Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chapter 4 - From Brieg around the world

Haber’s portrait photograph shows a handsome young man, elegantly dressed, sporting a jaunty air. The impression is reinforced by the very first of his travel articles: “I threw myself into the arms of a Venus!” But he soon returns to Victorian respectability and explains that Venus was the name of the ship of the Austrian Lloyd Shipping Line which, for a sum of 55 gulden, was transporting him to Corfu.

The ship rolled abominably. The passengers - a herd of oxen, a judge from Berlin, a consular trainee from Alexandria, an Italian monk, several aged Italian women…..and a variety of oriental riff-raff – all were seasick. The oxen suffered most and several died en route….. …. One had to cling on to one’s cabin with hands and feet so as not to be thrown out of one’s bunk…

I had to pay my tribute to the sea and had time to contemplate the transitory nature of all life. I cursed my travel ideas. I thought once I reached Alexandria I would return to the continent and never again entrust my fate to the turbulent seas. But men forget their suffering quickly.


And indeed, his lust for adventure soon returned! The Oderblatt which published his travel reports was a 4-page German-language paper published twice weekly in the small Silesian town of Brieg. It printed some 35 instalments between 1871 and 1872 * All were headed “Von Brieg um die Welt. Reisebriefe in die Heimat” –“From Brieg around the world. Travel reports home.” Only the first instalment carried his name. Presumably in a small town of under 16,000 inhabitants it was well known who this enterprising young globetrotter was. Probably not many of the citizens of the little town ventured very far afield.

Despite its modest size Brieg was, however, not a provincial backwater. For over four centuries it had been the city of residence of a branch of a great Polish aristocratic dynasty – the Piasts. In the 10th century they had created the state of Poland. Later they provided several kings. The rulers of Brieg were part of a minor branch of the family. When the last died without an heir, German influence in Silesia, which had long been strong, became dominant. But thanks to the Piasts a fine ducal palace stands at Brieg today, part Gothic but mainly Renaissance. By its side is an early 18th century church with a colourful Rococo interior and across the square a college of the same period – the school where Haber was educated. In Haber’s day it was known at the Royal Gymnasium, but the kings were no longer the kings of Poland but those of Prussia. More fine historic buildings survive at Brieg or were restored after World War II. Like most of Silesia, Brieg suffered heavy damage as the Wehrmacht tried, hopelessly, to hold off the advance of the Red Army.

The tone of Haber’s articles varies puzzlingly: jauntiness and witty iconoclasm alternate with heavy Victorian pontificating. One wonders what sort of person he would have become, had he not died so young.

His journey took him to Corfu, Egypt, India, Ceylon, the Dutch East Indies, and China, ending in Japan. Unfortunately his published account stops before he reached Japan. He took over a year for this journey. Even at that time it could have been accomplished in four months. But he was obviously not in a hurry. He was exploring the world. Was he scouting around for business opportunities? It seems unlikely. He certainly takes an intelligent interest in the economies of the countries he visits, but business ventures are never referred to.

Here I shall not follow his journey, step by step. His surveys of the countries he visits add little to what any guidebook of his time might have said. I shall confine myself to his more personal asides – to what his writings tell us about the man himself.

We find a young man enormously curious, energetic and bold despite a slight physique and debilitating bouts of malaria. Captain Will’s memoirs say Haber had contracted this illness during a stay in South America. This was an error. Haber himself writes that he had contracted malaria during an earlier business venture in West Africa where he had "mehr gelitten als gelebt” – had done more suffering than living.

His youthful boldness is well illustrated by his exploits at Cairo: At the end of Ramadan a great levée was held by the Viceroy. That day the cost of hiring a carriage doubled. Haber hired one jointly with an Austrian he had, apparently, just met – a Herr Marius, K.K.Hofwagenfabrikant – that is the appointed builder of carriages to the Imperial Austrian court.

In frockcoat, white tie and festive mien, we drove to the citadel. Hundreds of soldiers formed a guard of honour… A truly oriental splendour was richly displayed. At the citadel ….the hall was packed with consular uniforms. Without fear or hesitation I joined them. Our ship’s companion, Judge L. from Berlin noticed me. “Who is introducing you?” ... Herr Marius discovered the [Viceroy’s] head stable master Count St. Maurice. Herr Marius asked me to interpret for him so I requested that the count arrange for us to be introduced to His Highness the Viceroy. The count replied that normally 10 or 12 gentlemen were admitted into the presence as a group. He took our visiting cards and came back several minutes later with the message that we could enter…. My friend and I thus had a private audience while the highest officials were only admitted in groups….. The Viceroy addressed interested questions full of personal goodwill to Herr Marius, whose friend and interpreter I was.

The Viceroy (or Khedive) Isma’il appears to have been interested in ordering carriages similar to those of the Austrian emperors. The Khedive had already virtually bankrupted Egypt and its peasantry by his extravagance. Two years earlier, in 1869, everybody who was ‘anybody’ in Europe had been invited to the grand opening of the Suez canal. The gala performance of Verdi’s Aida –commissioned for this occasion - formed part of the event. But eventually Isma’il ruined Egypt’s finances. This brought about long years of foreign control over Egyptian affairs. Haber was astute enough to suspect what was happening:

The peasants live in miserable circumstances…because of the heavy taxes. At the moment the Viceroy has solved his financial embarrassment by collecting his taxes six years in advance.


Haber and Herr Marius next decided to call on the crown prince, Mehmed Tewfik Pasha.

At the gates we had some difficulties. The guards informed us this was the prince’s palais. But the world belongs to the bold. I replied that we were friends of the prince, whereupon the guard apologised respectfully and allowed us to proceed… I congratulated the prince on behalf of Herr Marius and myself and brought the conversation around to bandmaster Eder in Vienna who – as Herr Marius had told me – had some years earlier had the honour of playing some waltzes for the prince… The prince appeared to be pleased. …Thus ended the New Year’s reception which, according to local Europeans, was quite extraordinary and unique.


Perhaps few other foreigners had such boldness – or chutzpah? And boldly he pushed ahead. We catch up with him again months later in India, having skipped a large number of rather dull travel articles.

At Benares he makes the acquaintance of an Indian prince at a mosque. The prince is about to mount an elephant together with some English visitors. Haber immediately asks whether he could join them. He had never ridden on an elephant before! The prince agreed. Haber’s own hired carriage followed the elephant.

In Java he wished to explore the interior but was warned that such a journey would be arduous and expensive. It would be best to travel in company.

Fortunately a Russian family, von Zadonsky, consisting of three brothers and a lady arrived in Batavia…. I lost no time, introduced myself and asked to be accepted as the fifth in their company. That very evening I received their affirmative reply. We immediately took steps to buy the most essential item, a travelling coach…


Haber’s linguistic talents must have made him a useful travelling companion. In Cairo he had interpreted for Herr Marius from French to German, in the Dutch East Indies from the Dutch, probably to French. He appears to have spent some time in Holland because repeatedly he mentions people in Java whom he had known at Amsterdam. He certainly spoke English, having lived and worked in the City of London for several years.

Sunday in Pekalonga my Russian friends expressed the wish to attend a church service since this was a Greek [Orthodox] holiday. I accompanied them to a Reformed church. The parson delivered a sermon in the spirit of Schleiermacher* which, for their edification, I translated.


He must have been a young man of considerable charm, winning the friendship of a great variety of people: Russian aristocrats in Java, Indian bankers in Delhi, German planters on Ceylon, English ladies on board his ship, and a variety of businessmen met at Canton.

He frequently quizzes people about their religion. He says that one cannot understand the culture of a people without trying to understand their beliefs. But he himself is very critical of organised religion. In Ceylon he asks local chiefs about their beliefs. A Protestant parson interprets for him.

As I was about to leave the parson requested that I deliver a sermon to the assembly which consisted of chiefs, priests and peasants. I did so without getting involved in dogmatic contemplation but admonished the assembled throng not to live from day to day without thought but to walk in the paths of virtue.


He has a rationalist’s suspicion of priests. In his view they often depart from these paths of virtue. Thus he writes from Bombay:

The might of the Brahmins is said to be enormous…. They indulge the lowest instincts when this serves to preserve and increase their power. Whence can come deliverance [for India] when among millions there is so much ignorance?

His enthusiasm for Christian missionaries is no greater:

The other day I heard of a shoemaker in Simla who had been a missionary.
Asked why he had given up his earlier occupation he said that over a period of three years he had finally converted two Hindus. They had been educated and fed at the expense of the mission. Some time later these two new Christians had broken into a Hindu temple and robbed it of gold and silver. The law apprehended the two scoundrels but before the judge they justified themselves saying they believed that as Christians they were performing a good deed when they seized idols. The judge condemned them to seven years hard labour but the missionary became a shoemaker, hoping to serve humanity better in that position.
Haber expresses contempt for idols made of brass, wood and stone – often ‘Made in Birmingham’.

The pious English send the heathens missionaries dedicated to the destruction of idols, while supplying the Indian market with a large proportion of these idols.

He is invited to an extravagant Indian wedding – a 14-day feast – given by an Indian banker. The groom is the 10-year-old son of the banker. The boy has never seen his bride and will have to wait until he reaches manhood before he can lead her home. Until then he neither sees her nor does he even get to know her.

Children are raised in servitude and must nolens volens be satisfied with the arrangements made by their parents… The inability to break with ancient usage, even if one knows that these are neither salutary nor in keeping with the times becomes sadly obvious.


One suspects Haber was not only thinking of Hindus but also of the strictly orthodox Jewish household into which his young sister had married.

He comes back repeatedly to customs he regards as antiquated. Thus he denounces not only Hindu child marriage but also the caste system; the bad treatment of widows, the low status of women in general and the segregation of highborn Hindu ladies. He grumbles that even highly sophisticated Indian friends will not introduce him to their wives and daughters – even though he tells them jocularly, he might want to marry one of their daughters.

It is sometimes amusing to see how ladies of high society are shielded from the sights of the profane world. A few days ago I was at the railway station when such a lady arrived…..coolies brought her in a litter to a [railway] coach reserved for ladies. The servants spread out a large blanket so that the highborn lady could slip from the litter under the blanket and thus reach her seat unseen.

At Benares he is outraged to find Brahmins unceremoniously dumping corpses into the Ganges whenever the mourners cannot pay for the wood and ghee required for cremation.

What future is in store for this nation of 150 million idol worshippers. Will light ever replace darkness? … Will this nation ever know how to shake off its yoke… of superstition and disgusting idolatry?

He is disturbed by the fanaticism of Moslems of the Wahabee sect who, a little while earlier, had assassinated the Earl of Mayo, the governor-general of India.

Central to his own attitude is his unquestioning belief in progress as defined in Europe and America. His ideas are typical of members of the 19th century liberal bourgeoisie. His enthusiasm for railways, canals, education and international trade was – as we shall find – totally at variance with the Weltanschauung of the young samurai who was to murder him.
England rules India against the wishes of the population supported by bayonets, their missionaries and their trade. … The missionaries are … a political help by spreading English ways. However, in matters of religion the achievements of the missionaries have, by and large, been without success.

Trade is by far the most … important means of acculturation in so far as it accustoms the native population to modern needs and makes them dependent on countries from which they are accustomed to buy their goods.

His experience further East confirms his belief in trade as a vehicle of change and advancement, but with reservations:

British free trade policies have made Hong Kong as well as Singapore flourishing trading centres. [However] the pious English conduct the opium trade with great
success. On the one hand they send out missionaries among the Chinese… on the other hand they do not neglect to line their pockets through the opium trade and thereby undermine the spiritual and moral welfare of the people.

Haber finds much to admire among the Chinese whom he finds at Hong Kong and Canton:

They are hard working and bustling like ants and seem to be extraordinarily talented in trade and money matters. Their lifestyle is moderate but they have two national vices – gambling and opium smoking.


In a [Canton] workshop master and apprentices were taking their mid-day meal together.…. Master and servants work and live together peacefully and socialist horror pictures have not yet disturbed the activities of Chinese workers.


But his admiration for the hardworking Chinese is tempered with criticism:


The Chinese carry their egoism too far … Dignitaries, both high and low, are more concerned for themselves than for the good of the state. The highest posts go to the one who pays most. A well ordered system of bribery pervades all levels of officialdom……. They struggle for their personal advantage but care nothing for the good of the whole…. A horde of officials have free rein to bring this country to ruin, relying on the indifference of the wealthy and the powerlessness of the lower classes.….



Among Germans he meets in the Far East he finds hardworking people with virtues not unlike those of the Chinese but with fewer vices:

German businessmen have – despite jealousy and obstruction – acquired an honourable position overseas…. However German capital has steered clear of overseas enterprise and thus German labour and intelligence remain subservient to English moneybags.


The English and German communities live separate lives… The English are immensely and unpleasantly jealous of the business successes of the Germans – successes achieved by hard work and application….The trade of Calcutta is predominantly in the hands of foreigners, that is of Germans and Greeks. The English find it hard to keep pace.


On the other hand he admires the British in India as administrators.

Earlier rulers, both Mohammedan and Hindu, never concerned themselves with the wellbeing of the people. They built themselves proud palaces and even prouder tombs. They luxuriated in magnificent harems…. But the people remained in a state of beasts. Much of the land lay fallow and there was no trace of education…. The English, on the other hand, have built schools and churches, roads, canals and railways and have advanced the culture of the country….Of course this was all in their own well-understood interests, but progress does benefit the entire country.


As we shall see, his enthusiasm for railways, canals, education, international trade is totally at variance with the Weltanschauung of the young samurai who was to murder him.

Haber next launches into one of his bouts of pontificating – of which these have been very many which I have, so far, spared the reader. But they do reveal the man so I will restrain myself no longer:

Just as the world never stands still, neither can nations. They must advance to fulfil their destiny. The whole world suffers if even one people remains in a state of barbarism and depravity. That is why India, with its 180 millions, is of importance to us all.


His admiration for British colonial policies, though not uncritical, contrasts sharply with his condemnation of Dutch policies in Java:

[There is no] talk of spreading education among the people… The policy has been to suck the natives dry and to keep them in a state of ignorance…. The railway line from Samarang to Solo and Djokja – a distance of about 25 German miles – is the first to be completed on Java. This minimal development of communications in a land so rich and fertile demonstrates how little this government has, so far, done for Java. Their objective has been to squeeze out as much profit as possible and to regard the welfare of the country as of trivial concern……In many areas natives have to perform forced labour and are obliged to sell the larger part of their produce, especially coffee, to the government at prices set by the latter, in many cases at barely one-third of the real value. To elevate still further the happiness of the people, the government engages in the opium trade for which it has a monopoly.

And once again Haber launches into one of his bouts of moralising:

In earlier days when no one concerned himself with his neighbours and brutal egoism was the rule……all this could happen. But in our days the spirit of independence is stirring among the peoples of the most distant regions. The day will come when the Javanese will demand a reckoning from the Dutch …

He is hostile to the racism he finds in both the Dutch and the British colonies even though he is not always quite what the 21st century might consider ‘politically correct’. We have come across his use of terms like “oriental riffraff”. In Java, on the road to Panyaharan –

- whenever we met natives these knelt on the ground and turned their backs to us so that we did not have to look at their miserable faces. When we met men on horseback, these dismounted and waited patiently till we had passed….. Occasionally hundreds of people knelt down as soon as they saw us. I found this embarrassing.

He finds himself similarly embarrassed in British India. Thus at Allahabad -

I asked the two Mittras to join me for the midday meal at Kellner’s Hotel. As we were about to sit down at table the German manager of the hotel whispered in my ear that he did not know whether he could permit natives in traditional clothes to sit at the table. Instead of answering, I immediately led my guests to the table and thus ended all polemic. Later I heard that my behaviour had offended against prevailing custom…


Haber is as close an observer of scenery as he is of the social scene. He is greatly awed by his first sight of the Himalayas, making his way to Simla on horseback in the company of some English residents.

Valleys and mountains alternate and the peaks of the Himalayas, always snow-covered, draw the eye. Frequently my companions ….encouraged me to press on while I asked them to have patience. I wanted to soak in the scenery.

This was indeed in character. He was, after all, taking three or four times as long over his journey as he need have.

….This mountain scenery is doubly fascinating for one who is not solely tied to the tumult of this world and whose thoughts gladly turn away from the hustle and bustle of struggling humanity to admire the divine works of nature.

Though antagonistic to organised religion, he had no quarrel with the divinity. On his way back from Simla he rode alone but was overtaken by a fierce storm.

It seemed as if the mighty rolling thunder was making the mountains themselves boom. Flash of lightening followed upon flash and a fierce hail beat down on me. Never before have I been exposed to such weather. Finally I had the misfortune of falling from my horse and of hurting myself. Some country people I met took care of me and with their help I reached my night quarters at Kukurhuttee.

As we see, one of his more striking attributes is his lust for adventure. While travelling on Java with his Russian friends, he frequently tells us he rises at dawn and walks ahead while they follow in the coach they had bought jointly.

Unfortunately we could not hire post horses from here [Buitenzorg] to Singalaya.. so we had to have our heavy coach dragged on by a dozen coolies and a number of buffaloes. We rented horses for the men and a small one-horse trap for Madam von Zandonsky. I myself chose to proceed on foot wanting to test my strength, despite a temperature of 25 degrees Reaumur.** As a lone wanderer deep in thought I wanted to fix in my memory the indescribable beauty of the region, the lush vegetation, the valleys and the mountains. Pouring with sweat I reached the village of Avegoe … where I found my travelling companions resting. Our luggage, dragged by coolies and buffaloes, was not expected until the following day. A helpful Englishman, Mr. S., helped me with linen and clothes and gave me a severe dressing down for having walked the stretch from Buitensorg to Singalaya on foot. In fact, such hikes are very unusual in the tropics and one does suffer the consequences.


He and his Russian travel companions, the von Zadonskys, climb Mount Merapi, a volcano which had erupted in fury shortly before.**

Merapi had … destroyed several villages and killed some 200 people. We got as far as a hillock at an altitude of 3,500 feet. We could not go any further. It is beyond my powers to describe adequately the scene that greeted us. Two destroyed villages lay before us, the huts of the peaceful inhabitants flattened in wild confusion. The stench of corpses numbed us…. Dead horses and oxen lay about… as if struck by lightening. The entire soil was covered by ash, as was the little stream….Thick clouds of smoke rose from the water and the stink of sulphur filled the air. The trees were bare…..The high cone of Merapi was veiled in cloud but suddenly we heard a dull rumble which caused us to fear that the Merapi.. had not exhausted its fury. We started on our way back…..


Haber, surveying the chaos and destruction, stops to think and – as so often – to philosophise:


I cannot leave this site where nature has worked so destructively without thinking. Hundreds of people lived at the foot of Merapi, happily and without a care until, from the interior of the mountain, mighty … fires flare up suddenly and destroyed men, animals and plants. Yet the unhappy resident had known all along that they lived at foot of a volcano. Habit had blinded them to danger. We earth dwellers also know that sooner or later our journey will come to an end and our bodies must perish…. And yet we live from day to day without worry, cradled in a feeling of security which is entirely without justification. When we do see the eternal rules of nature assert themselves, we wail as if a volcano had erupted over us. We grumble and complain – as if divine wisdom did not reveal itself anew every single day with the rising of the sun and its going down.

Little did he know how soon his own journey would come to an abrupt end.

* Equals 88 degrees Fahrenheit or 31 degrees Centigrade.
* Merapi has erupted frequently since then. The eruption in June 2006 made worldwide news.

1 comment:

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