From The North To The East

3D front cover of A Voyage to China and the East Indies by Pehr Osbeck, Olof Torén and Carl Gustaf EkebergOne of the most touching (and certainly the most unexpected) displays in the newly refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a glass cabinet full of knitted hats.

(The Rijksmuseum in its new guise is quite wonderful, and, during the days you would really need to absorb it all, you can keep body and soul together with the excellent coffee and apple cake at the café. See also the clever advert on Dutch television here.)

But the knitted hats – created out of very fine wool, and mostly in stocking stitch, they are many-layered and shaped with a turned-up front brim, like an old-fashioned sou’wester. But each one is a different colour, and some have jolly stripes. The reason for this is explained by the caption: the hats were worn by sailors on the whaling ships and workers in the Dutch whaling factory at Spitzbergen. Working in the dark and muffled up again the cold, the hats with their distinctive colours were the only indication to your colleagues of who you were. It wasn’t clear whether these were knitted by the workers themselves in the long polar nights, or whether their wives and daughters had supplied them before they set off. But they have survived and are on display because they were discovered in a graveyard: the dead were buried in their clothes, and all were perfectly preserved by the penetrating cold.

One tends not to think of the Dutch in the north – though a useful corrective is supplied by S.R. Van Campen’s The Dutch in the Arctic Seas (1876). What you can’t avoid noticing in Amsterdam is the evidence – in the art, in the buildings, and in the harbour – of the activities and wealth of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company.  Founded in 1602, it was in some ways a state within (and outside) the state, with powers to wage war, try (and execute) prisoners, found its own colonies and mint its own coinage. It was by far the largest such western enterprise during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (with nearly twice as many ships as the British East India Company, its nearest rival).  After two hundred years, and beset by complex economic problems, to say nothing of the exertions of the British to grab a larger share in the East Indian trade, it went bankrupt, and its lands came under government control as the Dutch East Indies.

A great deal has been written about the VOC, not all of it complimentary: see the views of Sir Stamford Raffles, for example. The Hakluyt Society published some translated accounts of Dutch explorers, in Early Voyages to Terra Australis, Now Called Australia, and the Voyage of John Huyghen van Linschoten to the East Indies, as well, of course, as diaries and narratives from intrepid sailors and merchants of the British EIC. But just as I hadn’t thought much about the Dutch in the north, so I hadn’t realized that there was a Swedish East India Company. The SOIC was a latecomer to the party, having been founded in 1731, mostly by a Scot called Colin Campbell, who later became first Swedish ambassador to the emperor of China.

In 1750, a Swedish ship, the Prince Charles, set out from Gothenburg for China. Its chaplain was a student of Linnaeus named Pehr Osbeck, who took every opportunity to seek out and record in his diary the natural history, and especially the plants, of the places where the ship stopped. On his return, he was able to give Linnaeus about 600 new specimens, and his account was published in Swedish in 1757, and in German in 1765.

The German Calvinist pastor and naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster, who in 1772 would step in to fill Joseph Banks’s role of naturalist when the latter abruptly withdrew from Cook’s second voyage, translated Osbeck’s work from German into English, and published it in 1771, with two additional pieces: letters to Linnaeus from another pupil, Olof Torén, who also travelled to the East in the early 1750s, and a paper on Chinese farming by by Carl Gustaf Ekeberg. (Forster had also just translated Peter Kalm’s two-volume Travels into North America.)

Osbeck is an engaging and diligent narrator. He explains in his preface his motives for keeping a journal of his observations, and his rationale. (Interestingly, he defines new discoveries, whether plant or animal, in Latin, ‘that foreigners might avail themselves of these descriptions’.) By way of apology for any deficiencies of style, he calls on the ‘scorching heat of the Chinese shores’, and the fact that to avoid the suspicions of the natives, he quite often had to make notes ‘with my hand in my pocket, on a pocket book’.

But he begins with a few notes about the area of Gothenburg, where he embarked, and its immediate surroundings. A stay of ten weeks in Cadiz, while the ship was taking on supplies, led to many expeditions up the coast and in the countryside around. The Spanish, their costumes and their exotic customs, are described in as much detail as the Chinese are later on.

One of the many odd but charming facts supplied is that while waiting for permission to go ashore in Cadiz, ‘we put a goose upon our fore-top-mast, which is a sign of a ship’s keeping the quarantine’.  Another is that the Swedish ‘crossing the line’ ceremony at the equator involved throwing water over any neophytes, and the collection of money for a ‘a treat at a Gothenburgh tavern, in case they should return’, but also ‘another collection for the orphan-house at Gothenburgh; everyone contributed to it, and it amounted to eight hundred and thirteen copper dollars, and twenty-four ocres’. (A copper dollar is about five pence sterling, according to Forster.)

A similar collection was made, presumably as a thanks-offering, when after nine months at sea, they arrived on the Chinese coast near Canton (Guangzhou), then the major trading port for Europeans, and took in a pilot to guide them into harbour. For the next four months, the Prince Charles lay at anchor, while trading and purchasing went on – tea, silk, porcelain, linens and cottons, umbrellas, japanned boxes in all shapes and sizes, minerals, sugar, medicinal herbs, rice, indigo, mother-of-pearl… And while the officers and merchants bargained, Osbeck explored, gathering plants, fish, fruits, and curiosities of all sorts, and observing the way of life of the Chinese on considerable detail. This could however be a risky business: the natives (especially small boys) tended to throw stones at strangers.

Thirteen varieties of tea are named, and the Chinese ideographs for their names supplied. However, ‘It is almost incredible what quantities of tea are annually exported into Europe and other parts; and what innumerable hands are employed in so unnecessary an article.’ The Lutheran pastor, rather than the enthusiastic botanist, is clearly speaking here.

But the botanist is soon back, for a moment of complete glory. He had discovered a plant, called by the Chinese ‘Komm-Heyong-loaa’ or ‘feather of goldroses’, and ‘Sir Charles à Linnè, thinking that my labours deserved some remembrance, has thought fit to call this plant Osbeckia chinensis’ – happily, it still is!

Osbeck got home safely, presented his specimens to Linnaeus, and received an enthusiastic letter from the Master on the publication of his book, thanking him for having ‘every where travelled with the light of science … If voyages were written thus, science might truly reap advantage from them.’ It’s nice to know that Osbeck was made a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1758. His inaugural speech, on ‘What should be attended to in voyages to China’ – a subject on which he had every reason to claim unique expertise –  ended with the words, ‘That which gives life to all sciences is, a desire of knowing more.’


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One Response to From The North To The East

  1. Pingback: Every Man His Own Taxidermist | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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