John Bell was born in 1690 in Antermony, Scotland. He seems to have decided at an early age to study medicine, but was lured into the world of adventure and travel by hearing stories of Peter the Great of Russia, who was a famous figure in Europe in the early eighteenth century. He resolved to visit Russia for himself, and set out to St. Petersburg in July 1714. The czar was preparing a delegation under the command of Aremy Petrovich Valenskyto travel to Persia; and Bell, with his medical background, volunteered to join the party as an attendant.
The expedition left St. Petersburg on July 15, 1715, and proceeded along the western bank of the Neva, heading towards Novgorod. He eventually reached the Volga, which in those days was teeming with “an extraordinary variety of some of the finest fish in the world,” as one historian relates. Moscow held little interest for him; and they continued down the Volga to reach the vicinity near Kazen by early November. Bell relates that the world’s best falcons come from this region, and their possession is highly prized among the Turks and Persians. There was even a species of falcon there called cherkh, which is used for antelope hunting; the birds were trained to attack the quadrupeds by fresh meat being placed between the horns of stuffed antelope mannequins. Bell even happened to meet two Swedish generals who had been exiled to this remote region after being captured by the Russians during the Battle of Pultowa.
In June 1716 they entered the Caspian and by the end of August had arrived at Niezebad. From there they moved on to Shamakia and then Kurdistan; in moving through these mountainous, snowy regions, many of his party contracted ophthalmia, the same affliction of the eyes that Hannibal contracted in his passage through the Alps. But by February 1717 they had reached the lush pomegranate groves of Qom in Persia, and in March the party arrived in Isfahan. He and his companions were astounded by the wealth of Persia. Here Bell describes a typical banquet scene:
Soon after we entered there were served up a great variety of sweetmeats, and all kinds of fruit that the climate afforded. Coffee and sherbet were carried about by turns. We were placed cross-legged on the carpets, except the ambassador, who had a seat. During this part of the feast we were entertained with vocal and instrumental music, dancing boys, tumblers, puppets, and jugglers. All the performers executed their parts with great dexterity. Two of them counterfeited a quarrel, one beat off the other’s turban with his foot, out of which dropped about fifteen or twenty large serpents, which ran or crawled about the room.
One of them came towards me with great speed, which soon obliged me to quit my place. On seeing us alarmed, they told us the creatures were altogether inoffensive, as their teeth had been all drawn out. The fellow went about the room, and gathered them again into his turban, like so many eels. The victuals were now served in a neat and elegant manner. Every thing was well dressed in the Persian fashion. Our host was very cheerful, and contributed every thing in his power to please his guests. He excused himself handsomely enough for not having wine, as it was not then used at court.
They left Isfahan in September; soon after this, their party was devastated by the plague, which claimed twenty-one members of the embassy. Retracing their steps, they arrived back in St. Petersburg on December 30, 1718. Peter was adequately impressed with the results of the delegation; his purpose had been to promote ties of friendship and goodwill, and in this he had succeeded.
And yet the spirit of the traveler can never rest; for the moment he completes one sojourn, he begins to cast his eyes about for new vistas to penetrate. On hearing that Peter was organizing a delegation to China, he volunteered immediately, and was accepted. His Russian by now must have been fluent and he seems to have enjoyed a high degree of trust with his hosts. They embarked from St. Petersburg in July of 1719. It was not an easy passage; by December they had reached Solekampsky, known for its vast salt-works. Passing from here through the Ural Mountains into Siberia, the party crossed frozen forests, immense plains, and nearly impenetrable swamps and bogs. In many places Bell was surprised to encounter numbers of exiled Swedish army officers, men who had once served Charles XII of Sweden by had been sent into permanent exile in the wilds of Russia after having been captured on the battlefield.
He observed the manners and customs of the Tatars at Tobolsk. Leaving this city in January 1720, the delegation arrived in Tomsk one month later. They reached Irkutsk on the river Angara and stayed there until May. By September they had crossed into Chinese Mongolia, which in those days was part of the Chinese empire. On reaching the Great Wall of China, Bell describes it in this way:
The long, or endless wall, as it is commonly called, encompasses all the north and west parts of China. It was built about six hundred years ago by one of the emperors, to prevent the frequent incursions of the Mongols, and other western Tartars, who made a practice of assembling numerous troops of horse, and invading the country in different places. The Chinese frontiers were too extensive to be guarded against such bold and numerous enemies…
The foundation consists of large blocks of square stones laid in mortar ; but the rest of the wall is built of brick. The whole is so strong and well-built as to need almost no repair, and in such a dry climate may remain in this condition for many ages. Its height and breadth are not equal in every place; nor, indeed, is it necessary they should. When carried over steep rocks, where no horse can pass, it is about fifteen or twenty feet high, and broad in proportion; but when running through a valley, or crossing a river, there you see a strong wall, about thirty feet high, with square towers at the distance of a bowshot from one another, and embrasures at equal distances. The top of the wall is flat, and paved with broad freestones; and where it rises over a rock, or any eminence, you ascend by a fine easy stone stair.
On the whole Bell found the Chinese to be highly civilized and enjoyed his time there greatly; however, the empire’s glory days had long passed, and there was none of that splendor Bell expected to see from reading the pages of Marco Polo. One passage in Bell’s travel journal, which I reproduce below, has startling contemporary resonance. Here he describes a visit to a Chinese porcelain factory, and in the last sentence makes an economic observation that would take two centuries to be fully realized:
[I] went along with our new Chinese friend, named Siasiey, to see a manufactory of China-ware, standing on the bank of the river Yu, about twelve English miles eastward of the city. After arriving at the place, we passed through several shades and houses where I saw a number of people at work. The ovens, in particular, seemed very curious. But my view was so cursory and superficial, that I could form no judgment of the materials, or manner of making these cleanly and beautiful vessels, which still remain unrivalled by the similar productions of any other nation. I inquired into the truth of the opinion which the Europeans entertain, “that the clay must lie a “century to digest before it is fit for use ;” and was told by a master-workman, that a few months preparation was sufficient.
So far as I could observe, they made no secret at this place of what they were employed about. I was, however, told, that, to the south, the Chinese are more cautious, and carefully conceal their art from strangers. One thing I firmly believe, that, although the Europeans understood the art of making porcelain, the Chinese would undersell them at every market in the world. [Travels, p. 311]
Bell and his mission finally arrived back in Moscow in January 1722. Peter gave them a gracious welcome, and Bell apparently decided to stay there. We know little about what he did for the next fifteen years; perhaps he occupied himself with commerce, trade, or advisory work. In December 1737 he left Russia for Constantinople to conduct diplomatic work on behalf of the Russian government. He would eventually leave Russia a wealthy man, and make his way back to Antermony in Scotland; and there, finally able to enjoy the leisure of retirement, he wrote his travel memoirs, which were published in 1762. From a literary perspective, they are devoid of artistry or adornment; but, in the simplicity and utility of their observations, they constitute an important record of Persian and Chinese society in the early eighteenth centuries. He died in 1780, satisfied that he had lived his life as he best saw fit.
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