Earlier this year Natalya Din-Kariuki was awarded a short term post-doctoral Brotherton Fellowship. Here she tells us about her fascinating research into Special Collections’ seventeenth century travel archives.
In his ‘Instructions for forreine travell’ (1642), James Howell claimed that the traveller ‘must alwayes have a Diary about him, when he is in motion of journeys, to set down what his Eyes meetes’. He continued, ‘let him take it for a rule, that Hee offend lesse who writes many toyes, than he, who omits one serious thing’. Howell’s advice to travellers is a reiteration of a conventional idea: that travellers needed to write, copiously and often, in order to transform their experiences into useful knowledge. Many early modern travellers followed this advice. Strange and compelling, their notes can tell us a great deal about early modern understandings of ‘observation’ and attitudes to note-taking, memory, and the transmission of knowledge.
With the support of the Brotherton Fellowship, in July 2019 I consulted the library’s extensive collection of travel diaries, journals, notebooks, logbooks, and letters. My aim was to identify the different methods and technologies travellers employed in their practices of note-keeping, as well as the processes by which these notes became rhetorically invented and organised. The research I carried out is central to my current book project, provisionally titled ‘Peregrine Words: The Rhetoric of Seventeenth-Century English Travel Writing’.
In my research, a few key themes emerged. The first is a preoccupation with knowledge and how to acquire it. Letters written by the English gentleman William Hammond (BC MS TRV 2) to his parents, kept between 1656 and 1658 during his travels in Europe, reveal that Hammond, like all travellers of his time, grappled constantly with the relative virtues of ‘reading’ and ‘experience’. The letters document his efforts to learn French, and his explorations of history, geography, and even ‘Physick’ (medicine). Other items in the collection, including travel licenses (i.e. passports), attest to the importance of learning in early modern travel.
One licence, for Yorkshiremen John and William Middleton (YAS/MS59/7/1/17), states that these individuals are ‘very desirous to travaile into foreyne lands to learne languages and gayne experience’. The second theme is credibility. Some travellers, particularly those who travelled in a group, used their accounts as a kind of testimony, writing their own version of events in order to protect themselves from slander. One example of this is a diary kept by the merchant captain George Aptall (BC MS TRV 1). Aptall addresses his diary to his ‘friends and Relations’, emphasising that it is ‘not wrote with deceit’, and asking them to believe him. In addition to documenting Aptall’s travels, then, the diary sets out to portray his character in a particular light.
The third theme is genre, and travellers’ willingness to experiment with genre. Travellers’ notes appear in unexpected places, such as a commonplace book of English and Latin verse and prose (BC MS Lt 25). This manuscript contains several pages on travel to the Iberian peninsula, including material copied from books, under geographical headings such as ‘Lisbon’ and ‘Portugall’, as well as thematic headings such as ‘Obedience’. The fourth and final theme is materiality. An anonymous diary kept by an English naval victualler from 1694-1696 (BC MS TRV Q 1) is a particularly striking example of the eclecticism of early travel writing. It includes details of time, climactic conditions, the names of people in various crews, as well as a series of transcribed epigraphs, and details of textiles, spices, and other commodities encountered during the voyage. It also features a number of material forms, including maps and illustrations, which range from depictions of hills and coastal features, to copies of coins, seals, and keys.
I will conclude with a poem by a writer called William Hamilton, which is included in a manuscript collection BC MS Lt 115. Although this manuscript was compiled around 1750, later than the travel accounts discussed here, the conclusion of Hamilton’s ‘To a Gentleman Going to Travel’ resonates with the notion, expressed by Howell, Hammond, and others, that travel needed to be useful:
Hail & Farewel, may Heaven defend thee safe!
And to thy natal shore, & longing friends
Restore thee, when thy destin’d toils are oer,
Polisht with manners, and enricht with arts.