History has been somewhat unkind to John Dee, the eccentric Tudor mathematician and magus, preferring to emphasise his forays into the occult, the hermetic and the magical. From Faustus and Prospero to Aleister Crowley, Dee has served as a cultural reference point for egregious flirtations with the supernatural. This is not necessarily an unfounded representation, and Dee steadfastly operated in the penumbra between the scientific and the supernatural. From his Thameside home in Mortlake, he practiced necromancy and attempted to communicate with angels in a concocted prelapsarian language, aided (and ultimately hoodwinked) by the nefarious Edward Kelley. His dalliances with the angelic have perhaps eclipsed his worldlier scientific inventions, which played a key role in England’s navigational revolution. Navigation was a cause that the proto-imperialist Dee was ardently devoted to, describing it as “this British discovery and recovery enterprise”, by which, he wrote, “might growe Commoditye, to this land chiefly”. Of his achievements, Dee was proudest of the Paradoxal Compass, still boasting of it some twenty years later. The “compass” has not survived, but most likely it was a circumpolar chart that offered a view of the earth with the North Pole in the centre, compensating for discrepancies in magnetic variation. This technology would have accompanied those famous explorers – Borough, Davis and Drake – whose aim it was to forge a route through the Straits of Annian and the legendary North West to get to the Far East, effectively cutting off the Spanish. As Horatio Morpurgo suggests in his latest work, The Paradoxal Compass: Drake’s Dilemma, characters such as Dee are important in understanding England’s Age of Exploration and its inherent complexities, in which the scientific elided infrequently with the supernatural, particularly in relation to the natural world. We do well to turn equal attention to both elements, instead of dissecting them into tidy compartments, and a richer appreciation might even go some way to illuminating the complexities of our own times.
Ever since Adam Smith located the beginnings of globalisation in the Age of Exploration, parallels and causal links have been drawn between the two, most recently by Oxford Martin School’s Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna, in their Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of our new Renaissance (2016). Increasingly, the significant importance of climate change has informed such studies, and scholars and writers, armed with the now well-developed apparatus of ecocriticism, have turned to build a more thorough environmental history of the early modern period. Much of this is aimed at casting light on our current predicament, in an attempt to provide a historical trajectory to our silent environmental degradation. The “slow violence” of climate change lacks a discernible centre or moment of origin and unfolds incrementally and erratically, in ways more often discreet than spectacular (although recent events in the North Atlantic stand as a dramatic counter-example). Our relationship with the natural world is conditioned largely by our ability to provide its voice and history. Under the auspices of a post-truth world, this ability to determine and control the narrative of climate change has become even more crucial, with conventional reportage and scientific evidence not sufficing. As Morpurgo questions, although “science may take the measure of things more accurately than any other form of truth…can it on its own generate the values which promote acceptance of its authority?” Who can claim purchase over such authority and dissemination of these narratives becomes a troubling political question.
For the past decade, Morpurgo, an essayist and ardent conservationist, has occupied the crossroads between literature, history and the environment, drawing impressionistic lines between past and present to advocate for awareness and preservation, particularly of his beloved West Country. In 2008, Morpurgo successfully campaigned for a Marine Protected Area in Lyme Bay, and penned a whimsical work on Thomas Hardy’s religious beliefs, Weymouth’s Olympic Road and the ensuing destruction of Bincombe Down. Morpurgo’s latest book, an intricately crafted essay, follows in a similar vein. The Paradoxal Compass: Drake’s Dilemma (which surprisingly manages to absolve itself of almost any discussion of Dee and his compass) imaginatively recounts a particularly tumultuous instance of Francis Drake’s famous circumnavigation, wherein, stranded on an Indonesian reef in January 1580, The Golden Hinde played stage to a violent quarrel between its fiery captain and his chaplain, Francis Fletcher. Morpurgo reimagines the agonistic dialogue between the two, presenting an effective microcosm of the complex motives and tensions – economical, religious and scientific – that underscored The Golden Hinde’s voyage.
Drake’s voyage is famously shrouded in mystery. The ship’s logbook, illustrated by Drake himself and presented to the Queen at Whitehall, has disappeared. No official version was released until much later, and it was not until 1670, nearly a century after the ship’s return, that The World Encompassed, a closely edited combination of Drake’s and Fletcher’s manuscripts, was published. Information, it seems, was tightly controlled. For Morpurgo, this glaring lacuna has silenced an irrecoverable array of voices, and has instead coerced the voyage’s meaning to convey only the mercurial, commercial and piratical, sacrificing that curious understanding between the natural world and the divine that characters such as John Dee espoused. It is precisely this that Morpurgo attempts to salvage. Fletcher’s pious amazement at the sublime of nature is pitted against Drake’s determination to harness it through technological prowess, each man harbouring a sharply different appreciation of the divine, acutely represented here through Morpurgo’s plaintive style: “Were the heavens, then, a time-piece, a useful appliance, an ingenious device? Was this what the new learning amounted to? Had it made of the stars so many navigational aids?” Historical narrative is a tricky form, and Morpurgo’s reconstructed dialogue – a self-confessedly –“fanciful but ultimately idle speculation”– does well to avoid caricature and flippancy, but in its desire to dissect such tensions, risks losing sight of its initial purpose, that is, to discern what Drake’s voyage and its attendant complexities might reveal about our own global predicament.
Extrapolating from this affair, Morpurgo places our current “tipping point” against the “great unsettling” of Elizabethan England wrought by the technological advances and geographical expansion of the age. “It matters”, Morpurgo emphasises, “because consciously or otherwise the Age of Discovery in general, and the circumnavigation in particular, is still active in the way we see the wider world and our place in it.” Not only did technologies such as navigation and cartography conspire to render the world decipherable, but the stories of discovery related from various voyages also imposed human narrative upon the landscape and ocean at an unprecedented level. But far from conducting a conventional comparative study, Morpurgo turns to describe the continual use of the Tudor navigators in articulating England’s relationship to its natural environment, particularly in the South West, where many of these explorers spent their childhood. Through the exploits of these figures, the south west peninsula was the first English province to globalise, and to see its landscape as linked within a greater chain. In particular, Francis Drake’s folkloric status remains an intrinsic part of the lieux de memoire of Devon’s landscape, flourishing as early as his own lifetime, and conflating, in Morpurgo’s childhood memories, “in the days of oil shock and looming nuclear catastrophe”, with the nuclear submarines, NATO operations and hollowed-out landscapes of a faltering Cold War. Drake’s Prayer was still recited at schools The Golden Hinde stood as Devon’s county emblem, less a symbol of global expansion than naval defence and isolationism.
Much of this resonates in today’s political climate. The majority of the South West voted to leave the EU in last year’s referendum, both undoing the 16th century’s great ‘global moment’, and problematising existing wildlife and marine conservation measures, farming subsidies and fisheries policies. Whilst Morpurgo thankfully refrains from entering the Brexit debate, it underscores his discussion, which criticises the longstanding effects of fraught international policies upon the environment, in which various states propound, and critique, their own climate narratives. This is explored in a particularly stimulating discussion of anti-Communist dissension during the Cold War, which suggests that environmental activism was a key component. The Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov had as early as 1960 warned of the effect of coal-burning. From 1986, East Germany had housed an “Environmental Library” (Umweltbibliothek). When it was shut down by the Stasi, country-wide protests ensued, perhaps culminating in the 1989 demonstrations. Opposition to a nuclear power station on the Danube in Hungary had triggered protests against communist rule. The point Morpurgo wishes to make is that political authority and environmental narrative have never been far removed, and we do well to examine the methods by which environmentally significant occasions have been transmitted to us, and how we might reappraise them.
At its heart, however, The Paradoxal Compass is a pastoral paean to the South West of Morpurgo’s formative years, and it is as a nature writer that he excels. Memory combines with meticulous attention to detail to describe the nuanced changes and degradations over time to Devon’s landscape – of kingfishers, geological formations and white-beaked dolphins – providing a vivid and evocative framework within which Morpurgo’s historical narrative and overarching argument can unfurl. However, in his enthusiasm to convince and convert, Morpurgo’s style is often mired in a condescending, conspiratorial tone, as if asking a class of despondent freshmen to think outside the box: “the moment you start wondering how, you automatically enrol in a kind of immunisation programme against cultural and political kitsch. It doesn’t matter where you start. So long as you do start.” Nonetheless, this patronising streak should not subtract from the essay’s worth, which deftly manages to combine historical and political matters of serious import and complexity with a light, fanciful and captivating appreciation of English landscape that we know from Roger Deakin and Richard Mabey.
Nicolas Liney  is reading for a Dphil in Classics at Christ Church College.