Initially an agent for the Dutch West India Company and later and emissary for the richer and more powerful East India Company, Jan (or, in Latinised form, Johannes) Nieuhof (1618-1672) was among the most travelled men of the seventeenth century. Born in Westphalia, he lived for nine years (1640-1649) in Brazil and also visited India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and parts of Africa. He served as secretary on the 1655-1657 Dutch mission from Canton to Beijing to secure a trading agreement with the Chinese emperor, Shunzhi. He was killed by Malagasy tribesmen while investigating commercial opportunities in Madagascar.
In mercantile terms, the Chinese mission was not a resounding success. Instead of the brisk exchange of goods they hoped for, the Dutch ambassadors merely obtained permission to send four trading ships once every eight years. Still, Nieuhof’s account of the wonders to be seen in China excited the imaginations of readers throughout Europe. Much of the information in his text was cribbed from earlier writings by Jesuit missionaries, such as Nicholas Trigault, Martino Martini and Alvaro Semedo, but what distinguished Nieuhof’s book was its wealth of illustrations (thirty-five plates, one hundred and eight text-engravings and a folding map), based on the acutely observed drawings he made during the journey.
The first Dutch edition was published in 1665. A French translation appeared in 1667 and an English version in 1669. The copy presented to the Library by Sir George Grey in 1887 is a rendition in Latin (in the seventeenth century still a vital language understood by a majority of scholars), translated from the Dutch by George Horn, a professor at Leyden University. The Library also houses a handsome pair of early Dutch-language editions of Nieuhof’s travels donated by Fred Shaw in 1923: Ioan Nievhofs Genenkwaredige zee en lantreize door de voornaemste landschappen van West en Oostindien (1682) and Het gezandtschap der Neerlandtsche Oost-Indische Compagnie (1693).