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Volume 31, Number 6November/December 1980

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Footsore and Fancy-Free

Written by John Brinton
Illustrated by Neville Mardell

Who was the first American in 'the Middle East? Barring a few anonymous merchants who left no record, the answer probably is John Ledyard, a headstrong, eccentric young Connecticut Yankee whose worldwide adventures rank with the Victorians' and outstrip most of them.

With regard to the Middle East, John Ledyard actually did little else but die there - in Cairo in 1788, the same year Connecticut ratified the Constitution. But his trip to Cairo was part of an extraordinary life in which he sailed with Captain Cook, walked from England to Russia and became a close friend of Thomas Jefferson.

John Ledyard was born in Groton, Connecticut in 1751 and at 21, while enrolled at Dartmouth College, began to display the individuality that would mark his whole life. He arrived at Dartmouth driving the first sulky ever seen there, loaded down with theatrical equipment which, he said, he intended to use when he put on some plays.

It was soon obvious that Ledyard had little interest in formal education. Instead, he spent his time exploring the New Hampshire wilderness and studying the habits of the Indians. Eventually, therefore, he left - in a memorable way. He built a birch-bark canoe and paddled down the Connecticut river to Hartford, a distance of 200 miles or more through country that, at that time, was still largely uncharted. Then, his appetite for travel whetted by his canoe trip, he signed on as a seaman and sailed to the Mediterranean. When he returned it was with a taste for travel that would, 25 years later, take him to Cairo.

His next trip was to England, where, his grandfather had once told him, some prosperous English relations lived. He arrived penniless, received a cool reception from his relations, but met the famous Captain Cook, who was then planning his third voyage around the world. For some reason Cook was taken with Ledyard and offered him a position as corporal of marines on the expedition. Ledyard jumped at the chance and was soon at sea.

Cook's objective, on this ill-fated voyage, was to find the legendary Northwest Passage by sea from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and although he didn't find it, of course, the voyage, for Ledyard, was fateful. By chance, he led a small expedition into Alaska and came across several families of Russians who had sailed to Alaska in a sloop, established a settlement and were collecting furs for sale in Russia. To Ledyard, it was immediately obvious that fortunes could be made from fur. The entire coast teemed with fur-bearing animals: foxes, marmosets, ermine and beavers, as well as the fabulous sea otter, whose fur was worth a king's ransom to the Chinese nobility. Cook's officers and men, for example, bought 1,500 beaver skins for about six pence each, and sold them in China for the equivalent of $100 each - a fortune in the 1770s. These transactions made a great impression on Ledyard, and he was to spend much of his remaining life on efforts to capitalize on this trade.

Meanwhile, Cook went on to Hawaii and was killed. The expedition returned to England and Ledyard, jobless again, signed up with the British Navy. But as the American Revolution had broken out, he jumped ship in Long Island when his ship was sent to the American station.

Back home in Connecticut, Ledyard spent four months writing a book on his travels with Cook; it is worth $3,000 a copy today. But as he found writing too tame an occupation, he set about organizing a fur-trading company.

Judging by his experiences during Cook's expedition, Ledyard obviously had a sound idea, but no one in New York, Philadelphia or Boston was interested so he sailed for France, and settled in the port of Lorient. Here the French merchants showed some interest in his plan: that is, to establish a trading base in Alaska. In the end, however, the results were the same, so he moved to Paris, where fate again intervened. He met the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, like Cook, took an immediate liking to young Ledyard and introduced him to the great Scottish-American naval commander, John Paul Jones. Jones too was full of enthusiasm for the fur trade idea, but again the scheme came to naught and on Jefferson's advice Ledyard decided to try and reach the west coast of the American continent by traveling overland - that is eastward through the northern countries of Europe and Asia and across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

In retrospect, this was an astounding idea. Yet Jefferson and another friend - Lafayette - approached the Russian ambassador in Paris and persuaded him to endorse Ledyard's application to the empress - Catherine the Great - to travel through Russia, and eventually Ledyard set out.

Because, in the meantime, he had gone to England, Ledyard's journey to Russia started in London. And he went on foot - all the way to Sweden, where he had hoped to cross the mouth of the Gulf of Bosnia - over 100 miles wide - to Helsinki. Unfortunately the ice had melted so, undaunted, he set off to walk around the gulf - a distance of 1,200 miles over trackless snow, across Sweden, Lapland and Finland.

Such a journey today seems inconceivable. But Ledyard reached St. Petersburg - today's Leningrad - in March, where the French ambassador, thanks to Lafayette's intercession, helped him obtain a permit from the empress to proceed across Russia to the Pacific coast. With a Scotsman who had also sailed with Captain Cook, he set off confidently to walk some 3,500 miles across Russia.

By then, unfortunately, says Jarid Sparks, Ledyard's biographer, a Russian-American company was already trading in furs in the Bering Sea and the western coast of Alaska and America. Thus when Ledyard arrived at Irkutsk, the company headquarters, its officials were alarmed; they thought Ledyard might discover the wealth of the resources of the area and the cruel manner in which the traders were treating the natives. As a result a messenger was sent to the empress and shortly afterwards, Ledyard - seized by two guards in the name of Catherine the Great - was hurried west again to the Polish frontier.

Exhausted by his ordeal, Ledyard once again returned to London, where he called on a man named Sir Joseph Banks - another of those benefactors who, astonishingly, kept appearing in Ledyard's life.

Sir Joseph, a man of learning and influence, had sailed with Captain Cook on his first voyage around the world and later was elected president of the Royal Society, a position he held for 42 years. In 1788, as Ledyard returned from his unsuccessful journey into Russia, Banks had just founded a society called "The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa," shortened to "The African Society. Ledyard's arrival, then, was fortuitous. Just as Ledyard called on Banks, the club had decided to send some suitable person to Africa, so Banks, impressed with Ledyard, presented him to the society for what, the society's report of 1790 makes clear, was an arresting discussion. "I spread the map of Africa before him, and tracing a line from Cairo to Sennar, and from thence westward to the latitude and supposed direction of the Niger, I told him that was the route by which I was anxious that Africa, if possible, be explored. He said that he would think himself singularly fortunate to be trusted with the adventure. I asked him when he would set out. 'Tomorrow morning', was his answer."

The answer, to quote his biographer, "was a spontaneous triumph of an elevated spirit, over the whole catalogue of selfish considerations, wavering motives, and half subdued doubts, which would have contended for days in the breasts of most men before they would have adopted a firm resolution to jeopardize their lives in an undertaking so manifestly beset with dangers, toils, provocations and endurance." It also may explain why the African Society engaged Ledyard at once.

Ledyard, who had had his share of misfortune, was stunned to find himself suddenly under the auspices of a society patronized by the King of England. "Is the Lord thus great?" he wrote to his mother, "So also is He good... I am going away to Africa to examine that continent. I expect to be absent three years... I have full and perfect health."

His first stop was Paris, where he remained a week, seeing his old friend Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette. These two had continually championed his cause and for Jefferson especially Ledyard felt a close affection. For his part, Jefferson, an amateur archeologist, was interested in Egypt and asked Ledyard to write to him about the antiquities there. Ledyard agreed, sailed from Marseilles, and reached Egypt 36 days later.

His first report concerned Alexandria which had shrunk into a small and neglected Mediterranean backwater, consisting of a few houses and some crumbling ruins attesting to its past glory.

Ledyard spent 10 days there before proceeding by sea to Rosetta, situated at the mouth of the Nile some 40 miles east of Alexandria. Rosetta was then a prosperous town, and the departure point for the five-day river trip up the Nile to Cairo.

During most of the trip, he wrote, the view was confined because of the high banks and the flat country around the river itself. Ledyard could see, however, that the land was very fertile and supported numerous mud villages. The Nile boats carried a mixed cargo: onions, watermelons, dates, horses, camels, goats, dogs - and passengers. In the morning and evening the villagers played music and sang and although poor, were hospitable, and generous with what they had to offer.

When Ledyard arrived in Cairo he went directly to the house of Mr. Rosetti, the Venetian consul, and chargé d' affaires for the British consul. The consul introduced Ledyard to Agar Muhammad, the right-hand man of Ismail, then the most powerful of the rulings beys. Agar Muhammad promised to help him and letters of introduction to some of the tribe chiefs in Nubia were issued. He also said that Ledyard would discover people in the south who had the power to change themselves into animals. Ledyard promised to write and verify the claim as soon as he discovered these creatures.

On his own, and dressed in the ordinary Turkish habit, Ledyard was able to move about Cairo without difficulty and after three months finally reported to the society that he had made all the arrangements for his trip. He said he was in good spirits and in good health, and in his last letter to Jefferson discussed his plans. He said he would travel across Africa on the parallels of 12 and 20 degrees of north latitude. "If possible," he said, "I shall write to you from the kingdom of the black gentleman" (as he called the king of Sennar). "Do not forget me."

But then, poised to depart on what might have been a voyage to rank with Burton's, calamity struck. "A bilious complaint," brought on by constant strain and worry, was treated by "a too powerful dose of the acid of vitriol" and on the eve of his departure, Ledyard died. He was decently interred, his notebooks and papers were forwarded to the society in London by the British consul and he virtually disappeared from history. Today no trace of his tomb remains.

Some eulogies, to be sure, were published. In the last report of the African Society, published in 1790 in London, the society noted that "his genius, tho uncultivated and irregular, was original and comprehensive. He was adventurous beyond the conception of ordinary men.

A man formed by nature for achievements of hardship and peril." And Jefferson proclaimed him "a man of genius, of some science, and of fearless courage and enterprise."

Oddly enough, however, what fame Ledyard achieved in his own era rests on a short but beautiful essay on women found in his notebook after his death. Published in the African Society's records, it won posthumous fame among the literati of England and America:

I have observed among all the nations, that... women..., wherever found, are the same kind, civil, obliging, humane, tender beings; that they are ever inclined to be gay and cheerful, timorous and modest. They do not hesitate, like man, to perform a hospitable or generous action; not haughty, nor arrogant, nor supercilious, but full of courtesy, and fond of society; industrious, economical, ingenious, more liable in general to err, than man, but in general, also, more virtuous, and performing more good actions than he. I never addressed myself, in the language of decency and friendship, to a woman, whether civilized or savage, without receiving a decent and friendly answer. With man it has often been otherwise. In wandering over the barren plains of inhospitable Denmark, through honest Sweden, frozen Lapland, rude and churlish Finland, unprincipled Russia, and the wide-spread regions of the wandering Tartar, if hungry, dry, cold, wet or sick, woman has ever been friendly to me, and uniformly so; and to add to this virtue, so worthy of the appelation of benevolence, these actions have been performed in so free and so kind a manner, that, if I was dry, I drank the sweet draught, and, if hungry, ate the coarse morsel, with a double relish.

John Brinton, a collector of old travel books, reads and writes about early American ties with the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the November/December 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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