Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - October - 2008 Issue

Egodocuments, Biographies, etc., on Maritime and Colonial Exploration from Bestebreurtje Rare Books

Best44

Satirical native drawing graces front and back covers of Bestebreurtje's latest catalogue.


By Michael Stillman

We recently received the latest catalogue from Gert Jan Bestebreurtje Rare Books of the Netherlands. It carries the title Egodocuments, biographies, monographs, journals, novels, etc. on maritime and colonial history and exploration. That first word confounded us. Egodocuments? I could guess its essential meaning, but had never seen it before. A bit of research turned up that the word was created by Jacques Presser (a Dutch historian despite that very French name). If this English-sounding word has not yet made it into the English lexicon, it apparently has made it into the Dutch one. So here is the official meaning: diaries, memoirs, personal letters, and other autobiographical writing. So, now that we have learned a new word, we can proceed to take a look inside the pages of this latest Bestebreurtje catalogue.

There are almost 800 items offered. Overwhelmingly, they are inexpensive. Most are either later reprints of accounts of older travels, or more recent (though no less exciting) voyages. Occasionally, something very old will show up. Dutch is the main language, but there are still a great many in English or French. We will focus primarily on the English works as Dutch is not an intuitive language for English-speakers such as this reviewer, but there are many works in Dutch available herein.

Item 19 is one of those harrowing voyage tales from days of yore, only it happened only a few decades ago. Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, the authors, set off on a ten-day trip from Panama to the Galapagos Islands. They never quite made it, as the title informs us - 117 Days Adrift. A whale struck their boat just short of its destination, and they had to quickly transfer themselves and what they could salvage to their life raft. This is the story of their almost four months surviving on fish and turtles they hooked, and rainwater they captured. Seven ships passed them by before they were finally rescued. Priced at €20 (Euros, or approximately $29 in US dollars.

Here is another tale of a ship which went down, but under very different circumstances. This was a gunboat under the command of Dutch Lieutenant Jan Van Speijk in Antwerp on February 5, 1831. His ship was boarded that day by revolution-minded Belgians, who attempted to seize control. Van Speijk would have none of it. Being overwhelmed, he instead fired his pistol into a barrel of gunpowder, setting of an enormous explosion, destroying the ship and killing dozens of people, himself included. Van Speijk became a great Dutch hero for his courageous, or crazy, actions (depending on your point of view), but the Belgian Revolution was successful anyway. Item 382 is an 1832 biography of Van Speijk, Leven van Jan Carel Josephus van Speijk. €135 (US $195). Item 626 is an 1832 hand-colored aquatint plate of the funeral of Van Speijk along the waterfront, where he was honored as a great hero. €575 (US $834).

For those who go for illustrations, item 15 is another - an engraved portrait of Admiral George Anson from 1751. In the background are five of the ships he led on his expedition a year earlier. Anson led a privateering journey against the Spanish in South America, a terrible disaster for most of the crew other than Anson himself. All but one of the ships was lost, and most of his men died, but Anson captured a Spanish galleon loaded with riches on the way back, and he returned a wealthy man. His was only the second British circumnavigation. €195 (US $282).

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