Monday, November 13, 2017

At sea with Von Löwenstern

‘The Thames has been formally blockaded. All merchant ships are being stopped. Sailors have taken over two transports to America with riggings and ship’s provisions. The ships’ officers have been arrested and are being held hostage.’ This is a taster from the diaries of Hermann Ludwig von Löwenstern, an Estonian sailor who took part in Russia’s first naval expedition round the world, and who was born 240 years ago today. The diaries have been published in German and English thanks to Victoria Joan Moessner, professor of German at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Von Löwenstern was born in Estonia on 13 November 1777, the fourth of ten children. He entered the Russian naval service at 15, first as a volunteer, then as a midshipman. He was in England, during a sailor’s revolt, in 1797, and from there, in 1799, he sailed with the Russian navy to Gibraltar, Sicily, Greece, Turkey, and the Crimea. In 1801, he traveled overland to St. Petersburg and Reval, where he received permission to leave Russian service and enter the French. In 1802, with his father’s financial help, he moved to Paris, where he decided against joining Napoleon’s troops, but, nevertheless enjoyed the city’s sights as well as a love affair with his innkeeper.

In early 1803, von Löwenstern returned to Estonia by way of the universities in Leipzig and Jena before journeying on to Berlin, where he learned of Russia’s proposed voyage around the world. He returned to St. Petersburg, where he was readmitted to the Russian Navy, and appointed fourth officer on the lead ship, Nadezhda. The expedition sailed via Tenerife, Brazil, Japan, China and Scotland before returning to Russia in 1806. He retired from the navy in 1815, married Wilhelmina von Essen, and took over running several estates in Estonia. He died in 1836. There is no further biographical information readily available online, although there is a Wikipedia article in German about his father (who had the same name).

Von Löwenstern kept a personal diary from the age of 20 until his late 30s (when he retired from seafaring), but he never intended it for publication. Indeed, the diary remained unpublished in English until, that is, Moessner edited and translated parts for her book: First Russian Voyage around the World: The Journal of Hermann Ludwig von Löwenstern 1803-1806 (University of Alaska Press, 2003). The publisher’s blurb states: ‘Because Löwenstern never published his diary, it was not submitted to the official censorship process that scrutinized and altered all publications in Tsarist Russia. Thus it contains frank descriptions of historical events, arguments, sightings, and opinions that were left out or removed from other accounts that were subject to editorial scrutiny. His diary makes a particularly critical contribution to our knowledge about the history and politics of nineteenth-century Russia and the lands visited by the expedition.’

A review of the three-volume edition of the diaries in the original German (also edited by Moessner) can be read at the Edwin Mellen Press website. It states: ‘The reader is given a day-by-day account of a Baltic German Russian naval officer’s life during the age of global scientific exploration in the course of the age of Napoleon, as he matures from midshipman to captain of a Turkish ship taken as a prize in the Black Sea.’

More recently, however, Moessner has translated into English, edited and published the rest of von Löwenstern’s diaries as The Diaries of Hermann Ludwig von Löwenstern: 1793-1803 and 1806-1815 (Page Publishing, 2014, - a US vanity press). A press release for the book can be read at PRWeb, and some pages of the book itself can be viewed at Googlebooks. Here are several extracts.

24 May 1797
‘The Thames has been formally blockaded. All merchant ships are being stopped. Sailors have taken over two transports to America with riggings and ship’s provisions. The ships’ officers have been arrested and are being held hostage, as Parker with the delegates has declared, for the lives of the imprisoned delegates on land. They undressed a Chirurius [surgeon], smeared him with tar, sprinkled with feathers, and towed him on land behind a jolly boat. They have insulted many officers in the most sensitive manner and dunked a couple midshipmen in the water from the end of a yardarm. The delegates have a president whom they choose every day anew. Unfortunately, the entire English fleet is in rebellion.’

5 June 1797
‘We sailed with a fresh wind toward Texel to show the Dutch that, even though the sailors in England were revolting, the sea was nevertheless not empty of English ships.’

19 June 1797
‘If you compare here to England, everything in Copenhagen seems bad and tasteless and especially desolate and empty. From Bodisco I learned that brave Reimers has died.’

7 July 1798
‘In Texel we counted over seventeen ships of war. While turning in the evolutions, one English ship after another sailed past us, a nice view. The disputes about the remarks that each one of us made help pass the time.’

9 August 1798
‘I went on land with Demidoff in his small four-oared boat. We were in danger of losing our lives several times with that small thing. The mast was too tall and the sail too large. We sailed into the river. After buying myself a hat, and we had bought ourselves several items, the wind became brisk. That is why we hurried to get out of the current. Ungern was along. The heavy breakers at the mouth thwarted our plan. We were pigheaded enough, even though the English on the shore called to us that we would surely capsize, to attempt to go through the breakers; until soaked to the skin with the boat full of water, we were hurtled back. That cold bath had brought us to our senses.

[Note on the edge of the page] Demidoff drowned in the same boat in the Neva.

The current was against us. We therefore had to leave the boat at the mouth and go on foot back to Yarmouth. We hurried to use the theater tickets we had received for a comedy. That cold bath and our quick pace had stirred up my blood. The heat in the theater made me dizzy and I fainted. My comrades, with the help of several Englishmen, carried me out of the theater to an inn where we spent the night.’

7 September 1799
‘After a very quiet trip, we dropped anchor at five o’clock in the evening on the roadstead in Naples. The Turks, without landing any place, sailed straight to Constantinople. The view of the city is very beautiful; the city rises like an amphitheater up to St. Elmo. Vesuvius contributes greatly to Naples’s beauty. We found two Russian frigates and an English warship ahead of us.’

26 February 1800
‘My present way of life is as follows: Mornings I get up depending on my watch, early or late, drink my coffee; and smoking tobacco, I chat [with others] and go up and down during the morning, because you cannot get anything to read here at all. Immediately after table at two o’clock I go on land to my music master, stay there an hour, and afterwards visit Budberg, Fanaberia, or Salaguboff. If I find a boat, I usually go on board at five o’clock. In the evening I study my seamanship. After the evening meal I drink a glass of grog and go to bed in good time. Thus, one day follows the next. Only seldom do I visit Count Mammona (or Mammont, as the others call him) because I cannot speak the language. Sometimes I also go, if I have to wait for a boat, to the casino (actually an inn) and watch the hazard game. Sometimes I amuse myself by excursions in the six-rudder longboat, etc.’

5 March 1800
‘The feeling is oppressive to be admonished to pay when one has no money. My music master asked me today for two dahlias, which I owe him for past hours. I had to turn him down, and request his patience. I do not have a heller in cash, and I do not know where I should get the money in order to pay my old teacher.’

The Diary Junction

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