Friday, February 06, 2009

Fragments of my research - VI

In 1681, a letter from Ferdinand Verbiest, the head Jesuit at the Kangxi Emperor's court in Beijing, arrived in Europe calling on his Jesuit brothers to come to China. The Vatican, at that time, was eager to find a safe land route to China, because many of their best missionaries were lost at sea before ever reaching their destinations. Louis XIV of France was looking for a way to expand French prestige and commercial interests in the Far East. Verbiest, for his part, knew that a northern route around the Muslim khanates in Central Asia was possible; in 1675-76 he had traveled west as far as Tobolsk as the interpreter during some failed negotiation between the Russians and Chinese. This confluence of interests came together in the decision to send Father Philippe Avril and four companions to reconnoiter the unknown middle of Eurasia. For his part, Avril was happy for the opportunity to preach the Gospels to "the Barbarians."

Avril could have used Witsen's map on his journey. European knowledge of the northern half of Asia, at the time, was limited to lists of rivers and tribes and little drawings of dragons and people with their faces on their stomachs scattered around the edges of maps. Most maps showed the capital of China on the shore of the Sea of Aral in Central Asia, though the letters of Verbiest would have made it clear that the imperial capital was on the other side of China. This means Avril, besides not knowing the route to China, didn't even have a clear idea of how far away it was.

Avril's journey took him through Rome, Cyprus, and Syria to Armenia where he met Louis Barnabe, another Jesuit with extensive knowledge of the Central Asian trade routes. From there they proceeded to the Caspian and sailed to Astrakhan in Russian territory. Here they interviewed merchants who had traveled the old Silk Road across Central Asia to Xinjiang and entered China from the West. The travelers tried unsuccessfully to join several caravans, but received permission to go to Moscow. Here their travels came screeching to halt. The Russians wondered if the Jesuits were insidiously clever spies trying to throw them off balance by telling them exactly who they were and what they wanted. The Russians replied with the most powerful weapon at their disposal; bureaucratic delay. After a full year in Moscow, the government not only refused them permission to go any further East, it ordered them out of the country.

The mission wasn't a complete failure; like Witsen before him, Avril used his year in Moscow to gather information from merchants and was able to accurately describe the northern route. And, like Wisten, hidden among the intelligences about Siberia was a description of the source of Siberian ivory.
Besides furs of all sorts, which they fetch from all quarters, they have discovered a sort of ivory, which is whiter and smoother than that which comes from the Indies. Not that they have any elephants that furnish them with this commodity (for the northern countries are too cold for those sort of creatures that naturally love heat), but other amphibious animals, which they call by the name of Behemot, which are usually found in the River Lena, or upon the shores of the Tartarian Sea. Several teeth of this monster were shewn us at Moskow, which were ten inches long, and two at the diameter at the root: nor are the elephant's teeth comparable to them, either for beauty or whiteness, besides that they have a peculiar property to stanch blood, being carried about a person subject to bleeding.

The Persians and Turks who buy them up put a high value upon them, and prefer a scimitar or a dagger haft of this precious ivory before a handle of massy gold or silver. But certainly nobody better understands the price of this ivory than they who first brought it into request; considering how they venture their lives in attacking the creature that produces it, which is as big and as dangerous as a crocodile.

Later, on his way out of the country, the governor of Smolensk, who had served a stint in Siberia, gave Avril some more intelligence on his "Behemot."
There is beyond the Oby, a great river called Kawoina, into which another river empties itself, by the name of Lena. At the mouth of the first river that discharges itself into the frozen sea, stands a spacious island very well peopled, and which is no less considerable for hunting the Behemot, an amphibious animal, whose teeth are in great esteem.

Several things stand out in Avril's account. His translation of mammoth (or mamout or mamant) as Behemot is something that many later travelers will also do. The mention that Persians and Turks use Behemot ivory for knife handles ties into the earlier Arab sources who wrote about the substance khutu, imported from the North and used knife handles. His description of Behemot as a living animal on the shores of the Arctic ocean, suggests that he was applying the word to something other than fossil mammoth ivory. However, the mouth of the Lena River is one of the richest grounds in Siberia for collecting mammoth ivory, which suggests he was. We'll examine all of these points after we hear from the rest of the Russian travelers.

Avril's account enjoyed far greater distribution than Witsen's. Within two years it had been translated into English, with Protestant translator issuing an obligatory denunciation of Avril's Catholicism before enthusiastically recommending the work. Witsen took note Avril's account and copied large sections it into his own book.

Coming Next: Mammoths and unicorns.

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