In hopes of enticing slawkenbergius to share more of his hard-won knowledge, herewith a couple more language-related anecdotes from Benson Bobrick (see yesterday’s post). First, on the Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689:

The talks got under way on August 12, and were conducted through interpreters in Latin, with the Chinese relying on two Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Francis Gerbillon and Thomas Pereyra (both long resident in Peking), and the Russians (for form’s sake) on Andrei Belobotskii, a university-educated Pole, although Golovin was fluent in Latin himself.

(Russian Wikipedia says that Belobocki, as his name would be spelled in Polish, was actually named Jan, but Google says “Your search – Jan Belobocki – did not match any documents.”) It makes sense that Latin was used for an international conference in the seventeenth century, but I’ll bet not many people would have guessed the Russians and Chinese would have so employed it. And here’s a bit on the unfortunate Dembei, a Japanese merchant clerk who was shipwrecked and floated to Kamchatka, where he was rescued from the Kamchadals by Vladimir Atlasov:

Atlasov brought him to Anadyrsk, from where he was conveyed under escort to Moscow in 1701 and presented to Peter the Great. Peter made him the nucleus of a Japanese language school in the capital, but despite a promise to the contrary, never allowed him to return home. Eventually, he was baptized under the name of Gabriel, but lived out his days in profound melancholy in St. Petersburg — the first casualty of Russia’s chronically troubled relations with Japan.

(I imagine slawkenbergius will object to the editorializing about “Russia’s chronically troubled relations with Japan.”)


  1. Yes, the Latin bit is something I often reference when I’m trying to convince people my thesis topic is interesting, dammit. More interesting is that the Russians tried, though not especially hard, to develop a native Manchu and Chinese-speaking group of interpreters–I’ve found their vocabulary lists and student notebooks in my research, which is heartening for me as I’m trying unsuccessfully to learn Mandarin myself. The Qing actually had their own Russian language school in Beijing, but it doesn’t seem like this had much effect: in the end, one of the reasons they kept the Jesuits around was that they made it easy to do diplomacy with the Russians. (Occasionally the Jesuits would introduce, as far as I can tell intentionally, errors into treaty translations that ended up benefiting the Qing.)
    As for the Japanese, my favorite anecdote involves two Japanese shipwreck survivors in the 1730s who were trucked back to St. Petersburg and baptized as “Dem’ian Pomortsev” (“Pomortsev” because he’d been found by the sea, of course) and “Kuzma Schulz.” Just imagine two space aliens being found at Area 51 and named Cletus Cornfield and Billy Bob Yamaguchi.

  2. Ha! And you have my sympathy regarding Mandarin; I didn’t do well learning it myself. (Though I remember enough bits and pieces to win points with my grandson who goes to the Chinese-immersion school here.)

  3. marie-lucie says

    Atlasov must have had political reasons for keeping Dembei alive and sending him on to the capital. It was probably not just out of the goodness of his heart. According to Wikipedia, he was a pretty rough and brutal character himself, not only massacring a number of people but ending up killed by his own men. Not the most convincing example of the peaceful, respectful and benevolent Russian non-colonization of Siberia.

  4. his own people killed him and periodically revolted against him, so that also says something about the person himself, doesn’t seem like his treatment of his own people was that different from his treatment of the native people, bandit is bandit wherever, he was even jailed for his excesses, as wiki says

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    About 90 years after Dembei: “the returned castaway Daikokuya was put under arrest in Edo and subjected to interrogation by the physician and specialist on Dutch technology Katsuragawa Hoshu. Daikokuya had learned a lot about Russia in those years he worked in Irkutsk and traveled to Petersburg, and he was anxious to promote better mutual understanding. Katsuragawa, on the other hand, may have been motivated by a desire to protect Dutch interests. He was very close to the Dejima factory doctor Peter Thunberg and the famous trade commissioner Izaak Titsingh. He consulted with his Dutch associates before he interrogated Daikokuya. Whatever the intrigue, the results were the remarkable book Hokusa bunryaku (1794), a treasure house of information on Russia.” from, which states inter alia that there was quite a lot of amicable Russo-Japanese interaction around Hokkaido in the 18th century by local players acting contrary to the official policies of both governments.

  6. The original Polish form of his surname must be Białobocki. When (re)transcribed from Russian into Polish, he becomes Biełobocki. Here is a short entry about him in Polish:

  7. Atlasov and Khabarov and the rest were quite a rogues’ gallery. What really astonishes me is how often they combined gratuitous brutality with staggering incompetence.

  8. 1-I recall reading somewhere that for a time the common language used between the Russians and the Japanese (and used in at least one treaty) was Dutch: does anyone out there know more about this?
    2-Apparently in the early days of European colonial expansion Latin was far more widely used as a spoken lingua franca than we’d expect: it seems this was quite common whenever missionaries on the one hand and other Europeans (explorers, merchants) on the other, in a given area, came from different countries. The topic seems quite under-studied, sadly.
    Indeed I would not be at all surprised if, among the borrowed words of “unknown etymology” found in various non-European languages, it turns out that some are in fact Latinisms.
    3-Slawkenbergius: “Cletus Cornfield” and “Billy Bob Yamaguchi”…good thing I wasn’t drinking anything when I read that, I would have needed a new screen immediately afterwards. Glad to see your work on your thesis has not made you lose your sense of humor.

  9. SFReader says

    Don’t forget Spafarius (Milescu), Russian ambassador to China in 1670s.
    He spoke 9 languages was graduate of Padua University in Italy, an international scholar (published a Latin treatise on Orthodox Christianity in France), a widely travelled diplomat (he seems to have visited every country in Europe, plus Russian, Ottoman and Chinese empires), in short, a true Renaisance Man.
    When he met in Peking Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (another poliglot and distinguished scholar) working for Qing, they instantly hit common language (two or three)

  10. SFReader says

    Interestingly, Atlasov apparently realized quickly that Denbei came from some civilized country, but having never heard of Japan, mistakenly thought he was from India.
    It’s true that many Japanese have a rather dark complexion, but still…

  11. “Atlasov apparently realized quickly that Denbei came from some civilized country”
    so does it mean if it was perceived that some “civilized country” was involved, it’s very desirable to establish that there were amicable interactions, in nowadays research, while the aborigines were of course just brutally colonialized

  12. Bathrobe says

    slawkenbergius, I think my source for the ‘machinations’ of the Jesuits was Peter Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Asia, starting around p 167. (The section is “The Treaty of Nerchinsk and the Excluded Middle”, from p. 161).

  13. The original Polish form of his surname must be Białobocki. When (re)transcribed from Russian into Polish, he becomes Biełobocki.
    Thanks! I really should learn Polish one of these days.

  14. “Polish is essentially a light form of Russian that even Germans can understand.” —Essentialist Explanations

  15. SFReader says

    —Peter Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Asia
    I’ve read first fifty pages or so, but didn’t finish. Not really a quality book, makes elementary mistakes in geography, history and ethnography of the region.
    Now, I’d recommend Bergholz’s classic “The partition of the steppe : the struggle of the Russians, Manchus, and the Zunghar Mongols for empire in Central Asia, 1619-1758 : a study in power politics”, but unfortunately it’s almost impossible to obtain (not even mentioning heavy price of two hundred dollars)

  16. Well, has it for $103.23, and for only $90.88!
    How ridiculous that a book like that is essentially unavailable—according to WorldCat, there isn’t even a library copy closer than Germany. Why can’t there be a reasonably priced electronic version?

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  18. marie-lucie says

    I like “the therapy lamp of curiosity”.

  19. “the therapy lamp of curiosity”
    A great title for someone’s book.

  20. marie-lucie says

    A few days ago I posted the following on “For lack of a translator”, but it may have been buried among other posts there, so I will repost it here since the topic is equally appropriate in this thread:
    (other commenter) A point which is rarely gets mentioned in Western historiography is that Russian conquest of Siberia was essentially a private enterprise.
    I learned about this a few years ago when I found the book The Oriental Adventure: Explorers of the East (1976), by Tim Severin. The book deals with European travellers to Asia [mostly] by land, as a counterpart for the better-known stories of explorations by sea. Since most of the people and events in the book were completely new to me, I wanted to ask if others here had read it and could comment on it, especially on the chapters on Siberia and China.
    Posted by: marie-lucie at July 9, 2012 09:50 AM

  21. I have not read it, but it certainly sounds interesting.

  22. marie-lucie says

    Oh, it is very interesting, that’s why I would like to learn more about its reliability.

  23. Seems another rare and unobtainable book. Perhaps you could ask concrete questions on facts and opinions in the book

  24. marie-lucie says

    SF Reader: My book is currently unfindable among my many other books and papers. I don’t remember enough to ask specific questions.
    Tim Severin is the one who built a leather boat in order to replicate the Voyage of Saint Brendan (which he did, as far as was possible), and later did other replications (like Thor Heyerdahl), so that he was not taken very seriously at first, but later he won awards from historical societies for his books, so that one is probably accurate enough. It is a very enjoyable read, but many such turn out to have flaws, that’s why I would have liked second opinions.

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