Saturday, 1 December 2007

The Original Diogenes Club

Last time, I raised the question whether there could have been a real-life Victorian counterpart to Conan Doyle’s fictional Diogenes Club. That is, how he might have been inspired by the fact London gentlemen’s clubs were also often travellers’ clubs that were a home-away-from-home for returning explorers, who often patriotically collected intelligence for the Foreign Office. Holmes himself, after faking his death at Reichenbach Falls, goes off travelling for several years, to Tibet (disguised as an explorer called Sigerson), to Persia, on to Mecca (in Arab disguise, obviously) and then off up the Nile to Khartoum for a political interview with the Khalifa, returning with information for the Foreign Office.
Conan Doyle’s stories have the Club’s co-founder Mycroft Holmes as a major player in Whitehall, but there is nothing in the original canon about the Club being an intelligence front or cover for sending out expeditions. Whitehall of course always had a stake in exploration, for Britain would have a territorial claim if a British explorer planted the flag somewhere in remote unmapped territory. These explorers were men who would go out and live a lifestyle as basic as that of Diogenes, returning with useful intelligence which would help expedite colonisation. This was how the Empire developed, in the path of men such as Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Speke, whose 1856-8 Nile expedition nearly cost both men their lives. Their joint expedition was officially to ascertain the truth of the report by Diogenes the ancient Greek explorer that the Nile arose from lakes fed by snow-capped peaks on the Equator. In reality it was sponsored by the Foreign Office, acting through the Royal Geographic Society.
Penguin Classics cover of Conan Doyle's The Lost World, 1912Thus in reality, there would have been no need for Whitehall to set up an entire front organisation to despatch ‘civilian’ expeditions to the remote frontiers of Empire to gather military and political intelligence. The Royal Geographic Society in London provided such a semi-official function, from 1830 on, and distinguished explorers had a private London base at the Travellers Club, where they could stay. Both institutions still exist, the authentic originals of Conan Doyle’s Diogenes Club.
Some explorers, like Burton and later TE Lawrence, would go out for extended periods in native disguise – real-life counterparts of Kipling’s Kim in India and The Four Feathers’s Harry Faversham in the Sudan. (Burton’s visit to Mecca, if his native disguise had been uncovered, would have got him killed.) Even when there was no need to travel as a native, conditions in the field were often so appalling that they made Diogenes’s lifestyle look comfortable. RGS members like Stanley and Livingstone, Shackleton, and later Sir Edmund Hillary became national heroes whose accounts and lectures gripped the nation with their descriptions of hardship, from being mauled by a lion (Livingstone) to having the expedition’s ship crushed by Antarctic ice (Shackleton).
Conan Doyle himself was also publicly associated with exploration through his classic 1912 adventure novel The Lost World, wherein his hero Professor Challenger explores the real, but then almost-inaccessible, Venezuelan plateau of Mt
Roraima, and discovers an evolutionary pocket where apemen and dinosaurs co-exist. Mt Roraima was another example of politics intruding on exploration, for it stood on the Venezuela-British Guiana-Brazil boundary, and a few years before Britain and the US had been rattling sabres over the issue. The US claimed it was in their sphere of influence, but it was ‘discovered’ in 1838 by Robert Schomburgk, who was German born but sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society; the first ascent, in 1884, was by a British colonial official, Everard im Thurn. Later President of another expedition-sponsoring body, the Royal Anthropological Institute, he gave a lecture on Roraima attended by a young Conan Doyle. The future author of The Lost World would leave the comfortable world of London clubland to head off on his own less well-known outdoors adventures across the globe – of which more next time.

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