Not So Barren or Uncultivated: British Travellers in Finland 1760-1830

Not So Barren or Uncultivated: British Travellers in Finland 1760-1830

by Tony Lurcock

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ISBN-13: 9781909585089
Publisher: CB Editions
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 3 MB

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Joseph Marshall

So little is known about Joseph Marshall that his very existence has been called into doubt. Although there is no biographical information about him, his personality and interests come over very strongly in his writing. The range of these interests is indicated in the full title of his book, published in 1772: Travels through Holland, Flanders, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Lapland, Russia, The Ukraine and Poland in the Years 1768, 1769, and 1770. In which is particularly Minuted The Present State of Those Countries respecting their Agriculture, Population, Manufactures, Commerce, the Arts, and Useful Undertakings.

In his Preface Marshall writes confessionally about his disappointment with the Grand Tour which he had undertaken some eleven years earlier, and which had seen him 'running very eagerly after every thing produced by the fine arts, and thinking that painting, statuary, music, and the like, were the only objects worthy of notice'. His considered verdict was that he had learned nothing, and that his life had not been improved. So when a melancholy mood produced by 'a family loss' led him to 'seek for that amusement in travelling, which my own country I found would not afford', he had no wish to revisit France or Italy:

I determined to spend some years in journeying through the Northern Parts, which would probably present me with a new world; the accounts I had read of most of them, being either very imperfect, or so old, that every thing might be altered since the authors wrote, so that I ran no risque of knowing too much before I set out.

Marshall reminds me frequently of his contemporary, the agriculturalist Arthur Young, as well as of William Cobbett on his Rural Rides through nineteenth-century England. At every point he is sizing up the economic realities, comparing what he sees to his own practice as a farmer, looking at the system of land-management, and lamenting the lost opportunities which he sees around him. He did not, for instance, favour Finnish peasants owning their own land, since this led to them growing only enough for their own use. If they had to pay rent to an enterprising landlord, the economic potential of the land would, Marshall felt, be realised.

Marshall's route through Finland was an unusual one, and was not followed by any of the other travellers of this era. He entered the country from Sweden at Tornio, on his Dalecarlian horse, whose hardiness and reliability he praised unstintingly. He left on 31 July 1768, and followed the coast to 'Coyrannum' (presumably Kuivaniemi), 'a little town on the coast'. He found the natives not 'so intelligent or comprehensive' as further south:

but they are a very simple and harmless people, and appear to be very humane. I found most of them exceedingly respectful and civil. Their ordinary salutation is not bowing, like the Swedes in other parts: these countrymen take hold of your right-hand, and lay it over their left, making strange faces at the same time.

His route south is not easy to trace; after two days and eighty miles he arrived at 'Salo' (presumably Saloinen, just south of Raahe) 'the next town, of the least consequence'. Since he does not mention Oulu or Raahe, he must have gone inland: 'the country through which I travelled not mountainous, being in general a plain, rising into small hills'.

A few days later, after 'twice taking up my lodging with very hospitable farmers', one of whose 'crops were all very fine and clean', he arrived at Uusikaarlepyy, 'a place of no great consideration'. He concedes that 'it is not ... badly built, and the streets are regular. The church is small but very neat'. He travelled on to Vaasa, which he calls 'Wassay'. There the landlord of his inn told him that

in the next room were a set of gentlemen of the town, assembled at a club, who, understanding that there was a stranger in the house, sent their compliments to him, inviting him to spend the evening with them.

The principal member of the 'club' was a corpulent former merchant captain, who spoke French and was able to act as interpreter. Known as the Captain, he was widely travelled, and was regarded as an 'oracle' by those present. They appeared to be 'people of substance', 'all decently and neatly dressed', but what most struck Marshall was their heavy smoking and drinking:

The worst of their company was their pipes; they all smoaked tobacco incessantly; and as the room was but a small one, I thought that I should have been suffocated at first. They made many inquiries after England, and our manners and customs in many particulars; in which I satisfied them, much to their apparent entertainment. I, in my turn, questioned them about the manufactures and commerce of their town and neighbourhood, and they gave me an account of every thing they could, and I believe a very just one.

He was invited to join them for supper, which 'relieved me for a time from the effluvia of their pipes'. He discovered that he 'gained much in all their good graces, by thinking their country worth viewing thro' curiosity', but found that did he not long remain the the main object of their interest when several of the party 'seemed to pay their addresses to a bottle of brandy'.

After supper they all took to their pipes again, to my no small mortification; and pushing about the bottle again pretty briskly, they were not long altogether so clear-headed as I could have wished for, in order to have gained some more intelligence.

The following day he was invited to a dinner with the Captain:

I accepted his invitation, and went accordingly, and found a company of six or seven, among whom was a clergyman, an elderly man, of an agreeable aspect; as he did not understand French, I was some time with but little conversation with him; but he asking me if I spoke Latin, I was taken by surprize, and after a little confusion, recollected myself enough to carry on a tolerable conversation with him afterwards, and found him a sensible, modest man.

One of this group, Mr Hirzel, had a small estate 'on the north point of the Holla lake', 120 miles inland, and invited Marshall to visit it with him; the description makes it clear that this was Lake Päijänne. He was persuaded to head for his destination, St Petersburg, via Vyborg, which was recommended to him as 'a very short cut' compared with his intended route via Turku. He gives a vivid account of his journey to this estate, revealing again and again his curiosity and concern for the practical and economic aspects of the land. He was also deeply impressed by the beauty of the landscape:

The country here is very fine. The lake is a noble one, of a varying breadth, from three to more than twenty miles over; and the length is above an hundred; there are numerous islands in it, some of them two or three miles broad, and many others less. At the northern point of it, is one of these islands, about two miles from the main land, which is a part of Mr. Hirzel's possession. We came down to a few cottages on the shore, which he has built, and where a sloop lies always in readiness to carry him over; into this we got, leaving our horses in a barn by the cottage, and taking all our baggage with us in the vessel. In crossing the water, I was much delighted with the views; the hills in some places rise very boldly from the lake, which has a beautiful effect, as the whole country is covered with thick woods. The island is four miles long, and three broad, consisting of various land, but in general high and dry, and most of it a wood: Mr. Hirzel built a small house here, of four rooms on a floor, having two tolerable parlours, and the whole neatly furnished: in it we found a servant and his family, who has the management of a small farm: near it are barns, stables, and other offices; and four cottages, which he also built, and are inhabited by peasants; to each of whom he assigned a small farm, which he obliges them to cultivate very neatly. It is highly necessary that they should be good farmers; for the subsistence of themselves and cattle much depends on it, being at such a distance from any other habitation. Mr. Hirzel directs his own manager so, as to oblige him always to have a good store of all products before hand. He has a cellar well filled, plenty of fish and game at command; and his farm yields him all common provisions, with good fowls: so that he is always sure of finding good eating and drinking: he has a large boat-house, under which his sloop can run; and several open boats. After dinner we took a walk about his farm, which seemed to be very well managed, and the crops good; at which I do not wonder; for the soil of the island is a fine black, dry, deep mold, peculiarly adapted, I should suppose, for all husbandry applications. As I had expressed a desire of sailing a little on the lake, for the pleasure of viewing the woods, Mr. Hirzel manned the sloop, in the morning of the 12th; and having laid in a stock of provisions and my bed, said, he would make a three days voyage for my entertainment; he steered south by the east shore, and returned by the west: we made many leagues, having a favourable wind, gaining very near the south end of the lake: nothing could be more agreeable; the water beautiful, and the surrounding country extremely various. We lived well; for his nets and hooks were excellently managed, and supplied us with many sorts of fine fish in great perfection, which we dressed and eat with an admirable stomach. We caught one carp that weighed sixteen pounds, and Mr. Hirzel told me that he has taken them of a larger size; but they are not so well tasted as those of about six or seven pounds. Here are also pike, and tench, but not equal to what I have eat elsewhere; eels exceeding good; and a fish about the size of a trout, and of the same shape, but much superior flavour, which they call a snout. — I must confess that this was one of the most agreeable voyages I had ever made. We had about half a day in which the wind being brisk, the waves ran pretty high, and gave us the exercise of beating over them.

The 15th, Mr. Hirzel dedicated to shooting, for which sport we did not go off the island; he had a leash of spaniels there that found us plenty of game; these were pheasants and hares, with a few partridges; but none of them equal in taste to the same sorts in England; we had a very good day's work to range about only a part of the island; and, having killed game enough for our use and amusement, returned home.

Marshall was overwhelmed by the thought of the economic potential of this land, if the produce could only be got to market, and he records in enthusiastic detail Mr Hirzel's plans for opening up the river to the Gulf of Bothnia. After some days he continued on his way, and thus became — by a period of many years — the first English traveller to provide any account of the Finnish lakelands. His description of this second leg of his journey, via Pieksamäki ('Pexama') to Savonlinna is disappointingly brief, so is worth giving in full:

From this island of my friend Mr. Hirzel, I was determined what route I should take to Petersburg: upon consideration, and after making many enquiries I resolved to go through the province of Savolax to the capital of it, the only town of any note in it, which is Nyslot; and thence to Wyburg in my way to the Russian capital. The 17th, in the morning I took my leave of Mr. Hirzel and his friend, and set off for Pexama, a little town at the distance of seventy miles; which is all through the forest: it took me two days; but I met with no houses; therefore all my refreshment and rest was a meal taken on the grass, and a nap upon the same pillow. I have seen a Swedish map, which places seven villages in the road; but I had now sufficient reason to pronounce it erroneous: the country is all a rich soil, and covered in most places very thickly with fine timber: A country, which would feed numerous inhabitants; and is all admirably watered; for I was more than once in sight of great lakes; but it is in the most desolate condition, and yields not any advantage to its possessors. From Pexama to Nyslot is between fifty and sixty miles; all the way on the banks of a very noble lake, which, from its narrowness and winding course, has exactly the appearance of a great river. The country is all forest; but I saw two or three villages; at one of which I took up my lodging: there were some small farms, which appeared to be tolerably cultivated; and I found that this lake, along which I had passed, was navigable quite to the gulph of Finland; and that the villages I saw were owing to this circumstance; for the timber of the forest was convey'd thither to advantage; and the cutting and preparing it found employment for the people.

He concludes the Finnish part of his account with a description of Savonlinna:

Nyslot is a neat little town beautifully situated in a nook of land, that runs into the lake, with which it is chiefly surrounded. The church is a new building and handsome; the streets are some of them well paved and tolerably built; and there was an appearance of wealth among the inhabitants, all of which I found was owing to the timber trade: for two or three miles round the town the country is well cultivated, and shows plainly what the rest is capable of, did it possess the same advantages of a market.

Marshall was a pioneer; his is the first published account of Finland in English. He was an Enlightenment traveller, writes Barton, who 'looked at nature in terms of the natural resources it provided to meet human needs'. Vigorous and practical, with his distinctively plain vocabulary and clunky syntax, he left the appreciation of the finer cultural aspects of Finland to those who came after him.


Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall

The next British traveller to have published his travels, Nathaniel Wraxall, moved in very different circles from Marshall. The son of a Bristol merchant, he went, before he was twenty, to work for the East India Company in Bombay, where he prospered for two years, serving as Judge-Advocate and Paymaster. After returning to Europe he travelled extensively, especially in Portugal and in Northern Europe. On his travels he met several Danish noblemen who had been exiled for their support of the deposed Queen Caroline Matilda, sister of George III. She died before Wraxall's attempts to persuade George III to act on her behalf had got anywhere. From 1780 to 1794 he was a Member of Parliament, and after resigning he devoted his time mainly to writing, becoming one of the earliest professional travel writers in English. He was created a baronet in 1813.

He travelled to St Petersburg during the spring and summer of 1774, and published his Cursory Remarks made in a Tour through some of the Northern Parts of Europe, particularly Copenhagen, Stockholm and Petersburg in 1775. The elegance of his writing contrasts noticeably with the immediacy and abruptness of Marshall's, but the phrase 'cursory remarks' reveals another difference: he was, at least at this time, more a dilettante than a serious traveller or explorer. Aware of this, perhaps, he omitted the phrase from the title in the subsequent editions.

William Mavor thought highly enough of Wraxall to include his book in a series entitled Historical Account of the most Celebrated Voyages, Travels, and Discoveries in 1797, introducing Wraxall as one who was already a celebrity:

The ingenious author of this tour is so well known, that it is unnecessary, in the present day, to give any particulars respecting him; and posterity will be at no loss to distinguish him among those who have contributed to inform or amuse the public, by his various valuable publications.

In his praise of Wraxall's achievements Mavor sets out quite explicitly the qualities expected in a travel book at this time, qualities which several contemporary chroniclers of Finland signally failed to possess:

Mr. Wraxall's object on this occasion, was to visit the three northern capitals and courts, and to describe the prominent features of each. He has not, however, been inattentive to other subjects which solicit the regard of an enlightened traveller. He has neither encumbered his narrative with details, which more properly belong to history and geography; nor omitted such a view of the scenes through which he passed, as was likely to afford entertainment and instruction.

Andrew Swinton offered much fainter praise in the Preface to his own Travels (1792):

It is impossible to disregard either the admirable alacrity of this Gentleman's movements, or to suppose that he had it in his power to draw many of his reflections from actual observation.

Wraxall, perhaps encouraged by Mavor's compliments, revised his book, and published it in a fourth edition as A Tour round the Baltic in 1807. This new edition shows a great deal of stylistic polishing, and a softening of many of his harsher opinions. It also contains a lot more detail about Finland, presumably taken from the journal he kept at the time.


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Table of Contents

Place Names in Swedish and Finnish,
Joseph Marshall,
Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall,
William Coxe,
Matthew Consett,
Edward Daniel Clarke,
Lapland and Northern Ostrobothnia,
The Åland Archipelago, Turku and Southern Finland,
John Carr,
Sir Robert Ker Porter,
John Thomas James,
George Green,
Robert Pinkerton,
John Paterson,
Sir John Bowring,
Francis Bayley,
Captain George Matthew Jones,
Arthur de Capell Brooke,
Captain James Edward Alexander,
Captain Charles Colville Frankland,
Charles Boileau Elliott,
John Barrow,
Charlotte Disbrowe and the Marchioness of Westminster,
1 James Thomson's Winter,
2 Three Lapland poems,
3 The Great Coastal Road,
4 Clarke's 'General Statement of Contents',
5 Andrew Swinton (William Thomson),
Notes and References,

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