Located in a classy but nondescript building in the Kensington neighborhood of London, the Royal Geographical Society is not your normal tourist attraction—but it should hold a special place in every traveler’s heart. Founded in 1830 as a dinner club hosting lectures from hearty travelers, the Society (or RGS as it’s often called) became a world-class institution for the advancement of knowledge about the planet.
With generous endowments, the RGS evolved into a training hub and planning headquarters for several famous Victorian and Edwardian explorers such as Livingstone, Darwin, Shackleton and Burton. They and other like-minded adventurers—all partially financed, trained by and associated with the RGS—mapped rivers in Africa, measured mountains in Asia, reached the North and South poles, discovered islands in the South Pacific, and carried out zoological studies everywhere. The official creed of the RGS was that no corner of the planet was too remote, too obscure, or too dangerous.
The rich heritage of the RGS earned it a role in my new novel, “Dangerous Latitudes”, about an adventurous travel writer on an extraordinary expedition. As the lead character Matthew Hunt explains to a colleague, “The RGS was the NASA of its time, training explorers and then sending them off on expeditions to learn about the world and return with new insights. Think Dr. Livingston and Darwin. Guys like that were the astronauts to the RGS’ NASA. And the places they went seemed just as remote to them as other worlds seem to us.”
The explorers who survived their journeys brought back amazing tales of new lands, new cultures, and new ways of looking at the world. The well-maintained RGS archives are an array of sextants, telescopes, compasses, charts and diaries comprising a breathtaking chronicle of human exploration—and almost all of them were from expeditions done when the telegraph was new, and airplanes and antibiotics were still just a dream.
Today the RGS promotes research and education as it transitions into the new millennium, and its archives are considered a treasure to historians and scientists alike. The next time you’re in London, get off at the South Kensington tube stop and drop by their headquarters (near Royal Albert Hall) to peruse the collections of hand-scrawled maps, drawings, and field notes made by the astronauts of another era. I dare you not to be inspired.