Jan Struys (c.1628-c.1694): Fake or Fact?

by Kees Boterbloem

A decade after the Fiction and Reality of Jan Struys had been published, I met Jan Struys in Haarlem1. Or rather, I met his likely descendant Jan Struys, who is a well-known Dutch police official. Jan told me that, when reading my recent Dutch retranslation into modern Dutch of the 1676 bestseller Rampspoedige Reysen, he heard echoes of the stories about Struys’s tales of Russia, the Caucasus and Iran that have been passed on for generations in his family2. I was baffled, for even though historians try to conjure up the past of those who are long gone, they always feel that their truth, or depiction, is partial, only one of many possible worlds. Here in Haarlem I found some sort of confirmation of the historical Struys that I had imagined. Meeting modern-day Jan Struys, then, for me appeared to vindicate Giambattista Vico’s suggestion, to which I have always been partial: we are equipped with a historical intuition, which allows us to recreate the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist,” without having access to all the evidence, the capacity to read it all, or, indeed, a time machine3. 

Nonetheless, when thinking about the sailor Jan Struys’s life (and about those who helped him put his stories into print), one is forced to admit that much of what one thinks of him is pure speculation. The evidence about his existence is slim, and often puzzling or ambiguous (a blatant example of one such mystery is the fate of his children, or even their number). No birth or baptism record survives in the archives of his purported birthplace Wormer, and to this date no researcher has found anything at all about Jan Struys’s existence that precedes the document that announced his first marriage in 1650s Amsterdam, when he was identified as a varensgezel (sailor) by a clerk. He signed the record with an artful capital J, perhaps a sign of whim, but more likely of a rather poor command of writing. 

Illiteracy, or half-literacy, was not unusual in the Amsterdam of his age, in which only half of all grooms could sign their own names. For sailors the ability to write was not that crucial. While he may have been able to read only a little, Struys must have had a sense of numeracy: at least he had a fairly good memory for the wages he and his comrades received when they enlisted with the tsar in 1668 to sail the Russian monarch’s ship on the Caspian Sea. Indeed, in the burgeoning capitalist environment of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, where goods and labor were paid for in money, numeracy trumped literacy. Without an understanding of some basic arithmetic, it would have been hard to survive in this world.

Then, suddenly, we encounter a rather well-documented period of Struys’s life, from 1668 to 1676 (after which his traces begin to fade again). A widower at 35 or so, he remarried in 1668, when he was near 40. His second spouse was the proprietor of the house in Amsterdam in which he had already lived for some years. Oddly, he immediately left for Russia upon the conclusion of this wedding, joining a crew led by David Butler that the tsar’s factor Jan van Sweeden had recruited in Amsterdam. The sailors were to navigate the Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich’s first elaborately sail-rigged vessel that was to launch on the Caspian Sea. Russian records survive that see Struys and Butler and their companions cross the Russian-Swedish border in the Baltic area, and many parts of the third section of Struys’s Rampspoedige Reysen, first published in 1676, align with these and other sources. 

But due to the heavy involvement of an editor, or even a ghostwriter as I have argued, we still only catch glimpses of Struys’s mindset, even if we have an almost 400-page illustrated book recounting his adventures. The editor of his tales shaped Struys’s stories into something which was palatable to the Dutch readers of the 1670s, undoubtedly bowdlerizing or expurgating all sorts of parts which might have offended the sensibilities of the well-to-do Dutch bourgeois. This editing added lengthy parts to the text that described the culture or nature (of Russia, Iran, etc.) that was deemed of interest to the readers (and which were usually lifted from other geographic, or chorographic, works). Dutch readers (and readers who read the book’s translated pages in neighboring countries) were highly keen on exotic ethnographical or geographical exposés about foreign places. Possibly, they pondered new business opportunities in regions not yet penetrated by the European merchants and colonists. 

Rampspoedige Reysen‘s affluent readers were rather different from Jan Struys himself, who, even if his reading skills were better than I suspect, certainly would not have spent his money on such expensive printed matter. It should be remembered that, as far as we know, if the Dutch owned any printed matter in the seventeenth century, it was the Bible or Bible-related reading material. Readers of books such as Rampspoedige Reysen belonged to the upper middle class. As Bert van Selm has suggested, the print-run of books such as Struys’s ranged from 500 to 1,000 per edition4. Therefore, even if Rampspoedige Reysen was a genuine bestseller given its reprints and translations in German, French and English soon after its first Dutch issue, this needs to be understood in context. Indeed, both of the book’s patrons, the Amsterdam regents Nicolaas Witsen and Koenraad van Klenk, may have been asked for a subsidy to help produce the book, since profits from sales alone would hardly cover the costs incurred in the book’s production.

Some of that cost involved a slew of engravings made by the talented young artists Coenraet Decker and Johannes Kip, who were selected by publisher Jacob van Meurs, a skilled engraver himself. It remains unclear who was responsible for the sketch on which the book’s map of the Caspian Sea was based, which is intriguing, as its northern and western shores are depicted far more accurately than any Western map had done before (its caption falsely states that Jan Struys drew the map in 1668, when Struys had in fact been nowhere near this sea yet). Clearly, someone in Butler’s crew had charted the shores, but how did this sketch reach Amsterdam in 1675? If we trust his account, Struys himself was robbed of any valuables he had at St. Helena in 1673 and only allowed to keep a few souvenirs and his notes (or diary). This statement, found at the end of his book, suggests that he could write reasonably well, which is dubious (he signed his second wedding license, too, with just the single letter J); that he knew how to draw maps is even less probable.

Only a few of the illustrations stand out otherwise (in the sense that they don’t copy a familiar sort of template). Foremost are those of Astrakhan around 1670. Given their amount of detail, the sketches for these illustrations may have been made by the same man who drew the Caspian Sea map. It is fitting to note here that Western-European iconography before 1700 lacks life-like or accurate images of the Volga cities (some poor ones can be found in the travel account of the Holsteiner Adam Olearius, while Engelbert Kaempfer, secretary to the Swedish envoy Lodewijk Fabricius, an acquaintance of Struys, rendered some of the towns in his diary in the 1680s5). It was to be the Dutch artist Cornelis de Bruin who in the 1700s became the first European to supply a detailed pictorial record of the Volga towns’s skyline and of northern and western Iran6. Some of De Bruin’s rendition is marvelous in its accuracy.


So, in the end, we only occasionally catch glimpses of a Hollander who does not belong to his country’s elite in Rampspoedige Reysen (or in some of the other sources on this period of Struys’s life). We witness him skating, to the astonishment of the Russians (and at some peril, as his protégé Els Pietersz. almost drowns after falling through the ice). This jibes with Avercamp’s or Brueghel’s paintings, in which skating is shown as a favorite pastime of the Netherlanders in this age (sometimes called the Mini Ice-Age, when the Dutch waterways were far more often frozen than they are today). We read how he fights off Russian and Iranian highwaymen, and escapes the Cossacks at Astrakhan only to be captured by Dagestani who enslave him. 

It stands without a doubt that during his sojourn in eastern Europe and Asia from 1668 to 1673 Struys was frequently exposed to violence, although the book suggests he himself was just as likely to turn to violence. He was constantly confronted with the precarity of human existence, undergoing torture, contracting illness, engaging in fights, being ambushed, and so on. The violence to which he was exposed (or to which he resorted) seems excessive to us, and its scale may have been unusual even to his affluent seventeenth-century readers, but it may have been no more than normal for someone of Struys’s humble background. I left out the first two parts of the 1676 original in my 2014 retranslation (although I do say something about them in Fiction and Reality), but if there is any truth in them regarding Struys’s adventures in the 1640s and 1650s, the violence Struys saw and underwent is as jarring as what he encounters in the third part. The statement by his contemporary Thomas Hobbes that life was “nasty, brutish and short” loudly rings true.

It is difficult to imagine how exactly this repeated exposure to brutality affected the mind of someone like Jan Struys. No one today could survive such violence without acquiring Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (and Struys may have very well suffered from this condition). Reflecting on his life as a whole, one surmises that he became a hard-nosed survivor. In addition, he was a skillful schemer, as is particularly evident in the final third of his life (1668-1694). The odd conditions of his second wedding (which partially entitled him to his wife’s house); his delight at the generous wages offered by the tsar; his dogged attempt to recover the wages owed to him in 1675 and 1676, when he seems to have joined the Van Klenk Embassy mainly to get his money; the book project of the same years; his curious endeavor to sell the Danish king a design for an unsinkable ship; and his ultimate retirement at Friedrichstadt in apparent comfort all hint at his survival skills and his keen eye for opportunity. Some of his mates who went to Russia were equally intrepid, such as Karsten Brandt, who built (or restored) Tsar Peter the Great’s first ships near Moscow around 1690.

And he embellished things. In our conversation in Haarlem, Jan Struys affirmed that telling tall tales was a common trait in his family: in Rampspoedige Reysen, his ancestor certainly displays a knack for adding some tall tales to his life (the climbing of Mount Ararat was at least in part made up, as was his witness account of the skinning of an Iranian woman, for instance). 

Perhaps the historical Jan Struys’s perseverance in not resigning himself to his fate can be linked to his Christian beliefs. But it is hard to determine whether the determination of the book’s protagonist to reject Muslim attempts to convert him to Islam might have been played up by its editor(s) in order to contrast idealized Christian religious purity with the perfidy of Christianity’s greatest rivals. In stark contrast with Struys’s behavior as a paragon of marital fidelity, Muslims are portrayed as sexually depraved in Rampspoedige Reysen. In reality, conversion to Islam was all too common among Dutch sailors in the seventeenth century, and few seamen were steadfastly monogamous. Struys may have stood out for his stubborn refusal to become a Muslim (indeed, according to his tales, apart from the women and riches he was offered, conversion to Islam would have gained him his freedom from slavery), but he rarely invokes God, Christianity, or indeed his wife, in the text. This may hint at the nature of popular religion in the Republic, quite different from the dour piety advocated by Protestant ministers. 

I have argued in the past (and I still believe this today) that Jan Struys in many ways can very much be seen as a modern person. In at least one aspect he seems a typical representative of the capitalism that had become the leitmotiv for many of the Republic’s inhabitants’ economic behavior. We know a fair bit about the mindset and world of the Dutch elite in this regard, but, as Rudolf Dekker has pointed out, precious little about those below it, as we have so few seventeenth-century ego-documents available that were written by those on society’s lower rungs, while other sources such as court documents, drawings, paintings and architectural artifacts only hint at their world7. In Struys’s actions, however, we see someone from humble abode affected by the capitalist mindset. This is evidence that the capitalist view on things was beginning to spread among broader layers of Dutch society in his time. 

Of course, one could counter that throughout recorded history one meets adventurous types who through luck and pluck make it, so perhaps Struys is more of an eternal human (arche-)type, the self-made man or homo faber. But the idea that one had agency and could control one’s destiny to some degree was unusually widespread in the Republic. One telling illustration of this are the wives and widows of Struys’s comrades, who went to an Amsterdam notary in 1676 to ensure that Jan Struys would bring back any of their spouses’s wages from the tsar, as he had promised the previous summer when he had left Amsterdam as “constable and palfryman” of Extraordinary Ambassador Koenraad van Klen(c)k8. The women’s démarche also shows that they believed Struys’s word to be quite untrustworthy, which fits the idea of his somewhat shifty or duplicitous character. 

In sum, most of what we can find out about Struys through his words and actions (and through what he leaves unsaid!) bespeaks a person who is not unlike us, although we may be coated by a veneer of civilization somewhat thicker than Struys’s (few of us, I suspect, have indulgently witnessed—or possibly participated in—a posthumous castration, for example). Doubtless, more can be said about Struys’s world and cosmos, even if using the meager evidence that I consider unambiguous, and I have done so in two books and several articles9. But the Jan Struys in those pages, as well as the Jan Struys that I try to sketch above, remain my Jan Struyses; we can only wish for someone to find a true treasure trove of additional evidence about his life, so that my ideas can be tested on the basis of a fuller record10. Still, I remain partial to Vico’s insights, and have the hope that my recreation of Struys echoes in some meaningful way the Jan Struys of history.


  1. See Kees Boterbloem, The Fiction and Reality of Jan Struys: A Seventeenth-Century Dutch Globetrotter, Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  2. See Jan Struys, Rampspoedige reizen door Rusland en Perzië in de zeventiende eeuw, ed. Kees Boterbloem, Amsterdam: Panchaud, 2014. The original was J.J. Struys, Drie aanmerkelijke en seer rampspoedige Reysen,…, Amsterdam: J. van Meurs and J. van Someren, 1676. The book was first published in German in 1678; in French in 1679; and in English in 1683.
  3. Vico’s ideas about history are to be found in his New Science, first published in 1725; to create the past “how it truly was” is a famous phrase coined by the German historian Leopold von Ranke.
  4. See Bert van Selm, ” ‘…te bekomen voor een Civilen prijs’. De Nederlandse boekprijs in de zeventiende eeuw als onbekende grootheid,” De zeventiende eeuw 1, 1990, 98-116.
  5. Adam Olearius, Vermehrte Neue Beschreibung der Moskowitischen und Persischen reise, Schleswig: J. Holwein, 1656. This second version of the 1647 original has more illustrations, but they clearly follow a formula used for other contemporary engraved cityscapes or landscapes. During his life, few of Kaempfer’s writings were printed, but his description of Iran did appear in 1712: see R. Matthee, “Ludvig Fabritius,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, available at: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/fabritius, accessed 29 December 2018; E. Kaempfer, Amoenitatum exoticarum politico-physico-medicarum, fasciculi 5, Lemgo: H.W. Meyer, 1712, available at: http://diglib.hab.de/wdb.php?dir=edoc/ed000081&distype=start&pvID=start, accessed 29 December 2018; this Latin treatise was translated first into German as E. Kaempfer, Am Hofe des Persischen Großkönigs, 1684-1685, Tübingen-Basel: Erdmann, 1977 (Leipzig, 1940).
  6. See Cornelis de Bruins Reizen Over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie, Verrijkt met Driehondert Kunstplaten,…, Amsterdam: Wetstein, Oosterwijk and van de Gaete, 1714. Its first edition of 1711, which is very rare, was printed by W. and D. Goeree in Amsterdam.
  7.  Rudolf Dekker, “Van Grand Tour tor treur- en sukkelreis: Nederlandse reisverslagen van de 16e tot begin 19e eeuw,” Opossum 13-14, 1994, 8-24; and the website of the Onderzoekscentrum Egodocument en geschiedenis, available at: http://www.egodocument.net/egodocumententot1814.html, accessed 4 March 2019. See also Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, third ed., London: Routledge, 2009.
  8. See Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Notarieel Archief 4304 [Notaris Nicolaes Hemminck], 227-227verso and 247. For the embassy, see Historisch Verhael of Beschryving van de Voyagie gedaan onder de Suite van den Heere Koenraad van Klenck, Amsterdam: Jan Claesz. ten Hoorn, 1677.
  9. For an inspiring attempt to recreate the mindset of an Early Modern Italian miller by way of the records of the inquisition, see Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.
  10. See K. Boterbloem, Met een beschaafder Penne… The Making of Drie aanmerkelijke en seer rampspoedige reysen: A Case of Early-Modern Ghostwriting,” Jaarboek voor Nederlandse Boekgeschiedenis 15, 2008: 34-50; K. Boterbloem, “The Genesis of Jan Struys’s Perillous Voyages and the Business of the Book Trade in the Dutch Republic,” Publications of the Bibliographical Society of America 1, 2008: 5-28; and K. Boterbloem, “Jan Struys in Azië,” De Boekenwereld 4, 2016: 78-83.
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