Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - August - 2006 Issue

Books on 19th Century Asia from Gert Jan Bestebreurtje

Cat126

19th Century Asia from Gert Jan Bestebreurtje.


By Michael Stillman

Some catalogues cover broad, not well-defined fields of collecting. Others are much more clearly defined in terms of subject. An example of the latter is the latest catalogue from Dutch bookseller Gert Jan Bestebreurtje. The title is Books, Pamphlets, Prints and Scholarly Works on Asia in the 19th Century. Of course, Asia is a large area, and the 19th century contained a lot of years. Nevertheless, this is a fairly specific area, particularly when it comes to books published in the West by primarily European travelers.

One of the things you quickly learn when reading about travels to Asia is there are a lot of islands off of the mainland. Most I have never heard of, but there is no need to feel like a fool. Indonesia alone consists of 18,000 of them. For all the obscure islands described in the 400+ books Bestebreurtje is offering, only a small fraction of 1% are covered. However, there were many battles going on in these islands in the days when the European powers were attempting to colonize them. European powers fought each other along with the natives for control. In the 19th century, unlike the 20th, the Europeans generally won. This was a time of empire building, and many of these books describe this extensive, though ultimately doomed, practice. The same was also taking place on the mainland, notably India, though China proved too vast for the Europeans to seize. These large countries, along with the not quite so large nations of Southeast Asia, are also heavily covered in this catalogue.

The catalogue is offered by a Dutch bookseller, so you can expect many works pertaining to Dutch expeditions, and books in the Dutch language. However, this is hardly an exclusive. Other European languages, English included, are the languages of many of the books. We will focus disproportionately on English titles since this writer can understand that language, but there are works here suitable for many tongues. Here are a few items Bestebreurtje has to offer.

Item 14 gives us a look at China at the end of the 18th century through the eyes of its British mission. Britain opened its first embassy in China in 1796, headed by Lord Macartney. Coming along with him was an assistant, John Barrow. Macartney's mission was not notably successful, but Barrow was a keen observer, writing articles for a magazine back home. He accompanied Van-ta-gin, whose portrait graces the frontispiece of the book Barrow wrote. His host "learnt...to eat with a knife and fork," which is more than I can say about my adventures with chopsticks. Barrow returned when the embassy ended in 1798, and though never again officially involved in Chinese diplomacy, was called on for advice concerning the nation. Barrow wrote about the land in the book herein offered: Travels in China, containing descriptions, observations, and comparisons, made in the course of a short residence at the imperial palace of Yuen-Min-Yuen... This is the second edition published in 1806. After his "short residence" in China, Barrow would go on to serve a few years in Cape Town, and then forty years as a secretary to the admiralty. From this position he would become a strong supporter of Arctic exploration, promoting the voyages of Parry, Franklin and others. Point Barrow in Alaska, the northernmost tip of the United States, is named for him. Priced at €1,950 (Euros, or US equivalent of $2,448).

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