The travel journal of barber-surgeon Johann Peter Oettinger is examined in detail by historian Roberto Zaugg. A work of major significance, this journeyman’s account of his experiences and of the slave trade is the only one dating from the seventeenth century to exist in German.
On paper, this ‘Travel Account and Biography’ does not say much. It is, however, the focus of attention of Roberto Zaugg, Ambizione Fellow of the Swiss National Science Foundation at UNIL and his research partner Craig Koslofsky, Professor of History at the University of Illinois.
This manuscript of a little over 200 pages recounts the journeyman travels of barber-surgeon Johann Peter Oettinger between 1682 and 1696. Twice during his voyages he signed up as medical officer on board slave ships. So is this basically just another tale of the slave trade like so many others? It is, however, in fact the only account in German from the seventeenth century that deals with an expedition involving the complete triangular trade.
Johann Peter, life as a journeyman
More than a personal diary, the text is like a tale of youth. Its author describes a period in his life punctuated by rites of passage. The account opens with 16-year-old Johann Peter as he seeks professional experience and it ends with his marriage in 1697 to Anna Barbara Böhm, daughter of a dyer.
“In German-speaking territories, young men were compelled to embark on a period of travelling as a journeyman following their apprenticeship,” explains Roberto Zaugg. Trades were controlled by guilds and governed by strict rules. Apprenticeships were served with a master craftsman, who became a substitute father-figure. Training then continued as a journeyman, with the ‘trainees’ travelling from town to town and working for a master or his widow, who retained control of a business in the event her husband died. During this stage, journeymen worked to earn a salary but did not have the right to set up a business in their own name. The guild ultimately decided if a journeyman could be granted the desired status. “The system worked on the basis of co-optation. Guild members therefore had an interest in limiting their numbers. Young men were forced to pursue a precarious existence. Once an apprentice had finished his training, he might be told he did not have the necessary experience to open a business. In reality, it was about limiting the competition and having a cheaper workforce available as required.”
The account by Johann Peter Oettinger is also interesting for the professional path it traces from job to job, particularly for the insight it gives into the world of the merchant navy and how the companies recruited their workforce. In the seventeenth century, the German-speaking hinterland accounted for a large proportion of the wage bill of low-skilled workers. The latter travelled in search of work to the Netherlands, one of the cradles of the European merchant navy. “The story of Johann Peter reveals details of real life beyond the simple factors of supply and demand. Certainly we cannot generalise from his single case, but the account shows that the path he took was not a linear one as might have been supposed.”
Johann Peter, on board of a slave ship
When travelling as a journeyman, the young barber-surgeon signed up for the first time with the Dutch West India Company. This experience took him from Europe to the Antilles and Guyana. He then found employment with the Brandenburg African Company. On this second voyage, the journeyman travelled from Europe to Africa and then Africa to the island of Saint Thomas, to the east of the Dominican Republic.
“It is interesting to note that Johann Peter wrote a great deal while he was on the slave ships, something he did less of when on land.” Following research, the historians have discovered that the explanations given of European cities in the account are actually copies of texts from a guide widely available in the seventeenth century. On board the ships, on the other hand, the young man had to fall back on his own resources to record his discoveries. The question is what can be learned from this.
Employed as barber-surgeon, Johann Peter Oettinger was the ship’s doctor. He was responsible for treating those who fell ill, both crew and slaves. His notes reveal that on occasion he pretty much assumed the role of death’s tallyman. “He recorded all deaths, something that was very important to the companies. When an employee died, his heirs received his wages. The employers were therefore anxious to know exactly how long the seaman had served.” As regards the slaves or, in effect, the merchandise, it was a matter of calculating the financial losses.
Other anecdotes recorded by the barber-surgeon prove too that the travellers engaged in parallel trade. “Johann Peter recounts that he had some sugar stolen, which he had bought in the Antilles to re-sell. He was also counting on making some money from a medicine chest.” Although it might be thought from this that private transactions were authorised, it was not the case. “In theory only the companies were supposed to be doing business. But they shut their eyes to the situation, as in reality it suited everyone. The system enabled companies to pay their employees less in the knowledge that the latter would still accept the work, as they could make extra income by conducting small-scale private trade on the side.”
Lastly, some details describe the limits of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth century. An example is when Johann Peter notes the deaths of numerous seamen while navigating the coastal waters off Africa. “When they left Amsterdam, the sailors drank mostly beer, because it was drinkable. But on arriving in Africa, the beer was finished. The sailors therefore drank water. As the crew members were not vaccinated and as the role of micro-organisms had still not been discovered, they began to die.”
Johann Peter, the life of an ancestor
Before a copy of Johann Peter’s manuscript reached the scrutiny of the researchers, it had passed down through several generations of Oettingers. While it seems that the original has now been lost, the account was copied out by his grandson. The story was then given a new slant by Johann Peter’s great-great-grandson, Paul Oettinger, a journalist and soldier. At the end of the nineteenth century, the account of his ancestor’s voyage was notably used and fictionalised to prove that Germany too was a great colonial power. Through his intervention, Paul Oettinger was also trying to write his family’s name into the ‘glorious’ history of the nation. He did not hesitate therefore to suppress passages of the account that seemed to him uninteresting or of little use in the context of his mission, and to invent swathes of the voyages experienced by his ancestor.