Sunday, October 13, 1996

Thomas Coryat

Written in 1996 for Sky magazine

The English are well known for producing the world's greatest travellers and also the world's greatest eccentrics. It should therefore come as no surprise that nearly four centuries ago, in the Elizabethan Age, those two superlatives met in one odd, self-mocking, self-hawking, perpetually talking, perpetually walking gentleman—Thomas Coryat (1577-1617). A singular character in an age that produced titans of personality, Coryat was befriended and insulted by the luminaries of his day. He also walked from London to Venice and back, and wrote a book about it; and when that didn't make him as famous as he wanted, he walked to India.

Born in Odcombe, Somersetshire, the son of a clergyman who wrote Latin verse, Coryat from an early age showed irrepressible wit and a loquaciousness buttressed by a need for attention. He also had patience, exuberance, strong legs, and a large memory. These served him well at Oxford, which he left after only three years (in those days that meant merely that he didn't take holy orders). After a few years back home and his father's death in 1607, he went to London with little but his classical education.

James I had just taken the throne, and Coryat talked his way into the court of the king's son, Prince Henry. There he managed to survive as a kind of glorified jester, a "privileged buffoon," the butt of jokes who also gave as good as he got—a living version of a type found in many plays of the era. As one diarist of the Prince's court noted, "Sweetmeats and Coryat made up the last course at all court entertainments." He was also part of the regular crowd at the Mermaid Tavern, arguably the wittiest bar-cafe of all time, alongside Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and Inigo Jones. None of this, however, meant cash or celebrity.

Then Coryat hit on the notion of gaining fame as a traveller—surely this would satisfy his deep need to be taken seriously. (He was evidently a natural target for teasing; his eagerness for attention doubtless increased others' marksmanship.) His big idea was to walk to Venice and back, via France, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. He left in May 1608 and was back in October, having covered nearly two thousand miles in one pair of shoes. These Coryat took home and proudly hung in Odcombe's church, and they would be immortalized by Shakespeare, who in Measure for Measure speaks of “brave Master Shoetie, the great traveller.”

It took him three years to publish the book of his journey, Coryats Crudities, hastily gobled up in five moneths travells ...Newly digested in the hungry aire... and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling Members of this Kingdome. An odd, overlong work, with passages cobbled and altered from others' books, it was still Coryat through and through, the "Odcombian Leg-stretcher," as he called himself. The great curiosity of the Crudities is its extensive preface, which consists of verses by much of the roster of Elizabethan literary talent, alternately praising and roasting Coryat. It is back-scratching unsurpassed, a shameless and waggish blurbdom, and much of it was unsolicited.

There are verses in English, in Greek and Latin, in French, Italian, and Spanish, in Welsh, Macaronic, even in "Antipodean" and "Utopian." Ben Jonson contributed a rhymed acrostic on the letters of Coryat's name; several verses were set to music, one was shaped like an egg. When Coryat saw how many there were, and how sardonic his "friends" could be, he got cold feet, but the Prince insisted he print all of them. Suddenly it was fashionable to make fun of this extraordinary traveller while commending his book. One poet referred to him as a "single-soled, single-souled and single-shirted Observer." Jonson called Coryat "an Engine, wholly consisting of extremes, a Head, Fingers, and Toes. For what his industrious Toes have trod, his ready Fingers have written, his subtle head dictating." He was "irrecoverably addicted" to travel, this "great and bold Carpenter of words."

And the book was a success. What this meant back then was several hundred copies printed, for the reading market was tiny. Coryat had to endure one penalty of fame: a pirated edition of the Preface to the Crudities, those verses that all London was talking about, available at a fraction of the cost, with a title page making fun of our hero's lengthy tome. Coryat was enraged, but at least everyone knew him, or of him. He was thirty-five.

He was also elated. Why not go farther? Why not walk from Constantinople all the way to India, see the Great Mogul, and ride an elephant? Let them make fun of Tom Coryat then!

He left in October 1612 by ship and reached Constantinople in April 1613. En route he visited the purported ruins of Troy and was there dubbed a knight by a fellow-passenger, much to the disappointment of several local onlookers who thought him about to be beheaded. Coryat was a master at accepting hospitality, and he stayed as the guest of the English trading agent until January, when he left Constantinople by sea for Iskenderun, now most of the way along the Turkish coast. He then started walking.

He walked to Aleppo, to Damascus, and on to Jerusalem. There he had his wrist tattooed with a Crusaders' cross—a popular souvenir among Christian pilgrims to the Holy City. He had a look at the Jordan River and walked back to Aleppo for a hot four months' wait for a caravan. Eventually he got lucky, and started east in September, via Diyabekir, where a Turkish soldier robbed him of most of his limited funds. Fortunately Coryat had adopted the habit of local dress, and kept a few emergency coins stashed in strategic folds of his robes. Remarkably undaunted, he pushed on with the caravan across Persia to Tabriz, Isfahan, and Kandahar.

Near the Indian frontier Coryat had a stroke of traveller's fortune, and ran into Sir Robert and Lady Sherley, on their way back west from the Court of the Mogul Emperor Jahangir. English being rare in these parts, they must've looked like the happiest of mirages to Coryat, and Sir Robert even had the Crudities with him, picked up in London. Sir Robert also offered to speak highly of its author to the Persian Shah so that Coryat might enjoy the ruler's hospitality on his return trek. This was guff, but Lady Sherley was sensible and kind enough to give Coryat some money.

In Multan Coryat got into an argument with a Muslim who had learned Italian as a slave and who called Coryat an infidel. This earned the hapless Mohammedan a long, florid, scurrilous reply before a large crowd who cannot have possibly understood what Coryat was saying, likewise in Italian. Coryat recounts this brave oration in one of the few letters home (mostly to his mother) which are, sadly, all that survived of his Great Walk.

He was now in the territory of "the Great Mogul" and from Lahore he walked what we call the Grand Trunk Road to Delhi and Agra, then to nearby Ajmer to meet the Emperor. This walk of 450 miles took him only twenty days, at a cost of about twopence a day (Coryat remarks on the locals' generosity). With typical gusto he called the road, with its regular shade trees, "the most incomparable shew of that kind that ever my eies survaied . . . I traversed afoot, but with divers paire of shooes, having beene such a propateticke . . . that is, a walker forward on foote, as I doubt whether you have heard the like in your life..." He had covered over 3300 miles from Jerusalem, the first European to thus reach India on foot since Alexander the Great's infantry.

At Ajmer Coryat settled in with ten fellow Englishmen, local representatives of the East India Company—that strange trading and eventually military organization which soon enough controlled most of India. In the meantime any Englishman was welcome at a Company table, and they happily put up Coryat for fourteen months while he planned further travels (Samarkand and Ethiopia) and polished his Persian, Turkish, Hindustani, and Arabic. A dedicated wordsmith, he liked linguistic brawls and, in his native garb, came to be looked on as "a half-witted English fakir" by the locals.

Coryat earned the admiration (and a donation) of the Mogul emperor one morning, at Jahangir's regular appearance before his people. His need was great: he had all but run out of money. But Coryat's Persian was eloquent. He spoke of the ruler's "glorious court" and said he had come all this way to see "Your Majesties elephants" and the Ganges, "captaine of all the river[s] of the world." He had on this journey "sustained much labour and toile, the like whereof no mortall man in this world did ever perform, to see the blessed face of Your Majesty . . . ."

The speech worked; Jahangir replied in Persian and threw him 100 silver rupees, about ten pounds sterling. Later the English Ambassador complained to Coryat that it was most unbecoming for a countryman to beg. Coryat was at home duelling with wits like Ben Jonson; he could eviscerate a mere bureaucrat. "I answered . . . in that stout and resolute manner that he was contented to cease nibling at me."

Coryat kept walking. He saw Agra again during a plague, and Hardwar and the Punjab; but the climate and his exertions proved too much. He had fainting spells and managed to make his way to the East India Company's hospitality in Surat. Their kindnesses did him in. In December 1617 he became the first Western tourist to die in India from a bad stomach, brought on by an English diet of too much local beer on top of meat in hot weather. Yet to him belongs the very real honor of being the first Westerner to visit the subcontinent with no thought of either trade or conquest.

What, in the end, does Coryat amount to? Scholars of Asia relish him as much for his humor and exaggerations as for his observant eye; he is far more entertaining than the usual traders and missionaries. One goes to him not for his facts but for his personality. He travelled not for plunder or science or God but for his own personal pleasure, and to our eyes he seems modern in this regard. He was an exceptional linguist, the first English travel-writer, and the greatest pedestrian of his era. He well understood that speed not only erases the detail but blurs the mind. He rarely complained of hardship. People made fun of him, but then again this is the protest of the stay-at-home against the incessant adventurer even today. And if Coryat didn't exactly have the last laugh, perhaps he had the best one. Here we are four centuries later, still praising his enthusiasm and his shoe leather: he would surely puff with pride. Plus he saw the world.

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