Posts Tagged ‘Hakluyt Society’

Jan Potocki: Voyages

May 15, 2022

     I bought this because I was planning to re-read his amazing novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and then watch the film; I hadn’t known much about his life or that he was widely travelled, in the years at the end of the eighteenth century when his native Poland was gradually being dismembered and removed from the map of Europe.

Potocki is a careful observer with a good eye for detail and a focus on the exotic (or what would have seemed exotic to a European traveller at the time). The book is extremely well presented with a very detailed commentary and copious annotation, rather like the current Hakluyt Society volumes in the UK. The one thing seriously lacking is maps of any sort, to allow the curious reader to track the traveller’s progress.

It’s a strange mish-mash of places: travel through Holland during a revolution, extensive travels through the then Kingdom of Morocco, travels in Astrakhan, and detailed analysis of why a Russian diplomatic mission to the court of the emperor of China was an utter fiasco. Morocco is closely described, and Potocki seems to avoid Western prejudices against Arabs and Islam. The minutiae of events at a chaotic time in Morocco now seems rather dull and dreary stuff, though.

Descriptions of peoples, places and customs in Astrakhan are rather more interesting; perhaps Potocki was one of the first Westerners to travel there and write a detailed account? He comes over as erudite and a seeker out of knowledge, balanced in his approach, eschewing the racism and bigotry often found in accounts of that time. He’s not only interested in the peoples – and lists and differentiates many of them – but also their languages, and the differences between them: a researcher in the sense we would understand the word.

The piece on the mission to China is fascinating. Potocki is far more aware of the demands of diplomacy, of understanding others and how their approach might differ from his own, of the necessary sensitivities and protocols required in such situations, than are the Russian diplomats he accompanies. They plod woodenly on, it seems, trampling on every sensitivity until the Chinese basically tell them to clear off, that the mission will not be received…

Having said all that, reading the book was something of a chore and I am not going to recommend it to you unless you have similar and quite particular interest as I do. Not a piece of light travel reading for a casual reader.

Voyageurs de la Renaissance

August 14, 2019

81HFTMPlypL._AC_UL436_  This was a rather more academic volume than I’d anticipated from its publication in a standard paperback line – almost Hakluyt Society depth and detail, as well as a number of extracts not being in modern French… they do things differently there!

Very interesting, though, to read a wide range of extracts from Spanish, Portuguese and French travellers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as Westerners were beginning to get to know (and occupy) far-flung regions. What strikes is the fascination and curiosity about those who are so different from ourselves, and also the determination, the sense of our duty and right, to forcibly convert all these peoples to Christianity for their own good. There is a common sense of Western superiority to foreigners, because we are Christian and have a higher level of development, and higher moral standards. One of the extracts showed Francis Xavier (a saint in the Catholic Church) trying to make sense of and explain Buddhism, and find connections between it and Christianity: his theological contortions and errors are astonishing and amusing.

Travellers to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire dwell on the harems and Turkish baths, often with many fascinating details, and also on apparent lesbian practices in the baths: there is a disapproving, prurient, News of the World-style to their descriptions.

There are also many short extracts about travels in Jerusalem and other holy places (for Christians). The accounts of French travellers to Florida and associated regions are rather tedious, but the first accounts of Cortez and other Spaniards of encounters with the Aztecs are very interesting: the days before they set out to conquer and destroy their civilisation, but already from the accounts of the quantities of gold and other precious metals, you can almost smell the cupidity. The accounts of human sacrifices are suitably gory, and the travellers are appalled. Similarly, in travels among native Americans, there is great fascination with cannibal rituals which are described in minute detail…

What I learned from the anthology was just how much travel and exploration there was going on so early; I’d heard of the well-known names and vaguely slotted them into the end 15th / early 16th time-frame, but there were so many people from so many countries out there, all hoping to make a fortune… the Portuguese were particularly numerous and widespread in the earliest days. Though it is interesting to see these first glimpses of how the West saw others, it’s also very depressing seeing how they treated them as simple folk, savages, to be fobbed off with trash and forcibly Christianised; the moral blindness in the travellers’ horror at human sacrifices and cannibal rites when they themselves will be complicit in genocide within a few years is truly shocking.

The overall concept of the book is an interesting one, but better than the execution, as ultimately it does come across as rather a mishmash. It’s scrupulously well-annotated, and there are many reproductions of original woodcut illustrations, but no useful maps, sadly.

Travel writing recommendations

December 12, 2018

I don’t know how avidly some of my readers consume my pieces about travel-writing, whether texts I’ve read, or pieces about my own travels, but I thought I’d share some of my recommendations with you.

Over the years I’ve acquired – second-hand, for the series is no longer in print – many volumes of the Penguin Travel Library, which flourished in the seventies and eighties. It’s a very wide-ranging collection, and although it suffers from the poor production values of that period, used copies of most of the volumes do turn up for sale pretty regularly. Much harder to acquire, but more interesting because of the rarity of some of the volumes, are the famous cerise-coloured Penguins from the 1930s and 1940s. Some booksellers are trying to put silly prices on these, but mostly they can be found for reasonable prices; there’s an amazingly helpful website I discovered (isn’t the internet wonderful: it’s for things such as this that it needed to be invented!) which lists them all, with brief notes, here.

The Century Travellers series from Hutchinson had an interesting list, but many of their re-issues seem to have been photographic reprints of old editions, sometimes with dreadful antique fonts which are tiring to read. And among the backlists of the American budget publishers Dover Books there are many travel gems to be found, again often photographic reprints.

For a while – I think they’ve stopped now – a German publisher,Könemann, who produce beautifully clothbound hard-cover editions at very sensible prices, produced editions in English; a series with blue dust-jackets offered classics of English literature, and a series with deep reddish-brown covers were classics of travel literature in English: I can recommend both highly.

Reprints of travel classics are currently being issued by Eland, and there are some interesting rarities in their lists. And – though these are very expensive – it’s now possible to get reprints of any of the publications of the renowned Hakluyt Society from the very inception. These are very serious and often very dry academic works, though.

Finally, if you can read French, the publishers Payot Rivages, in their series Petite Bibliothèque Payot, have a long and very interesting list of travel writing comprising translations from English, which you won’t need, current writing in French, and writing from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which deserves to remain in print. And on my travels in France, I’m noticing more small publishers beginning to rediscover other lost delights.

Don’t overlook e-books either: if you come across a title from before 1923, chances are it’s available online to download in a variety of formats from Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive (that includes many Hakluyt Society titles!).

The three Voyages of Willem Barents

December 9, 2018

41RtZ0Dd2+L._AC_US218_Willem Barents was a skilled Dutch ship’s pilot and navigator who worked at the same time Shakespeare was writing his plays, and at the time when both English and Dutch sailors were seeking to outwit the more powerful Spanish and Portuguese traders by discovering a north-east passage around the north of Russia to China and other lands in the East. I first heard of his remarkable journeys many years ago; finally I’ve read the account of them.

We are talking about an era when navigators had no really reliable way of knowing where they were – this wasn’t to come until the perfection of Harrison’s famous clocks nearly a couple of centuries later – so there were really journeys into the unknown: unknown places, perils, natives: would they ever return? And I’d forgotten about scurvy – apparently the British admiralty used to reckon on losing 50% of crews to the disease on lengthy voyages…

I need to make a couple of things clear: firstly, Barents didn’t survive the third journey to the Arctic, and the accounts are actually by another member of the expedition who recognised the navigator’s part in their achievement, and secondly, this isn’t an easy read. It’s a reprint of a Hakluyt Society volume from the middle of the nineteenth century. That society has been at the forefront of editing and translating memoirs and accounts of travels and explorations for over a century an a half, and its volumes are seriously academic (and expensive!), and often present very dry and detailed accounts of voyages, as in this case; I didn’t read it for pleasure.

In this volume there is much very dull and scrupulous recording of distances and directions travelled as well as depth soundings, very useful information for those who went after. Places are named for the first time, and travellers are trying the best they can to ascertain where they actually are… The men encounter serious problems with aggressive polar bears (two men are killed and partly devoured) and they have never encountered such ice before. One needs to remember how terribly small a lot of ships were in those days – often much less than 100 tons, so the size of a couple of juggernaut lorries, maximum.

The real perils, and the most interesting part of the narrative, are encountered on the third journey, where they are trapped by ice near the north-east coast of Novaya Zemlya. They realise they will have to over-winter, and build themselves a wooden hut, partly by pillaging their ship, which is raised high out of the water by the ice, and which they constantly fear will be crushed to pieces. They really cannot believe how cold it is – they have no way of measuring the temperature, of course, as we are in the days before the thermometer – and fear for their lives; when they try burning coal from the ship to keep warm they nearly kill themselves by carbon monoxide poisoning.

They live largely by trapping and eating arctic foxes, avoiding the perils of polar bears as best they can, for their guns are not really up to killing such creatures easily. Gradually they weaken physically and are overcome by scurvy. They spend the best part of ten months overwintering, finally managing to leave in June 1597, not in their ship which is forever trapped in the ice but in a pair of open boats in which they sail over 1500 miles back to civilisation. Long sick Willem Barents dies quite suddenly as the boats sail round the northern coast of Novaya Zemlya on the homeward journey.

This was truly an epic journey, even if there was a lot more I’d have liked to know, and which perhaps a more recent traveller might have included. But the astonishment doesn’t end there: in 1871 – that’s nearly 275 years later – another ship discovered the remains of the hut on the island where the men had overwintered, with the contents almost perfectly preserved in the ice…

Peter Mundy, Merchant Adventurer

November 9, 2018

51HCMjvr2OL._AC_US160_My interest in travellers from centuries past led me, a few years ago, via the Hakluyt Society, to Peter Mundy, a merchant whose travels in the first half of the seventeenth century they published in five volumes. These I duly downloaded, intending to read them one day… which day hadn’t arrived by the time I saw this edited and commented abridgement by R E Pritchard, and came to my senses, accepting that I would never find the time – in this existence, at least – to read the real thing.

Mundy was an English merchant adventurer who travelled both for business and personal reasons, mainly quite widely in the Levant, the Middle East, India and the Chinese coast. His adventures and misadventures were no doubt all new and exciting at the time but are now often rather tiresome and repetitive, particularly as all was done in the cause of trade and money-making, rather than with the search for knowledge as the primary driving force. What is new is accidental, though Mundy nevertheless describes well, in detail, and charmingly also illustrated his diaries with sketches and drawings.

He was interested in all curiosities, creatures – especially birds, women’s attire and also unusual punishments and tortures, which are illustrated. If you want to know what being impaled actually involved, or the specific stages of being broken on the wheel, then Mundy’s your man, with the pictures to show for it.

He also travelled through southern parts of our own kingdom, and parts of Europe, including Prussia, Poland and Russia, and settled down to live in Danzig (Gdansk) for some six years or so, even though the coldness of the winters initially shocked him. I found this section particularly interesting, as there were apparently sizeable English and Scottish contingents in Danzig at the time, and he refers to travelling players coming from England, which ties in with stories of Shakespeare’s company visiting – through the man himself is not recorded as having been with them – and the contemporary Shakespeare festival in Gdansk, and its new Shakespeare theatre.

We are also reminded of the perils and difficulties of travel in those times; I was not aware of just how many men were lost on long sailing voyages in those days.

So, the shorter volume is worth a look; if I have time I’ll read volume four of his travels which deals with Poland in more detail

On compulsive book-buying

October 27, 2015

I have too many books. There are people who would say you can never have too many, and I was once one of them. But they are taking over, and what is worse, I can’t see myself ever reading them all. Life is now too short.

The problem is, I love bookshops, especially secondhand ones, and I love looking in bookshops when I’m in France, with a chance to see all the books that are never going to be translated into English. And I treat myself, rather than regret not doing so, later. The books pile up; a lot of them do get  read, but for some of them, the moment passes and they just sit there, reproachful.

I have often been scathing about people who spend money on things I don’t approve of, who waste or fritter money away, by my standards, on things they’ll never use, clothes they’ll only wear a couple of times, and so on: I’m very moralistic about such things. And then I think about my book-buying habits: how is buying a book I’ll never get round to reading any different? Except that I can tell myself it’s something worthwhile, cultural, mental stimulus or whatever, and therefore superior to other people’s fripperies. The fact of the matter is that I’m likely now only to read it the once, or maybe twice if I really like it…

With other stuff, that other people (and I) accumulate, disposal seem easier. But parting with books is, while not exactly painful, pretty difficult for me. I can always tell myself, well, you may read it one day, well you may re-read it one day, if you’ve got rid of it then it will be harder to find when you do want it and it will cost a lot more than the £x you paid for it… I don’t have the patience to re-sell books online, so I end up giving them away to charity, a sort of tax, if you like.

I can criticise others for impulse-buying, and yet that often happens with books! I’ll be in a secondhand bookshop and see something, think, ‘That looks interesting!’ or, ‘I read something about that last year and I’d like to read more…’ and another book joins the pile. So, last week, a book about Prester John joined the pile, because I love Umberto Eco‘s Baudolino which is partly about the quest for Prester John, I enjoyed John Buchan‘s eponymous novel, and I have two volumes of a weighty Hakluyt Society publication about Prester John that have beenwaiting for me to read for over ten years…

I’ve also gradually learned that there’s something like overeating, but with books: I can follow a theme or topic and overdo it, acquiring and trying to read too many books on that subject, eventually too full with it, as it were. So, my next post will be about an Arabian traveller of the twelfth century, with whom I probably should not have bothered, like an extra serving of cheese or pudding…

The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck

March 3, 2015

51MpS2dTK5L._AA160_In 1253, Friar William and a companion set off on a journey into the unknown, which lasted two years. With an introductory letter from the king of France, they set off for the court of the son of Genghiz Khan, with the intention of preaching to him and, if possible, converting him to Christianity. That task itself was not quite as insane as the journey, as Nestorian Christianity was quite well established in those regions.

I’ve sometimes alluded to the differences between exploration, travel and tourism in my posts on travel writing, and this book helped clarify those differences for me.

Nowadays, we have a mental map of the world in our heads, with varying levels of detail according to our geographical education; we know of routes from place to place, the various nations and peoples of the globe, where particularly dangerous areas are; there are no blank spaces on our maps. Back in the mid-thirteenth century, some routes were known, some places and some peoples too; there were no maps as we know them, so distances were unknown; there were no compasses, so directions themselves were unclear. News as we know it did not exist, so there was no way of knowing if one were heading into the equivalent of twenty-first century Syria, or Libya, say… so Friar William had to trust to God and his fellow humans, and allow himself to be led by people he hoped were honest and well-meaning. And he went.

He observes details, and records them carefully, for his report to the French king: places and peoples, routes and distances, customs, what people eat and drink and how they marry and bury their dead. He relies on vague previous knowledge and legend at times; he makes some judgements and offers some opinions which show his Christian bias or prejudices, but overall he is pretty impartial and even scientific in his approach to reporting.

He got there and back, although he left behind his companion who was too ill to travel back; he failed in his intended mission although he seems to have received a courteous enough reception from the lord of the world. We know almost nothing about William himself except a small detail that reveals thar he must have been quite a portly man.

I find myself in awe of such a traveller, lost in the mists of time, his achievements and how his account has survived over 750 years. It’s partly thanks to the Hakluyt Society, who are dedicated to publishing accounts of travel and exploration which might otherwise disappear from our knowledge; their books are beautifully produced and edited, usually with helpful maps, and copious introductions and footnotes.

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