Friday, March 13, 2009

Fragments of my research - VIII

The most illustrious Czars and mighty Princes, John and Peter Alexewitz, my most gracious Lords, having in their Wise Council of State resolved to send a splendid Embassy, on some important affairs, to the Great Bogdaichan, or Sovereign of the famous Kingdom of Kitai, by us Europeans commonly called China: This obliged me with a welcoming opportunity of traveling through part of the famous, but hitherto unknown, Siberian and Kitaian Countries, (never before visited by any German) and informing my self by credible witnesses of the remainder of those Lands, as well as obtaining a certain knowledge of several things with which the World hath not been hitherto acquainted.

Evert Ysbrants Ides was the first educated European to travel in Siberia and gather firsthand information about the collection of fossil ivory. Ides' opportunity to travel across Siberia was the direct result of the satisfactory settlement of a small war on the Chinese border.

The speed with which the first wave of Russian fur traders, called promyshleniki, crossed Siberia created serious supply problems for them. Men carrying small loads of goods and supplies could easily cross Siberia using a network of rivers and short portages by boat in the summer and sled in the winter. Bringing large loads of bulky goods, specifically enough grain to feed a small settlement, was a much more difficult and expensive proposition. It could take three or four years for a shipment of grain to reach a remote place like Yakutsk and, by then, the majority of the load would be inedible. Because of this, the promyshleniki were relieved and excited when they began to hear rumors of the Amur, a valley in the south filled with grain, cattle, and silver.

The first expedition to reach the Amur was a group of 132 cossacks under Vassily Poiarkov in 1643-46. The Amur natives, whom the Russians called Daurians, greeted Poiarkov with hospitality but the relationship turned sour as the Russians resorted to kidnapping, plunder, and, it is reputed, cannibalism to get what they wanted. This kind of behavior went over with the locals about as well as you might expect. Poiarkov had to fight his way out of the country and lost half of his command to native attacks and starvation. However, because he confirmed that the Amur was a land of cattle and grain (he didn't find any silver), the expedition was proclaimed a success. Several other Russians tried to map out a better route into the Amur valley. In 1651, Yerofey Khabarov fought his way down the river with even more brutality than Poiarkov had and built a fort near the site of the city that now bears his name. This is when things began to go to hell.

Khabarov knew, but chose to ignore, that the Amur was within the Chinese sphere of influence. What he might not have known was that it was also part of the homeland of the new Qing dynasty of China. The only reason he was able to occupy as much land as he did was that most of the armed Manchu horsemen were still busy conquering China. A year after Khabarov built Achansk, a Chinese military expedition arrived to drive him out of the valley. This was the beginning of more than thirty years of seesawing occupation of the Amur country. By the early eighties, with most of China finally pacified, the Kangxi emperor was ready to deal with the Russians once and for all. Now it was the turn of Moscow to get alarmed.

Moscow, in the 1680s, was infected with a bad case of "who's in charge here?" In April 1682, Tsar Fedor III died at the tender age of twenty one without leaving an heir. The succession fell on his brothers Ivan and Peter. The elder of the two, Ivan, was severely epileptic, nearly blind, and may have suffered from a variety of other problems (diagnosing the physical and mental health of historical figures is more of a parlor game than a science among historians). Peter was strong as an ox, but only ten years old. To further complicate matters, the two boys had different mothers and the two sets of in-laws formed powerful and antagonistic factions at court. Fedor's death was followed by a week of riot and rebellion (not all of which was related to the succession). When the dust cleared, Ivan and Peter had been declared co-tsars and their sister Sophia was the de facto regent ruling in their names.

Except for a few years during the reign of Catherine the Great, historians have not been kind to Sophia. She has been reduced to cartoonish stereotype of a scheming woman (which is bad) who was finally put back in her place by a strong male (which is good). In fact, Sophia Alexeevna Romanov was an extraordinary woman. She was intelligent, well informed, and literate in three languages. She was comfortable giving orders and appearing in public at a time when most upper-class Russian women were kept in harem-like seclusion for their entire lives. During the seven years that she served as regent for the two tsars, Sophia had successes and failures no different than any other rulers’. For the advance of mammoth knowledge, her most important achievement was settling the Amur conflict.

Since the beginning of the century, the tsars had recognized the potential for Siberia to become a private trade route to China, but every attempt at making official contact with the Chinese court had failed due to cultural misunderstandings. Despite that, the Kangxi emperor wanted to open trade with the Russians and hoped that a show of strength would be enough to drive the promyshleniki and Cossacks out of the Amur valley. In 1684 a large and well supplied Chinese army arrived on the lower Amur and began to move west driving the Russians before them. At Albazin, on the northern bend of the Amur, the Russians attempted to make a stand, but were soon defeated. The Chinese allowed the survivors to retreat, razed their fort, and moved down river to their base of operations. When word of the defeat on the Amur reached Sophia and her advisors, they quickly dispatched an envoy to make peace with the Chinese.

This should have been the end of the crisis, but, before the envoy could arrive, the Siberian Russians returned to Albazin and built a new fort provoking the Chinese army to return and start a new siege. They were only saved by the arrival in Beijing of advance messengers from the embassy. The Kangxi emperor ordered his army to lift the siege and prepared his own diplomatic mission to meet the Russians. Further complications--and there are always further complications in diplomacy--delayed the meeting of the two missions until the summer of 1689. The negotiation took place at the Russian outpost of Nerchinsk on a tributary of the Amur almost 300 miles west of Albazin. Amid elaborate ceremonies by the official heads of the missions, the real negotiations were carried out in Latin by a Polish cavalry officer (for the Russians) and a French Jesuit (for the Chinese). The agreement, signed on August 27, the first formal treaty signed between China and a Western power, required the Russians to evacuate the entire Amur valley, but established formal trade through Nerchinsk.

Sophia did not get to celebrate the Treaty of Nerchinsk. At the same time that the negotiations were wrapping up in the East, Sophia's regency was coming to an abrupt and unanticipated end in Moscow. Sophia's position had been dramatically weakened by two disastrous campaigns in the Crimea and by her half brother Peter turning seventeen in June. Amid rumors that Sophia was planning to murder Peter and rule in her own name, supporters of the two Romanovs engaged in a month of dramatic maneuvers that resulted in Peter taking control and Sophia retiring to a convent. Peter's half brother Ivan stayed on as co-tsar until his natural death seven years later.

When word of the treaty reached Peter, he accepted the terms and began planning a trade mission to Beijing. Russia had a severe shortage of literate agents who were competent to make their way through foreign cultures, which explains the necessity of hiring Latin speaking Polish cavalry officers to conduct delicate diplomatic negotiations. For his first official trade mission to China, Peter hired a German, Dutch, or possibly Danish merchant named Evert Ysbrants Ides*. Ides had been in Russia since 1677, operating his own merchant house, first in Archangel and later in Moscow. In the spring of 1692, Ides left Moscow at the head of a 400 man caravan with instructions to exchange ratifications of the treaty, determine the best items for trade, feel out official attitudes toward the treaty, and request that a Chinese envoy be sent to Moscow.

Frontispiece of the 1705 English edition of Three Years Travels from Moscow Overland to China: Thro' Great Ustiga, Siriania, Permia, Sibiria, Daour, Great Tartary &c. to Peking. Containing, An Exact and Particular Defcription of the Extent and Limits of Those Countries

The most direct route from Moscow to China is the same one that the Trans-Siberian Railway follows today, around the southern end of the Ural Mountains, across the steppe lands at the center of Eurasia, across Lake Baikal, and on to the Amur. Unfortunately, the steppe lands were controlled by Kirghiz nomads and unsafe for Russian merchants. For this reason, Ides' caravan had to take a much more roundabout path to Baikal that took them across the Urals on the same path as Ermak a century before, down the Irtysh River to its junction with the Ob, up the Ob and its tributary the Ket, to a portage into the Yenisei basin, and up the Angara River to Baikal. By October, the mission had only reached the way station of Makofskoi on the Ket portage. It was here that Ides had had his encounter with fossil mammoths.
Amongst the hills, which are situate North-East of [Makofskoi], and not far from hence, the Mammuts Tongues and Legs are found; as they are also particularly on the Shores of the Rivers Jenize, Trugan [Lower Tunguska], Mongamsea [Taz], Lena, and near Jakutskoi [Yakutsk], even as far as the Frozen Sea. ... I had a Person with me to China, who had annually went out in search of these Bones; he told me, as a certain truth, that he and his Companions found the Head of one of these Animals, which was discovered by the fall of such a frozen piece of Earth. As soon as he opened it, he found the greatest part of the Flesh rotten, but it was not without difficulty that they broke out his Teeth, which were placed before his Mouth, as those of the Elephants are; they also took some Bones out of his head, and afterwards came to his Fore-foot, which they cut off, and, carried part of it to the City of Trugan [Turukhansk], the Circumference of it being as large as that of the wast of an ordinary Man. The Bones of the Head appeared somewhat red, as tho' they were tinctured with Blood.

This account by Ides is the first Western description of a frozen mammoth and the beginning of a scientific and popular fascination that hasn't ended over three hundred years later.

Locating the mammoth to which Ides' unnamed traveling companion referred is a little tricky. Makofskoi was, and still is, a small town on the western end of the portage between the Ob and Yenisei Rivers. Ides gave no indication of how far he meant when he said mammoth remains were found in the hills to the Northeast. My conclusion, based on Ides' phrase "not far from hence," is that the find must have been close to Makofskoi. The explorer Adolf Nordenskiold, who traveled along the Arctic coast in the late nineteenth century, thought, because the hunter took the mammoth's foot to Turukhansk, that the find must have been close to that place. Turukhansk is 450 miles north of Makofskoi, which is not "not far from hence." In Ides' day there were two major towns on the Yenesei where his companion might have sold the ivory, Turukhansk and Yeneseisk, which is only eighty miles from Makofskoi. That argues in Nordenskiold's favor. If the find was closer to Yeneseisk the only reasons the hunter would have had for going all the way to Turukhansk would have been if Turukhansk was offering a better price for ivory or if he had other business there. Without more evidence there's no way to settle the matter. If we split the difference between Makofskoi and Turukhansk we arrive at the Stony Tunguska River. Maybe the site was blown up in 1908 by the Tunguska meteorite.

Ides goes on to report what the locals believed about the remains.
Concerning this Animal there are very different reports. The Heathens of Jakuti, Tungusi, and Ostiacki, say that they continually, or at least, by reason of the very hard Frosts, mostly live under ground, where they go backwards and forwards; to confirm which they tell us, That they have often seen the Earth heaved up when one of these Beasts was on the March, and after he was past, the place sink in, and thereby make a deep Pit. They further believe, that if this Animal comes so near to the surface of the frozen Earth as to smell, or discern the Air, he immediately dies, which they say is the reason that several of them are found dead, on the high Banks of the River, where they unawares came out of the Ground. This is the opinion of the Infidels concerning these Beasts, which are never seen.

But the old Siberian Russians affirm, that the Mammuth is very like the Elephant, with this only difference, that the Teeth of the former are firmer, and not so straight as those of the latter. They also are of Opinion, that there were Elephants in this Country before the Deluge, when this Climate was warmer, and that their drowned bodies floating on the Surface of the Water of that Flood, were at last wash'd and forced into Subterranean Cavities...

The description of the mammoth as a subterranean animal that dies on exposure to surface air is almost identical to that given by the Chinese writer Tung-fang So in the second century BC.

The three "heathen" tribes that Ides mentions are names given by the Russian conquerors and used to lump together all of the peoples of the Lower Irtysh, Ob, Yenisei, and Lena river basins. That is to say, he was ascribing the belief in the mammoth as a giant mole to most of the people of Western and Central Siberia. Later travelers ascribed different beliefs to many of these peoples. Still other travelers confirmed Ides' observations. When Ides traveled across Siberia, most of these peoples had been under Russian rule for a century, giving them plenty of time to have heard about the ideas of tribes with which they had had very little contact and to have learned the Biblical stories of Noah and Behemoth. Today, it is virtually impossible to sort out which tribes believed what before their contact with the Russians.

While Ides was the first educated European to travel in Siberia and report firsthand information on the collection of fossil ivory, he wouldn't be the last. Peter the Great's diplomacy, wars, economic needs, and personal curiosity would send a constant stream of educated Europeans into his Eastern realms. They in turn would send back a constant stream of information that would be eagerly consumed by a Europe that was looking at the world through an increasingly scientific lens.

Hmmm. I still seem to be having trouble with that "keep your blog posts under a thousand words" thing. Oh well...

* Ides nationality and name have been the source of much confusion over the years. Accounts of his journey describe him variously as Dutch, German, and Danish. In the opening quote he implies that he considers himself to be German, but the first edition of his book was published in Dutch. The confusion comes from the fact that his parents were Dutch immigrants to Holstein, a German-speaking province that is the home of many cows and was then ruled by the King of Denmark. It's likely that Ides was fluent in both German and Dutch.

The possible spellings given for his first and middle names are even more varied than his nationality. Because his middle name is sometimes spelled Ysbrand, some writers have assumed that he and the mission's secretary, Adam Brand, were one person. Adding to that confusion was the fact that both of them published memoirs of the journey, which the same writers who thought they were the same person assumed were merely different editions of the same book. They weren't, it wasn't, and that's that.

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