10 September 2007

Dubious Documents: The Case of Foersch's Letter from Java


In days gone by there used to be a game show in which the object was to beat the host, apparently some kind of idiot-savant, in knowledge of trivia. The host often seemed sharp enough when the subject was general history, state birds, and other such miscellanea, but if the subject was science, in any form, he was clearly out of his depth. One time the question came up, in effect, to name the naturalist who was Charles Darwin's grandfather. (There was more to it, actually, but I don't recall the details.) I thought it was simple. Even if you didn't remember the exact relationship, there is only one other famous Darwin in the sciences, and that of course is Erasmus Darwin, author of The Loves of the Plants and other poems. The contestants all blew it, including the idiot-savant after whom the show was named, and he sneered that he at any rate had never heard of the guy.

Well, I'd heard of him. Many times, actually. He was one of a number of people who could plainly see the fact of evolution in the fossil record, without being able to discern the mechanism behind it. He was a big fan of Linnaeus, and popularized his work by writing poetry about it. (This may seem unlikely, but poetry was big in the eighteenth century. For an even more improbable example, check out Dr. Thomas Mouffet's book, The silk-worm and his fly, written if I am not mistaken [and I probably am] in the previous century.) His poetry was significant enough to be parodied in the Anti-Jacobin in a work called The Loves of the Triangles. (Of course the reason for his being pilloried there will have been his political views--he was a buddy of Benjamin Franklin and a supporter of the democratic revolutions in the United States and France.)

One memorable passage from The Loves of the Plants reads:
Where seas of glass with gay reflections smile
Round the green coasts of Java’s palmy isle;
A spacious plain extends its upland scene,
Rocks rife on rocks, and fountains gum between;
Soft zephyrs blow, eternal summers reign,
And showers prolific bless the soil,—in vain!—
No spicy nutmeg scents the vernal gales,
Nor towering plaintain shades the mid-day vales;
No grassy mantle hides the sable hills,
No flowery chaplet crowns the trickling rills;
Nor tufted moss, nor leathery lichen creeps
In russet tapestry o’er the crumbling steeps.
—No step retreating, on the sand impress’d,
Invites the visit of a second guest;
No refluent fin the unpeopled stream divides,
No revolant pinion cleaves the airy tides;
Nor handed moles, nor beaked worms return,
That mining pass the irremeable bourn.—
Fierce in dread silence on the blasted heath
Fell Upas sits, the Hydra-Tree of death.
Lo; from one root, the envenom’d soil below,
A thousand vegetative serpents grow;
In shining rays the scaly monster spreads
O’er ten square leagues his far-diverging heads;
Or in one trunk entwists his tangled form,
Looks o’er the clouds, and hisses in the storm.
Steep’d in fell poison, as his sharp teeth part,
A thousand tongues in quick vibration dart;
Snatch the proud Eagle towering o’er the heath,
Or pounce the Lion, as he stalks beneath;
Or strew, as marshall’d hosts contend in vain,
With human skeletons the whiten’d plain.
Chain’d at his root two scion-demons dwell,
Breathe the faint hiss, or try the shriller yell;
Rise, fluttering in the air on callow wings,
And aim at insect-prey their little stings.
So Time’s strong arms with sweeping scythe erase
Art’s cumberous works, and empires, from their base:
While each young Hour its sickle fine employs,
And crops the sweet buds of domestic joys!
And, to support the story of fell Upas, the Hydra-Tree of death, the good doctor quoted from an article written by one N. P. Foersch, in the London Magazine for 1783 or 1784. (It was December 1783 in point of fact.) Foersch claimed to be a surgeon who in 1774 worked for the Dutch East-India company. While stationed at Java he had looked into the source of the poison that the locals used to tip their darts with. This virulent poison was derived from a tree called the Bohun-Upas. He wrote:
In the year 1774, I was stationed at Batavia, as a surgeon in the service of the Dutch East-India Company. During my residence there I received several different accounts of the Bohun-Upas, and the violent effects of its poison. They all then seemed incredible to me, but raised my curiosity in so high a degree, that I resolved to investigate this subject thoroughly, and to trust only to my own observations.
After taking care of necessary paperwork and getting a letter of introduction from one Malayan priest to another who lived near the tree itself, Foersch set out to examine it.
It is surrounded on all sides by a circle of high hills and mountains, and the country round it, to the distance of ten or twelve miles from the tree, is intirely [sic] barren. Not a tree, not a shrub, nor even the least plant or grass is to be seen. I have made the tour all around this dangerous spot, at about eighteen miles distant from the center, and I found the aspect of the country on all sides equally dreary. The easiest ascent of the hills, is from that part where the old ecclesiastic dwells.
The gum of this tree is enormously valuable, as it is a deadly poison, but the danger involved in procuring it is so great that only criminals condemned to death are employed in the process.
After sentence is pronounced upon them by the judge, they are asked in court, whether they will die by the hands of the executioner, or whether they will go to the Upas tree for a box of poison? They commonly prefer the latter proposal, as there is not only some chance of preserving their lives, but also a certainty, in case of their safe return, that a provision will be made for them in future, by the Emperor. They are also permitted to ask a favour from the Emperor, which is generally of a trifling nature, and commonly granted. They are then provided with a silver or tortoiseshell box, in which they are to put the poisonous gum, and are properly instructed how to proceed while they are upon their dangerous expedition. Among other particulars, they are always told to attend to the direction of the winds; as they are to go towards the tree before the wind, so that the effluvia from the tree are always blown from them. They are told, likewise, to travel with the utmost dispatch, as that is the only method of insuring a safe return. …

When the hour of their departure arrives, the priest puts them on a long leather cap with two glasses before their eyes, which comes down as far as their breast, and also provides them with a pair of leather gloves. They are then conducted by the priest … about two miles on their journey. Here the priest repeats his instructions, and tells them where they are to look for the tree.

Foersch informs us that the priest told him he had sent more than seven hundred criminals off in this manner, and only about one tenth of them made it back safely with the poison. Documents he saw supported this claim. Although he had made efforts to get some hard data on the tree, the difficulties involved rendered this impossible.

This, however, is certain, though it may appear incredible, that from fifteen to eighteen miles round this tree, not only no human creature can exist; but that, in that space of ground, no living animal of any kind has ever been discovered. I have also been assured by several persons of veracity, that there are no fish in the waters, nor has any rat, mouse, or any other vermin been seen there; and when any birds fly so near this tree, that the effluvia reaches them they fall a sacrifice to the effects of the poison. This circumstance has been ascertained by different delinquents, who, in their return, have seen the birds drop down and have picked them up dead, and brought them to the old ecclesiastic.

There are several obvious problems with this account. The first, and greatest, difficulty is that there is no such tree. There is a tree called upas, and it is the source of a poison, but past that the account is clearly, well, wrong. The zone of death that surrounds it, the birds falling from the sky, the convicts sent out to fetch the poison--these are things that never were. The parts about the zone of death, the birds falling in mid-flight might have been suggested by phenomena that occur with carbon-dioxide-filled valleys resulting from volcanic activity, maybe. So the obvious question is, where did Foersch get these notions? Was he fooled by mendacious locals who stuffed him with wild tales? Or was he the hoaxer himself?

Sometimes the obvious question is the wrong one, and this is one of those cases. The relevant question is: was there ever an N. P. Foersch? And if not, what exactly are we looking at? The piece in The London Magazine may seem to be a straightforward article, but there are clues that it is something else altogether. Consider the magazine's introduction:
The following description of the Bohon Upas, or Poison-Tree, which grows in the island of Java, and renders it unwholesome by its noxious vapours, has been procured for the London Magazine, from Mr. Heydinger, who was employed to translate it from the original Dutch, by the author, Mr. Foersch, who, we are informed, is at present abroad, in the capacity of surgeon on board an English vessel.

This account, we must allow, appears so marvellous, that even the Credulous might be staggered. The readers of this narrative will probably think of the celebrated Psalmanazar, and his equally famous History of the Island of Formosa. But this narrative certainly merits attention and belief.

Now Psalmanazar was a celebrated fraud, a fake Formosan whose bogus account of the island fooled many in England in the eighteenth century. The reference to this as an account so marvelous that even the credulous might be staggered appears also to be a hint. My strong impression is that the editor means us to understand that this is a hoax, and nothing more. The fact that N. P. Foersch is otherwise unknown may also be a clue.

To put it as simply as possible, this letter is not a translation from the Dutch; N. P. Foersch never made any investigation of the upas tree, and indeed there is no reason to think that Foersch ever existed outside the imagination of the author. Far from being an account of a bizarre tree on an exotic island, this piece is a work of fiction, apparently inspired by various traveler's tales from the orient.

So who was the author? Whose fantasy was it that so captivated Erasmus Darwin's imagination?

There doesn't seem to be any hard evidence, but one name springs to mind for a hoax of this sort--George Steevens. Steevens was a great Shakespearean scholar, but he was also fond of hoaxes and practical jokes. One of his most celebrated hoaxes was his creation of the tombstone of Hardecanute, about which a paper was presented to the Society of Antiquaries in 1789. Another well-known deception was his discovery of a letter written by the Elizabethan playwright George Peele telling of his meeting with William Shakespeare and Henry (not Christopher) Marlowe. Of course any hoax of the time was likely to be attributed to him; some even suspected his involvement in the William Henry Ireland Shakespearean forgeries, and in Chatterton's Rowley poems. Isaac D'israeli wrote in Curiosities of Literature (1824):
If we possessed the secret history of the literary life of George Steevens, it would display an unparalleled series of arch deception, and malicious ingenuity. He has been happily characterized by Mr Gifford, as “the Puck of Commentators!” Steevens is a creature so spotted over with literary forgeries and adulterations, that any remarkable one about the time he flourished may be attributed to him.
He seems quite confident that Steevens was the author of the Foersch account:
The marvellous narrative of the upas-tree of Java, which Darwin adopted in his plan of “enlisting imagination under the banner of science,” appears to have been another forgery which amused our “Puck.” It was first given in the London Magazine, as an extract from a Dutch traveller, but the extract was never discovered in the original author, and “the effluvia of this noxious tree, which through a district of twelve or fourteen miles had killed all vegetation, and had spread the skeletons of men and animals, affording a scene of melancholy beyond what poets have described, or painter deimeated,” is perfectly chimerical. A splendid flim-flam!
Sidney Lee in the Dictionary of National Biography seems equally convinced. Conviction, however, is not evidence. Steevens was entirely capable of perpetrating such a fraud; that isn't quite the same thing as demonstrating that he actually did it. I'm inclined to think he did; the thing has the qualities of his dark and shadowed personality all over it. D'Israeli observes of his pranks:
They were the habits of a depraved mind, and there was a darkness in his character many shades deeper than belonged to Puck; even in the playfulness of his invention, there was usually a turn of personal malignity, and the real object was not so much to raise a laugh, as to “grin horribly a ghastly smile,” on the individual.
This piece, especially if his contemporary Erasmus Darwin was his intended victim, fits well with his psychology. It may well have been his most successful practical joke. Poems, operas, political metaphors, all drew from this malicious fantasy, long after the perpetrator had passed on. A splendid flim-flam indeed.

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