I can has buckle swashed too?
May 5, 2008 12:28 PM   Subscribe

I love history, and I love adventure. What real-life historical adventurers were awesome, and have books written about them worth reading?

Bonus points for: major underdogs, political intrigues, impossible odds, deeds of derring-do, and of course swashbuckling. Historical fiction is fine, engaging non-fiction is even better. No particular time period in mind, modern is fine.

Favorites include: Grace O'Malley, Thomas Blood, Simon de Montfort, T.E. Lawrence, Roy Andrews Chapman, Giacomo Casanova, Boudicca, Francis Drake.

My summer reading list thanks you!
posted by WidgetAlley to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
The Worst Journey in the World - by Apsley Cherry Garrard, about Scott's last expedition to the Antarctic. Garrard barely survived a winter expedition to collect penguin eggs.

South, by Ernest Shackleton. Didn't make the Pole, boat got crush in the ice, drifted through the Antarctic seas for ages, finally made it to a whaling station.
posted by rtha at 12:37 PM on May 5, 2008

I just want to head off the inevitable recommendation of Stephen Amborse's Undaunted Courage by noting that it is plagiarized shit.

Given your interests I strongly recommend Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, a riveting story of the real-life whaling disaster that became the inspiration for Moby Dick.
posted by LarryC at 12:43 PM on May 5, 2008

That was a little rushed - sorry - but both those books are really good reads. They both absolutely cover impossible odds and deeds of derring-do, though there is no swashbuckling.
posted by rtha at 12:44 PM on May 5, 2008

Previously on metafilter (though oriented toward a younger reader).

Another ask metafilter.
posted by fings at 12:44 PM on May 5, 2008

Keep the River On Your Right
about an anthropologist's time trying to find a secluded population in Peru
River of Doubt
about Teddy Roosevelt's adventure in the Amazon
posted by rmless at 12:45 PM on May 5, 2008

The Mapmaker's Wife.

Isabel Godin was the only survivor of a 3,000 mile journey through the Amazon. The year of her trek? 1749.

The book is not solely about her journey, but also about the scientific questions of the day and the history of exploration in the context of nationalism. It's very readable, nonetheless.
posted by winna at 12:46 PM on May 5, 2008

You want your buckle swashed? I got some swashbuckling for ya:

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True & Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates & the Man Who Brought The Down by Coli Woodard

A truly excellent history of the "golden age of pirates" - all manner of "major underdogs, political intrigues, impossible odds, deeds of derring-do, and of course swashbuckling" written in an engaging & entertaining style.

posted by jammy at 12:47 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

In case you're in a Tibetan mood, I've mined the bibliography of my dissertation for you:

Patrick French - Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer
Peter Fleming - Bayonets to Lhasa
Alexandra David-Neel - My Journey to Lhasa
Sarat Chandra Das - Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet
Heinrich Harrer - Seven Years in Tibet
Peter Hopkirk - Trespassers on the Roof of the World
Fosco Maraini - Secret Tibet
H. Rider Haggard - She
Christopher Hale - Himmler's Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race
Sven Hedin - A Conquest of Tibet
James Hilton - Lost Horizon

and two for the road:

Robert McNab - Ghost Ships: A Surrealist Love Triangle (about the journey of Max Ernst and Paul & Gala Eluard to Indochina)
Henri Michaux - A Barbarian in Asia
posted by crazylegs at 12:48 PM on May 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

arrrr! make that Colin Woodard
posted by jammy at 12:48 PM on May 5, 2008

The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan is a terrific biography of Josiah Harlan.

It's been a few years since I read it, but I remember Edward Rice's biography of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton as being pretty exciting.
posted by maurice at 12:52 PM on May 5, 2008

Xenophon's Anabasis? If you liked 300 Greek dudes, why not 10,000?
posted by resurrexit at 12:53 PM on May 5, 2008

Fawn Brodie's book on Mormon leader Joseph Smith. A surprisingly adventurous tale of treasure-hunting and Western intrigue.
posted by johngoren at 1:10 PM on May 5, 2008

Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser (author of the Flashman series) is his tale of serving in the Burma campaign in WWII, and is about as entertaining a war memoir as you're likely to read.
posted by BrotherFeldspar at 1:21 PM on May 5, 2008

Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

It covers everything.

I've always had a keen interest in Francisco de Orellana, who was the first European to go down the Amazon (not that he meant to - he was just looking for La Canela, the land of Cinnamon). The priest who accompanied him (Gaspar de Carvajal) kept a diary, which is available in translation or the original Spanish.

More on Orellana, plus a bibliography
posted by desjardins at 1:24 PM on May 5, 2008

johngoren, I have to second "No Man Knows My History" Fawn Brodie's book on Mormon leader Joseph Smith.

There are actually lots of swords. They keep having to make them out of their farm implements.

I'm finishing it up right now.
Great read.
posted by Seamus at 1:27 PM on May 5, 2008

The original Lewis and Clark diaries have some eye-opening moments in them, and even some spots that are laugh-out-loud funny (there's a series of entries over the course of a week detailing this one white boat that seems to run into a series of ever-sillier misfortunes, up to and including having a buffalo sit on it, and by the last of that set of entries you can tell that the whole time he was writing, Clark was thinking "that DAMN white boat again, I tell you...")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:28 PM on May 5, 2008

I have similar tastes.

I am currently reading The Devil Drives, a biography of Sir Richard Burton.

Also on my plate are Cochrane: the Real Master and Commander and Lord Cochrane: Seaman, Radical, Liberator, both about a rather colorful Napoleonic-era British naval officer.

After that, I think I'll read Farthest North, a firsthand account of "Dr. Fridtjof Nansen's epic 1893 pursuit of the North Pole".

Following that, I shall, perhaps, indulge in The great Lucifer and Sir Walter Raleigh, both about that Renaissance adventurer.

Oh, and after that I suppose I'll finally make time for the Emperor Napoleon, who had an adventure or two in his day.

At long last, then, I will settle in with The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, who aside from being a generally wild dude was an accomplished mountaineer.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:28 PM on May 5, 2008

Oh, and Wind, Sand and Stars might be up your alley. I loved it, though I haven't made time for any of de Saint-Exupery's other books.

Republic of Pirates was quite good.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:37 PM on May 5, 2008

The Boxer Rebellion. Early 1900's Chinese rebellion against Protestant Missionaries, and Westerners in general.
posted by Gungho at 1:44 PM on May 5, 2008

Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before retraces Captain Cook's explorations.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:54 PM on May 5, 2008

Annapurna and Annapurna: A Woman's Place are non-fiction accounts of climbing Annapurna, and they're heart-palpitatingly good.
posted by ourobouros at 1:58 PM on May 5, 2008

Seconding many of the recommendations here, re: Fawn Brodie's A Life of Sir Richard Burton and Saint-Exupery's Wind, Sand and Stars. Add to that William Harrisons Mountains of the Moon, about the Burton and Speke expeditions in Africa. The film version of the book isn't bad either.

Annapurna by Maurice Herzog is quite good too, but be prepared for some really graphic amputation descriptions. Damn you ourobouros....
posted by elendil71 at 2:01 PM on May 5, 2008

Agent Zigzag: a true story of Nazi espionage, love, and betrayal is an excellent WWII double agent story.
posted by cog_nate at 2:04 PM on May 5, 2008

Richard Francis Burton. First non-Muslim to make the hadj to Mecca and live to tell the tale. Translated the Kama Sutra (not that it really needs translation I guess) and The 1001 Arabian Nights. Spoke something like 200 languages. Explored darkest Africa. I think he may have discovered sliced bread. I could not put this book down. His wife, disturbed by his shall we say ecumenical approach to life, burned all his unpublished notes and manuscripts upon his death. Science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer made him the hero of this series.
posted by nax at 2:30 PM on May 5, 2008

Damn I wish I could remember the name of the memoir written by a British spy who served in the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s.... it was fascinating, funny, and I can't think of the name of it to save my life. Google fails me. Dammit.


I'll think of it eventually and post it here.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:39 PM on May 5, 2008

Try a decent autobiography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - turns out he was pretty hardcore.
posted by Artw at 3:10 PM on May 5, 2008

nthing Sir Richard Burton.

Also, something more modern, and not missable (also unputdownable): Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:12 PM on May 5, 2008

Fawn Brodie's "No Man Knows My History" is a great read - for the fiction lover. Never look for truth on a topic by someone who has a most-bitter ax to grind with its source.
Not to bash on Brodie or anyone who enjoys what is a well-written piece of art, but if it's going to purport to be true, it sure as hell better be true.
posted by Detuned Radio at 4:34 PM on May 5, 2008

How about the definitive account of Magellan's circumnavigation?

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer isn't historical, but the narrative is as gripping as anything else out there.

Don Starkell's Paddle to the Amazon. Two guys, a canoe, and a self suppoted 12,000 mile route from Canada to the bottom of the amazon.

James Raffan's Emperor of the North about Joseph Simpson, Governor of the hudson's Bay Company. Much of the book is about his relentless trans continental canoe journeys.

My favourite account of Lewis and Clark's journey is Those Tremendous Mountains
posted by thenormshow at 7:09 PM on May 5, 2008

Primo Levi's If Not Now, When? Jewish partisans behind German lines in WWII Russia.
posted by Abiezer at 11:43 PM on May 5, 2008

The Devil's Anarchy: The Other Loose and Roving Way of Life and Very Remarkable Travels of Jan Erasmus Reyning, Buccaneer.

Swashing of buckles galore, and excellent historical research that nevertheless leaves the romantic aspect of 17th century piracy intact (showing that the real story doesn't need superfluous romantic embellishing).

Disclaimer, should it be necessary: I know the author but this is not a selflink nor does it detract from the fittingness of my recommendation. There.
posted by Skyanth at 7:20 AM on May 6, 2008

I'm just seconding any accounts of Shackelton's ill-fated attempt to reach the south pole. Especially because there are amazing photographs from the trip.
posted by pb at 7:45 AM on May 6, 2008

Check out Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy. From the Amazon description: After the Napoleonic wars, John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, launched the most ambitious exploration program the world has ever seen. For the next thirty years, his teams of elite naval officers went on missions to fill the blanks that littered the atlases of the day. From the first disastrous trip down the Congo, Barrow maintained his resolve in the face of continuous catastrophes. His explorers often died of sickness or at the hands of unfriendly natives. They struggled under budgets that forced them to resort to pulling enormous ships across floating ice fields; to eating mice, or their own shoes; and even to horrifying acts of cannibalism.

Nthing Worst Journey in the World and almost anything to do with Shackleton, particularly Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.
posted by marxchivist at 8:16 AM on May 6, 2008

I love, love, LOVE, all of CS Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels. They are gripping and exciting reads. Though they are historical fiction, they are very well researched and true to the time. You really get a feeling for how tough these sailors were and how difficult a job they had. It also gives great insight into the whole reward system for the British navy during the Napoleonic wars, which could make lucky sailors very rich. I would start with one of the best: Beat to Quarters and if you like it, go back and start at the beginning of the series. The recent television movies are great too. See adamdschneider's recommendation above for the book on Cochrane which is where Forester got alot of his inspiration for Horatio.
posted by Wezzlee at 11:03 AM on May 6, 2008

I haven't read it yet, but my S.O. loved Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer : the Life of William Dampier. He describes it as the true life adventure of a pirate-navigator who circled the world charting his trips, and whose stories influenced people from Darwin to Defoe.
posted by sarahmelah at 5:48 PM on May 7, 2008

Joining the recommendations for anything to do with Shackleton. Douglas Mawson's 'Home of the Blizzard' is great also. From Amazon: "Mawson's vivid description of the storms, hardships, endurance, tragedy, and survival make this adventure story well worth resurrecting. When his two companions perish, Mawson ventures on an unthinkable solo sledge journey back to his coastal base, a feat nothing short of pure courage." At times the way the early Polar explorers describe what they're enduring is almost laughable, they're so nonchalant... Then you remember it's non-fiction.
posted by Rubyspicer at 4:28 AM on May 8, 2008

Nearly any book by Tahir Shah. His writing is lively, humorous, entertaining, and very, very excellent.

I absolutely recommend him.

Sorcerer's Apprentice is about his attempt to be a magician in India.

Trail of Feathers is about his attempt to find a headhunter's tribe in South America.

The Search for King Solomon's Mines is about his search for a legendary treasure in Ethiopia.

Caliph's House is about moving his family to Morocco and grappling with a culture of superstition.

In Arabian Nights is about his search for stories throughout the land of Morocco.
posted by uxo at 4:55 AM on May 8, 2008

Bonus points for: major underdogs, political intrigues, impossible odds, deeds of derring-do, and of course swashbuckling. Historical fiction is fine, engaging non-fiction is even better. No particular time period in mind, modern is fine.

Just to specify, all of Tahir Shah's books take place in our modern day world, but in cultures far more ancient than Western civilization. They are non-fiction books, and can usually be found in the travel section.

I don't know about political intrigues, but books themselves explode with impossible odds. And I don't know about swashbuckling, but the author is a living example of an "adventurer."

First sentence from Trail of Feathers:

"The trail began at an auction of shrunken heads..."
posted by uxo at 5:04 AM on May 8, 2008

Bear Grylls (of TV's Man vs. Wild) has a couple that are supposed to be good:

The Kid Who Climbed Everest: The Incredible Story of a 23-Year-Old's Summit of Mt. Everest -- about his adventure climbing Everest, and the efforts it took to get to that point (after breaking his back in a skydiving accident with the British paratroopers a year and a half earlier)

Facing the Frozen Ocean -- "It started out as a carefully calculated attempt to complete the first unassisted crossing of the frozen north Atlantic in a rigid inflatable boat, but it became a terrifying battle against storm-force winds, crashing waves and icebergs as large as cathedrals."
posted by inigo2 at 8:21 AM on May 12, 2008

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