Rare first edition of “one of the most valuable works on China, describing districts never before traversed by Europeans.” (Sabin) Written by Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, the first American citizen to visit Peking and be presented to the Emperor, and with some of the earliest American maps of Chinese subjects.
Houckgeest (1739 – 1801) began his career as a midshipman in the Dutch Navy before joining the Dutch East India Company. He arrived in China in 1758 and spent the next eight years engaging in trade in the Provinces of Guangzhou and Macao. After a brief return to the Netherlands, in 1783 he emigrated to South Carolina and became an American citizen, though within a few years he took up a position in a Dutch factory in Guangzhou.
It was during this stay in China that Houckgeest proposed to Dutch officials in Batavia that an Embassy to the Qing court would perhaps help the merchants’ position in the region. His suggestion was heeded and an embassy was set in motion, following closely Macartney’s failed British embassy of 1793. The Dutch embassy, lead by Isaac Titsingh and with Houckgeest in tow, arrived in Peking in January 1795 in time for the Chinese New Year. Houckgeest thus became the first American citizen to be allowed into the Forbidden City and be presented to the Emperor, who reportedly laughed when Houckgeest’s hat fell off as he performed the kowtow. After a time in the city, the Embassy returned to Guangzhou, where Houckgeest boarded a vessel to Philadelphia, arriving in 1796. There, he chose to publish an account of the Embassy, which he dedicated to President Washington (Houckgeest had also returned from China with a 45-piece tea service bearing a patriotic design, which he presented to the First Lady.)
Houckgeest’s account, originally written in Dutch, was translated into French by Mederic Louis Elie Moreau de Saint-Mery (1750-1819), a Martinique-born lawyer and writer and French politician. His significant publications in Santo Domingo—in particular the Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l’isle Saint-Domingue, in which he articulated his theories about slavery and race—and his marriage with a woman from a well-to-do family gained him a seat at the French parliament. His involvement during the French Revolution again gained him notoriety, this time in the form of a 1794 arrest warrant. He self-exiled to New York and later Philadelphia, where he became a bookseller. His shop was a meeting point for exiles, and it was presumably there that he met Houckgeest. He eventually returned to France at the invitation of Napoleon.
Houckgeest’s narrative is a more-or-less day-by-day account of the embassy, beginning on November 22, 1794 and ending May 10, 1795. Also included are transcriptions of numerous documents relating to the origins of the embassy and its itinerary, among them Houckgeest’s letters to the authorities in Batavia as well as correspondence between the Chinese Emperor and the King of the Netherlands. There is also a wealth of details such as descriptions of Canton (Guangzhou) and Macao, an explanation of Chinese chess, a Chinese theatrical drama, an excerpt of a letter by M. Gramont on the British Embassy, and a brief account of Houckgeest’s return journey to the United States.
The illustrations were farmed out to Philadelphia engravers A. P. Folie, John Vallance and Joseph or Samuel Seymour, who engraved the plates after hundreds of drawings brought back by Houckgeest. The images include a very large (42”h x 21”w) map of China in two sheets in Volume I (Wheat & Brun #892) and a large (19”h x 14 ½”w) plan of Macao in Volume II (#896), both engraved by Vallance with titles in English and French. Oddly, in our set the China map was found laid in to the back of volume I, the sheets unjoined, with the text block bearing no sign that the sheets was ever bound in. Volume I also calls for a plan of Peking (#893), but according to Wheat & Brun “no such map has thus far been discovered.”
According to Landwehr, the full complement of illustrations is 14, including 12 plates plus the two maps). Our copy of the Voyage has 12 only, lacking Landwehr #3 (an interior view) and 7 (full-length portraits of four Chinese figures). There is however no sign that these plates were ever bound in to our set, and a review of sales records and institutional holdings indicates that the other known sets show much variation in the number of illustrations. For example, we have located four sales records for other copies (Parke Bernet, 1939; Nebenzahl, 1961; Sotheby’s, 1965; and Christies, 2000), and of these only Nebenzahl’s had all 14. Likewise, while the American Antiquarian Society copy has the full complement, that at the Library of Congress contains only eight plates and the maps. A plausible explanation for the varying collations is Moreau de Saint-Mery’s use of three different engravers, which likely resulted in the illustrations being delivered at different times and bound into sets only as they became available.
This first edition of the Voyage is quite rare. As mentioned above, we find only four sales records since 1939, and OCLC shows perhaps 15 institutional holdings. Unauthorized editions appeared in London, Paris and elsewhere in 1798; however, all were reprints of Volume I only, and with fewer illustrations. Apparently, a London-bound shipment of 500 copies of the volume was seized by a French privateer in 1797, and these provided the basis for the pirated editions. (See Alfred Owen Aldridge, The Dragon and the Eagle: The Presence of China in the American Enlightenment, p. 161)
Cordier, Bibliotheca Sinica, II.2350 (“ouvrage rare”); Landwehr, VOC, 547; Löwendahl, Sino-Western Relations, 700; Sabin 33133.
This set is owned in partnership with HS Rare Books of Buenos Aires.
China map gently cleaned to reduce foxing, other plates (notably the Macau plan) and second half of vol. II moderately foxed, else a very good set in original condition. Bookplate of German bibliophile Hans Dedi (1918-2016) on front pastedown of both volumes.