On the Backs of Others


On the Backs of Others

Rethinking the History of British Geographical Exploration

Edward Armston-Sheret

330 pages
23 photographs, 12 illustrations, index


December 2024


$65.00 Pre-order

About the Book

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras British explorers sought to become respected geographers and popular public figures, downplaying or reframing their reliance on others for survival. Far from being solitary heroes, these explorers were in reality dependent on the bodies, senses, curiosity, and labor of subaltern people and animals.

In On the Backs of Others Edward Armston-Sheret offers new perspectives on British exploration in this era by focusing on the contributions of the people and animals, ordinarily written out of the mainstream histories, who made these journeys possible. He explores several well-known case studies of enduring popular and academic interest, such as Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke’s Nile expeditions (1856–59 and 1860–63); Isabella Bird’s travels in North America, Persia, and East Asia (1872–c. 1900); and Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s two Antarctic expeditions (1901–4 and 1911–13). Armston-Sheret argues that numerous previously ignored stories show the work and agency of subaltern groups. In rethinking the history of exploration On the Backs of Others offers the first book-length study of the relationship between exploration and empire and their legacies within academic geography.

Author Bio

Edward Armston-Sheret is the Alan Pearsall Fellow in Naval and Maritime History at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Studies, University of London.


On the Backs of Others questions traditional readings of the history of nineteenth-century British exploration through the lens of bodily experience. Behind the veil of heroic narratives and scientific authority, we discover a world of complex intimacies, unexpected encounters, and physical constraints. Explorers’ bodies, Edward Armston-Sheret shows us, were not imperishable bronze statues but fleshy and leaky organisms dependent on the support and care of others—porters, cooks, guides, translators, and even animals—whose stories have gone largely forgotten. Thoroughly researched, fully illustrated, and engaging, this book uncovers many of these stories.”—Veronica della Dora, professor of human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



1. “Heroic” Bodies

2. Dependent Bodies

3. Disciplined Bodies

4. Animal Bodies

5. Sensing Bodies

6. Examined Bodies

7. Sexual Bodies





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