When the submersible Titan imploded on its descent to the wreckage of the Titanic this past June, its five victims were widely eulogized as explorers. They were termed “true explorers” by OceanGate, the company that sponsored the voyage. OceanGate’s founder, Stockton Rush, who piloted the Titan that day, saw himself as an explorer and even dreamed of becoming “the first person on Mars.” The family of Hamish Harding, an aviation entrepreneur who died in the accident, remembered him as a “passionate explorer.” The BBC described the deep-sea diving expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, another member of the party, as a “renowned explorer.” To label these individuals as explorers was to honor them, placing them in the pantheon of heroic adventurers who had sacrificed their lives to advance our knowledge of remote and often uninhabitable environments.
But were they explorers? If we associate the term with the likes of Columbus and Cook, whose journeys of discovery had historic consequences, then the answer was surely no. Undersea investigators had found the wreckage of the Titanic almost 40 years earlier. Nargeolet had visited the site 37 times before, collecting some 6,000 items from its debris field. OceanGate had been established as a commercial enterprise that forged a profitable niche in the adventure tourism industry. Its customers were charged $250,000 to glimpse the Titanic’s ghostly remains. Whatever great deeds the men who died on the Titan may have accomplished during their lives, that fateful descent into the depths of the north Atlantic on June 18 was not one of them.
Even in its heyday, however, the term explorer had a far more fluid meaning than the examples of Columbus and Cook might suggest. It entered the English lexicon in the early nineteenth century, when it invariably came to refer to those white men who led expeditions on behalf of European interests to the far corners of the globe. Although learned societies like the Royal Geographical Society promoted scientific protocols that sought to professionalize the category, other groups, ranging from the military to merchants to missionaries, had their own criteria for identifying someone as an explorer.
Consider the two expeditions the British sent to Africa in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, which are the main subjects of my book, Mungo Park’s Ghost. Dispatched a decade after the explorer Mungo Park had died on a journey down the Niger River, the shared aim of these expeditions was to determine whether the Niger and the Congo were one and the same river, as Park had hoped to prove. One expedition’s mission was to follow the Niger from its headwaters in the Guinea highlands to its unknown terminus; the other was dispatched up the mouth of the Congo to trace the river to its unknown source. If Park was right, they might meet in the interior of Africa. Even if he was wrong, the two expeditions’ sponsors hoped that they would be able to expand British knowledge of the continent and improve diplomatic and commercial relations with its inhabitants. These were among the most ambitious and richly resourced expeditions the British ever sent to Africa, led by skilled army and naval officers, accompanied by scientific specialists, stocked with abundant supplies and cutting-edge technologies, and tasked with gathering information on everything from the region’s geography and climate to its plants and animals to the social, economic, and cultural lives of its peoples.
Both expeditions failed disastrously. The Niger expedition never made it to the headwaters of that river—something Park had accomplished twice before—much less follow it to its terminus. The Congo expedition got only 200 miles upriver, which was little further than the Portuguese had gone three centuries earlier. Neither expedition made any notable geographical or scientific discoveries, nor did they do anything to advance British interests in Africa. These were failures of a far greater order of magnitude than the Titan’s in terms of lives lost and agendas left unfulfilled. Yet the scale of these disasters did little to diminish the conviction that the men who had led these missions were explorers.
Failure was not the only point of correspondence between these African expeditions and the Titan disaster. Though geographical discovery was portrayed as the principal purpose of the Niger and Congo ventures, they had other objectives as well. One was to recover any journals and other objects left in the wake of Mungo Park’s disastrous expedition. This was not so different from Nargeolet’s efforts to recover items from the ruins of the Titanic. In both cases, these objects assumed the quality of sacred relics.
Other parallels included the economic incentives of each project and the technological hubris that hampered them. The main reason the British wanted to map the courses of the Niger and Congo rivers was so they could use them as avenues of “legitimate commerce,” encouraging the exchange of British manufactured goods for African gold, ivory, palm oil, and other commodities rather than slaves. Although OceanGate’s economic model was a very different one—finding paying customers for the Titan’s voyages—it was no less preoccupied with pecuniary benefits. And all of these endeavors were undone in some respects by their overconfidence in technology. The Niger expedition expected its cannon and other modern armaments to intimidate Africans and elicit their cooperation, but local peoples were not cowed. The Congo expedition counted on a specially designed steamship to overcome the river’s current, but the vessel failed its trials and was never deployed. OceanGate expected the Titan submersible’s carbon fiber and titanium design to withstand the pressure of the Atlantic’s depths, but its implosion proved otherwise.
Perhaps the most significant characteristic that connected these endeavors was their participants’ shared willingness to undertake perilous journeys that put their lives at risk. Those who volunteered for the Niger and Congo expeditions were well aware of the deadly dangers that awaited them in Africa; the fates of Mungo Park and other European interlopers had made this abundantly clear. Passengers on the Titan were required to sign a legal waiver acknowledging that they were boarding an unregulated, experimental vessel, indemnifying the company should it fail. Such dangerous endeavors exerted particular appeal among men, for whom the prospect of peril served as a measure of masculinity. Little wonder, then, that the Titan’s passengers, like the Niger and Congo expeditions’ participants, were all male.
These days, with so few earthly realms left to discover, the title explorer is usually applied to afficionados of extreme sports or adventure tourism. Whether they punish their bodies in iron man competitions and mountaineering expeditions or pay to travel to the ocean floor or orbit around the earth, they do so to claim bragging rights—they’ve done something or gone somewhere that sets them apart from most everyone else. Their preoccupation with physical challenges and harsh environments may echo the experiences of past explorers, but their aims are purely personal. This is what separates them most profoundly from their predecessors. Even the two failed expeditions I’ve written about served a much larger cause, acting on behalf of a network of political, scientific, commercial, and other interest groups that came together to advance British imperial ambitions in Africa. From Columbus to Cook to the largely forgotten figures who led the Niger and Congo expeditions, explorers’ primary goals were to expand the reach of European empires. Perhaps it’s a good thing that today’s so-called explorers are so self-centered.