Ever since the man has been to space, we think of the Earth as a small spheroid, easily scanned by the human eye. Since the invention of the Internet, our world has been shrinking even more rapidly. However, the change in perspective started even earlier: a crucial milestone was certainly reached with the mapping of inland Africa in the second half of the 19th century. For the Russian educated reader the change in how we see the world definitely went a lot faster after the publication of Ivan Goncharov’s circumnavigation notes of 1852-1855, commonly known as his book Frigate Pallada.

Title page of Frigate Pallada. Courtesy of PY Rare Books.

Goncharov, the author of the literary masterpieces Oblomov and The Precipice, joined Yevfimiy Putyatin’s expedition as a secretary on 7 October 1852, and left the frigate Pallada on 2 August 1854, after it stopped for repairs in the mouth of the Amur River. He returned to St Petersburg on 25 February 1855, after two and a half years of journeying across the world. Meanwhile, Putyatin returned to Japan and on February 7, 1855, signed the Treaty of Shimoda, the first treaty between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan, which, together with the Convention of Kanagawa between Japan and the United States (1854), ended Japan’s 220-year-old policy of national seclusion.

Ivan Goncharov and Vice-Admiral Yevfimiy Putyatin (seated 5th and 6th from the left) among officers of the frigate Pallada.

The first excerpt of Goncharov’s notes, titled “Likeiskie ostrova” (Liuqiu, or Ryukyu, Islands of Japan) was published in April 1855 in the journal Otechestvennye zapiski (“Notes of the Fatherland”); in the first book version, published by Glazunov in 1858, it is Chapter 4 of Vol. II. Later, separate chapters appeared in periodicals Sovremennik, Russkii vestnik, and Morskoi sbornik. In the making of his book, Goncharov put together his diary entries and letters to friends, e.g. he first described the stormy passage from St Petersburg to England in his letter to the poet Apollon Maykov. He filled his letters with direct observations, intending to use those in the final publication. The first book edition preserved the epistolary, impromptu nature of Goncharov’s notes, such as this description of him trying bananas for the first time (in Madeira):

“There was a bunch of some unfamiliar fruits hanging on the door, that looked like average-size cucumbers. Their skin was similar to that of beans – green on some, yellow on others. “What are these?” I asked. “Bananas,” they say. “Bananas! Tropical fruit! Give me, give them here!” They gave me the whole bunch. I tore off one and peeled it – the skin comes off almost at a touch; I tried it – I didn’t like it: it’s bland, partly sweet, but limp and sugary, the powdery taste, a bit like potatoes and melon, but not as sweet as a melon, and without a melon’s aroma, or rather with its own, somehow crude smell. It is more of a vegetable than a fruit, and between the fruits it is a parvenu.”[1]

“Bananas” page from Frigate Pallada. Courtesy of PY Rare Books.

In later editions, Goncharov took out descriptions of local cuisines, which his contemporaries found tedious, and which now provide entertaining ethnological data. Thus, the first edition gives us a sincere, unedited account of how a Russian nineteenth-century intellectual reacted during his first encounters with natives of Africa and Asia. Anecdotes about eating bananas for the first time or trying curry in Cape Town and ‘saki’ in Japan appear side by side with serious analysis of the British imperialism and of the questionable feasibility of colonies in South Africa:

“Black tribes still do not succumb to the power of preaching, or the comforts of European life, or the obvious benefits of crafts, and finally, to the temptations of gold […] The country’s terrain – unlimited empty spaces – gives them the means to resist the power of weapons. Each step of the soil scorched by the sun is washed by blood; each mountain, bush represents a natural barrier for the whites and serves as a defence and refuge for the blacks.”[2]

Goncharov visited the Cape of Good Hope at the crucial time in the European colonisation: in 1849, David Livingstone crossed the Kalahari Desert from south to north; between 1851 and 1856, he traversed the continent from west to east, discovering the great waterways of the upper Zambezi River, thus ‘opening up’ Africa to the European eyes. In his book, Goncharov contemplates a unique moment in history, when the two routes of the European colonisation in Africa – “one from Algiers, the other from Kaapstad [Cape Town]” – would meet mid-continent.[3]

Marine landscape, brought by Goncharov from his voyage.

Goncharov captures European perceptions of the multi-cultural world of South East Asia. In Singapore, he encountered three cultures previously unknown to him: indigenous Muslim Malays, Hinduist Indians, and Chinese immigrants. He describes the process of rapid economic growth in Singapore, which started after the island had become a British possession in 1824. The cultural mosaic is captured on many levels, including the diversity of local dwellings:

“Malay dwellings are simply see-through cages made of bamboo canes, covered with dry coconut leaves, barely worthy to be called sheds, on stilts, [to prevent] dampness and […] insects. The Chinese dwellings are richer – solid rows of two-storey houses: shops and workshops on the ground floor, living quarters, with shutters, on the top. Indians live in mud huts. Everything around is overgrown with areca palm trees, or coconut palms; there are few cultivated fields with grain; there are plantations of coffee and sugar, and even these are scarce: there is no place for them, all swamps and dense forests. Rice, the main food of South Asia, is brought to Singapore from the Malacca and Indian peninsulas. Yet, how many trees! breadfruit, mulberry, nutmeg, oranges, bananas and others.”[4]

Goncharov is aware of the most recent changes in the economy of the region, e.g. he writes that the market building in Singapore “has not been renovated since the founding of Hong Kong. They say that Singapore has declined somewhat in trading terms. Some Europeans, especially the English, moved their business here; the Chinese started going to Singapore less frequently, being now able to sell their goods there [in Hong Kong], right at the gates to China. Still, Singapore, as the storage place between Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Indian archipelago islands, will never cease. Besides, it serves as a shelter for Malay and Chinese pirates”.[5]

Goncharov was an eye-witness to the fast development of Hong Kong as a new (from 1842) British colony: in Vol. I he describes early English settlements in Hong Kong (p. 461), the exodus of Chinese workers from the Portuguese colony of Macao and their relocation to Hong Kong (p. 466), finally, he makes a rare reference to the activities of Jardine, Matheson & Company (currently Jardine Matheson Holdings Limited), the British firm which emerged in 1832 and later set up its headquarters in Hong Kong and grew rapidly. Goncharov notes,

“A commander of the Danish corvette believes that the English invested too much money and energy into Hong Kong and that the enterprise will not pay itself. […] Merchants from Calcutta and Singapore rushed here, some of them wasted all their capital counting on the vicinity of the Chinese market and the opium sales; so far their hopes have not been justified. Perhaps the fears of some Jardine are fair, but nonetheless, owning Hong Kong, these cannons, your own port – all of this on China’s doorstep – guarantees the unending trade with China for the English, and this island will be, it appears, an eternal eye-sore in the eyes of the Chinese government”.[6]

Konstantin Chichagov, “Oblomov and Zakhar” (illustration for Oblomov, 1885). Out of copyright.

Vol. II of Frigate Pallada contains unique, detailed accounts of the Russian negotiations with Japan: Goncharov personally suffered through the long month (August 1853) during which Putyatin and his crew waited for the permission to meet with the governor of Nagasaki. Goncharov described Japan as dreamlike: “What it this? decoration or reality? what a terrain! The nearby and distant hills, one greener than the other, covered with cedar and many other trees […] crowd like an amphitheatre, one above the other. There is nothing scary, only smiling nature: perhaps, behind the hills, there are laughing valleys, fields … But […] one cannot think that people smile very much among these hills. All mountains are ridged with furrows and cultivated from top to bottom’” (p.10). Everything interests Goncharov: harakiri (or seppuku), Japanese ritual suicide (p. 68); Japanese calligraphy (p.24); Japanese chopsticks and food (p. 78). After a month of tiresome negotiations, Goncharov began longing for the Russian snow, but before his return to Russia, the expedition had to go through Shanghai, Liuqiu Islands, Manila, Kamiguin in the Philippines, and the Korean Port Hamilton. All of these lands Goncharov describes in his notes, finding constant opportunities to compare them with his native Russia. This is one of the reasons why Frigate Pallada was crucial for his development as a writer: Goncharov’s new knowledge about nations of the world enabled him to develop his idea of the Russian national character in his next novel, Oblomov.

The contents of the last three chapters of Goncharov’s book point to the amount of detail and insight in his description of Siberia: “VII. Crossing the Sea of Okhotsk. – Whale hunting. – Station Petrovskoye. – Ayan cliffs and mooring. – Preparations for the journey. – Travel on horseback. – Ascent to Dzhukdzhur [a mountain range in the far east of Siberia]. – Mountains and swamps. – Nelkan and the Maya River. – Yakuts and Russian settlers. – Again on horseback. – Forests and swamps. – Yurts. – Carts. VIII. Urasa [a type of old Yakut summer dwelling]. – Station caretaker. – Overnight on the banks of the Lena. – Carriage. – Yakutsk. – Preparations for the journey. – Fur clothes. – Russian missionaries. – Translation of the Holy Scriptures into the Yakut language. – Yakuts, Tungus, Karagauli, Chukchi. – Officials, merchants. – Seeing off. IX. City of Olekma. – Lena River. – Stations on it. – Forty degrees of frost. – Frozen wine and cabbage soup. – Yurts with chuvals [a type of fireplace]. – The woods. – Tungus. – Vitima. – Kirensk. —Horses and coachmen”.

Responses to the book edition of Frigate Pallada were mixed, as some of Goncharov’s observations were ahead of his time. While the newspaper Severnaya Pchela (1858, No. 102) congratulated the “educated Russian public” on the appearance of a “smart, entertaining, generally useful book”, a radical Russian writer Dmitry Pisarev noted in 1859, with regard not only to Frigate Pallada, but also to the newly published Oblomov, that Goncharov “does not care about big absurdities of life; microscopic analysis satisfies his need to think and create”[7]. It was this focus on the microscopic that proved to Goncharov the ultimate sameness of human life, regardless of where it unfolds – on the busy streets of London, off the coast of Africa, or in a remote Siberian town. Everywhere travellers go, they find the sky over their head, dwellings, mud, and little children running around. So why wander in strange lands, asks Oblomov’s friend Tarantiev? After his return to St Petersburg, Goncharov resumed his work on Oblomov, which he had begun in 1847. The new knowledge about different nations convinced him even further that “oblomovism”, or dreamy inertia, is a specifically Russian national trait. In the end, Oblomov succumbs to the sedentary philosophy advocated by Terentiev and finds peace in his own home. He does not need to travel to Africa, like his creator: he can read about it in books. If he finds the willpower to turn the pages, that is…

The original edition of Fregat Pallada [Frigate Pallada], published by A. I. Glazunov in St Petersburg in 1858, was kindly provided by PY Rare Books.

[1] Goncharov, Ivan. Fregat Pallada [The Frigate Pallada]. St Petersburg, A.I. Glazunov, 1858. 2 vols. Vol. 1, p. 143. Here, and throughout, my translation – D.P.

[2] Goncharov, 1858. Vol. 1, pp. 249-250.

[3] Goncharov, 1858. Vol. 1, p. 318.

[4] Goncharov, 1858. Vol. 1, p. 427.

[5] Goncharov, 1858. Vol. 1, p. 425.

[6] Goncharov, 1858. Vol. 1, p. 473.

[7] Quoted in: Goncharov I. A. Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy i pisem v 20 tomakh [Complete works and letters in 20 vols], ed. T. Lapitskaya, V. Tunimanov. St. Petersburg: Nauka, 2000. V. 3, pp. 529-533.