Friday, March 23, 2012

All at Sea

Thank you all very much again for your warm welcome – I’m thrilled to be here and look forward to posting each month!

I thought I would start by talking a little bit about long sea journeys during the 18th century as I am currently doing some research on this for my next book.  I’ve been reading a journal kept by a Swedish man, Christopher Hinric Braad, when he sailed to Canton in China between 1750-1752 on board the ship Götha Leijon.  He made detailed notes about everything he saw during the trip and included drawings of some of the ports and various other things like plants and fish.  His account is fascinating, if at times somewhat long-winded, and I’m thoroughly enjoying his erratic spelling as well!

The Götha Leijon was one of the ships belonging to the Swedish East India Company (SOIC) and when I was writing my first novel, Trade Winds, I did a lot of research about the company’s very first journey to Canton in 1732.  That venture was so successful, the SOIC continued to send out ships every year.  By the early 1750’s they had quite a few going back and forth, although they were 'small fry' in comparison to their English and Dutch counterparts for example.  The Swedes had not had much experience of Far East trade, so in the beginning they employed Scotsmen and Englishmen to help them learn.  These foreigners seem to have flourished and stayed on in Gothenburg, because twenty years later, when Braad sailed on the Götha Leijon, two out of the five supercargos (the men in charge of the trading) were still Scottish (John Irvine) or English (John Chambers).

Braad seems to have gone on the journey purely as a scientific spectator and writer, rather than a trader.  He went out of his way to seek out the most obscure facts about each of the places they visited along the route, recording it all carefully.  He gives boring measurements, longitudes and latitudes for everything, but the most interesting parts of his accounts (for me anyway) are those where he describes the people and places he encounters.  For example, on an island called Johanna near Madagascar, he writes about one of the island chieftains who the Europeans gave the title of ‘Prince’ even though this was plainly not very apt!  He says the man “bore this title ... despite the fact that his only claim to princely demeanour was the fact that he wore shoes, albeit without socks, when the rest of the people there went barefoot, and in his hand he carried a walking stick decorated with a silver button.  Upon our arrival, he graced our ship with his presence dressed in clothing that lay close to his body, a so called ‘kabay’ of chequered cotton material with a green open coat on top, a belt over his left shoulder and a small crocheted or knitted hat (‘calott’) on his head.”  I find this description charming and can imagine how very strange this ‘prince’ must have seemed to an 18th century European!  You can almost hear the amazement in Braad’s writing voice.

What strikes me the most, however, is how brave Braad (and the others) were to go on such a journey at all!

Personally, the mere thought of going on a sailing ship makes me turn green.  Although I’m happy to look around a ship while it is in port (as I did with the SOIC replica ship Götheborg when it visited London a couple of years ago), wild horses wouldn’t get me to actually sail on one!  (I have the dubious distinction of probably being the only person ever to be seasick during the ferry journey between Sweden and Denmark which takes less than 20 minutes).  I would not wish this kind of suffering on anyone, however, so the characters in my books always gain their ‘sea legs’ very quickly.  It would have made for rather miserable stories otherwise!

Going back to the 18th century though - what if you decided to go on a seven to nine month journey on a sailing ship and found that you suffered from mal de mer the entire time?  Could that happen?  When I went on board the Götheborg, I talked to a crew member who had sailed on her for months and asked this very question.  The girl told me that they had only had one such person out of the hundreds who had sailed with them and this unfortunate man had been returned to land after a week.  Everyone else had adapted.  So perhaps there is hope even for me?

For our forebears there were worse things to contend with – cramped conditions, extreme weather (from freezing cold to unbearable heat and back again), monotonous and often rotten food, scurvy, illness and even the drinking water having to be sieved for maggots!  So the men who ventured abroad in this way must have been extremely tough indeed and it’s a miracle that any of them survived.  Braad did, he even made the journey several times, returning safely to report back to his superiors about everything he’d seen.  This is lucky for me, because journals like his are invaluable for research purposes and I’m indebted to him and others like him.

I think our ancestors were amazingly resilient, resourceful and courageous and I admire them immensely!  Researching their exploits and reading their own words are a part of what makes writing historical novels such fun, at least for me.  Would you agree?


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Braad's journal sounds a real find. Were you reading it in Swedish?
In 2002, the British Library put on a fantastic exhibition called 'Trading Places: the East India Company and Asia 1600-1834'. It's beautifully illustrated catalogue gave one the nitty-gritty of how the system worked, as well as lots of useful everyday information. So I can well understand how useful you found Braad's journal.
A fascinating post, Christina.

Gill Stewart said...

Fascinating. I love this kind of detail.

Christina Courtenay said...

Thank you both! Yes, I'm reading the journal in Swedish (very old-fashioned language which is fascinating in its own right!) and in Braad's own handwriting which can be tricky to decipher. I'm really enjoying it though.

That exhibition sounds fascinating - I'm also currently reading a book about the English East India company. It's amazing how tenacious their employees were, managing to trade despite hostile natives, diseases and lots of other risks and difficulties. Of course the rewards if they got it right were enormous, so I suppose it was worth it, but still, they were so courageous!

Jane Odiwe said...

A fascinating post, Christina-isn't it wonderful when the research is such a pleasure?

Christina Courtenay said...

Yes, absolutely, Jane! You just never know what you're going to find out next, which is great :)

Jan Jones said...

There's absulutely nothing to beat actual, written-at-the-time accounts, is there? I should think the writers of ordinary diaries, for example, would be amazed at the way we pore over what was to them, very commonplace details.