In the mid-nineteenth century the eyes of western European explorers were firmly fixed on advancing inland from former maritime colonies in the Americas, Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Australasia, their motives often being inextricably bound up with concerns of imperial politics and commerce. Simultaneously, further east, Russians resumed their perceived mission to civilise Asia, following their own country’s humiliation during the Crimean War. From a springboard of Siberian territories acquired gradually over the previous three centuries, discovery and expansion radiated from the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, founded in 1845 and incorporating initiatives drawn from descendants of immigrant French and German scientists who themselves inspired a new generation of liberal intellectuals. A key personality in that movement was the Society’s librarian and secretary of its physical geography section, P. P. Semenov (1827-1914), a member of a minor gentry family who had been tutored by a pupil of Linnacus and who had studied under Ritter and von Humboldt at Berlin during a tour of Europe in 1853-4. From them he conceived the notion of travelling to the virtually unknown lands of Central Asia, ostensibly to verify opinions on the existence there of active volcanoes and glaciers. In reality his ambition was to penetrate beyond the Kazakh steppe and to reach the fabled Celestial Mountains, the Tian’-Shan’ range, which constituted the politically sensitive border between Russia and China and the equally hostile buffer zone of Muslim kahnates. Accompanied only by a serf servant, in May 1856 Semenov embarked on a 18-month journey from St Petersburg through Kazan’ to Semipalatinsk, and thence via the Altai to the newly established Russian settlement of Vernoe (later Alma-Ata, now Almaty). Subsequently he received a Cossack escort on his trek into the high plateaus and ridges surrounding Issyk-kul’, to ’the very heart of Asia’. Throughout his
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The Hakluyt Society has for its object the advancement of knowledge and education, particularly in relation to the understanding of world history. The society publishes scholarly editions of primary sources on the 'Voyages and Travels' undertaken by individuals from many parts of the globe. These address the geography, ethnology and natural history of the regions visited, covering all continents and every period over the last two thousand years. Such texts, many previously available only in manuscript or in unedited publications in languages other than English, are the essential records of the stages of inter-continental and inter-cultural encounter.
Established in 1846, the Society has to date published over 350 volumes. All editions are in English. Although a substantial number of the Society's past editions relate to British ventures, with documentary sources in English, the majority concern non-British enterprises and are based on texts in languages other than English. Material originally written in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French or Dutch has regularly appeared, material in Russian, Greek, Latin, Ethiopic, Chinese, Persian or Arabic occasionally.
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