THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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Exploring Europe at the British Library

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Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

13 September 2019

How to Catch a Whale? (And Some Herring, Too)

Sometimes an opportunity to net a big fish that is irresistible comes along. Last year a title appeared in a dealer’s catalogue that was similar to a title destroyed in the bombing of the British Museum in September 1940. Being able to replace a destroyed copy does not happen often, and I was able to acquire it with the help of funds from the British Library Members.
The book in question is a work on whaling:

Title page of Nieuwe beschryving der walvisvangst en haringvisschery.: met veele byzonderheden daar toe betreklyk

Nieuwe beschryving der walvisvangst en haringvisschery.: met veele byzonderheden daar toe betreklyk. (Amsterdam, 1792). RB.23.b.7844.

The book is interesting in quite a few ways. We do not know who the author of this whaling manual is. Joop Schokkenbroek, an expert on Dutch whaling history, believes the author was a whaler himself, who wrote from experience. 

The names on the title page refer to the artists who made the engravings: Dirk, or Diederik de Jong, Hendrik Kobell and Matthias de Sallieth.

Of Dirk de Jong we know very little. No date or place of birth is known. All that is certain is that he worked in Rotterdam from 1779-1805. He was an illustrator and engraver, especially of maps. However, none of the maps in the book carry his name, or any name for that matter, so I cannot say whether de Jong made them.

Engraving from the book depicting Spitsbergen

Engraving from the book depicting Spitsbergen, not Greenland. RB.23.b.7844

Hendrik Kobell lived from 1751 to 1779 and worked in London, Paris and Rotterdam. He came from a family of artists and draughtsmen. While some of his relatives specialised in drawing cattle, Hendrik preferred ships, seascapes and sea battles.

The third artist who contributed to the book is Matthias Sallieth (1749-1791). Originally from Prague he settled in the Netherlands in 1778. He copied Dutch artists from the past, such as Willem van de Velde the famous painter who witnessed sea battles first hand and then painted them.

Many of the engravings in the book bear both names: Kobell and Sallieth, indicating a close working relationship. From the names and dates on the engravings it seems likely that Sallieth was the artist and Kobell the engraver.

Engraving by Kobell (engraver) and Sallieth (artist) of a whaling scene

Engraving by Kobell (engraver) and Sallieth (artist) of a whaling scene. RB.23.b.7844

Sallieth did a nice little sketch of the heads of the four Dutch naval commanders who were involved in the Battle of Medway, in 1667, taken from earlier works. One of them is Michiel Adriaansz de Ruyter (1607-1676), who as a young sailor in 1633 served as pilot on board whaling ship De Groene Leeuw (The Green Lion) , hunting whales near Spitsbergen. He wrote an account of this expedition, a summary of which was re-issued in a collection of six other journals on whaling voyages.

Title page of the summary of the journal by Michiel A. de Ruyter of his expedition to the Isle of Jan Mayen

Title page of the summary of the journal by Michiel A. de Ruyter of his expedition to the Isle of Jan Mayen. In: L’ Honoré Naber, Walvischvaarten, overwinteringen en jachtbedrijven in het Hooge Noorden 1633 – 1635 (Utrecht, 1930) Ac.9017.b/8.

De Jong’s work saw two print runs in quick succession, one in 1791 and one in 1792. This copy is from the second issue. The destroyed copy was from 1791, so it is not an exact match, though close enough. The book consists of four parts: the first is about the history of whaling and the manner in which the whales, walruses and seals are caught, and it gives a description of the various species of these animals.

Engraving of a Sperm Whale

Engraving of a Sperm Whale. In: Nieuwe beschryving der walvisvangst en haringvisschery (Amsterdam, 1792). RB.23.b.7844

The Library holds many more whaling journals, dating as far back as the early 17th Century, describing expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, from the late 16th Century onwards. Adventures and hardships endured by the whalers were very popular with readers back home. Our collections provide ample material for another blog.

De Jong’s book stands out for its attention to the wider context in which whaling took place. Apart from the practical aspects of whaling and herring fishing, it describes not only the seas where fishing occurred, but also the surrounding lands, the people that lived there and the flora and fauna.

Engraving of a Brent Goose and a Puffin

Engraving of a Brent Goose and a Puffin. RB.23.b.7844

Engraving of Icelandic woman

Engraving of Icelandic woman. RB.23.b.7844

The last chapter discusses the herring fishery, which includes a foldout engraving of the lifting of nets by Kobell and Sallieth. Why is herring fishing included here? I’m not sure. Herring fishing was certainly a major trade for the Netherlands; called the Big Trade.

Engraving of herring fisheries by Sallieth (artist) and Kobell (engraver)

Engraving of herring fisheries by Sallieth (artist) and Kobell (engraver). RB.23.b.7844

By the year 1800 whaling had declined, due to wars and competition. King William I tried to revive the industry with large subsidies. I wonder whether the King had read De Jong’s book. Schokkenbroek wrote a review of the facsimile edition published in 1992. In it he wonders whether the author’s intention had been to revive interest in the whaling industry once more. On the last page he refers to the glorious history of Dutch whaling “that from the oldest times onwards was held for a goldmine to this Commonwealth, will continue to flourish, and deposits its treasures in the lap of the Netherland’s inhabitants.”

It wasn’t to be. In the early 19th Century the industry collapsed once more. It was only after the Second World War that private companies decided to go out whaling again. There was a lack of foreign currency as well as margarine, so the best way for the Dutch was to get their own oil to make margarine. With help from the Dutch government the ship Willem Barents II completed eighteen expeditions to the Southern hemisphere. When this financial support was stopped whaling became unsustainable. In May 1964 the Willem Barents II returned to port with the very last oil.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections (speciality Dutch languages)

10 September 2019

A European Autumn at the British Library

This autumn, as part of our ‘European Literature Focus’, the British Library will be hosting a number of events featuring writers and writing from across the continent. So we thought we’d give you a quick taster here to whet your appetites.

Cover of Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen

Lars Saabye Christensen, Echoes of the Citytranslated by Don Bartlett (London, 2019). Awaiting shelfmark. Norwegian edition: Byens spor - Ewald og Maj (Oslo, 2017), YF.2018.a.9337 

First up, on Monday 7 October, you can hear Norwegian Lars Saabye Christensen in conversation with Georgina Godwin. In a rare UK appearance, he will be talking about his latest novel to appear in English translation, Echoes of the City, which traces an Oslo community’s slow recovery from a period of crippling austerity after the Second World War. Christensen is one of Norway’s most popular and critically-acclaimed writers; he has been awarded the country’s top literary prizes and his breakthrough novel Beatles (1984), a coming-of-age story about four teenage Beatles fans in 1960s Oslo, remains a bestseller in Norway over 30 years after its publication.

Photograph of Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak © Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

On Tuesday 8 October Rosie Goldsmith, director of the European Literature Network and a familiar and welcome face at British Library events on European literature, chairs ‘Future Library: Art, Ideas and Time’, a discussion with artist Katie Paterson, novelist Elif Shafak and philosopher Roman Krznaric about Paterson’s ‘Future Library’ project. This is a public artwork in Oslo, begun in 2014 and designed to unfold over a century. A forest has been planted just outside the city to supply paper for an anthology to be published in 2114. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the anthology appears. Elif Shafak contributed a text in 2017; other contributors so far have included Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and the Icelandic author Sjón.

Cover of The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (London, 2018). ELD.DS.290811

Fans of Dutch literature are in for a treat on Saturday 12 October, when Bart van Es, author of Costa Prize-winning The Cut Out Girl, joins bestselling novelist Herman Koch, rising literary stars Esther Gerritsen and Jeroen Olyslaegers, and historian Simon Schama at a special day of talks on new Dutch writing presented by the Dutch Foundation for Literature in association with Modern Culture. And if you’re not (yet) a fan of Dutch literature, a day exploring the complex history and current politics of the Netherlands, and the chance to discover the latest Dutch books in English translation will surely make you one!

Covers of recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Two further events take the revolutionary changes in Europe in 1989 as a starting point. On Friday 25 October there is a rare chance to meet a new generation of Slovak authors at ‘Raising the Velvet Curtain’, part of a series of events under the same name presenting contemporary Slovak writers and artists to English audiences, organised with the support of Fond na podporu umenia (the Slovak Arts Council) and the Embassy of the Republic of Slovakia. Three leading contemporary writers – Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová – will present their recently published works (translated into English by Julia and Peter Sherwood) and discuss with host Lucy Popescu how Slovakia has changed over the past 30 years.

Photograph of Rosie Goldsmith next to the Berlin Wall

Rosie Goldsmith, November 1989, Berlin Wall

On Tuesday 26 November Rosie Goldsmith returns for ‘Riveting Germans: After the Wall’, chairing a discussion of German literature and its translation into English since 1989. Prize-winning authors Durs Grünbein, Julia Franck and Nino Haratischvili, and translators Charlotte Collins, Karen Leeder and Ruth Martin will consider what what has or hasn’t worked for UK readers of German literature, and what the the impact of the East-West divide has been on German authors. The event is organised in collaboration with the European Literature Network, the British Council, Goethe-Institut London, Frankfurt Book Fair and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany London, and marks the publication of a German-themed issue of The Riveter, the magazine founded by Rosie with the aim of making European literature popular and accessible across the UK.

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Finally, on Thursday 29 November, Doctor Zhivago: A Pasternak Family Affair’ looks at a much-loved Russian classic in a new light. Translator Nicolas Pasternak Slater and picture editor Maya Slater present their recent work on a new translation of Doctor Zhivago illustrated with 70 pictures by Boris Pasternak’s father, the Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak, and just published by the Folio Society. They will also reveal how members of the Pasternak family living in England experienced the writing and publication of the novel.

Booking is now open for all these events and you can find full details and purchase tickets via the links above. We hope you’ll be able to join us to celebrate and discover some of the literatures of Europe this autumn.

05 September 2019

A ‘Colonial Anecdote’ in Translation: Jean-Baptiste Picquenard’s Adonis in Swedish

The Library has recently acquired Jean-Baptiste Picquenard’s first novel, Adonis, ou le bon nègre, anecdote coloniale, translated into Swedish by Sven Johan Collin in 1802 as Adonis, eller den förträfflige negern. It tells the story of the slave revolt on Saint-Domingue, what is now known as the Haitian Revolution, through a ‘colonial anecdote’ that follows the capture of the enlightened plantation owner d’Hérouville and his loyal slave Adonis by Biassou, the leader of the revolt. Victor Hugo was inspired to write his first novel Bug-Jargal (1826) after reading Adonis.

Map of Saint-Domingue 1722

Map of Saint-Domingue by Guillaume de L’Isle (Amsterdam, 1722) Maps K.Top.123.35

The book is an extremely rare copy of a work that was not translated into many languages. Swedish interest was not simply due to some residual francophilia around the Enlightenment but also due to the reading public’s own Caribbean imaginary, sparked by Sweden’s ownership of the island of Saint Barthèlmy since 1784. The copy once belonged to the library at Östanå Castle, which points to the ownership of once director of the Swedish East India Company, Simon Bernhard Hebbe.

Title page of the Swedish translation of Adonis

Title page of the Swedish translation of Adonis (Strengnäs, 1802) RB.23.a.38783

As Chris Bongie has discovered, Picquenard was intimately involved in ‘the revolutionary violence that accompanied the successful imposition of egalitarian principles in France’s most prosperous colony’. He was deputy secretary to the French Civil Commissioners Légér-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, who aimed to take over power from the white Saint-Domingue population on behalf of the new republican government. Picquenard voiced the revolutionary ideas of the commission in his newspaper L’Ami de l’Égalité, frequently defending the use of violence.

Yet, none of this is necessarily apparent when you read Adonis, which avows broad humanist principles that both support the abolition of slavery and admonish the violence that enabled it. The first paragraph sets out the position:

I will not start by deciding whether or not the sudden abolition of slavery in the French colonies has been of real benefit to humanity. It will be nice, undoubtedly, for the philosopher to see the fertile plains of Saint Domingue cultivated by free hands soon – but the terrible tremor that the Antilles felt in order to reach this happy outcome has caused the ruin of so many European families, and the deaths of many others, such that I would not dare even pronounce myself in favour of such principles without fear of being accused of injustice and inhumanity.

Title page of the original French version of Adonis

Title page of the original French version of Adonis by Jean-Baptiste Picquenard (Paris, 1798) RB.23.a.37666

With the archival knowledge of Picquenard’s early engaged and violent writings on the island, Bongie can reread Adonis as not simply exemplary of the active forgetting of the Terror that typified the turn of the 19th century in France, but as an agonized site of friction between Terror and Enlightenment. Picquenard’s authorship demands that we read what has been ‘written over’, that is, ‘the entanglement of revolutionary violence and the humanist projects of Enlightenment’.

S. J. Collin’s translation stays faithful to the French original, in other words staying faithful to a certain ambivalence and infidelity in the authorial voice. It would be worth investigating the extent of French slave narratives – a significant genre in the slim period when France first temporarily abolished slavery (1792-1802) – translated into Swedish. Adonis is at the very least a curious book that reveals a shared anxiety between colonial powers.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Further Reading

Chris Bongie, Friends and Enemies: The Scribal Politics of Post/Colonial Literature (Liverpool, 2008) YC.2009.a.4169

Youmna Charara, Fictions coloniales du XVIIIème siècle: Ziméo; Lettres africaines; Adonis, ou le bon nègre, anecdote coloniale (Paris, 2005) YF.2011.a.12978