The advantages of using primary sources to teach geography are numerous. Geography is usually (including in New Haven) one of the first Social Studies skills students are expected to master as it is fundamental for any future discussion of places or historical events. Yet unfortunately, unlike the exciting stories of the human condition that propel much of Social Studies, the stale instruction that often permeates teaching map skills is an instant turn-off for many students. By using an explorer, students are given the opportunity to learn the political and physical composition of the world first-hand; immersing them within the field of geography, rather than treating it as a detached and abstract science.
Through my unit, students will have the opportunity to learn American, Asian, African, European, and Middle-Eastern geography through the eyes of two travelers: Christopher Columbus and Ibn Battuta. They will, through the eyes of these explorers, also practice the critical writing ability of drawing comparisons between what they read and their own lives as well as glean early experience analyzing the value of primary sources as a form of evidence. The biases these two explorers display (often guided by their religious beliefs) prevent an objective perspective on the people and civilizations they encounter, and give students the opportunity to reflect on how their own prejudices affect their view of the world.
The first explorer used in my unit is Ibn Batutta. Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan Muslim who traveled over 75,000 miles on his journey from Africa to China and everywhere in between. Like Columbus, he also wrote a lengthy and detailed account of his journey, although unlike Columbus, he wrote
he returned. This provides the students with the opportunity to explore vast expanses of Middle Eastern, African, and Asian geography, as well as to analyze the potential impact of time on Ibn Battuta's accuracy. As he traveled great distances over many years, it its quite likely that much of his account is inaccurate, providing ample opportunity for students to examine another limitation of historical sources.
Ibn Battuta's route is somewhat less direct than Columbus (whom we shall discuss later) as he spends far more time traveling over land for a substantially greater distance. Ibn initially plans a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as a Hajj, which would take him from his hometown in Morocco to Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Yet early on in his travels he stays with a man who mentions several relatives that Ibn should visit on his journey, and Ibn resolves to visit these people, despite the fact that they live in locales far beyond Mecca.
". . . I perceive that you are very fond of traveling into various countries. I said yes; although I had at that time no intention of traveling into very distant parts. He replied, you must visit my brother Farid Oddin in India, and my brother Rokn Oddin Ibn Zakaraya in Sindia [modern Pakistan], and also my brother Borhan Oddin in China. . . I was astonished at what he said, and determined with myself to visit those countries: nor did I give up my purpose till I had met all the three mentioned by him, and presented his compliments to them" (The Travels of Ibn Battuta: In the Near East, Asia, and Africa 1325-1354. Trans. Rev. Samuel Lee. Dover Publications Inc.: Mineola, NY. 2004. p.7).
This passage gives the students an early opportunity to locate these places on a map, and gives them some scope of how far Ibn Battuta will travel during his 75,000-mile journey.
Similarly, Ibn Battuta's biases lend themselves towards a discussion of the value of primary sources. Throughout his travels, Ibn Battuta regularly assesses the holiness and moral rectitude of the civilizations he encounters by making notes of their local customs. He is particularly critical of Christians; describing them in Jerusalem, he writes condescendingly: "[A holy Church in Jerusalem] is the church of which they are falsely persuaded to believe that it contains the grave of Jesus" (Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354. Trans. H.A.R. Gibb. 1969. Augustus M. Kelley. p. 57). Later he writes of a former Mosque that has been ransacked and razed, "nothing remains but its walls and some stone marble columns. . . Amongst them is a red column of which the people tell that the Christians carried it off. . ." (Ibn Battuta, p.57). It is worth reading this section through with students and asking them if Ibn Battuta appears to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Christians, and then ask them to consider whether this might affect whether he is completely fair in his treatment of them in his writing.
Ibn Battuta is similarly distressed by the Chinese. This bias is generally more overt. Of the Chinese, he writes:
"The Chinese are all infidels: they worship images, and burn their dead just like the Hindoos. . . The Chinese, generally, will eat the flesh of dogs and swine, both of which are sold in their markets. They are much addicted to the comforts and pleasures of life. . ."(Lee, p.208).
Important to note in this short excerpt is the fact that he is making a
judgment about these people. Mosque-raiding could generally be accepted by people of all faiths as despicable. Here he specifically mentions how offended he is that the Chinese practice cremation. It would appear then, that Ibn Battuta is nearly incapable of perceiving any non-Muslim in a positive light. For students, this can be a crucial lesson. Much like many xenophobes today lack credibility with an irrational fear of other cultures, Ibn Battuta serves as a prime example of how his bias sways his judgment. He even goes so far as to judge other Muslims on how far or close to his own religious piety they fall (Lee, p.17).
The second explorer in my unit is Christopher Columbus, undeniably one of the most prominent explorers in history. While evidence suggests that other civilizations and explorers had arrived in North America before Columbus, his arrival in the West Indies prompted an explosion of trade and exploration in the New World. While initially he believed, in error, that he had arrived in Asia (as the continent of North America was not known to exist), his meticulously written journal, beginning in 1492, gives us a wonderful lens through which to view his first encounters what later came to be known as the Caribbean. In my unit, students will read excerpts from Columbus' journal to glean an understanding not only of geography but how biases can affect historical writing.
Christopher Columbus's Journal provides an excellent opportunity to give students context clues from which to discern the route that he took. The opening entry of his Journal describes intimately the people for whom he is sailing (the Spanish) as well as the points of departure for what he believed would be his quick route to the Indies. Columbus departed from Saltes, Spain and headed southwest as he described as being the "course for the Canaries [Islands]" (Columbus, Christopher. The Journal of Christopher Columbus (during his first voyage, 1492-93). Trans. Clements R. Markham. 1893. Hakluyt Society). Through his first entry, which describes preparation for his travel, students can discern the initial direction of his voyage.
To teach about biases in Columbus' account of his journey, one need look no further than his descriptions of the native inhabitants of the islands he reaches in the New World.
He initially describes the inhabitants of an island he renames "Isabella," by saying" it is true that they looked upon any little thing that I gave them as a wonder, and they held our arrival to be a great marvel, believing that we came from heaven" (Columbus. p.56). This short entry from Monday, 22 October 1492, leaves room for students to explore two views of Columbus': First, that a European, arriving on the island inherently believes he has the right to rename it after the queen of a country the people who lived there had never even met. An interesting extension activity for a teacher to use might be to explore the innumerable places in the world obviously named by the explorers who reached that territory, rather than the names given to their lands by their indigenous residents.
The second bias of Columbus' worth exploring is the implied condescension towards the natives. In addition to this initial source, which effectively describes the natives of Isabella as primitive, Columbus' entry on Monday, 12 November, 1492 is also illuminating. Here he describes his plan to foist Christianity onto the natives:
It seemed a good idea to take some persons from amongst those at
Rio de Mares
to bring to the Sovereigns [Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain], that they might learn our language so as to tell us what ther is in their lands. Returning, they would be the mouthpieces of the Christians, and would adopt our customs and the things of the faith" (Columbus, p.73)
Apart from the Eurocentric notion that it would be morally justifiable to kidnap these people and make them into a "multitude of nations. . . converted to our faith," (Columbus, p.73) this passage gives students an excellent opportunity to examine the question as to whether Columbus' own bias prevented him from giving a dispassionate account of the indigenous population's religious practices. By assuming that these people
to be converted, Columbus assumes that he is in a superior position of strength relative to that of the Natives.
In conclusion, these two explorers are extremely useful for teaching both geography
historiography to students. Apart from their vivid writing style that is excellent for keeping students engaged in their work, they display obvious biases that students can identify. They provide an opportunity for students to learn the fundamental limitations of any accepted account of a historic event or period.