“Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767” by Thorkild Hansen


Arabia Felix: Happy Arabia. Who wouldn’t want to go there and find out why it was such a happy place? In fact, in 1761 not that many Europeans were going there, which left an opening for the culturally and scientifically minded king of Denmark, Frederik V, to make a name for himself and his country by supporting a Danish expedition to that fortunate land. New scientific discoveries could be there for the making and new accurate maps drawn, as well as a chance to prove some of the stories told about Moses and the Israelites; could they have left inscriptions as they fled from Egyptian persecution, writings which might be transcribed by a competent philologist?

It was to answer to intriguing questions like these that Frederik V and the Danish foreign minister, the long-suffering Count Bernstorff, at the instigation of Professor Johann Michaelis, a German orientalist, decided to equip and finance such an expedition, and to find the right people to participate in it. Bernstorff, for his part, would be at the receiving end of numerous complaining letters and requests for further funding. Michaelis even wrote up a huge volume of questions that he wanted the expedition to consider as they traveled.

Their story is told in this book by the late Thorkild Hansen (he died, unfortunately, in 1989 while on a cruise), a distinguished Danish traveler and novelist; New York Review Books has fortuitously chosen Hansen’s book, written in 1962 and ably translated by the McFarlanes two years later, to include in their reprint series, and the well-known British traveler Colin Thubron has written a new and excellent introduction for it. Hansen has done readers interested in lesser-known travels a great service by writing this book, although given the fact that it was written over fifty years ago might suggest an updating if there is any new source material. It is good to have this book back again, and the publishers are to be commended for issuing it in paperback.

The motives for the Danish expedition to Arabia Felix were completely non-colonial.

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767, Thorkild Hansen, James McFarlane (trans), Kathleen McFarlane (trans), Colin Thubron (introduction) (NYRB Classics, June 2017)
Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767, Thorkild Hansen, James McFarlane (trans), Kathleen McFarlane (trans), Colin Thubron (introduction) (NYRB Classics, June 2017)

It is perhaps not well-known that Denmark, like Britain, France, Spain and Portugal, had an interest in the “Orient”. In 1616, the Danish East India Company was founded, which lasted with a break and a name-change to the Asiatic Company, to 1850. In 1620, Admiral Ove Gjedde, by means of a deal with the local ruler, established the first Danish trading-post in India at Trankebar (the Danish name), now in Tamil Nadu State, which was chosen, in fact, as the original destination for the 1761 expedition, although that was changed.

Gjedde’s project was originally trade-based, and there was no desire to actually colonize the territory around Trankebar, although the admiral demolished an existing Portuguese church and replaced it with Fort Dansborg. The Danes would remain in India until 1845.

The motives for the Danish expedition to Arabia Felix were also completely non-colonial; it was purely scientific and cultural and undertaken in the spirit of the 18th-century Enlightenment. This fact has seemingly escaped some recent reviewers, who have criticized the participants for their apparent acceptance of slavery or European colonialism and for being participants in the cultural norms of their times. It might have helped had they glanced at Peter Forsskål’s short book Thoughts on Civil Liberties (1759), which earned him opprobrium and temporary banishment for advocating democratic ideas.

Peter Forsskål was, in many ways, the most interesting member of the expedition, although he, like four more of the six men on it, never made it home to Denmark. He was a Swedish botanist who possessed a working knowledge of Arabic and was already well-known in scientific circles; he had also studied under the great Carl Linnaeus, with whom he kept in constant touch throughout the following years.

The philologist chosen for the trip was Frederik Christian von Haven, one of only two actual Danes, apart from the manservant Berggren, who participated in the adventure. Von Haven comes across in Hansen’s book as lazy, fractious and unco-operative, and at one point his colleagues believe that he wants to poison them with some arsenic they have discovered in his belongings.

The expedition was distinguished from others by having no formal leader, but both von Haven and Forsskål seem to have chafed at this, each believing that he should lead. Hansen may be exaggerating von Haven’s unpleasantness to the point at which he becomes a “villain” in the book; this portrayal no doubt owes something to the fact that Hansen was a novelist, and that the whole book does display novelistic techniques, including elevating the self-effacing Carsten Niebuhr, the German-born astronomer, map-maker and sole survivor, into a hero and a foil to von Haven.

In some ways Hansen comes across as a rather too novelistic “narrator”, speculating on what the men are thinking and often putting a creative spin on their exploits. This makes for great reading but sometimes detracts from the realities of the situation faced by the expedition. Christian Kramer, the Danish doctor, is a near-nonentity and, in the opinion of von Haven, not much of a doctor either, and the German artist Georg Wilhelm Bauernfeind, a good-natured, modestly-talented man who faced difficult situations with equanimity. The manservant Berggren, whose first name appears to be unknown, is a large, stolid man who did his best and appears to have got little thanks or recognition for it.

Carsten Niebuhr in the attire of a distinguished Arab in Yemen (WikiCommons)
Carsten Niebuhr in the attire of a distinguished Arab in Yemen (WikiCommons)

We are left in no doubt that Niebuhr is the man whom Hansen most admires, not simply because he came through alive, but because he did it quietly and determinedly, and Hansen shows us how he eventually became quite friendly with Forsskål, a difficult, sometimes belligerent man who despised von Haven, whom he considered unqualified and useless. It is certainly true that most of what we know about this ill-fated adventure comes from Niebuhr’s writings, notably a lengthy account written in German (1772) and from those of his son, to whom, when he was old and blind, Niebuhr related many stories about his exploits and about his companions.

Von Haven and Forsskål also sent letters, and apparently the former also kept a journal, about which Hansen did not know, and which was published in 2005. It may have served to mitigate von Haven’s reputation somewhat, as his contributions have now been re-evaluated.

But Niebuhr is an attractive figure who can be seen to grow as the journey progresses, and he, unlike the others, displays a self-deprecating sense of humor which pops up from time to time. Hansen paints a portrait of a man who loved to travel and observe, who put up with awful food, grasping Arabs, leaking houses and, at one point, his horse falling through the floor of the second-storey room in which he was staying.

Recurrent bouts of fever never stop him from making maps and observing the stars, and when Bauernfeind, died, he took over as artist, making many wonderful drawings along the way. Niebuhr had a very long and circuitous journey home; partly at his own instigation and still suffering the effects of malaria, he traveled to India, present-day Iraq (where he visited Baghdad and Mosul), Syria (he was in Aleppo), and all the way across Turkey and Romania (there was plague in Bucharest) to Poland, finally getting to Copenhagen after nearly seven years away.

Hansen has given us a snapshot of 18th-century intellectual life combined with a real-life adventure into unknown and potentially dangerous territory.

Above all, Hansen has given us a snapshot of 18th-century intellectual life combined with a real-life adventure into unknown and potentially dangerous territory. We become acquainted with quarrelling professors and the bureaucrats who try to manage them from a great distance, and we find that academic life may not have been much different in 18th-century Europe than it is now, with its jealousies, rivalries and constant questing for funding.

Some of these men also made some significant contributions to science, in spite of all their vicissitudes. Niebuhr’s maps were the most accurate of his day, and he made a transcription of the cuneiform script in Persepolis which eventually allowed another Dane, Rasmus Rask, to decipher it in 1826. Forsskål managed to send a branch of extremely rare Mecca balsam to Linnaeus, as well as crating up a large number of other specimens which were, sadly, neglected and destroyed.

Some of Bauernfeind’s engravings were also saved, thanks to Niebuhr, who even published a book of them at his own expense when he got back to Denmark. Niebuhr himself got little recognition when he first got home; Frederik V had died in 1766 and his son Christian VII, a teenager, spent his time partying, drinking and, abetted by his girlfriend, throwing his furniture out of the palace windows, reigning with varying mental stability until 1808. He did, however, eventually take time off from his busy schedule to receive Niebuhr. The latter spent his remaining days quietly; he got married and had a family, and eventually received some credit for what he had done, before settling down in a small town where he worked as an assistant to the rural council. He died in 1815 at the age of eighty-two.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His latest book is an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012).