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«The Fictitious World Traveller:   The Swede on Timor and the Noble Savage Imagery  By Hans Hägerdal Abstract Travel writing soared in ...»

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The Fictitious World Traveller:  

The Swede on Timor and the Noble Savage Imagery 

By Hans Hägerdal


Travel writing soared in the Western world in the early-modern era with the widening geographical knowledge. This was accompanied by a genre of travel fiction.

The present study analyses a short Swedish novella from 1815, Swensken på

Timor (The Swede on Timor), “translated” by Christina Cronhjelm from a purported English account. It is a romantic tale of a Swedish sailor who is shipwrecked and is adopted by an indigenous group on the Southeast Asian island Timor, marrying a local woman and converting to Islam. The novella is remarkable for the positive portrayal of indigenous society and to some extent Islam. The article discusses the literary tropes influencing the account, and the partly accurate ethnographic and historical details.

Keywords: Travel fiction, Timor, noble savage, Islam, Christina Cronhjelm Hägerdal, Hans: “The Fictitious World Traveller” Culture Unbound, Volume 6, 2014: 1367–1381. Published by Linköping University Electronic Press: http://www.cultureunbound.ep.liu.se   Travel between Truth and Fiction Travel writings experienced a great upsurge in early-modern Europe, for obvious reasons. With the maritime expansion to the Americas, Africa and Asia, and the rapid dissemination of printing technique, an increasing supply of travel accounts found its way to an increasingly literate public. If you survived your tenure as sailor, soldier or scribe at a colonial outpost and made it back to Europe, a welltold account of your adventures could earn you fame and money. A look at the multi-volume work of Donald Lach, Asia in the making of Europe (1965-93) gives an idea about the rich and varied outpour in the centuries after 1500. Sea captains, Jesuit priests, employees of trading companies, soldiers of fortune – all had their story to tell of distant, exotic places which they had often just barely left alive.

On the following pages I will scrutinize the alleged life-story of a castaway Swedish sailor in Asia, published in 1815. The example is interesting since Sweden was not known as a travelling nation, and it therefore becomes essential to investigate how it relates to the European discourse of the tropical or Asian Other in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The complexity of the text in terms of metaphors and balance between authenticity and fiction will be highlighted.

In this context one should note the problems of using travel writings as testimonies of foreign cultures. In recent decades this has been increasingly pointed out by historians and literary scholars: the European traveller (and, for that matter, any traveller) tends to reproduce ideas of cultural otherness of the places that he or she visits. Usually unable to fully grasp the local culture, the external observer will construct an image of the Other that becomes an implicit mirror of the culture of the metropolitan homeland. This, of course, can be done in positive as well as negative ways although the latter have tended to dominate through five centuries of European travel writing. In the postcolonial tradition of Said et al. this refers to a discourse where Western representatives strive to master and in effect dominate non-Western areas (Said 1978; Nyman 2013). But it can also be seen as a ubiquitous human impulse to relate impressions of foreign milieus to one’s own place in this world.

To the problem of bias must be added general issues of reliability. Wherever we can compare the travel accounts with external data (local chronicles, archival data, concurring travel reports, etc.) they display an enormous range of truthfulness and care. And it is not certain that the more modern accounts are the more reliable. The enormously popular work Revolt in paradise by Muriel Pearson alias K’tut Tantri (1960) depicts the American author’s life in colonial and revolutionary Indonesia in the 1930s and 1940s in terms that are largely gainsaid by other information (Lindsey 1997). Some older works such as Fernão Mendes Pinto’s Peregrinação (1614), which describes the vicissitudes of a Portuguese adventurer in maritime Asia, defy any distinction between fact and fiction (Catz 1989). The [1368] Culture Unbound, Volume 6, 2014   temptation to add hearsay accounts and mere invention to a putative autobiographic travel story can presumably be strong when the details cannot be controlled by the audience.

But there is also a genre of travel fiction, that can be either realistic (Robinson Crusoe) or fantastic (Gulliver’s travels). This genre was popular in West Europe from the early seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, frequently depicting adventurous journeys to real but little-known lands at the edges of geographical knowledge. The heyday of travel fiction coincided with the rapid expansion of European knowledge of foreign continents in the second half of the eighteenth century (Arthur 2011: xx). This might have bearing on the example that will be studied in the present essay.

The Swede on Timor Swedish expansion in the early-modern period was seldom directed to other continents, in spite of short-lived enterprises in Delaware and West Africa. Consequently, Swedish travel accounts of non-Western areas are rare up to the eighteenth century. With the activities of the Swedish East India Company (1731and the peregrinations of the disciples of Linnaeus (1707-1778) a spate of published travel accounts surfaced, notably Carl Thunberg’s account of his visit to Japan (1775-1776).1 At least some of these writings display a positive curiosity about the lands and peoples they visited. It should be recalled that this was at the height of the Enlightenment, with universalistic ideas about the fate of mankind and sentimental interest for the noble savage (often, though less correctly, associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings).

In 1815, two years after the dissolving of the East India Company and a year after Norway’s forced union with Sweden, a short text of 15 pages appeared at Marquardska Tryckeriet, a well-known publishing house in Stockholm. The title was laconic but suggestive: Swensken på Timor (The Swede on Timor).2 Timor was known to the avid reader of travel literature at the time as the destination of Captain William Bligh after his remarkable sea travel in 1789, following the much-publicized mutiny of the Bounty (Bligh 1969). Otherwise, apart from passages in a few published travelogues, the sizeable island was something of a terra incognita. Although the Portuguese and Dutch were positioned there since the seventeenth century, Timor was an inaccessible and supposedly primitive place that lay at the margins of the European spheres of interest.3 No author is given on the title page, which only states that the story is an “account [translated] from English”. From other sources, however, we do know the name of the person who committed the tropical adventures of the Swede to paper.

Her name was Christina Cronhjelm (1784-1852), the daughter of an officer and soon to become the wife of Major Johan Gustav Berger. The short story under scrutiny lies at the very beginning of a long writing career. She wrote a series of Culture Unbound, Volume 6, 2014 [1369]   short romantic novels, translated literary texts from French and English, and contributed to various journals and newspapers. Her literary exploits were not praised by posterity, which found her style stymied by romanticist overtones and conventions. Nevertheless, some of her work enjoyed much popularity and she wrote lyrics to which her husband composed music (Ekelund 1886: 65-71).

The preface of The Swede on Timor adds to the expectations of an exotic adventure. Cronhjelm relates that she made the acquaintance of an English sea captain in Gothenburg whose father, a Captain Richardson, bequeathed a diary relating a sea travel to the Indian Ocean in 1783. The diary was remarkable for one particular incident which caught the interest of Cronhjelm, who gained permission to borrow the manuscript and copy excerpts from it. “Certainly”, she writes, “it is sometimes somewhat similar to romance. However, one may not assume that a man who has neither written to win honours or money, but only annotated what he has heard since it has interested him, has wished to deceive. If one gains the endorsement of the reader, then one is rewarded for the small effort that has been spent” (Cronhjelm 1815b: 2).

From Norrland to the East Indies The short text is framed by the passage to the East Indies by Captain Richardson with the ship Triton in 1783. Visiting Timor for trade, the sea captain is amazed by encountering a European who speaks good English and provides substantial assistance to the Britons through his knowledge of the local language and customs. He stays with his “Malay” wife and four handsome children in a house situated a mile from the coast which is surrounded by pretty gardens and built according to mathematical principles. Being no common beachcomber, he evokes the curiosity of the crew. After the conclusion of the more important commitments, the stranger invites the Britons to his home for a meal and there relates the story of his life.

As it turns out his name is Carl Enander, a vicar’s son from the vicinity of Gävle in northern Sweden (Norrland).4 When he grows up he is captivated by the exotic travel accounts found in his parental home. When 14 years of age he is sent to Gävle for education, but the pedantic style of tuition does not appeal to Enander who dreams of a life at sea. In spite of the refusal of his father to allow this, he takes hire on a Danish ship bound for Dublin at the age of 15. As the ship lifts anchor and departs, Enander is overcome by regret and vainly asks the captain to put him ashore again. He nevertheless has to endure a troubled sea trip to Ireland where the captain dismisses him. The young Swede has a rudimentary knowledge of English and takes up work at a factory for iron manufacture. He is doing well and might have settled down on Ireland for good if not for an incident that changes his plans at the age of 19. A love affair with the daughter of a rich tenant farmer ends abruptly when her furious father surprises them with threatening gesCulture Unbound, Volume 6, 2014   tures. Enander hastily abandons work and sweetheart and goes to Dublin where he is hired by a ship leaving for Java – from the internal chronology of the story this would have been about 1770 (Cronhjelm 1815b: 3-6).

Carl Enander’s passage to Asian waters marks a change of the narrative to that of wild adventure. The merchantman makes it to Batavia, the hub of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) where the unspecified cargo is sold. Instead the captain purchases merchandise which can be sold to the inhabitants east of Java. The general idea is to return to Java after two months and then bring a suitable cargo back to Europe. However, the ship does not make it that far; due to a violent gale the crew loses control over the ship which is driven against the Island of Banka by the winds.

Our old captain regarded our salvation as impossible and admonished us to meet death with constancy. I asked him not to abandon all hope – I believed I could save him if the ship would be calamitously destroyed. I asked him to put the most necessary objects in the bladder of an ox: some money, a chart, a compass and some gunpowder; and to largely undress since it was not cold. However, we were sometimes rocked towards the abyss, sometimes lifted towards the sky. We tried to cast anchor a few hundred fathoms from shore, but the anchor ropes were torn apart by the raging storm. A moment later the ship collided with a rock. Water poured in from all sides, the ship creaked horribly. I ran to the captain. He stood in just his shirt with the required objects in hand. I had a cutlass and a pistol bound at my hip. I bound the ox bladder around my neck. Crying ‘God be with us’ I threw myself into the sea.

The captain followed me. He could swim but his powers were soon exhausted. He was about to sink. I asked him to grab my long hair. I used all my powers, which were not small, to reach the shore. I finally reached it but was so exhausted that I fell down unconscious (Cronhjelm 1815b: 7-8).

Enander, the captain and four others survive the shipwreck. Having doubts about the inhabitants of the island the Britons steal a canoe and resolve to reach Batavia.

However, the winds inevitably push them in south-easterly direction, and they then decide to search for the Dutch colony on Timor instead. On their way the six vagrants land at a minor island where they rob a local family of some Indian cotton cloths and jars, admittedly after handing them 4 guineas. After three weeks of sailing and rowing they eventually reach Timor. It turns out that the Dutch stay at another section of the coast, but the inhabitants turn out to be good-hearted and helpful. “They were Malays6 who had occupied the coasts of this island and pushed the old natives to the interior… The religion of these Malays is the Mohammedan one, but it is mostly limited to the simple teachings of natural religions. They live in prosperity, partly as a consequence of the splendid land, and partly due to the trade that they carry on with Asians as well as Europeans. They also have European weapons such as shotguns and cutlasses, but they handle the first-mentioned rather ineptly; and they have no sense of fighting in order, without which wild courage cannot commit anything” (Cronhjelm 1815b: 9).

Culture Unbound, Volume 6, 2014 [1371]   A Castaway on the Islands The captain dies a couple of days after reaching Timor. The others, being housed in the household of an amicable and well-regarded man, are soon invited to participate in a war against the tribes of the interior which have raided their Malay neighbours. Much is expected from their European fighting tactics. The five Europeans gladly accept to fight under the banner of the Prophet and depart along with the able-bodied levies. On the fourth day they make contact with the enemy which roam around the hills and plains in scattered detachments, and a memorable

encounter ensues:

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