Skip to Top NavigationSkip to Utility NavigationSkip to SearchSkip to Left NavigationSkip to Content
Mobile Menu
Bookmark and Share

Associate Professor Michael Robinson’s New Book Explores Cultural Bias Among Explorers


Posted 01/12/2016
Posted by David Isgur


Associate Professor Michael Robinson's latest book is scheduled to be published by the Oxford Press in March.

Associate Professor Michael Robinson's latest book is scheduled to be published by the Oxford Press in March.

Michael Robinson takes a well-earned break during his hike up Mount Stanley in Uganda, Africa.

Michael Robinson takes a well-earned break during his hike up Mount Stanley in Uganda, Africa.

As part of the research for his book, Hillyer Professor Michael Robinson retraced part of the journey of noted explorer Henry Stanley in Africa.

As part of the research for his book, Hillyer Professor Michael Robinson retraced part of the journey of noted explorer Henry Stanley in Africa.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” says associate professor Michael Robinson as he reflects on beginning research that has resulted in his latest book, “The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory  that Changed a Continent.” Robinson, who teaches history in the University’s Hillyer College, is fascinated by exploration and says the book involved the most grueling research he’s ever done.

Robinson set out to study a strange collection of science stories, such as the reported discovery of blond Eskimos in the Artic in 1912, explorer Henry Stanley’s claim of finding a “white” tribe in East Africa, as well as a rash of other such discoveries between 1860 and 1940. Robinson’s idea was to write a book about the history of scientific exploration with an eye toward the role that cultural biases may have played in such “discoveries.” 

“The research raised many questions,” Robinson says. “It was challenging to find out what was really going on with these expeditions.”  He found his research taking him down paths that included linguistics, anthropology, archeology, and more.

As he retraced the steps of Stanley (who is famous for his rescue of the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone) in Africa, he went to Uganda and made an eight-day ascent of Mount Stanley (part of Africa’s tallest mountain range). On the way down, he was stricken with a kidney stone. “In that moment, you feel so alone and vulnerable,” Robinson says, “but it gave me, I think, a greater understanding of what explorers like Stanley confronted on their journeys.”

Robinson says explorers confronted more than physical and environmental issues. Referring to the rise and fall of a curious anthropological theory, the Hamitic Hypothesis, which argues that some Africans were the descendants of a prehistoric “white invasion” from outside of Africa, Robinson came to believe that many of these “discoveries” were explorers’ attempts to explain the racial ambiguity of populations they encountered on their journeys. People who did not meet their racial expectations were sometimes identified as “lost tribes,” groups who they believed originated from the Middle East or Central Asia. 

Robinson says explorers were dealing with issues of race and identity, “issues that are still very much with us today,” he adds. While they believed that racial differences were profound, “the reality is that race is useless as a biological category. 99.5 percent of human DNA is the same in all of us. What makes us different is very small compared to what we have in common.”

The Lost White Tribe will be published in March by Oxford University Press. Robinson’s first book, The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture, won the 2008 Book Award from the Forum for the History of Science in America. It is the story of Arctic exploration in the United States during the height of its popularity, from 1850 to 1910. He also writes a widely-read blog, Time to Eat the Dogs, about science, history, and exploration.

What’s next? He wants to look at the question of what constitutes exploration today and, perhaps, hike more mountains across the world.

Associate Professor Michael Robinson's latest book is scheduled to be published by the Oxford Press in March.

Associate Professor Michael Robinson's latest book is scheduled to be published by the Oxford Press in March.

Michael Robinson takes a well-earned break during his hike up Mount Stanley in Uganda, Africa.

Michael Robinson takes a well-earned break during his hike up Mount Stanley in Uganda, Africa.

As part of the research for his book, Hillyer Professor Michael Robinson retraced part of the journey of noted explorer Henry Stanley in Africa.

As part of the research for his book, Hillyer Professor Michael Robinson retraced part of the journey of noted explorer Henry Stanley in Africa.