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

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