Christopher Sebela

writer, wronger, rearranger

Wasn’t an explorer really just an infiltrator, someone who penetrated alien lands and returned with secrets? In the nineteenth century, the British government had increasingly recruited agents from the ranks of explorers and mapmakers. It was a way not only to sneak people into foreign territories with plausible deniability but also to tap recruits skilled in collecting the sensitive geographical and political data that the government most coveted. British authorities transformed the Survey of India Department into a full-time intelligence operation. Cartographers were trained to use cover stories and code names (“Number One,” “The Pundit,” “The Chief Pundit”), and, when entering lands forbidden to Westerners, to wear elaborate disguises. In Tibet, many surveyors dressed as Buddhist monks and employed prayer beads to measure distances (each sliding bead represented a hundred paces) and prayer wheels to conceal compasses and slips of paper for notations. They also installed trapdoors in their trunks to hide larger instruments, like sextants, and poured mercury, essential for operating an artificial horizon, into their pilgrim’s begging bowls. The Royal Geographical Society was often aware of, if not complicit in, such activities—its ranks were scattered with current and former spies.
— David Grann, LOST CITY OF Z

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