Diplomacy and Discovery: Today, We Tend to Think of Ambassadors as Urbane Bureaucrats and Wily Politicians but, as Jonathan Wright Reveals, There Was a Time When They Were among the World's Most Prodigious Discoverers and Explorers

Article excerpt

In 1588, the remorseless Russian winter cast its spell over Giles Fletcher, Elizabeth I's ambassador to the court of Tsar Feodor I. Far from home, he was awe-stricken--and palpably terrified--by Moscow's cruellest months.

From November to March, he reported, the snow never ceased falling. Rivers and lakes, "however swift or broad they be", were encased in metres of tightly packed ice, and the people were wary of so much as touching a pewter dish lest their fingers froze against it. Some victims merely lost "their noses, the tips of their ears, and the balls of their cheeks" to frostbite.

Others suffered more gruesome fates. The sight of frozen corpses in sleds was commonplace, and if you travelled across the kingdom, you would see "many drop down in the streets ... pinched and killed" by the interminable cold.

But then, all of a sudden, the seasons would change. Spring would bring a new face to the woods. Everything was "so fresh and so sweet, the pastures and meadows so green and well grown [with] such variety of flowers, such noise of birds, that a man shall not lightly travel in a more pleasant country".

One might wonder why an ambassador such as Fletcher devoted so much time to waxing lyrical about the Russian climate: surely this was a distraction from his diplomatic chores. In fact, he was fulfilling one of the most ancient of ambassadorial duties.

Over the course of millennia, from the cuneiform civilisations of the ancient neareast to the empires of the modern era, ambassadors would embark on missions of faith, trade and politics, but wherever they went, they would as likely as not report back on everything--the moralities and myths, the plants and animals, the rivers and mountain ranges--that they encountered. As much as any scholar or adventurer, they added to the store of human geographical and cultural knowledge. In the vanguard of cultural discovery, they helped the world to meet itself.

It was a tradition that Fletcher eagerly inherited. Tudor England knew precious little about Russia: it was still a place to be discovered, defined and judged. And in his hugely influential 'cosmographical description' of the country, enshrined in print in 1591, that's precisely what Fletcher did. He painstakingly catalogued the seemingly humdrum--"the length and breadth of the country ... the names of the shires", the distances between towns, the courses and sources of rivers. He noted the times when different plants were sown, offered a digest of Russian history, itemised the country's chief exports (furs, tallow, honey, iron and salt) and commented on Russian costume and diet (a penchant for apples, peas, cherries and cucumbers). He described Russia's birds and fish, its convoluted political systems and its mightiest cities, the sandy fertile soil and the frozen wastes of Siberia.

His account had its flaws and, at times, betrayed its author's prejudices. Amid measured descriptions of flora and fauna, there were diatribes against Russian drunkenness, cruelty and poor hygiene. For the most part, however, Fletcher exhibited admirable objectivity.

It's difficult for us to appreciate just how revelatory the accurate reporting of such basic information was to a Tudor audience. It went a long way towards creating England's concept of a nation that, until the middle of the 16th century, had been isolated from England for more than 200 years.

Pleasure grounds and melon beds

Fletcher was only the most recent, and by no means the most well-travelled, ambassadorial pioneer. Two centuries earlier, the Spanish ambassador Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo had embarked on a momentous journey to Tamerlane's fabled capital of Samarkand.

"It struck me as necessary," he gleefully explained, "that all the places we visited should be set down in writing ... so they shall not fall to oblivion and be lost." And so he did, in ravishing detail, all the way from Constantinople to Tabriz, across Persia and over the Oxus River, and north into present-day Turkmenistan. …