Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights

Sir Richard Francis Burton has often been described in his own lifetime as ‘the most interesting figure of the 19th century’. Bold to a fault, Burton travelled to Mecca and  Medina, he entered the forbidden African city of Harrar, explored the African Great Lakes, and shocked his readers with his candid travel accounts, replete with details about the sexual customs of the peoples he encountered.

Despite these adventures, Burton is probably best remembered for his translation of Alf Laylah Wa Laylah, commonly known as the Arabian Nights. These Arabic tales, cherished in Europe since the early 18th century, are often erotic in content, and in Burton’s unexpurgated translation they outraged Victorian England. Burton included numerous footnotes and a scholarly apparatus, offering a vivid picture of Arabian life, which set his translation apart from earlier English renderings. The work was first printed in 1885-1888 in a limited edition of 1,000 copies by the ‘Kama Shastra Society’, a bogus society founded by Burton and Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot to publish (semi-)erotic Arabic and Indian texts.

At the London International Book Fair (24-26 May) Forum Rare Books (the Netherlands) will exhibit a set of this first edition, which includes a 4-page autograph letter signed by Isabel Burton to “Mr Heath” concerning subscribers of the Arabian Nights who haven’t paid yet. Since it is “quite impossible for a lady to ask for money”, Ms Burton urges her correspondent “to write and ask those who have not paid, if they would mind sending by return of post a cheque for the whole ten guineas [the price for the first 10 volumes], or returning me the 1st Vol intact”.

Isabel Arundell, longing for a wild and roving life, married Burton in 1861. She acted as his agent, wrote a number of books on her own account, and was responsible for the financial success of the Arabian Nights. She was an unconventional and intelligent woman, editing many of her Burton’s works. Yet, as she writes in the present letter, she “was not allowed to read” her husband’s Arabian Nights.

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A Typographic Gem by Firmin Didot

Printer’s manuals form an important source of book historical information. The first such manual in any language was Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (London, 1683-84). Numerous handbooks were to follow over the centuries, and they are crucial for understanding of how texts were produced in the hand-press period. In the process of making a book, many decisions and many mistakes were made that left their marks on the text. In other words: form affects meaning. Most manuals start with a survey of the invention and history of printing, which, depending on the birthplace of the author, is either ascribed to Gutenberg or Coster. As a rule, printer’s manuals discuss the tools and equipment of everyone involved in the printing process: the type founder, the ink maker, the compositor, the pressmen, and sometimes even the warehouse keeper.

An interesting example is Marcelin Brun’s comprehensive Manuel pratique et abrégé de la typographie française (Paris, 1825). This handsome little book was printed by the famous Firmin Didot and provides the essential information on the art of printing. The book does not open with the usual history of printing, but heads straight into observations on how to house a printing office. In the seven chapters that follow, Brun discusses every detail relating to the printing process, from the form of type cases, the manufacture of ink, to the setting of type and the correcting of proofs. Of course, the book does not lack a chapter on imposition, i.e. the way the pages for each side of a sheet were arranged and subsequently printed and folded to make a gathering. Another interesting chapter describes in full detail how the printed sheets are to be folded. But perhaps the most interesting feature is the book itself as ”it possesses the singular feature of not containing one divided word throughout.”[i] 

[i] Bigmore & Wyman, A Bibliography of Printing, volume I, p. 88. See also: Barber, French Letterpress Printing (Oxford, 1969), p. 17.
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The Library: A World Encompassed

Why do we collect books? Much ink has been spilled over this question. A well-known attempt at solving the mystery is Muensterberger’s Collecting: An Unruly Passion, a curious study brimming with psychological gobbledygook. According to the author, collecting is nothing more than an attempt to overcome a traumatic experience or to compensate for a loss suffered in early childhood. The collector surrounds himself with “magic objects” allowing him to conquer traumas. Muensterberger discusses the history of the obsessive bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps as a case in point.[1] However, he seems to forget that books are more than mere (magical) objects: they also have a rational appeal, which is their intellectual content.

To some extent, the book collector can be compared with a poet. Reflecting on the nature of poetry in his acclaimed memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov remarked “that the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time. Lost in thought, he taps his knee with his wandlike pencil, and at the same instant a car (New York license plate) passes along the road, a child bangs the screen door of a neighboring porch, an old man yawns in a misty Turkestan orchard, a granule of cinder-gray sand is rolled by the wind on Venus, a Docteur Jacques Hirsch in Grenoble puts on his reading glasses, and trillions of other such trifles occur – all forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair, at Ithaca, N.Y. ) is the nucleus.”[2]

Surrounded by books from various ages, the collector is the nucleus of a myriad of events taking place at numerous points in time and space. From a distant he observes James Cook being clubbed to death on a paradise-like beach, with Spinoza he reflects on the laws of physics governing our lives, he follows Henry Ellis to Hudson Bay in search of the Northwest Passage (only to find some unnavigable rivers), he encounters a polar bear and gives it the scientific name of Ursus maritimus, during a feverish night in Malaysia he suddenly realizes that species evolve by a process of natural selection, through a self-made telescope he looks at Saturn – the book collector, in other words, lives many lives, triumphing over space and time. Sitting in a chair in a small house, the last sunbeams of a warm autumn shining through the windows, the collector is the nucleus of an instantaneous and transparent organism of events.

[1] Muensterberger, Collecting: An Unruly Passion (New Jersey, 1994), pp. 73-100.
[2] Nabokov, Speak, Memory (New York, 1966), p. 218.
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The Abuse of Words

l’abus des mots & l’ignorance de leur vraie signification est … un labyrinthe où les plus grands génies se sont quelques fois égalés.
Claude Adrien Helvétius 

One of the most remarkable, daring and entertaining books of the seventeenth century is Adriaan Koerbagh’s Een bloemhof van allerley lieflijkheyd sonder verdriet (A garden of all kinds of loveliness without sorrow), which was published in 1668. The Bloemhof is an explanatory dictionary containing thousands of loanwords, specifically written in Dutch to enlighten the common people, who as Koerbagh argued, were all too often deceived by clergymen, doctors and lawyers. The author challenged the elementary doctrines of Christendom, flatly denying the creatio ex nihilo, the trinity, the divine nature of Christ, the deluge (“geographically impossible”), stating that everything there is exists in nature and that there is nothing outside nature. Koerbagh liked to employ humor to underpin his arguments, mocking the writers (sic) of the bible who apparently believed that all creatures on earth could fit in a small boat of 21 metres. Instead, the bible is just a book like any other, and comparable to folk tales like the Reynard cycle, containing some interesting observations, though most of it is plain nonsense. The bible would soon have fallen into oblivion, if it had not been for the institutionalised churches, which defended it aggressively.

Of course, Koerbagh “struck at the very roots of established Christianity”, as Michiel Wielema rightly observes.[1] It is worth noting, however, that Koerbagh chose to present his views in a dictionary rather than in a philosophical treatise. It would seem that Koerbagh regarded words as the ultimate source of many of the fierce theological disputes and subsequent bloodshed. But words were also the very key to change society. Accordingly the Bloemhof did not only have the “outward shape of a dictionary[2]: it wás a dictionary.

The French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius expressed similar views in his essay De l’esprit, published some 90 years later in 1758. Unlike some other radical thinkers, Helvetius was a man of considerable wealth with friends in high places, protected, as he believed, by his connections with the court. After publishing De l’esprit, however, he found out that even a man of his social standing could not escape from the censores librorum. His materialistic treatise on the mind dismissed the idea of absolute truth, replacing Christian morality by a utilitarian ethics. Not surprisingly, the work caused a huge outcry: it was condemned by church and state alike.

Large chapters of De l’esprit are devoted to the importance of education as the key to moral behavior. One of the most interesting chapters, though, is devoted to “the abuse of words”. Many problems in philosophy, if not all, derive from a misunderstanding of words, Helvétius argues. For centuries metaphysics has merely been a science of words, not a science of things. Many geniuses have lost themselves in a labyrinth of words, while the failure to grasp their true meaning has led to countless theological feuds and needless waste of blood.

Helvetius compares language with an algebraic calculation: at one point certain errors creep in, after which the calculation is continued from step to step to arrive at a ridiculous outcome. To remedy this, the initial error must be found. Unfortunately, only few are capable of this task and even fewer willing to undertake this work. Moreover, “l’interêt des homes puissant s’oppose à cette verification”. In Helvétius’ view, then, comprehensible and clearly defined language are strong instruments to threaten the powers that be. Both Koerbagh and Helvétius readily employed these instruments to spread their radical views for a more secular society.

[1] Michiel Wielema, The March of the Libertines (Hilversum 2004), p. 84.
[2] Idem, p. 85.
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From De Bruyn to Pasteur: Early Illustrations of the Kangaroo

Kangaroo /kæŋgəˈru:/, noun. 1. A marsupial mammal of the family Macropodidæ, remarkable for the great development of the hind-quarters and the leaping-power resulting from this. The species are natives of Australia, Tasmania, Papua, and some neighbouring isles; the larger kinds being commonly known as kangaroos, and the smaller ones as wallabies. Oxford English Dictionary

Among the most gruesome stories of shipwreck is the fateful voyage of the Dutch merchantman Batavia, wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in 1629. The disaster would lead to mutiny and the massacre of almost half of the crew. This tragedy, however, also resulted in the first European sighting of an Australian marsupial. The Batavia was wrecked on a reef of the Houtman Abrolhos, and on these islands Francisco Pelsaert, commander of the ship, discovered numerous ‘cats’: “creatures of a miraculous form, as big as a hare; the head similar to [that] of a civet cat, the fore-paws are very short, about a finger long.”[1] He described in full detail how the young lived in a pouch, growing “with the nipple in mouth”. Other sightings were subsequently  recorded by Volckerszoon (1658), De Vlamingh (1697), and Dampier (1699), but it would take another decade before the first image of a wallaby was published. Surprisingly, this illustration appeared in a narrative of a voyage to Russia, written by Cornelis de Bruyn, first published in 1711 and translated into English in 1720 (see illustration). De Bruyn had observed a wallaby in Batavia, in the menagerie of the governor-general, and named it ‘Filander’. This species, however, has been identified as Thylogale brunii or dusky pademelon and is endemic to New Guinea.[2]

These accounts seem to have been completely unknown to James Cook and Joseph Banks. When they saw several Australian kangaroos near Endeavour River in 1770, they consequently believed to be the first Europeans to encounter Australian marsupials.[3] John Gore, second lieutenant of the Endeavour, managed to shoot a specimen; it proved excellent meat, as Joseph Banks noted in his diary. Some skins and skulls were brought back to England where Joseph Banks commissioned the painter George Stubbs to delineate the antipodean creature. Stubbs’s kangaroo was probably a Macropus parryi, a pretty face wallaby or whiptail wallaby, in 1835 named by Bennett after the arctic explorer William Edward Parry, who had brought his pet kangaroo from New South Wales back to England.[4] Stubbs’s painting was the basis for the engraving published in the official account of Cook’s voyage (see illustration, courtesy of Forum Rare Books) and would be copied numerous times in subsequent years.

The kangaroo soon reached an iconic status. Images can be found in many 18th- and early 19th-century natural history works, among them Oliver Goldsmith’s popular hackwork An History of the Earth and Animated Nature, Friedrich Justin Bertuch’s  massive series Bilderbuch für Kinder (published between 1798-1830), and Thomas Bewick’s A General History of  Quadrupeds. Although the Dutch were the first Europeans to sight a kangaroo, the first Dutch book containing a picture of the pouched animal appeared fairly late. It would seem that Jan David Pasteur’s handsome three-volume children’s book Beknopte natuurlijke geschiedenis der zoogende dieren (Concise Natural History of Mammals), published between 1793 and 1800, was the first Dutch book to contain an image of an Australian kangaroo. The illustration was evidently copied from the engraving in Hawkesworth’s account. (Pasteur, a versatile author, translator and politician, would later translate all three accounts of Cook’s voyages into Dutch, published in 13 sumptuously illustrated volumes between 1795 and 1803.) The author thus familiarized his young Dutch readers with the strange pouched animal that has since become the most popular symbol of Australia.

[1] Henrietta Drake-Brockman. Voyage to Disaster. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1982, pp. 235-236.
[2] Gilbert P. Whitley. Early History of Australian Zoology. Sydney: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, 1970, p. 6.
[3] Des Cowley & Brian Hubber. ‘Distinct Creation: Early European Images of Australian Animals’, in: The La Trobe Journal, no. 66 (Spring 2000), pp. 44-47.
[4] The name has been changed many times over the years; the species has also been known as Wallabia canguru and Wallabia parryi. See: Whitley, Early History, p. 43 (op. cit. note ii); Christopher Dickman & Rosemary Woodford Ganf (ill.). A Fragile Balance. The Extraordinary Story of Australian Marsupials. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 229; Ronald M. Younger. Kangaroo. Images Through the Ages. Hawthorn: Hutchinson Australia, 1988, p. 94.
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Boxing aboard the Resolution

Captain James Cook is hailed as one of the greatest explorers of all times. His discoveries and navigational achievements are numerous and enabled him to virtually redraw the map of the Pacific. During the voyages, however, conditions on board were harsh and the privacy limited. Under these circumstances conflicts between crew members were inevitable. Fortunately, there was one activity that brought some relieve: boxing. The travelogue of the Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman (1748-1820), who sailed with Cook on his second voyage, contains a lively account of some boxing matches taking place on the Resolution, with a detailed description of the several pugilistic techniques employed.

Sparrman had sailed for the Cape of Good Hope in January 1772. Here he was picked up by James Cook later that year as assistant to the naturalists Johann Reinhold and George Forster.  Cook’s aim was to sail as far south as possible in search of a southern continent, which existence was proposed by the geographer Alexander Darlrymple. On December 25, 1772, the Resolution had proceeded far south and was surrounded by labyrinths of life threatening icebergs. Inside the ship, Christmas was celebrated with punch, porter, wine, and “fighting in the English fashion, which is called boxing.”

Boxing is “a duel with [bare!] fists, in which the blows are principally aimed at the opponent’s eyes, chest, and stomach.” Sparrman furthermore discerns two kinds of boxing: stante pede (i.e. standing upright) and sitting on a chest. Although boxing stante pede is the most common form, on this particular Christmas day it “took place sitting astride a chest”, probably because the opponents were too drunk to stand. After a few moments of fighting the boxers are covered in blood and bruises, often including a ‘regio oculorum’, or black-eye. The boxing matches of course provided a welcome and entertaining break from the harsh discipline and terrible boredom which often ruled life on the Resolution, but it also served as a means of settling disputes. Sparrman seems to be the only one commenting on this activity. George Forster, by contrast, doesn’t mention the matches, and James Cook’s journal  doesn’t contain any references to pugilism either. Sparrman’s travelogue, therefore, forms an important and original account of daily life on board the Resolution.

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A boxing kangaroo

The acclaimed British animal painter George Stubs was the first to paint the portrait of the kangaroo. The animal had been sighted in New South Wales by James Cook and his crew during their circumnavigation in the Endeavour. Upon their return to England in 1771, Joseph Banks commissioned Stubbs to picture the strange creature. The expedition
didn’t bring back any live specimens, and Stubbs, therefore, had to rely on some skins and skulls that Banks had collected on Australia’s east coast. Living kangaroos arrived in Britain only some 20 years later. The first specimen was probably the one kept at the Edinburgh Museum of Natural Curiosities.

An interesting work which provides us with detailed information about some kangaroo’s living in Britain is The Naturalist’s Cabinet: Containing Interesting Sketches of Animal History (1806-1807), a six-volume work on natural history by Thomas Smith, meant for the general public and illustrated with 57 delicate plates. The first volume contains a description of the kangaroo. Smith describes the physical characteristics and the habitat of the animal and remarks that “these animals may now be considered as in some degree naturalized in England.” He goes on to describe two specimens kept at the menagerie in Exeter Change (London), originating from Port Jackson. One of these animals turns out to have remarkable pugilistic skills. What follows is probably the first description of a boxing kangaroo.  

 “On visiting the menagerie some months since, I saw this noble quadruped wrestle with the keeper for the space of ten or fifteen minutes, during which time he evinced the utmost intrepidity and sagacity; turning in every direction to face his opponent, carefully watching an opportunity to close with him, and occasionally grasping him with his fore paws, while the right hind leg was employed in kicking him upon the thigh and hip, with equal force and rapidity.”

The description is illustrated with an intriguing depiction of the keeper boxing with the kangaroo. This may very well be the first picture of what has since become a national symbol of Australia: the boxing kangaroo.

[i] Penny Olson. Upside Down World. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2010, p. 93. The standard work on the iconography of the kangaroo is: Ronald M. Younger. Kangaroo. Images Through the Ages. Hawthorn: Hutchinson Australia, 1988. See also: Wilfrid Blunt. The Ark in the Park. The Zoo in the Nineteenth Century. London: Book Club Associates, 1976, pp. 64-70.


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