflating wit. Curzon spent the rest of his life studying the scripts and the scribal skills he had (apparently) so lightly acquired as a youth when he brought back precious manuscripts to the British Museum. Amelia Edwards turned herself into a driving force behind Egyptology, helping establish the Egypt Exploration Society as well as the first university chair. She died of pneumonia caught in the East End docks while supervising the unpacking of objects from a dig.

Mary Kingsley was among the first white writers to try to "think black", powerfully apparent in her work on fetishism. She opposed the peddling of "second-hand rubbishy white culture", but that would not stop her trying to help individuals from arguably one of the most "rubbishy white cultures" of all. She died from overwork as a volunteer in a hospital for Boer PoWs in 1900 a true hero of her age, and ours.

Barnaby Rogerson's 'The heirs of the prophet Muhammad' is published by Abacus

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing