James Taylor, winner of the 2019 Hakluyt Society Essay Prize, gives us an insight into the nuances of gift-giving in encounters between early modern Europeans and Southeast Asians, with a extract from his prize-winning essay.
From the earliest European contact with Southeast Asia through to the era of ‘high imperialism’, the process of gift-giving sits at the fulcrum of a dynamic relationship; it is an instance of continuity apparent through several centuries of dramatic change over the course of which rough-and-ready trade deals came to be replaced by fully functioning imperial hegemony.
My research has addressed two broad questions: what role did the gift play in this context and what can be learnt from examining this area of history through the lens of reciprocal gift exchange rather than within the conceptual framework of an ‘age of commerce’?
The role of the gift
Initial encounters between European traders and Southeast Asians relied on gift exchange as a means of establishing basic mutual goodwill. During a brief stop at a supposedly uninhabited island in the Philippines in March 1521, Ferdinand Magellan and his crew were approached by a group of ten Filipinos in a boat, curious to discover the identity of their foreign visitors. Neither party could know the others’ intentions, whether they were friendly or hostile, stronger or weaker, nor could they vocally communicate these things to one another without chancing potentially serious misunderstanding. In the event, Antonio Pigafetta’s account tells us, ‘the captain … seeing that these people were reasonable’ gave them an assortment of small goods, and in return, ‘when these people saw the politeness of the captain … presented some fish, and a vessel of palm wine’.
First contact between parties that were largely if not entirely ignorant of one another’s social customs and backgrounds would often unfold like this. The exchange of gifts, however makeshift, served to establish a working equality between unfamiliar parties and created a platform of communication that defied language barriers. The gifts given in such situations were typically improvised and unceremonious; moments of on-the-spot reciprocity that conveyed basic but crucial messages of mutual respect and a willingness to cooperate.
Gift-giving took on additional meaning as relationships between Europeans and Southeast Asians became more established. Against the backdrop of growing European influence in the region during the seventeenth century, Southeast Asian rulers’ gifting became more noticeably orientated around those rulers asserting their dominance.
In a rather gruesome account, the English trader Thomas Bowrey describes watching the baiting and capturing of what was probably a black panther. The Raja of Janselone, noticing that Bowrey was impressed by the animal’s teeth, ordered his soldiers to knock them out and gave one to Bowrey as a gift. This presentation can be seen as the final act of an elaborate and highly symbolic spectacle, intended to demonstrate to foreigners the Raja’s mastery over the predators and threats of his world. The final, impulsive order given by the Raja to have the panther’s teeth put out and for one to be presented to Bowrey seems intended to shock him with the Raja’s readiness and freedom to manipulate the wild world according to his will.
As the imperial presence of the Dutch and English became more firmly established in the region through the expanding operations of their trading companies, the gift remained important, but its usage became more sophisticated. In 1620, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) presented medals (above) to Ambonese orangkayas (wealthy merchants or gentlemen) and princes whose design – engraved with a fleet of cora-cora on one side and the Dutch lion on the other – epitomised the Dutch effort to adopt Southeast Asian cultural symbolism in order to acquire legitimacy for their growing political and commercial influence.
At the end of the seventeenth century, moreover, these objects were still owned by the descendants of their original recipients. They were meant as lasting physical embodiments of the pact of friendship the Ambonese orangkayas had made with the VOC, and in this sense they reflect the Company’s impressive recognition of the significance of diplomatic gifts to Southeast Asians – symbols of the personal and of intangible bonds of loyalty rather than utilitarian or saleable objects.
As late as the mid-nineteenth century, Munshi Abdullah describes an elaborate presentation of a state sword (above) to the Temenggong of Johor in 1846 for help given to the colonial government. At the ceremony, the British Governor William Butterworth delivered a speech heavily laden with warnings to Asian peoples who might oppose the will of the British Company.
After receiving the sword, Abdullah tells us, the Temenggong ‘became all the more devoted and loyal.’ His loyalty became so great that he apparently ‘submitted entirely to the governor’s wishes and obeyed the directions of the government in all matters.’ Gift-giving seems to have served Europeans as a tool to socially elevate those who were compliant with their wishes; a strategy of divide and rule masked by a discourse of diplomacy that was reassuringly familiar to Southeast Asian subjects. Indeed, although the presentation of the sword to the Temenggong was organised by the British colonial administration, they allowed the ceremonial trappings of Southeast Asian gift-giving (quite literally) to surround the event – music played as girls danced in the Malay fashion ‘and in the style of Kelatan’ before the gathered crowd.
Gift-giving as a lens
Examining moments of gift-giving is important because it reveals significant differences between European and Southeast Asian aims, interests and discourses of diplomacy in the early modern period. Most apparent from my research has been the contrast between the personal and impersonal diplomatic approaches of Southeast Asians and Europeans respectively.
Many Europeans’ predominantly commercial interests in the region were not shared with such gusto by Southeast Asians, whose priorities were more concerned with forging political alliances that were often contingent on a personal bond with the particular explorer or trader who appeared before them.
Rather than a uniform ‘age of commerce’, then, the themes of engagement on which inter-cultural relationships were predicated in this era are highly nuanced. Accordingly, gift-giving proved to be an indispensable tool in mollifying potentially obstructive differences and enabling cooperation.
James Taylor is a graduate student at City, University of London and winner of the Hakluyt Society Essay Prize 2019. His essay, ‘Gift-giving, Reciprocity and the Negotiation of Power, c.1500-1824’, considers the role of gift-giving as an indispensable and ongoing process that facilitated inter-cultural interactions between European traders and Southeast Asian rulers throughout the early modern period. He will present his research in more detail at the Society’s Annual Symposium in Leiden this September.
Please register via this link before 1 September 2019. The full registration fee is €50. The fee for Hakluyt Society Members and Linschoten-Vereeniging members is €25. Lunch and tea/coffee will be provided on both days. Hakluyt Society Student Members attend the symposium for free, and should register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (please include your membership number in your email). To become a Hakluyt Society (student) member, follow the instructions here.
If you need accommodation in Leiden during the symposium, we can offer a special conference rate of 85 euros per night, including WIFI and breakfast, at the IBIS hotel. This hotel is located close to the railway station and is a 10-15 minute walk from the symposium venue. For those who want to go local, the hotel also rents out bikes for the duration of your stay! We advise contacting the hotel early with your travel plans. Please book by email (email@example.com) with “Universiteit Leiden” in the subject line, stating that you are booking for the symposium.
The conference will be held in the University’s recently restored P.J. Veth building overlooking the Botanical Gardens. The botanical gardens are the oldest in The Netherlands (1590) and we do encourage attendees to take a quick tour over one of the lunch breaks. All breaks will be on site; the drinks receptions and the conference dinner will be within easy walking distance from the venue. If you have any mobility or dietary concerns, or any other questions, please do get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Captain Cook after 250 years: Re-exploring The Voyages of James Cook’
An International Conference on Captain James Cook’s voyages (1768-1779) Organised by the SELVA, the Hakluyt Society, HDEA and VALE, supported by LARCA 7-8 February 2020 Sorbonne Université
Call for papers
Welcoming the presence of Captain James Cook’s voyages (1768-1779) on the syllabus for the French competitive exam of the agrégation in 2020, the SELVA (Society for the study of Anglophone travel literature), the Hakluyt Society (editor of primary records of historic voyages, travels and other geographical material), HDEA (Histoire et Dynamique des Espaces Anglophones, EA 4086), and VALE (Voix Anglophones: Littérature et Esthétique, EA 4085) will be organising, with the support of LARCA (UMR 8225, CNRS, University of Paris Dideerot) an international conference to be held at Sorbonne Université on Friday 7 February (all day) and Saturday 8 February (in the morning) 2020, Amphithéâtre Georges Molinié, Maison de la Recherche, rue Serpente, Paris.
The Penguin edition that provides the textbook for the students (James Cook, The Journals, ed. Philip Edwards , Penguin Classics, 2003, 646 p) is based on the four-volume edition of Cook’s Journals published by the Hakluyt Society.
Paper proposals may be on (but are not limited to):
the link between Cook’s voyages, the discovery of new territories and cartography
the historical impact of his discoveries; the role and impact of voyages in the construction of the British Empire;
other exploration travels that took place in the 1770s, such as Joseph Banks’ travels to Iceland through the Hebrides in 1772 or Phipps’ in the Arctic Ocean in 1773. In France, Bougainville went on his world tour in 1766 and published his Voyage autour du monde in 1771.
the influence of colonial discourses and the economic aims of sea expeditions; the profit-motivated voyages of privateers like Woodes Rogers earlier on in the century (A Cruising Voyage round the World, 1712); the realization that capitalism and mercantilism were only possible by seizing the wealth overseas; the development of overseas commerce;
the status of voyagers (geographers? scientists? ethnographers? writers?);
the technological and scientific dimensions of Cook’s expeditions;
the different kinds of people on board: botanists, naturalists, scientists, artists etc.
the aesthetic and literary dimensions of Cook’s Journals: for example, William Hodges, an artist on board with James Cook during his second voyage, was the author of a number of drawings and paintings such as A View taken in the Bay of Oaite Peha Otaheite (1773). His productions had to be very accurate as geographical documents, but they also had an aesthetic dimension;
philosophical developments on the “bon sauvage” in Britain and France (Diderot);
the reception, translation and edition of Cook’s writings.
An on-line peer-reviewed publication will follow and the articles will have to be submitted very shortly after the conference.
Please send your proposals (title + 15-line summary, preferably in English), along with a short bio-bibliographical note, to Emmanuelle Peraldo (Emmanuelle.PERALDO@univ-cotedazur.fr), Pierre Lurbe (email@example.com), and Ladan Niayesh (firstname.lastname@example.org) before Monday 30 September 2019.
Members of the organising and scientific committee:
Jim Bennett, President of the Hakluyt Society;
Emmanuelle Peraldo, Université de Nice, CTEL (EA 6307), President of the SELVA;
Pierre Lurbe, Faculté des Lettres, Sorbonne Université, HDEA (EA 4086), International Representative of the Hakluyt Society for France;
Ladan Niayesh, Université Paris, Diderot LARCA (UMR 5882, CNRS), Hakluyt Society Council Member;
Anne-Florence Quaireau, Faculté des Lettres, Sorbonne Université, VALE (EA 4085), Secretary of the SELVA.
Professor Jim Bennett, current President of the Hakluyt Society, shares some enlightening thoughts on the connections between Oxford, Richard Hakluyt and the Hakluyt Society. From 16th-century ‘clubbing’ to Charles Darwin and beyond, we learn about some of the influences that informed the life and works of Richard Hakluyt and the ideas (and people) that shaped the establishment of the Hakluyt Society and the culture of the society today. This post was originally written for the Oxford University Pensioners’ Association Newsletter, which explains its focus on Oxford, and is reproduced from the current issue with permission.
Academics today are encouraged to strive for ‘impact’: they are told they should communicate with a broader public than their specialist communities and demonstrate the value of their research to society at large. Richard Hakluyt was an Oxford scholar of the Elizabethan era, who made it his business to carry his scholarship into the wider world of literature, publication, commerce and politics. He worked hard all his life in pursuit of a very particular (and, as it turned out, prescient) thesis that he believed would transform the role of England in the world. He was passionately convinced that his countrymen could rival the Spanish and Portuguese in maritime exploration and that England could be the centre of a new seaborne empire. This was a moral vision as well as a commercial imperative: the trading empire would also carry the reformed faith across the globe. Where was scholarship in this plan? The largest of Hakluyt’s many publications was The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation of 1589, with a much expanded second edition in three volumes published in 1598-1600. Hakluyt worked as collector, translator and editor of first-hand accounts of these voyages. His case for the future of English navigation was that it already had a distinguished past.
Even before entering Oxford, Hakluyt was linking his academic ambition with his public vocation for geography. A brief introduction to the subject as a boy by his cousin, ‘… took in me so deepe an impression, that I constantly resolved, if ever I were preferred to the University, where better time and more convenient place might be ministered for these studies, I would by Gods assistance prosecute that knowledge and kinde of literature’. Hakluyt achieved his goal – ‘the doores’, as he put it, ‘were so happily opened before me’ – when he entered Christ Church as a Queen’s Scholar, taking his BA in 1574 and MA in 1577, and staying there as a scholar (meaning a fellow) until 1586.
During this period he gave university lectures in geography. It is characteristic of Hakluyt that his lectures were offered ‘in the common schooles’, this is, to the University rather than in his college, and so in the most public forum available to him. These were the first lectures in geography given to the University. This was long before students were invited to record their satisfaction with their lecturers but Hakluyt himself reported that his lectures were delivered ‘to the singular pleasure, and generall contentment of my auditory’.
After Oxford, Hakluyt pursued a modest career as a clergyman, while devoting his energies to his publications, which included over 25 travel books. He was almost exclusively a traveller of the ‘armchair’ variety, his only period abroad being as chaplain to the English ambassador in Paris, 1583-8. His interests, however, were global and he searched for sources as widely and energetically as he could. His records of voyages ranged from the 4th century to the adventures of Elizabethan seamen such as Drake and Cavendish. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1616, while his Principal Navigations have reappeared in a variety of editions down the years. Certainly the most ambitious of these is the 14-volume critical edition currently in preparation for Oxford University Press. At a much more modest level, an abridged version appeared in Penguin Classics in 1972 and is still in print.
Like Richard Hakluyt himself, the society founded in his name in 1846 has had strong Oxford connections. It is named after Hakluyt, not because it is devoted to his life and work, but because it follows his example by publishing original accounts of voyages and travels. It too publishes in English, translated where necessary, but an important difference from Hakluyt is that its texts are not confined to English travellers; instead it sees it as a virtue that its sources are completely international. The founding meeting at the London Library resolved on a society ‘for the purpose of printing, for distribution among its Members, the most rare and valuable Voyages, Travels, and Geographical Records’. For an annual subscription of one guinea, members would receive ‘without further charge, a Copy of every Work produced by the Society within the Year subscribed for.’ The model has not altered in its essentials, in spite of all the changes in publication and printing since then. The original emblem, a representation of Magellan’s ship, Victoria, has also been maintained.
One change is the subscription, but at £60, as currently, it is just over half today’s equivalent of the original guinea.
The Society’s output has become more academic over the years, with the scholarship vested in the editorial work becoming more rigorous, while the production quality of the volumes has been upheld. The profile of the ‘provisional’ Council appointed in 1846 was also less academically oriented, with a greater proportion of what were known as ‘men of affairs’ – a concept that survives in living memory on Council, even though it has long disappeared from word and deed in the operation of the Society, where women outnumber men among the officers.
Thus the provisional Council contained military officers, including a Rear-Admiral and a Major General, along with merchants, travellers and scientists. The first President was the famous geologist Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, who went from school to military college and on to service in the army. Distinguished Oxonians were the historian Henry Hart Milman, author of a memorable winning entry for the Newdigate Prize for Poetry, who later became dean of St Paul’s, and Sir Henry Ellis, who began his career at the Bodleian and rose to be Principal Librarian at the British Museum. Charles Darwin (no Oxonian he) was also on the Council but apparently never attended, while an early member of the Society was Charles Dickens (nor he), who maintained his subscription for many years.
The second President was the lawyer and politician Sir David Dundas, who had gone to Christ Church and been elected a student there in 1820. With J.N.L. Baker (generally referred to by his initials), President 1955-60, we can bring the City of Oxford into the story. He spent the great bulk of his working life in Oxford, interrupted by war, when he was wounded at the Somme and in WW2 worked in intelligence. His institutional affiliations were with the Department of Geography and with Jesus College (where a prize in Geography is still awarded in his name), but he also became an alderman of the city and in 1964 the first University member of the City Council to become Lord Mayor of Oxford.
Sir Gilbert Laithwaite, the distinguished civil servant and diplomat, had come from school in Ireland to a scholarship and then a fellowship at Trinity College. He presided over the Society from 1964 to 69. One of more memorable presidents was certainly the editor and bibliophile Esmond Samuel de Beer. Born in New Zealand and benefitting from the wealth of the family clothing business, he read history at New College from 1914, his studies also being interrupted by war service. He worked as an editor for the Clarendon Press and many scholars have consulted his multi-volume editions of the diary of John Evelyn and of the correspondence of Thomas Hobbes. The Library of the University of Otago in New Zealand mounted an exhibition in 2017 of Hakluyt Society volumes presented by de Beer. The online version, Intrepid Journeys, is an excellent introduction to the Society.
A story about de Beer survives in the Hakluyt Society today. One of the responsibilities of the president is to receive an advance copy of each volume, a sample from the entire print-run waiting in the warehouse for his or her approval, which will trigger distribution to members throughout the world. It is a daunting moment. The story is that during de Beer’s presidency, his standards were so exacting that no volume was ever published. In preparing this article, I checked the relevant period, 1972-78, and there was indeed a significant gap, which the Society had to resolve by distributing the volumes once he had retired.
So, if we look only at the presidents of the Society (I will spare readers an analysis of the other officers) it is clear already that Oxford has made a major contribution to the story of the Hakluyt Society. For a three-in-a-row hat trick, however, we have to come up to the present. Professor Will Ryan, the distinguished Russianist of the Warburg Institute, was an undergraduate and D.Phil student at Oriel and also served as Assistant Curator at the Museum of the History of Science. He was Hakluyt Society President, 2008-11, to be followed by Captain Michael Barritt RN, former Hydrographer of the Navy, who was President until 2016, when I took over from him. Captain Barritt had read Modern History at Pembroke.
The year 2016 was a significant one for quite different reasons. It was the 400th anniversary of the death of Richard Hakluyt and the occasion was marked mainly, and appropriately, in Oxford. There were two exhibitions – at Christ Church and at the Bodleian – as well as seminars, public lectures and a two-day international conference. A small book based on some of these events, Hakluyt & Oxford, was edited by Anthony Payne and published by the Society.
Another way to encounter Oxonians – historical examples – in the orbit of the Hakluyt Society is to consult the published volumes, now numbering some 370. Here we find the lives and records of Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Robert Dudley, Robert Harcourt, Edmond Halley, the merchant Robert Bargrave, Sir Thomas Roe, Sir Joseph Banks, James Rochfort Maguire and doubtless others I have failed to note.
We might not expect to find Oxford itself figuring in any of the voyages and travels, but the diary of Richard Madox, Fellow of All Souls (published by the Hakluyt Society ‘for 1974’, presumably having been delayed by de Beer’s scruples) is an account of a voyage that begins with his winding up his affairs in Oxford, where he had become University Proctor. Recommended for the task by the Chancellor of the University, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Madox was to sail as chaplain on Edward Fenton’s expedition headed for the Moluccas in 1582. This attempt to establish a spice trade would fail and Madox himself would not return.
The diary opens on Monday 1 January 1582 with Madox in Wolverhampton, where his niece is born at 3 a.m. and he christens her ‘Katherin’ at evensong the same day. By Friday he has ridden to Oxford, where he begins a round of dining and supping with friends at different colleges and hostelries, and where he marks Epiphany on 6th with wassailing (carol singing) after supper. On the following evening he is having supper with friends at Lincoln College and they decide to go ‘clubbing’ on Monday 8th.
What took place was clearly well understood by those involved, but it seems that Madox’s diary is the only surviving record of this lively tradition: ‘we went a clubbyng owt of al howses in the town, some, abowt 400, with drome, bagpipe and other melody.’ This was followed at night by a torchlit assembly at University College and the exchange of orations and garlands, and a march to Carfax, where a representative of Baliol gave an oration with the exchange of ‘clubs’ of holly and ivy. Then on to the gate of Trinity and further exchanges of orations, followed by supper in the President’s lodge and a performance of Ariosto’s play I Suppositi in hall – ‘indifferently’, thought Madox. The following day he was again dining and supping at Lincoln. The account surely reads as oddly to today’s Hakluyt Society members as would some ceremony Madox might have witnessed in the Moluccas, had he made it there.
There followed a fortnight in London and business in preparation for the voyage. He stayed with some friends at the Crown in Uxbridge on the way back – ‘We wer myrry together’ – and in Oxford took up his convivial habits of eating at different colleges for a few more weeks, interspersed with other treats: ‘I went to Tytimans and eat fresh sprats and muskels’ … ‘Slater, Davis and I walked to Wolvercot and had cyder at Besse Jenyns.’ There was even some more clubbing one Sunday: ‘We had musycians and went up with them and 20 clubs to Carfox’. Such, we may surmise, are the obligations of the University Proctor.
We may end with a moment from that fortnight in London. Madox was interviewed by Sir Francis Drake and by Alderman Barne, Governor of the Muscovy Company, who wanted to know how much he would expect to be paid for his services on the expedition: ‘my Lord demaunded what I wold aske.’ I believe such negotiations can happen nowadays with Oxford appointments, though no such question was asked of me. The response from Madox was delightful:
I answered that I sowght not gayn but was glad to serve my cuntrey or ther hororable howse or my Lord and therfor wold refer my self to them which knew better than my self what was fit for me.
Potential appointees to positions in Oxford today might care to note that this went down very well with the panel and they made him an exceptionally generous allowance.
Professor Jim Bennett is President of the Hakluyt Society and former Director of the History of Science Museum, University of Oxford, a position which he held for 18 years.
Travel historian, Dr Anna P H Geurts, shares with us how visual sources can provide a more nuanced perspective on late 19th-century ideas of ‘distance’ and steam travel.
As an historian of travel, I have looked at railway passengers’ experiences of distance. But what was the meaning of distance for the people along the tracks, as they observed the machines carrying those passengers thundering past?
An important painting from the 1880s addresses precisely this question. ‘Il vient de loin’ – he/it comes from afar – by Dutch impressionist Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriël has at least three things to say about distance.
1) This painting problematizes progress. Many visual and literary artworks of the nineteenth century set up a dichotomy between tradition and progress, between nature and technology, between a supposedly static country-side and a dynamic industrial sector. Some artists were enthusiastic about technological developments, others critical, a third group ambiguous.
Gabriël, too, clearly referred to these contemporary concerns in his work. It is no coincidence that Gabriël’s painting is reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s famous ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, which like many works of its time emphasised both the beauty and the threat of steam technology.
Taking just Gabriël’s title – ‘he/it comes from afar’, it makes sense to read this from the perspective of the angler resting against the gate in this Dutch polder landscape: representing the local and the traditional, the angler sees the train ‘coming from afar’. Indeed, the technology of steam locomotion arrived in continental Europe from across the sea – developed in Britain, steam trains may initially have been an exotic technology in the rest of Europe. The steam engines used on the early Dutch railways even continued to be imported from Britain for quite some time, for lack of a local industry.
Of course, ‘afar’ may refer to the individual train in the picture, too. The angler looks like he has just come sauntering into the scene from a nearby farmstead. Within his frame of reference, it might be argued, the train has already travelled a lot of track before entering into view – although we are probably talking about a few tens or hundreds of kilometres at most. Trains cross vast distances; farmers and fisher-people stay put, the painting seems to say.
In all these cases, the new technology can be read as an alien presence in this landscape, and if this was indeed the predominant perception in the 1880s, we should not be too surprised if the railways occasionally met with a hostile reception.
2) What makes Gabriël’s painting interesting, however, is its ambiguity: who exactly is coming from afar? Rather than the train, the title could refer to the angler.
This interpretation makes a lot of sense if we follow the painter’s cue to look at the angler: an Everyman. It is he who comes from afar. That is: humankind has come far: from humbly hunting for food, through shaping the land to make it suitable for farming, to the modern industrial economy. This second interpretation sits equally comfortably with prevalent nineteenth-century views. And so, when looking at the steam engine, the angler is really looking at his own achievements, perhaps pondering whether they please him.
3) But possibly the most interesting view this painting offers on distances has little to do with nineteenth-century debates. Instead, it has everything to do with a sensation that cannot have been unique to the nineteenth century.
We see: a polder landscape. A canal in the middle. On the right: anglers, some ducks. On the left: a telegraph line, the approaching train still in the distance. And two thirds of the painting: sky. A single vanishing point, a simple composition.
What’s more, the entire picture is permeated by the single element of water. The sky is filled with clouds, the air with steam; the land is bisected by a canal and the earth saturated with groundwater. The anglers find their food in the water; the travellers power their movement with the help of water turned into steam. This is a thoroughly wet scene, a scene with much less contrast or conflict than Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’.
And so, everything about this balanced picture speaks of quiet. (Apart perhaps from the already restlessly vertical telegraph poles.)
Yet we know the train is coming. Its approaching cloud of steam seems to progressively envelop the land. Not just that, but it moves from the central vanishing point to the front of the scene. It gets all the attention, that of the angler as well as ours.
It will enter the landscape and for a brief moment be at its very foreground, dominating the scene with its noise and its steam, its hard wheels on the track, its smells and its black body towering on the embankment; for a few seconds the angler resting against the gate will hear or see nothing but the train … and then it’ll be gone.
It is this ephemerality, the fleeting quality of this sensation of a train passing by, that Gabriël pictures. He pictures not just the brief moment of the train’s overwhelming presence, but also its absence on either side of that moment.
‘Coming from afar’ then means: being there for an instant only, and soon belonging to another place again.
It is a sensation we know all too well, and one that overlaps with some of the sensations had by people on a train.
And so, in the same decade of 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson published his memorable ‘From a Railway Carriage’:
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!
Dr Anna P H Geurts (University of Sheffield/ University of Nottingham) is a teacher and researcher at the intersection of spatial history and language. She has published on homeliness, sociability and travel writing and initiated the University of Sheffield Faculty of Arts and Humanities partnership with the British National Railway Museum. This post forms a further reflection on the themes discussed in her article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019). More about this article can be found on the Historian at Large. Geurts is preparing a book on related themes with Routledge: Travel and Space in Nineteenth-Century Europe.
In July 1806, John Lee set out from London to Holyhead where, four weeks later, he boarded the packet to Dublin. Over the following six months, he walked hundreds of miles, filling five notebooks and three sketchbooks with on-the-spot observations and illustrations.
Born John Fiott in 1783, the son of John Fiott, a merchant, and Harriet Lee of Hartwell, Buckinghamshire, from 1815 he assumed the surname Lee to fulfil the requirements of an inheritance. I refer to him by that name, as it is the one by which he was more commonly known. When he embarked on this tour in 1806, he was a little-known Cambridge mathematics graduate, but later became a well-known man of science, active in over 20 scholarly societies and for a time president of the Royal Astronomical Society.
I was just beginning a study of scientific accounts of sub-Arctic regions when a colleague told me about Lee’s diaries, which the librarian at St John’s College had shown to her. I travelled to Cambridge to assess their potential and was instantly captured by their immediacy, frankness, and detail. I was delighted to learn that, after his Irish tour, Lee spent two years in Sweden as a Worts Travelling Bachelor – having access to his prior experiences in Ireland was of great value in understanding his time in Scandinavia.
I was fortunate to be awarded a three-month Overseas Visiting Scholarship at St John’s in late 2010, enabling me to transcribe Lee’s diaries in their entirety and consult Lee’s extensive archives in Cambridge, the British Library and the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury.
Transcribing the diaries was painstaking work and took almost every day of my three-month fellowship. The diaries are partly written in pencil, which in places is badly faded or smudged. I photographed the entire collection at the outset, and often sat long into the night using digital editing software to try to decipher faded sections. Unfortunately, parts remain undeciphered, despite my efforts.
As challenging as the diaries are – Lee wrote in pencil, in incomplete sentences, used abbreviations, and employed a code in places – they reward close reading and contain delightful surprises. I remember the thrilling moment when Lee addressed me as his “gentle reader”. I enjoy the snippets of conversation and Hiberno-English turns of phrase Lee jotted down, and interactions like the evenings he spent at the fireside of the notorious Sir Thomas Judkin Fitzgerald, known as ‘Flogging Fitzgerald’ for the severity of punishments he meted out to suspected rebels – some of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing – during the 1798 rebellion. Lee savoured Fitzgerald’s brutal tales, but recorded with almost equal care the experiences of those whose poor cabins were burnt to the ground during the conflict. I enjoy the fact that Lee took Irish language lessons from a Cork grocer, and that he jotted down an Irish phrase so that he would to be able to quiz Irish speakers about their locality.
The diaries can be read as a record of a man of science in the making, with their lists of plants, geological observations, and visits to mines. But, equally, the diaries also record Lee’s personality and his sense of humour, enriching the picture of the pious and stern Victorian man of science that emerges from other accounts of his life.
The diaries also demonstrate Lee’s social position as the son of a merchant, dependent on a scholarship for his university education. He kept accounts of his spending on food, drink, accommodation and incidentals, clearly motivated by the letters of his uncle and guardian, William Lee Antonie who demanded to know ‘the great advantage you have deriv’d, of either [improvement or economy], from your present residence in Ireland’ and insisting that his nephew reflect seriously on his expenditure.1 Lee also found that his decision to make the most of his journey on foot attracted the opprobrium of Ireland’s innkeepers, who viewed with suspicion any person arriving without a carriage. Lacking the outward marks of respectability, he was, on more than one occasion, refused accommodation.
My introduction to the edition provides some context for Lee’s interpretation of the landscapes he walked through – particularly his engagement with the picturesque and his understanding of Irish history – as well as his particular perspective as a scientific traveller. The critical apparatus includes explanatory notes on people and places mentioned by Lee, but these should not be considered exhaustive.
I have enjoyed living with Lee for the past eight years, and I hope that this first edition of his diaries will not only prove a useful resource for students of travel writing, local history and folk traditions, but may, in time, prompt renewed interest in Lee’s life and pursuits.
Dr Angela Byrne
Dr Angela Byrne is Research Associate at Ulster University and in 2018-19 is Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Historian-in-Residence at EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin. She has previously held positions at the University of Greenwich, National University of Ireland Maynooth, University of Toronto, and the Royal Irish Academy. She is author of Geographies of the Romantic North: Science, Antiquarianism, and Travel, 1790–1830 (Palgrave, 2013) and is co-editor (with Sebastian Sobecki) of Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations of the English Nation(1598–1600), vol. II (Oxford University Press, in preparation). She is currently preparing a monograph on Irish–Russian contacts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.