History & Travel: The Journey of John Bell from Russia to China with the 1719 Embassy

(This is a 2016 revision of a college paper I wrote in 2011)

John Bell was a Scottish doctor who traveled with the Russian embassies to Persia in 1715 and China in 1719. He compiled a journal detailing his travels, titled “Travels from St. Petersburg in Russia to Diverse parts of Asia”, and it was published in 1763. His travels are a valuable source of information on northern Eurasia in the 18th century, and they also show what European attitudes of the time were like. Comparison to older travels, like those of medieval travelers Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Carpini, and William of Rubruck can reveal a lot about how people’s perspectives and views of the world changed over time.

In addition to the content of his observations of the people and places he visited, I also found it fascinating to observe the pattern of which aspects of these foreign cultures he admired, and which he reviled or ignored. John Bell considered the adherents of some Eastern traditions to be superstitious fools, while acknowledging the good in others. He seems to have instinctively assumed there to be little practical value in their medical practices or anything else that seemed closely tied to their religious beliefs.

On the other hand, Bell explicitly admired the simplicity of the Mongolian lifestyle, and took an interest in the practical technologies under development in the places he visited. Rather than taking an attitude of entering into and seeking to empathize with the world-views of the people he visited, he was more oriented toward appreciating the pragmatic aspects of their lives and doings.

A SUMMARY OF JOHN BELL’S JOURNEY TO CHINA

Lev Ismailov’s embassy left St. Petersburg for Tobolsk, the capital of Siberia, on the 9th of September, 1719. Near the Urals, they first encountered Siberian natives, the Mansi (he calls them Vogullitz). John Bell compares their physical appearance to the Chuvash Tartars, who he previously saw near Kazan.

From the Urals to Tobolsky they encountered various Tartars, all of whom John Bell describes. In his description of Tobolsk, he mentions that in the suburbs there are numerous Tartars, who are allowed to live as they please, as are the Tartars of Astrakhan and Kazan.

He also observes the large number of Swedish officers, captured during the Great Northern War, residing in Tobolsk. He says that they “contributed not a little to the civilizing the inhabitants of these distant regions,” and that they taught languages and arts. He also mentions that the governor of Tobolsk often went around Siberia, mass-converting pagans.

Heading east, they came across the poor and miserable Baraba Tartars, who were taxed by both the Qing (Chinese) and the Zunghars (Western Mongols). In Baraba he witnessed a shamanic ritual, and was not impressed. He accuses the shaman of “pretending to correspondence with the shaytan, or devil.”

From Baraba they went to Tomsk, near which there were many graves, and apparently also mammoth bones. Near Kuznetsky Bell encountered wild horses of the sort that cannot be tamed. True wild horses of this type neared extinction in the 20th century, and have only recently been reintroduced to the wild in Mongolia. Bell says that the Kalmyks “esteem their flesh to be excellent food.”

Travelling along the Tunguska river, they first encountered the Tungusic natives of Siberia. He says that they used to be very numerous, but many of them were killed by smallpox. The same thing that happened to the Native Americans also happened to a lesser extent to the Siberians and Mongolians. According to a Chinese annalist, Wei Yuan, 40% of the Zunghars were killed by smallpox.

Bell calls the natives brave, honest, civil, and tractable, but criticizes their practice of abandoning the diseased and elderly. He doesn’t fail to notice the similarities between Siberian and North American natives; he even calls Siberia a ‘new world’ once. He never goes into detail on why he thinks they are similar; he just says that they sound exactly the same judging from what he’d read about North American natives. He also compares the Tungusic natives to the Mexican natives: “these people knew no more use of the iron, than the Mexicans on the arrival of the Spaniards in America.” It is clear that Bell considered Russian colonialism to be analogous to American colonialism; indeed, in many ways it was. As in America, many of the natives were killed by smallpox. As in America, they were regarded as uncivilized pagans, who needed to be ‘civilized’.        Bell expresses the belief that Mongolia and Siberia were full of fertile soil, just waiting to be used. He says, while at Selenginsky, “In surveying these fertile plains and pleasant woods, I have often entertained myself with painting, in my own imagination, the neat villages, country seats, and farm houses, which, in the process of time, may be erected on the banks of the rivers, and brows of the hills. There is here waste land enough to maintain, with easy labour, several European nations, who are, at present, confined to barren and ungrateful soils: and, with regard to the Mongalls, whose honesty and simplicity of manners are not unamiable, I should like them very well for neighbors.”

His reasoning was probably that since the Siberian and Native American natives are so similar, so must be their lands. But he overestimates the quality of soil in Mongolia and Siberia, unless by “several European nations” he means tiny principalities.

In spite of his scorn for the superstition and polytheism rampant in the East, Bell noted: “I have found intelligent people among them, who believed there was a being superior to both sun and moon; and who created them and all the world.”

Somewhere north of lake Baikal they came across the Buryat Mongols. Bell doesn’t call them Mongols, but he does admit that their language and culture are very similar. He praises their manners and honesty, but criticizes them for being so unsanitary.

At Selenginsky, Bell met a Sufi fakir (or so he thought; I wonder if the man wasn’t a Hindu), who was buying fish and immediately throwing them back into the water. Bell showed the fakir a map, and the fakir pointed out the course of his journey from India to Selenginsky, but the map was full of geographical errors.

Soon a Manchu official, Tulishen, arrived. Tulishen had travelled through Siberia as an embassy to the Kazakhs in 1712. He inquired as to the purpose of the embassy, then left after three days.

From Selenginsky they went south through Mongolia.

A BRIEF SUMMARY OF JOHN BELL’S STAY IN CHINA

As soon as they crossed the great wall of China, they had a feast in Zhangjiakou. Then they went to Siang Fu and had another feast. And then they were invited to a feast with Tulishen, where there was quail-fighting. Eventually they reached Pekin, where they did almost nothing but party and feast for the entirety of their stay.

The embassy (or at least Bell and the ambassador) spent lots of time socializing with Kangxi and talking about history. At Pekin they learned of the many recent European discoveries that had been known in China for ages: gunpowder, the printing press, the compass… When touring Kangxi’s glass factory, Bell asserts that the Chinese “had no knowledge of glass, of any kind, till this house was erected.”

John Bell toured all the Christian churches of Pekin. There were Italian, French, German, and Russian churches. Apparently most of the Chinese Christians were abandoned babies who the missionaries found in the street and raised as Christians. Bell describes a conflict between the Dominicans and the Jesuits in China. The Dominicans wanted to stop Chinese Christians from practicing ancestor “worship”, while the Jesuits argued against them, and of course Kangxi sided with the Jesuits. Bell also mentions a sect called “cross-worshippers,” who disregarded almost all norms of western Christianity. Perhaps these were Nestorians.

For a doctor, John Bell talks surprisingly little about the various medical and medicinal practices he must have encountered on his journey. He never mentions the medical practices of the Tartars or Siberians, perhaps because he regarded them as insignificant pagan superstitions. He does mention that the  Chinese mostly use plants, and almost never let blood, a practice that was very common in Europe at the time.

Of  Chinese religion he says “they are divided into several sects; among which, that of the Theists is the most rational and respectable.” I don’t know for certain what ‘sect’ or religion he is referring to, but he says it is more ancient than Christianity and “still most in vogue; being embraced by the emperor himself”, so I think it is most probably some brand of monotheistic Confucianism or Confucio-Taoism or Confucio-Buddho-Taoism.

Finally, after several months of enjoying themselves, the embassy was dismissed, having achieved nothing. The journey back to Russia was quite similar to the journey to China, one difference being that it was summer, so there were gnats and mosquitos everywhere. John Bell was given a mammoth bone, which he brought to England and gave to a museum.

COMPARISON WITH OLDER TRAVELS

Central and Northern Asia changed very drastically from the 13th to 18th centuries. Starting after the 14th century, nomadism began to decline, and sedentary civilization spread to areas that had previously been occupied only by nomads. The Russians, by the 18th century, had already greatly decreased nomadism in what is now Southern Russia, and had towns and forts scattered all across Siberia.

The patterns that had been prevalent in all relations between nomads and sedentary people for thousands of years came to an end. Before the rise of gunpowder, nomads would constantly harass and conquer sedentary civilizations. They were militarily superior to sedentary people because of their mobility, archery and low standards of living. The fall of nomadism was simultaneous with the rise of gunpowder (ironically, nomadic empires were among the first to use gunpowder militarily). Nomads feared guns, and lacked the ability to make them. In the 17th century nomads like the Kalmyks in Russia and the Khalkas in Mongolia willingly submitted to sedentary rulers. They sacrificed the freedom of nomadism for the comfort and safety that comes from being part of a large, organized sedentary empire.

I have read two travel books similar to John Bell’s, those of Carpini (aka Giovanni da Pian del Carpine) and William of Rubruck. They were both written in the middle of the 13th century, when nomads were at the height of their might. Unfortunately I haven’t yet read the travels of Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta, so I can’t thoroughly compare their travels to John Bell’s.

Carpini was sent to Mongolia as a spy for the Papacy. He travelled to Karakorum and witnessed the coronation of the emperor Guyuk. His book narrates his travels, describes the history and customs of the Mongols, and has a chapter on how the Europeans should fight them most effectively. Carpini expresses nothing but hostility towards the Mongols. Both Rubruck and John Bell, on the other hand, express some admiration for them.

Rubruck went to the Golden Horde to verify the rumors that Batu Khan’s son, Sartaq, was a Christian, and to deliver to him a letter from Louis IX. Sartaq said he was a Christian, but told Rubruck not to call him one, because most Mongols thought ‘Christian’ and ‘European’ (i.e., non-Mongol)were synonymous. He was sent to Batu, who sent him to the emperor in Mongolia. When he arrived in Karakorum the Mongols were perplexed, and repeatedly asked “Why have you come, seeing that you did not come to make peace?”

In many of the Mongols’ minds there was no such thing as peace without submission. Even though they weren’t currently invading France, they considered themselves to be at war with it. From their point of view, the whole world was theirs, and the few places they hadn’t conquered yet were merely rebelling. They thought Rubruck’s visit to be pointless.  By the 18th century, this idea had faded away along with the Mongol Empire. The roles were even somewhat reversed. Expanding European empires and the Qing empire considered tribal people and nomads to be inherently inferior. They shamelessly built forts and colonies in their territory, then treated any natives who attacked them as rebels.

Rubruck makes his journey sound very uncomfortable. He often had to eat millet broth or raw meat. Throughout his journey he was constantly harassed by greedy Mongols, all of whom wanted gifts. John Bell had a more comfortable and luxurious journey, even though he was traveling through Siberia, which is, so far as I know, considerably colder than Mongolia or Turkestan.

Rubruck and Carpini were at the mercy of the nomads, and had to live and travel like nomads. John Bell, on the other hand, got to travel with a small troop of dragoons. Everywhere he went, except Mongolia, there were towns, villages, and cities, where the inhabitants had to treat him kindly. He often spent days, sometimes weeks, enjoying himself in cities with the local nobles and elites. Once in China he was given feasts and entertainments non-stop for the duration of his stay. John Bell sounds like he’s having fun; Rubruck and Carpini do not.

John Bell shows less interest in religion than Carpini and Rubruck. He dismisses most of the religions he encounters as superstitious paganism, not distinguishing one form of paganism from another. Carpini, on the other hand, dedicates a chapter to the religion of the Tartars. Rubruck, being a priest, attempts to make converts, and he comments on the various different sects. He claims to have won a religious debate at the royal court in Karakorum. He frequently comments on the practices of the Nestorians.

Bell divides all religions into three groups: Christian, Mahometan, and Pagan.  He calls Mongolian Buddhism “paganism of the grossest kind.” He doesn’t distinguish it from Tengriism, perhaps because they had become so thoroughly blended by the 18th century. He regards shamans with disgust and skepticism. Both Rubruck and Bell call all Buddhists ‘idolaters’. Rubruck spends two chapters describing the ‘idolaters’, and even describes a conversation with them regarding their religious beliefs. Bell seems not to have spent any time discussing theological matters, except maybe with the Sufi fakir whom I mentioned above.

Rubruck often regards the Mongols with contempt, but he also admires their lifestyle. Rubruck was a Franciscan, so he should have seen poverty as virtuous. Despite this, he reveals that he was obese, and he repeatedly complains about hunger. At the end of his report to Louis IX he says “I tell you with confidence that if our peasants–to say nothing of kings and knights–were willing to travel in the way the Tartar princes move and to be content with a similar diet, they could conquer the whole world.”

John Bell expresses a great admiration for the nomadic lifestyle: “These Tartars live in tents, all the year, removing from place to place, as called by necessity or inclination. This is the most ancient and pleasant manner of life. It is entertaining to hear them commiserate those who are confined to one place of abode, and obliged to support themselves by labour, which they reckon the greatest slavery.”

Bell suggests several times that he would have liked to stay in Mongolia. He found the people to be honest and polite, and the lifestyle pleasantly simple. I think he had a more positive opinion of nomads than did Carpini and Rubruck because their countries were at risk of destruction at the hands of nomads, whereas in Bell’s time it was the other way around; nomadic nations and nomadism itself were being destroyed by encroaching sedentary empires.

John Bell describes various historical events in his book, as do Rubruck and Carpini. Bell’s history is much more accurate than Rubruck’s or Carpini’s. Carpini talks of dog-headed people, armies of dogs defeating the Mongols, and other such silliness. Rubruck’s history of the Mongols is less absurd, but still confused and incorrect. Bell’s history is more or less the same as any modern history, because the age he lived in is quite well-documented. He also had a good sense of geography. When estimating the size of rivers and distances between places, he’s usually not off by much. He probably obtained much of his information in China, where the ambassador and Kangxi talked much of history, and in Tobolsk, where the governor probably kept track of what was happening in Dzungaria.

Rubruck and Carpini probably had to depend on rumors, because they knew much less about the physical situation of the world. Most of the world, in their time, hadn’t been explored or mapped by Europeans. Bell seems to have had a much more thorough understanding of geography; he had probably seen rather accurate maps of the world.

Ultimately, Bell’s journey was of less value in my estimation, because he enjoyed himself too much and did not do enough to further the interests of Christ (peace be upon him) and God, whereas Rubruck proselytized well, and Carpini served as a valuable spy for the Papacy in a time when Europe was at risk of being completely overrun. Bell’s travelogues are also of less historical value, because information was less sparse in his time, whereas all of the medieval travelogues to the East are invaluable.

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