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

By Wright, Jonathan | Geographical, August 2006 | Go to article overview

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


Wright, Jonathan, Geographical


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.