A terrific cartifact of Nordenskiöld’s 1878-9 navigation of the Northeast Passage

C.N., [Hand fan with an image of the SS Vega on recto and a map of its route on the verso.] Tokyo: Tokyo University, Sept. 15, 1879.
Folding paper hand fan mounted on black-lacquered wooden ribs, 10”h x 15 ¼”w when opened, with lithographic images on recto and verso, both with hand-colored details. Folds slightly rubbed, minor staining toward the upper edge, but structurally sound and entirely functional.

A rare and intriguing folding hand fan, made in Japan to celebrate the recent success of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld’s 1878-79 Vega Expedition, the first expedition to navigate through the Northeast Passage. One of only two examples located.

The Vega, a three-masted barque built in Bremerhaven in 1872, sailed from Karlskrona, Sweden, on June 22, 1878, accompanied by the cargo ship Lena. Under the leadership of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901), the expedition made its way along the northeast margin of Eurasian continent until becoming stranded in the ice on September 28 at the Chukchi Peninsula, the easternmost peninsula of Asia. The Vega finally got free on July 18, 1879, reaching the Bering Strait two days later and Yokohama on September 2. She remained in Japan almost two months to make repairs, after which she returned to via through the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal, reaching Stockholm on April 24, 1880. It was the first voyage to circumnavigate Eurasia and one of the great achievements in the history of Swedish science.

Nordenskiöld in Japan
“Nordenskiöld was the first distinguished scientist to visit Japan in the new era” (Walker), and his timing, however unintentional, was impeccable. In Japan, the explorers were greeted with great enthusiasm by the Tokyo Geographical Society, which had been founded in March of the same year as a part of the Japanese opening to the outside world following the Meiji Restoration.

“In March of the year 1879, when the Vega was ice-bound in the neighboring water northeast of Siberia, the Tokyo Geographical Society was founded under the presidency of His Imperial Highness Prince Kitashirakawa. At the time of its foundation the Society had a membership of about one hundred. They were members of the Imperial Family, peers, high ranking offcials, politicians, men of the wealthy class and few scholars. Namely its membership consisted of persons in the highest stratum of the society at that time in Japan.” (Yazawa, p. 51)

On September 15th the Geographical Society collaborated with the Asiatic Society of Japan and the Germanic Asiatic Society to hold a reception for Nordenskiöld at the Tokyo Imperial University, which had itself been founded only two years earlier. The reception was an “exceptionally grand” event attended by more than 130 prominent guests, including among others two Japanese princes; the Ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs and the Navy; and representatives from the United States and Russia. (Walker, p. 27)

The fan
Offered here is what may be the only known example of the keepsake given to each guest, a folding hand fan celebrating the Vega’s success. One side bears a reasonably-faithful lithographic portrait of the Vega trapped in the ice, attended by polar bears and seals in the foreground. The view is surmounted by a shield bearing the date September 15, 1879, flanked by the flags of Japan, Sweden and six other nations.

The reverse side of the fan features an outline map of Eurasia delineating the Vega’s route to Tokyou (with her starting point mistakenly shown at Oslo!) However, the artist has tweaked the map in the most delightful of ways, substituting for place names the description of each course served at the dinner along with the accompanying wines, the latter delineated as rivers flowing north. Thus the map shows the Vega’s route beginning in the Baltic with consommé quenelles à la Lyonnaise and terminating at Tokyo with Dessert Assorti. The menu is recapitulated in Japanese below the map.

The recto fan bears the imprint “Tokyo University” at lower left and the initials “C.N.” at lower right, but the maker is otherwise unknown.

I am aware of a single other example, last known in a private collection in France. I have been unable to trace any other surviving examples via Google, Antique Map Price Record, RareBookHub or OCLC, and a search for “viuhka” (Finnish for “hand fan”) in the on-line catalog of the Nordenskiöld Collection at the National Library of Finland yields no results.

In all, a delightful cartographic curiosity, and an extremely rare relic of Nordenskiöld’s path-breaking traverse of the Northeast Passage.

The fan is mentioned in H. J. Walker, “Nordenskiöld and Science in Japan”. Scientific Bulletin, vol. 5 no. 1 (1980), pp. 26-28. Taiji Yazawa, “A. E. Nordenskiöld and the Tokyo Geographical Society”, Journal of Geography, 1981, vol. 90, no. 2, pp. 51-53.