Voyages and travels in the Levant in the years 1749, 50, 51, 52 : containing observations in natural history, physick, agriculture, and commerce : particularly on the holy land, and the natural history of the Scriptures / written originally in the Swedish language by the late Frederick Hasselquist (STORE 172:160)

Working with special collections is constantly surprising. Whether fetching items for readers from our Library Store, or just taking some time to get to know the collection (a very important job!), you never know when something will catch your eye and pique your interest. The subject of this blog post is an example of one of these chance discoveries. I’d like to give you an outline of the book and the story behind it, and then share with you some of the charming oddities found throughout.

Frederik Hasslequist (1722-52) was one of a group of 17 students who were in the orbit of the famous botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78). Linnaeus referred to these students, with characteristic modesty, as his ‘apostles’. All of these apostles undertook botanical research trips to far flung corners of the globe at Linnaeus’ behest and with his assistance. Many of them did not return. Hasselquist’s book offers a remarkable snapshot into the experiences of these bold field researchers of the 1700s.

The book is divided into three main sections: Travels to the East – Hasselquist’s account of his journeys; Natural Curiosities – his remarks on the flora and fauna, diseases and remedies, natural history and commerce of the region; and finally, The Author’s Letters to Dr. Linnaeus – which are wonderfully open, full of personality and curiosity. Dr Linnaeus himself prefaced the book with Some Account of Dr Hasselquist, from which I have taken details for the brief biography below.*

Frederik Hasselquist was born on January 3rd 1722, the son of a curate, Andrew Hasselquist, who had ‘the least income of any clergyman in the diocese’(i). While Fredrik was still a child, his father died, and his mother, Maria Helena Pontin, ‘being weak in both body and mind’(i) was institutionalised in an infirmary. Hasselquist was then taken in by his uncle, another curate, who sent him to school along with his own children for a time. Hasselquist supported himself as a tutor before matriculating at the University of Upsala in 1741. He continued to work as a tutor while himself a student, showing a particular aptitude for ‘Physic, and Natural History soon became his favourite study’(i). Linnaeus first encountered Hasselquist around this time, and notes that he had ‘also some talents for Poetry’(ii). Working hard and his efforts having been noted, Hasselquist received a royal stipend in 1746. Hasselquist submitted his dissertation the following year, and, after being apparently inspired by comments made by Linnaeus, became ‘very desirous of being the first who should inform the Public of the Natural History of Palestine, and was determined to accomplish it’(ii). Without independent means, securing funding and backing for the expedition was not straightforward, and Hasselquist himself seems to have inherited frail health from his mother, suffering from ‘weak lungs, as he was subject to spitting of blood’(ii). One can detect a note of self-justification in Linnaeus’ narrative here, he is at great pains to emphasise that the voyage is all Hasselquist’s idea, while it is more likely that Linnaeus was very strongly encouraging him to undertake the trip, and it is certain that Hasselquist could never have secured the necessary backing, funding and patronage without Linnaeus’ help. Linnaeus forestalls any objections to sending someone as sickly as Hasselquist away on such a long and perilous voyage saying ‘weak lungs can only be cured by travelling and change of climate, and [Hasselquist] was enough determined in his resolution, to say, he would rather walk all the way, than have his purposes crossed'(iii).

Some funding was eventually secured from a variety of sources, while Hasselquist prepared for the trip by studying ‘Arabian and other eastern languages’ (iii), and continuing his studies and teaching. Eventually, preparations were complete and the Swedish Levant Company offered Hasselquist a berth on a trading ship to Smyrna for free. On August the 7th 1749, Hasselquist set sail on the ship Ulrica, bound for the eastern Mediterranean, leaving Sweden for the last time. Over the next four years, Hasselquist would travel widely throughout the Middle East, recording the flora and fauna, gathering samples, preserving them and preparing them for their long voyage back to Sweden. The travelling life and change of climate didn’t have the healing effect which Hasselquist and Linnaeus had hoped for, and he died in Izmir on February the 9th, 1752. He was just 30 years old.

For some time the future of the valuable collections and samples Hasselquist had put together was in considerable doubt. He had continually struggled with funding and had died in debt. Linnaeus notes that Hasselquist’s ‘creditors had at the time of his death taken possession of all his collections of  natural curiosities, observations and manuscripts, which they would not part with, until their demands were satisfied'(vi). Things were looking bleak, until the matter eventually reached the ear of Swedish Queen Louisa Ulrica (via her personal physician, almost certainly due to Linnaeus interceding). ‘Her majesty immediately resolved to pay the debt out of her own purse, and redeem the collection'(vii). In this manner Hasselquist’s writings and collections were returned to his native Sweden.

The descriptions of these samples and observations, prepared and edited by Linnaeus, form the middle part of the book between pages 183-402. It covers a fascinating range of topics and interests, reflecting the broad scope of enquiry at the time, and Hasselquist’s own interests. I’d like to share some of my favourites with you below (click on the images to view larger versions).

The River Horse, or, Hippopotamus (p.187):

Hippopotamus Amphibius: the River Horse

The Skink, a lizard, – widely believed in Europe to have been a fish (p.220):

A caution against eating watermelon on a hot day (p.257):

Biblical thorns (p.289):

Some facts and figures regarding the commerce of coffee in Egypt (with some later currency conversion marginalia), an early sign of the famous Swedish obsession with coffee? (p.401):

Along side the serious observations that Hasselquist makes, there are a number of more amusing oddities to be found throughout this book, we’ll have a look at some of these below.

Firstly, The Advertisement. Before the text proper starts, the publisher has inserted this charming passage, asking the reader to excuse the quality of the translation and begging them to appreciate ‘the great Difficulty of finding a Person sufficiently versed in Natural History, and the Swedish Language and at the same time willing to undertake such a Task…’

Hasselquist seems to have developed something of a thing about chickens during his travels. On Page 55 he notes the practice of keeping eggs warm in armpits until they hatch:

And in his letters to Linnaeus he describes the Egyptian practice of mass incubating eggs in ovens (p. 438-9):

What is remarkable about this passage is that Hasselquist notes a distinct difference in quality between the meat of these artificially incubated birds and that of what we would term ‘free range’ chickens. This debate has clearly raged for much longer than is widely appreciated, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall eat your heart out!

There is also an account of the effects of Opium abuse, and an encounter with an addicted Dervish (p.176-7):

Some belly dancers (which Hasselquist objects to on moral grounds, but seems to enjoy just a little too much…) (p.58):

Notes on the inscrutability of snake charmers (p.63):

And a fascinating account of the symbiotic relationship between crabs & fan mussels (p.406-7):

I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistle-stop tour through Hasselquist’s Voyages. For myself I think it’s remarkable how much of his personality emerges from the page. After spending some time with the book you start to feel like you know him, and that is the real beauty of working with material like this. These figures from the past can sometimes really leap off the page and grab you, and provide you with fascinating and unique insights into the world that they knew.

Words by Jack Dixon, Photography & image manipulation by James Livesey. March 2019

*All quotations taken from the Whipple copy of Hasselquist’s Voyages. View in the library catalogue.