The Ra Expeditions, by Thor Heyerdahl
I read Kon-Tiki a while back, because I love a travel adventure story. I discovered then that Heyerdahl’s theories about white bearded men civilising South America (a millennia or more before the Spaniards arrived) and that they could be the ones who colonised Polynesia were… um… problematic. I bought The Ra Expeditions before I knew that. I have chosen still to read it because I was interested to see exactly how he would go about tying ancient Egypt into these racial theories about just who settled and civilised where, and also because I wondered whether his ability to tell a good adventure story was a one off. Please keep in mind that I am an over-educated middle class white lady with a lot of historical knowledge and a sufficient amount of knowledge about literary theory, narrative structure, and so on that a) I wasn’t directly in the firing line of Heyerdahl’s period-appropriate (?) racism, b) I was able to read this critically in terms of history and construction. I have the same reservations about this book as I did about Kon-Tiki: it is a genuinely exciting adventure story, because getting to the point of building a reed boat to carry seven men (!) across the Atlantic (!!) is incredible; it’s also chock-full of problematic ideas about race and history. Personally, I found it fascinating to see what ideas existed in the 1950s about cultural dispersion etc, in the same way that reading about people laughing about plate tectonics or that there might be more to the universe than just our galaxy is fascinating. If you’re not in a place to read around the racist stuff – or you’re of Polynesian descent, or South American – then avoid this resolutely.
So the actual account of getting the boat ready – of finding places and people who still make reed boats, of getting everything together in one place (builders from Chad, reeds from elsewhere, and then setting up in the shadow of the Great Pyramids at Giza) is legit a fascinating story of who knows who, ambassadors helping out, meeting U Thant, and uh dodging border security at one point (not great). And as with Kon-Tiki, the story of life on board – the storms, the drama, learning how to actually sail the darn thing, the adventures of a baby monkey they were gifted (uh…) – it is all gripping stuff. I’m also impressed that in the mid-50s, they manage to have seven men from different parts of the world represented: from Chad, from Egypt, from northern Europe, southern Europe, South America, the USA, and a Russian. So that was impressive, although I do wonder whether they really did manage to be quite so idyllic in their political discussions. (Heyerdahl is open about there being occasional arguments about personal living space and so on, but is adamant that there were no religious or political arguments at all.)
What I would love to read is an expurgated version. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but the bits where he’s discussing “the diffusionist” view that somehow there was contact between Egypt and South America because all the points of cultural similarity are just too much to be coincidence, and that the (uh…) ‘savages’ who crossed the Bering Strait to the Americas couldn’t possibly have come up with pyramids etc themselves… yeh, those bits are just too old, now, and too hard to read. The adventure is still worth reading, though! Someone else should do the work to give me “the good bits version”.
I have the final Heyerdahl book to read, too, about the Tigris expedition, but I’m going to give myself a spacer before I read that.