notes, finds & fragments of research
There are moments in the life of a historical researcher and writer that cause a feeling of bliss; often related to either a lucky find or a great new subject to write about. At times, when you’re really lucky, and the heavenly history-patrons are smiling upon you: the two are combined. These are rare moments. However, I have been so fortunate a few times to find beautiful documents and odd facts; I have even had some great subjects to research and write about. But there was never that overwhelming feeling of holding an undoubted treasure – up until a few years ago.
After finishing a project, where I assisted a writer in the research on her family history (which resulted in busting a myth), I was introduced to two very kind people. They had read the results and were interested in my share of the project, as it also concerned their own family. I was invited to tea, and, almost directly, I was shown pieces of the family heritage. This family of well-to-do doctors, merchants, and magistrates, had always kept their precious possessions and passed them down the generations in a remarkable good state. It had mounted to a small, but wondrous collection; related to both their professional and personal interests.
There were some unknown painted portraits and early photographs, followed by diaries, letters, and books. And to my astonishment, in a small metal box there were some folders and wrappers containing bits of wood, pieces of fabric, seeds, dried plants etc. By itself nothing spectacular, where it not that one of the wrappers claimed the contents to be a specimen brought to England by none other than the famous Captain James Cook, from his travels to the islands in the Pacific Ocean. Most wrappers would have been put aside by me as it would be very questionable, but both paper and writing dated from the eighteenth-century; making it very eligible to be indeed a true sample that had travelled to Europe on Cook’s ship the Endeavour. As thrilled as I was over the discovery, and despite it being massively interesting: I have no background in it, and so I have informed a specialist with whom I will probably write about it someday.
The biggest surprise of that day came to me nearing the end of the afternoon, something which really made my jaw drop. I had researched parts of the family in the past and once read about the existence of ‘a journal’, but no one seemed to had ever gotten hold of it, nor published further about it. And there it was, in my hands, waiting to be opened and read. And so I did. From the very first sentences I knew this was written by someone with a good pen and a steady hand. I was thrown back a 150 years in time, into the life of a young man about to plunge himself into an adventure which struck him with high strung adrenaline as well as deep mortal fear. Two days later I started with the transcription, page by page.
Years have passed since I was given the trust of safekeeping the original manuscript, under the given promise to make a transcription, and, if possible, to prepare it for publication. It has taken a lot of time due to daily life, work, moving and travelling, but in 2012-2013 I was able to finally bring it out into the open, where it belongs. I translated the journal to English and set it up as a daily blog, following the dates in the journal. Many people from all around the world, interested in this kind of personal history, read about the young doctor’s experiences on his journey.
When plans arose to put it on-line again in a complete publication, with new research-results as well as an improved translation, the excitement of readers along the journey came to remembrance again. So, on a new page, with a few changes, we’ll do it again.
The young doctor’s adventure starts in the spring of 1840 in the provincial capital of Zeeland (the Netherlands): The city of Middelburg; once a prosperous mercantile city and an important seat of the mighty Dutch East-India Company (VOC), in 1840 it is a drowsy provincial city, clinging to its glorious but rapidly fading past. The doctor, now 21 years old, has been living there for a few years as a medical student. He was born and raised in the relatively comfortable life of the upper-middle-class, but proves to be adventurous enough to grab an exciting opportunity with both hands; a decision which will bring him to the Dutch East Indies, with its mystique, indigenous people, and exotic nature. But before that, he’ll have to endure a risky journey, followed by a damp climate with a blood boiling heat, and all possible kind of wild and dangerous temptations to young men from good families.
As the writer states himself: Do not expect to read about major events from history. For this is a daily journal about ordinary things albeit in an extraordinary setting. It carries some spectacular moments and brilliant observations, but first and foremost: it is a personal diary; which started with the intention of some ‘brief notes’ but mounted to a lengthy ego-document.
On June 23rd begins the story of the young ships-doctor Hubert Willem Ferleman (1818-1891), discovering the world of colonial trade and life, and experiencing living on board of a sailing frigate, sailing from Middelburg to Batavia – and back, in eleven months.
And again, I hope that many will follow and enjoy his adventures.
Blog – Doctor Ferleman’s Travels – for the journal, a biography of the author as well as more background information about the manuscript, the ship, and the many people mentioned.
Twitter – @DoctorFerleman – for daily messages about that day’s journal entry.