Thursday, February 05, 2009

Fragments of my research - V

Nicolaas Witsen was the first of the four to travel to Russia. Witsen came from a prominent Dutch family with business ties in Moscow. His father was the mayor of Amsterdam, a board member of the Dutch West India Company, and a patron of Rembrandt's. The younger Witsen was fascinated by the new discoveries around the world and began collecting travelers' accounts to make "a contribution to the explanation and description of the earth." In time he would become mayor of Amsterdam thirteen times, sit on the board of the Dutch East India Company, and become a close friend of Peter the Great. He used his wealth and influence to travel, do research, and commission others to travel and do research on his behalf. In 1664 he attached himself to a mission to Moscow to look after the family's business interests there. During his year there he collected information about the country that he used in his book thirty years later.

As the title North and East Tartary indicates, Witsen's interest was more in Russia's new territories in Siberia than in the Russian core provinces. During this trip he heard the word "mammoth" used to describe fossil ivory: "By the inlanders [Russian settlers in Siberia] these teeth are called mammouttekoos [suffixed with the Russian word for bone, "kost"], while the animal itself is called mamout." His informants told him that many people were employed looking for buried mamout bones. Occasionally whole dead mamout bodies were found; they were of a brownish colour, and emitted a great stench. It had a tail like a horse's and its feet were short. It was seldom seen, and, when it was seen, it was a bad omen. He thought these reports were the babblings of superstitions natives and said that European Russians were sure they were elephant bones.

Witsen's is the first printed appearance of the word "mammoth." In reality Witsen's book was an encyclopedia of everything he could gather on Siberia: letters from his many correspondents, excerpts from other books, pictures, both of his own and by artists he commissioned, lexicons of over twenty five languages, and the best map that, till then, had been printed of Northeast Asia. It's somewhat surprising that he was able to gather all of this information. The Russian Tsars were secretive about their realm. Like authoritarian governments in all times, they wanted to carefully filter new ideas coming in--accept technical knowledge, but prevent foreign social concepts--and keep strategic knowledge from getting out. At that time, trade routs and accurate maps were state secrets. One reason so few navigational charts exist from the Medieval and Early Modern times is, that they were considered state secrets. Only a few were printed, old ones were destroyed, and captains were expected to die before letting them fall into enemy hands. On the other hand, the fact that he was able to collect so much information is testimony to the inability of even the harshest authoritarian states to seal them selves off and to the eternally gossipy nature of travelers and servants.

Witsen's narrative of his journey, with the explanation of mammoths, was only a small part of his total work. Besides being buried inside a mountain of other material, the dissemination of Witsen's information on mammoths was handicapped by the book's publication history. Witsen never finished with the project. For the rest of his life, he continued to add new material. Only a few copies of each edition were printed, probably for his circle of friends. Only ten copies of his map are known to exist. Nevertheless, the Republic of Letters was a small enough community that word of his new word spread throughout Europe.

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