Society for the History of Discoveries

Brennan, Michael G., ed. The Travel Diary of Robert Bargrave Levant Merchant (1647-1656). London: The Hakluyt Society (Series III, no. 3) 1999. xix, 288 p. ISBN 0904180638. $79.00.

Between April 1647 and March 1656 the young merchant Robert Bargrave journeyed to Gibraltar, Majorca, Siena, Florence, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the German states and principalities, the Low Countries, Spain, Sicily, Greece, Venice, Padua, Innsbruck, Augsburg, Heidelberg and elsewhere. When he departed England in spring 1647, in the entourage of a new ambassador appointed to Istanbul, his homeland was experiencing perhaps the greatest political turmoil in its history. Civil War had been waged and the ensuing failure to achieve a settlement among the defeated royalists, the splintered parliamentary factions, the Scots, and the New Model Army made many Britons fear the realm was poised on the brink of anarchy or apocalypse. Obscured by these political, military, religious and social conflicts was evidence that England was becoming a formidable mercantile power. As Bargrave stood aboard deck on the ship London as it coursed out of the Downs, he was voyaging into a world in which English vessels had launched a “Commercial Revolution.” Bargrave’s destination, the Levant, was home to an enterprising expatriate community that had carved out a hefty share of the traffic of goods, including the lucrative carrying trade. By the time Bargrave completed his fourth and final journey in 1656, the Navigation Acts had been promulgated and Admiral Robert Blake had made the English navy a semi-permanent fixture in the Mediterranean. In short, the years encompassed by Bargrave’s diary witnessed the establishment of English commercial hegemony in several parts of the globe.

One may ask, justifiably, why a proper edition of this Bodleian Library manuscript was not accomplished until 1999. Obviously, an editor would need to possess a familiarity with the sources and history of Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration England. Further, given the myriad countries visited by Bargrave there would be numerous problematic geographical identifications and lingual challenges posed in annotating the manuscript. Finally, Bargrave’s journal also contains original musical scores and poetry, so an appreciation of literature and the arts would be requisite.

Michael G. Brennan, a Reader in Renaissance Studies at the University of Leeds, has shouldered this task, and the result can be judged without hyperbole as magnificent. Brennan’s editing and annotation are so meticulous and informed that one gets the impression he followed the routes in the company of Bargrave himself. Particularly striking is Brennan’s geographical knowledge and command of foreign languages. The editor does a marvelous job of juxtaposing the cityscapes and landscapes of Bargrave’s sojourns upon the map of contemporary Europe. For example, Brennan includes in a footnote that the nave of the Marien-Kirche at Wismar, Poland, (which Bargrave had so admired) rested on ground today paved for a parking lot. The volume abounds with obscure and informative details unearthed by Brennan. 

The editor begins by laying out the various family connections of the Bargraves in seventeenth century England and introducing a cast of characters. The family had prospered through Crown patronage and careers in the Church of England. Active in Kentish society and politics, the Bargraves suffered primarily at the hands of parliamentary adherents during the Civil War and these misfortunes seem to have fortified their royalist sentiments. Robert’s decision to journey to the Levant delivered him, conveniently, from the hostility of a victorious Parliament. His absence was a blessing, for some of his relatives had a hand in fomenting the Kentish Rebellion of 1648. Royalist exiles therefore welcomed Richard when he encountered cavalier émigrés abroad, which accounts for Bargrave’s numerous audiences with European notables and nobility.

Bargrave’s most remarkable journey was his first, which inspired ruminations on the Mediterranean world, particularly Italy. Arriving in Istanbul on 26 September 1647, Bargrave subsequently sketched out for the reader a vivid portrait of the Ottoman capital and the political intrigue surrounding the English ambassadors, old and new, and the Sultan’s court, including a Janissary uprising. The discerning reader can obtain a useful seventeenth-century interpretation of the interaction of very different cultures not just in the capital but also in the port of Izmir (Smyrna), a stronghold of English trade that was Bargrave’s entry point into Anatolia. The young man’s Turkish adventures ranged from idyllic outdoor banquets with the Ottoman social elite, to being bound in a foul dungeon lorded over by an amorous jailer. The broad spectrum of experiences seen through impressionable foreign eyes makes for captivating if somewhat melodramatic reading.

The odyssey Robert began in September 1652 occasioned an opportunity to experience the culture of Eastern Europe and the more familiar landscapes of western continental Europe. Bulgarian and Romanian societies, especially in rural areas, intrigued Bargrave, for example in regard to the strength of local matriarchies. Always the merchant, he noted the economic recovery of Jassy and other areas devastated by endemic raiding and the Thirty Years’ War. As Robert trekked through Poland and into the German states and principalities, he interspersed in his diary detailed textual renderings of buildings, secular and sacred. Due to outbreaks of the plague in urban areas, Bargrave viewed a great deal of countryside as well. Very often his descriptions included evaluations of commercial potential and local mercantile practices. Crossing from Holland, Bargrave set foot in his native land once again on 13 March 1653.

After marrying and consolidating his fortunes, Bargrave ventured abroad again in November 1654 as part of a seagoing enterprise to Venice. Enroute he recorded in detail the nature of commerce in Barcelona, and reflected on the still-evident scars left by the 1640 Catalonian revolt. He was particularly incensed by his harrowing experiences with customs officials in the Mediterranean, in Zaragoza and in Greece to cite but two misadventures. He recounts two stays in Venice (spring-summer 1655 and February 1656). Robert’s commentary on his third journey dwells on the barriers to international trade on the eve of the Commercial Revolution, such as restrictive customs arrangements and thieves. The final installment in Bargrave’s diary is his 930-mile journey back to England, via Innsbruck and Augsburg, which he accomplished in roughly five weeks.
While mercantile matters dominate the journal, Bargrave embellished his diary with commentary on local languages (especially their dialects), descriptions of pageantry and dramatic performances, original poems, and an occasional original musical score (with saucy lyrics). There is therefore a marked cultural dimension to this volume as well.

The appearance of Brennan’s edition is fortuitous because almost simultaneous with its publication a revisionist interpretation of Anglo-Ottoman relations has emerged, with Bargrave’s diary cited as evidence of this new view. Specifically, it has been argued persuasively that the English expatriate community and the Ottomans, from Topkapi to Izmir’s bustling Frank Street, were much more intertwined commercially, personally, culturally, socially, and intellectually than has been recognized by earlier historians who emphasized the isolation of these groups. The ability of people such as Bargrave to assimilate and infiltrate the Ottoman world gave Britons a commercial edge that must be considered in understanding the genesis of the British Empire [Daniel Goffman, Britons in the Ottoman Empire 1642-1660 (Seattle 1998)]. Consequently, Robert Bargrave’s life and writings assume even greater significance. Michael Brennan deserves high praise for making this hitherto unpublished manuscript accessible and for editing it so splendidly.

Mark Charles Fissel

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