Jonas Hanway – A Merchant’s Misadventures in Russia

A majestic galleon slices through the broiling ocean, wind howling, timber creaking. Every man aboard feels his stomach sink as the giant ship lurches skyward and rides the crest of each mountainous wave before crashing down into the water, kicking up fathoms of white foam and drenching the deck in salty sea spray. Jonas Hanway lies upon a hammock deep within the hold of the ship, formulating his trade strategy for Russia, speculating as to whom he will sell his cargo of linen, cloths and silks. A great cry rings out from the deck, ‘land ho!’ and Jonas bolts upright, eager to end his taxing sea voyage and set his feet upon firm ground again. He flies up to the deck, only to be brought to a halt as the ship runs slap bang into Russian Customs.

Worcester Cathedral Library

Jonas Hanway, on his travels. Detail from the Frontispiece of his ‘Historical Account of the British Trade over the Caspian Sea with a Journal of Travels.’ Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Of course back in 1744 customs and border security looked remarkably different. Jonas did not, for instance, have to deprive himself of his belt and waddle through a metal detector clinging to the waistband of his jeans. No, instead he was stripped naked and unceremoniously doused in warm water. It wouldn’t do to let lice in the country now, would it?

We can’t, however, blame the 18th Century Russians for being a little paranoid about what they let into the country. Jonas writes about how a great plague ravaged the province of Ghilan at the time, but, by today’s standards, the Russian’s precautionary measures seem rather extreme.

‘If we had any goods on board but such as were the produce of Ghilan, and did not declare them the law made it death to the offender, besides burning the ship and cargo.’

Worcester Cathedral

They do things different in Russian. Illustration from Hanway’s Travels of the Russian Royal Sledge. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Say what you like about modern customs, I’ve never faced execution for having too much duty-free. One can only imagine being boarded by a group of 18th century soldiers with tar in the one hand and a torch in the other, snooping around the hold of the ship. However, this kind of treatment was par for the course for such a seasoned merchant as Jonas Hanway. What he was not prepared for was being shipped off to a deserted island to spend six weeks in quarantine.

‘Here we had the mortification to learn, that we were ordered to perform a quarantain of six weeks on an uninhabited island’.

It surprises me to say it, but after reading of Hanway’s experiences at the hands of the Russians, I’m feeling something akin to fondness for modern customs. It comes as some comfort that after the inevitable metal detector goes off and I’m vigorously patted down by a heavy handed border official, I’m free to hitch up my jeans, re-apply my belt and be on my merry way. It would be rather frowned upon these days if I was corralled into a plane and sent off to a desert island to swing around trees for six weeks and discover my inner savage. I think its safe to say that the images of ship burnings and fickle executions that Hanway’s travel log conjures in the mind are enough to stop me complaining about airports ever again. You can have my deodorant, officer, just put the broadsword down!

D. Bateman

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