Here Be Dragons
Rob Ryan recounts the history of the expression and how its message of adventure has always been reflected in Belstaff.
There is a recurring piece of dialogue in the classic western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, sometimes spoken by Blondie (Clint Eastwood) and at others by Tuco (Eli Wallach). It begins, 'There are two kinds of people in this world…' and each time the human race is divided into a brace of categories - for example, 'those who come in the door and those who come in the window'; 'those with loaded guns and those who dig.' Well, so it is with the phrase 'Here be dragons'. It tends to divide the world into two camps. But before we get into that, a little etymology is called for.
The term in Latin is hic sunt dracones, and it was meant to indicate on ancient maps a region where great danger and unknown terrors awaited the traveller foolish enough to venture there. It is still in use today as shorthand for hazardous or hostile environments, even though we know these days there are no dragons and, sadly, never were. The less fanciful equivalent in cartography is the perhaps more honest terra incognita: unknown lands. This was first seen on Ptolemy's Geography map c. 150, and used again when Ptolemy's work was rediscovered in the Middle Ages.
You can find the cautionary words on the Hunt-Lenox Globe, and it is made of copper, is pretty small, dates from around 1510 and has the famed advisory along the southeastern coast of Asia (or 'East India': hic sunt dracones).
In his excellent study of the history of cartography, On the Map, Simon Garfield suggests that the phrase on the globe might also be translated as ‘Here are Dagroians’, the latter being the cannibals mentioned by Marco Polo. Leaving aside whether a mention of flesh-eaters is actually any less of a warning than winged beasties, this interpretation ignores the fact that there are dragons on maps. They are just shown rather than written about, which isn't surprising as maps are a visual language.
So drawings of dragons or dragon-like creatures (you are allowed considerable leeway with mythical monsters) appear on maps such as the Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi (1025), the Ebstorf World Map (1232), the Borgia Map (c 1450) and the Carta Marina (1539), which is stuffed with fanciful sea creatures. There is an explanation as to why the illustration of dragons is not accompanied by the lost phrase - the depictions of dragons, winged lions, sea serpents and the rest were acting as medieval emojis - ideograms that meant the mapmaker had no need to spell it out.
However the warning is delivered, linguistically or pictorially, I believe the reaction to the phrase demonstrates that there are two kinds of people in this world. Those who think: 'Best stay away from there then, and settle for the quiet life,' and those for whom it means only one thing: 'Let's go, now.' Belstaff has always been the clothing of choice for the latter category, those for whom - like Che Guevara or Ewan McGregor - hic sunt dracones acts as a come-hither, driving them to cross continents on two wheels or to shatter world records like Brooklands speed-king Joe Wright did in the 1920s and Guy Martin is gearing up to do in Utah. Or to show us that pushing the envelope is certainly not a male preserve, as aviatrixes Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson and their worthy successor Tracey Curtis-Taylor all demonstrated with their epic flights. Or walk the Nile and climb the Himalayas like Levison Wood.
All of the above trailblazers elected for Belstaff kit and clothing because they knew it would be fit for purpose - tough and dependable because the brand was forged in bad weather, in harsh landscapes, at high speed, in dangerous winds, on the racetrack, in the air, at the edge and the top of the world - yet timeless because great design and clever engineering do not age.
Belstaff is a byword for exploring the unknown, for grit and determination, for attracting the sort of person who would rather choose adventure over indolence, speed over sloth, the authentic over the ordinary. Not everyone who wears Belstaff will blaze trails, conquer new heights or discover what life on the edge is really like, but every item in the company's range comes with that heritage as an integral part of its make-up. Here be dragons? Bring them on.
Robert Ryan writes for The Times and The Sunday Times and is the author of several historical novels, including The Dead Can Wait, a tale about Dr John Watson set during World War I.