The Remarkable Travels Of Jonas Hanway, And What He Learned From Them

Travelers and explorers march on; and I march on with my retellings of their adventures and philosophies.  I suspect that few readers will have heard of the great English traveler and philanthropist Jonas Hanway; yet his career and worldview embodies many of the values we have extolled here, as we will understand later in this article.  Hanway’s journeys in Russia and Persia alone make him worthy of inclusion among any list of great itinerants; but, when these experiences are combined with his expansive moral and ethical philosophy, we have the ingredients of true greatness.  The world needs more men like him now.

His Life And Travels

He was born in 1712 in Portsmouth, Hampshire, and his father died when Hanway was but a child.  His family was not especially wealthy, and he imbibed an industrious, enterprising ethic at an early age.  When the was seventeen, he was sent to Lisbon, Portugal to become an apprentice in a mercantile house.  This experience whetted his appetite for foreign languages and foreign travel.  At this passionate age, he was also not immune to the charms of Iberian femininity, and he carried on an affair with a local girl whom he wished to marry.  But, alas, his romantic experiences ended badly; perhaps her family did not accept him.  We do know that the experience permanently colored his outlook.  He forswore the idea of marriage, and remained single for the rest of his life.  Perhaps the greatest philanthropists all nurse some secret wound.

How the muse Travel beckons youth to experience and adventure. (From the frontpiece of one of Hanway’s works)

Hanway steadily mastered the essentials of commerce and business.  He departed for Russia in 1743 to serve in a commercial house, and was soon assigned to represent the firm in the Caspian trade.  He was appointed the agent of the Russia Company in Persia.  He resolved to go to Persia himself, and set out from Moscow with an interpreter and some assistants, along with various commercial samples.  He first proceeded down the Volga and then took a ship to Astrakhan, and from there went to Yerkie.  Finally, on December 3, 1743, he arrived at Lanjaron, Persia, after having crossed the Caspian.  He reached Astrabad on December 18.

At Astrabad he secured the protection of the local leader, Nazir Aga; he asked to be allowed to leave with his merchandise (cloth and assorted manufactured goods) to the city of Meshed.  He was now using camels for transportation.  Danger now intervened.  Hanway found himself in the thick of a local insurrection that flared up without warning, and as a comparatively wealthy foreigner he would be an easy target for the local dispossessed.  Rebels seized his merchandise and placed him under house arrest.  The Turcoman rebels, as is customary in Persia, exceedingly polite, but left no doubt that he was their prisoner.  He was able to conceal 160 gold on his person, but lost the rest of his cargo to Fate.

Local sympathizers helped smuggle him out of Astrabad, so that he might avoid the indignity of being made a captive servant.  From this point he traveled in disguise through remote pathways of northern Iran, masquerading as a poor Russian.  He had a chance to inspect the ruins of Ferhabad, once the seat of the ancient Persian kings.  After almost getting involved in a shootout, he paddled along the Persian coast in a canoe with a few tough comrades as far as Teschidezar.  The shah heard of his difficulties and sent an outfitted horse to Hanway.  With this he proceeded to Balfroosh; but Turcoman rebels were all over the countryside, and he soon found himself in even worse straits than before.  By this time he had lost nearly everything:  his companions, his supplies, and his horse.  Even his clothing was in tatters, hanging like rags from his body and giving him the appearance of a vagabond.

By some miracle he found kindly villagers who were willing to help this strange “Russian” who could barely speak Persian.  By the first week of March he reached Casbin, nearly blind from the glare of snow on the ground, and joined a detachment of soldiers.  He finally was able to secure an audience with the shah, and petitioned for compensation for the loss of his goods in Astrabad.  Shah Nadir agreed, and Hanway left him at the end of March.  He was impressed by the beauty of Iran, commenting on

[T]he falls of water from the rocks, the stupendous mountains, far higher than any he had seen in Europe, rising gradually one above another, some with their summits covered with snow, and others concealing their heads in the clouds, formed a delightful scene. The vines were full of foliage, the orange-groves perfumed the air with their fragrance, and the gardens were in full blossom.

By April he was back in Astrabad.  Payment as promised was slow in coming.  But the new local leader offered him compensation in female slaves, that might, he was assured, be sold for a handsome profit.  Hanway politely demurred.  He was then laid low by the plague for several months; this bout with disease nearly killed him.  After various adventures too numerous to mention here, he was able to make his way out of Persia, arriving back at the Volga by September 13.  By December 22, he had arrived back at Moscow and too safety.

And yet Fate, as we have so often observed here, works in strange, unexpected ways.  In Moscow he found letters waiting for him that announced he had become the beneficiary of a very large (and totally unexpected) inheritance.  “Providence was thus indulgent to me,” he would later say, “as if it meant to reward me for the sincerity of my endeavours.”  He returned to St. Petersburg in January 1745, and stayed there for five more years, watching his fortune increase through the benefits of trade.

Title page of Hanway’s account of his travels in Russia and Persia

He returned to London in October 1750 and decided to give up all commercial pursuits.  He was by now a changed man.  Some fundamental change had taken place in him, which must have had its origins in the near-death experiences he had in Persia and Russia.  He grew to despise arrogance, cruelty, and the exploitation of the weak, and resolved to struggle against it for the rest of his life.  He turned out one pamphlet after another, advocating for things that we today take for granted.  He proposed the paving of all of London’s streets; he founded the Marine Society, which promoted maritime trade; he pushed for the founding of hospitals, orphanages, and rehabilitation houses for reformed prostitutes.  He even advocated for the rights of chimney-sweepers, who in his day endured terrible physical hardships.  Not all of his reforms were successful; for some reason he believed tea-drinking was harmful and advocated–unsuccessfully–for its limitation.

Title page for a project associated with Hanway’s charitable works

This great Englishman died on September 5, 1786.  By this time he and his good works were known to all in London.  One biographer described him with these words:

His last moments were those of a Christian and a philosopher, calm and tranquil, indicating the firmest reliance on the mercy and goodness of God, and a consciousness of a life honestly and usefully spent…

His blue eyes had never been brilliant, but they expressed the utmost humanity and benevolence; and when he spoke, the animation of his countenance and the tone of his voice were such as seemed to carry conviction with them even to the mind of a stranger. When he endeavoured to sooth distress, or point out to any wretch who had strayed the comforts of a virtuous life, he was peculiarly impressive; and every thing that he said had an air of consideration and sincerity…

One of Hanway’s appeals to improve the living conditions of poor children

He knew well how much the happiness of mankind is dependent on honest industry, and received a pleasure but faintly described in words when any of the objects of his charity, cleanly apparelled, and with cheerful and contented countenances, came to pay their respects to him. He treated them as his acquaintance, entered into their concerns with a paternal affection, and let them know that on any real emergency they might apply with confidence to him. It was this rather than the largeness of his gifts that endeared him so much to the common people. He never walked out but he was followed by the good wishes, silent or expressed, of some to whom he had afforded relief.

He was a great man.  He had learned his lessons the hard way, and knew how to let his soul be governed by wisdom and justice.

Jonas Hanway’s Lessons From Travel And His Ethical Philosophy

In the course of preparing this article, I was fortunate to come upon a concise summary, in essay form, of Hanway’s ethical philosophy.  It can be seen as the lessons he learned from his extensive travels and near-death experiences, and it is taken from his book An Historical Account of the British Trade over the Caspian Sea (1753).  As Hanway sees things, each member of society has a responsibility towards his peers; and no nation can long survive as a free state if the privileged few shirk that responsibility.  Moral corruption matters, too: when a people lose sight of virtue, a slide into “libertinism” is inevitable, and this quickly causes political freedom to dissolve into authoritarianism.

Perfect happiness most certainly is not the lot of mortals on this side the grave: the portion of bliss, which heaven has granted to this country [England], like the disorders arising from sanguine health, seems to create a satiety, even in those who have a claim to the reward of virtue; as if we were to learn from hence, that there is yet a better country, whither we are travelling, where only the mind can possess an entire satisfaction.

The passage of a merchant from one country into another, in pursuit of commercial affairs, ought not to be considered in the fame light, as the travels of a man of letters, in search of arts or learning: but if in the course of their observation they have supported one common spirit of national affection; in proportion to their advantages of education and natural abilities, the effect will be in a great decree similar.

Their own country must necessarily become the dearer to them, according as they discover the superiority it enjoys in laws and government above other nations. Being thus excited by a generous emulation, instead of bringing home the vices of other countries, they will strive to plant the virtues which are more peculiar to foreign climes and not the proper growth of their own soil.

The ravages of time, the ruins of cities, the desolation of countries, the tyranny of kings, the folly and iniquity of subjects in selling themselves like beasts to the slaughter; with all the pernicious effects of arbitrary power, must, in a serious mind, draw reflexions on the uncertainty of human affairs. By tracing these events, as near as possible to their source, the heart will be lifted up to the great author of nature, and adopt a consistent principle concerning the general law of his moral government, by observing how vice is ever productive of misery. Though the dispensations of his providence are oftentimes incomprehensible, yet this ought not to weaken a steady persuasion, that virtue is in every region, and under every government, acceptable to him; “that what he delights in must be happy,” however the face of things may appear.

And to check every fond presumption of independency, though we grasp the fleeting moments, it is but as to-morrow when a curtain will be drawn over all the glories, as well as the miseries of this world. In the mean while, whether we go abroad, or remain at home, enjoy a profusion, or mediocrity of the gifts of providence, we are travelling to another country. Our noblest science, our highest accomplishment, our supreme felicity, is the knowledge and observance of that compass, whose needle points to our proper home; to those regions, where millions of blessed spirits inhabit; where the eye will be satisfied with seeing, the understanding with knowledge, and the heart with delights, of which this world can give but faint ideas…

The soul is ever active: this world is its scene, as a prelude to the next; some ruling principle will always possess and lead us on to action. To be idle, and to be happy, is a contradiction: but however employed, he has no mean lot who glides through life in tranquil silence, though unobserved. Perhaps he is one of the most happy of men; but all are not capable of this felicity.

We cannot reflect too often, that “True self-love and social are the same;” yet considering man as a unity, self must, and ought to predominate. That is best for him which is most productive of his particular happiness, with respect to the scene in which he takes his part; and in which he is best qualified to act with dignity, and with a due regard to both worlds. We are happy only when we are employed, and when some particular object governs the lesser passions and desires.

The wise author of nature certainly intended that this object should be himself, and that all the various connections of our animal, our social, our intellectual nature, should ultimately terminate in him, and be subservient to this end. Here then let our enquiry rest: and since every day brings eternity the nearer, the contemplation of that eternity ought in all reason to increase, as our hours are fleeting away. Without neglecting the ordinary course of his affairs, the merchant who is wise will apply most vigilantly to that business in which his whole fortune is embarked…

The knowledge which I have of my own country being acquired abroad, and very limited, the affairs of it now appear to me in a great measure as matter of enquiry and curiosity, as well as interest. Things ever strike us most while they are most new: the indulgent reader may consider me yet as a traveller, who gives his thoughts of things as their novelty, their variety, or their singularity affect him; with some distinction however in regard to the motive, as well as some previous know ledge derived from the early impressions of youth.

It is the happiness of a free state, directed by good laws, that every member belonging to it is entitled to protection, so long as he obeys those laws. The dignity he derives from hence raises him in his own esteem:  this is apt to render hint inquisitive in matters of which he is not qualified to judge, and is the cause of infinite follies. Even those who are bred up in the knowledge of national affairs in England, are generally swayed by their prejudices in favour of some person or party; in the mean while the number of the judicious and unprejudiced is so small, that a man has hardly any opportunity of learning how to settle his mind…

If to rob a nation by collusive or injurious practices, is an atrocious crime, with what consistency can we believe that those who pass for honest men have been guilty of it? We certainly ought to be tender in our accusations of this kind. Credulity does not argue any strength of judgment: the virtue of the mind ever rises or falls, with the charity which we cherish or suppress…

In private life, a disposition inclined to the submissive, is not that which makes the greatest eclat; but it certainly is most agreeable to the dignity of human nature, because it was practised by him who was the great pattern of human perfection. In spite then of the suggestions of pride, this rule of conduct must be the most amiable. In order to be free, is it necessary to be querulous or turbulent? Freedom must arise from a steady, even principle, a determined resolution not to offend against our own minds, or, in other words, to adhere to what is right. To this we may add vigilance and care in our respective stations, that those who are our immediate guardians take no steps destructive of our safety.

Profile of Hanway, taken from one of his books

Our compassion for human infirmities, is generally in proportion to the degree of knowledge we have of human nature. This consideration in good minds, will check the spirit of national complaint upon trivial evidence, and consequently restore a greater national virtue. If those hours spent in political satyr, were applied to the cultivation os knowledge and virtue, even granting there is frequent occasion of complaint, what good might we not expect? Among the lower classes of the people, complaints are seldom without great ignorance; and those of the higher rank generally include a secret desire of the emoluments possessed by the very persons who are the subjects of such complaints.

And of whom should we complain, but of ourselves? What is our boasted constitution? What our darling liberty, but that we cannot be ruined without our own consent? Was the making complaints the characteristic of virtue, we should then be our own panegyrists; but still they would answer little purpose till we brought that virtue into action. One vigorous and well concerted remonstrance of a real evil, must be ever more effectual than a thousand vague complaints…

All periods of time produce a numerous train of discontented subjects, some with, and many more without reason. Partiality to our own faults is apt to make us ascribe the evils we suffer, real or imaginary, to any cause, rather than to our own vices and imperfections. The comparison of characters renders them odious or amiable; but we ought not, I think, to judge from a few choice spirits, but consider what is the general turn of a people…

Were we to lose our virtue, in the strictest sense, we must lose our liberty also. The arbitrary power which prevails in some other nation, would be a compulsive means of employing their strength to our ruin; whilst our freedom of with-holding our assistance in support of the commonwealth, might, by our acting contrary to the apparent designs of providence, prepare an easier way to their conquest, if we did not fall by our own hands. In proportion to the disobedience of laws, divine or human, by the observance of which the constitution has been so long and so happily supported, it must tend to its dissolution; for the contrary of that which set it up must throw it down again. I think nothing can be more demonstrable than this; if libertinism is carried to a certain degree, the coercive power must become arbitrary, in the rigid sense of that word.

A nation which has not virtue enough to be ruled by the laws of reason, must submit to military force, as is now the case of much the greatest part of the world. Thus liberty ceases, and when that is gone, it is no impropriety to say the nation is undone. Has ever so formidable a state as this fallen but under the weight of its own vices? Great monarchies have been dissolved only by great corruption and civil discord; so that the Almighty has certainly annexed temporal felicities to nations, as well as eternal rewards to men, in consequence of their virtue…

What constitutes the greatness or goodness of a man but his regard to the society? Or why is a prince called good, and his people ready to of fer themselves as victims for his safety, but as he honours, loves, and respects the community of which he professes to be the guardian?

The present and future happiness of individuals, as well as the felicity of the state, are all intimately dependent on each other. True politeness is but humanity refined, which ultimately centers in charity; public love is but the fame charity adapted to the dignity and prosperity of the community of which we are members. A free government is moreover the state of nature, with regard to the equality of men and their common rights.  Public love cannot be separated from the idea of such a state; and as the notion of this love implies a desire of the virtue and temporal felicity of men, it is analogous with that charity which the almighty has appointed as the great rule of conduct, and without which he has given mankind no title to eternal happiness…

Human nature being ever the same, to form a just idea of things, we must trace them to their fountain. Self-preservation is the first and strongest law in nature. What is our duty in obedience to this law? We know that a nation is composed of many individuals, who have one common interest; that the different ranks, employments, and circumstances of a people, are only means essential to the support of the public; and that every condition of life has its peculiar happiness, as well as misery. Providence has been indulgent to us all; do we move on this great plan, and according to the orders of that providence?

Do we not rather vie with each other, not who shall be wisest, but who shall excel most in vanities and expensive follies; and thus deviating from the great principle laid down, at least, prepare a way for ruin?

Has any man learned as much from his travels, and put such humanistic knowledge to practical use?  The length of the quote above may be forgiven by virtue of its timeless relevance.  Hanway’s words on the responsibilities of all citizens resonate just as powerfully today–perhaps even more so–than when they were written in the 1750s.  This is greatness of soul–in Cicero’s words, magnitudo animi–in living and applied form.  We acutely feel the loss of men like him in our own era.


Read more in the groundbreaking translation of On Duties: