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Guide or explorer? Who counts in the history of exploration?

By Ed Armston-Sheret, Institute of Historical Research, University of London

In histories of exploration, famous individuals like Ernest Shackleton and David Livingstone often receive most of the attention. But this focus ignores the important contributions of the wider labour forces who made expeditions possible and therefore gives us a skewed picture of what the everyday work of exploration was actually like, and the backgrounds of the people involved in it. As I argue in a new paper, giving these fuller histories is important because it can help us to improve contemporary research and fieldwork cultures. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, exploration is very rarely a thing that people do on their own. British explorers are no exception to this,  often leading large, and diverse, groups of people who did most of the day-to-day work of travel. This involved cooking, cleaning, carrying, as well as caring for expedition leaders when they were sick.

Figure 1. Statue of Ernest Shackleton at the RGS-IBG, Kensington Gore. Author’s Photo.

Some explorers – such as Richard Burton, David, Livingstone, or James Augustus Grant – were carried on stretchers hundreds of miles by African men on even their most famous expeditions. In East Africa, explorers’ parties crucially often included women who formed essential aspects of expeditionary labour yet have equally been erased from the conventional tellings of this history.

Class is another factor that has too often been written out of exploration, with most of the well-known British explorers hailing from the upper classes. Yet, there is clear evidence that on Captain Scott’s Antarctic expeditions, it was working-class men, mostly from the Royal Navy, who did most of the work of cooking and cleaning, particularly while the explorers were at base camp. Once away from the base, this kind of work was more evenly divided – and officers and expedition leaders did lots of hard pulling and even had to learn how to cook!

Recording and retelling more diverse histories

Given we know these myriads of peoples who supported famous explorers, why is it so difficult to write their stories too?

Part of the reason stems from the kinds of artifacts that remain. Expedition leaders’ records often leave scant information about many of the men and women they employed, and the records are often laced with racial, gendered and class prejudice. For instance, explorers often described muscular, logistical work carried out by African and Asian people as animalistic. Despite the prevalence of such negative stereotypes, explorers’ records still contain evidence about the important work such people did.

Once you do start studying the work that these people did on expeditions, it raises bigger questions. They are often called “locals” or “indigenous” intermediaries or “guides” in writing on exploration. But these terms can actually be misleading, as so called ‘guides’ also often travelled to places as unfamiliar to them as they were to the expedition leaders.

Given this, why do we call some people “explorers” and other people “guides” or “intermediaries”?

Figure 2. David Livingstone, suffering from fever, carried through the jungle by his men. Lithograph. 1874. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Another common argument is that only expedition leaders wrote diaries, published books, and produced new knowledge. But this argument doesn’t really hold water, given that most members of Antarctic expeditions didn’t do this kind of work either – but they are still referred to as explorers.

Equally, on expeditions in Africa and Asia, guides also carried out work central to the production of new knowledge, such as explanation, translation and making scientific observations. Given this, it becomes really hard to draw a clear line between those we call ‘”explorers” and those we call “guides”.

Many of the practices I identified in my paper are still an issue today. Western mountaineers on Mt Everest still depend on sherpas who make their journeys possible through hard and dangerous labour. Similarly, universities still celebrate individual success while overlooking the logistical and supporting work that makes this possible, such as cooking, caring and cleaning.

Studying undervalued labour within the history of exploration should encourage us to reflect on underappreciated, and often underpaid, forms of labour that we rely on today.  

About the author: Ed Armston-Sheret is an Alan Pearsall Fellow in Naval and Maritime History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London and Professional Officer: Higher Education at the RGS-IBG. With a Ph.D. in historical geography from Royal Holloway, University of London, he specializes in the history of travel and exploration during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Suggested Further Reading

Armston-Sheret, E. (2023) Diversifying the historical geography of exploration: Subaltern body work on British-led expeditions c.1850–1914. Journal of Historical Geography. Available from:

Johnson, N.C. (2017), On the colonial frontier: gender, exploration and plant-hunting on Mount Victoria in early 20th-century Burma. Trans Inst Br Geogr. Available from:

Withers, CWJ. (2019) Geography and “thing knowledge”: Instrument epistemology, failure, and narratives of 19th-century exploration. Trans Inst Br Geogr. Available from:

How to cite: Armston-Sheret, E (2023, 25 April) Guide or explorer? Who counts in the history of exploration? Geography Directions Available from:

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