A Letter from Olivier Van Noort, Circumnavigator: Pertaining to the First Dutch Voyage around the World, 1598-1601

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The Letter

THE only letter of Olivier Van Noort known to exist is now in the James Ford Bell Collection of the University of Minnesota. In essence it is a request by Van Noort to release him from the promised subsidy to the poor of Utrecht because of his financial difficulties after his return. In some way this letter came into the private papers of Cornelis Booth, one of Utrecht's burgomasters. It is mentioned in a geography catalogue of 1910 issued by the well-known antiquariat of Frederik Muller and Co., Amsterdam. From here the letter seems to have traveled to England. Dr. J. W. IJzerman tells that in 1925 the document was in the hands of the firm Frank T. Sabin, London. It was purchased for the Bell Collection in 1955 from a London antiquarian bookseller.

The value of the letter is not merely in its age and rarity. It gives valuable historical evidence regarding Van Noort's life. Only here do we find a definite statement regarding the city of his birth. Also the epistle helps to fix the time of publication of the preliminary Extract. Its style and terminology reflect neatly the spirit of the time. When Olivier speaks of his "fatherland" he does not mean the entire Netherlands, but specifically the Province of Utrecht. When he wants to ward off possible criticism of his performance he drops the hint that such "slanderers" may be subversive elements, fellow travelers of his Catholic Majesty, the King of Spain.

If Olivier was a hothead in battle, this letter shows that he certainly could argue like an astute lawyer. He emphasizes his patriotic service and the contributions he has made in the fight against Spain. He loses no opportunity to remind the Council of the hardships he has suffered. He declares his poverty -- which makes it almost ridiculous to expect him to help the poor -- but firmly announces his good intentions to fulfill his promise if Fortune should smile again on him. In requesting the release he vaguely refers to others who have already excused him, and having gained nothing more than honor, he generously offers to share it with his native city, asking only that they will staunchly defend it.

The request had the desired result. The City Council granted his petition, adding somewhat dryly that they had noted his proposition of payment -- if possible -- in the future.

A document like this inevitably suffers by rendering it in another language. I have tried to convey the flavor of the sixteenth century by adhering closely to the style and the choice of words in the original manuscript. Here and there a lengthy sentence has been divided in two, but on the whole it seemed best to let the reader find his way through the maze of Olivier's composition in much the same way as a modern Hollander would need to labor to reap the harvest of this significant letter.


THE LETTER IN TRANSLATION

To my Noble Lords Bailiff, Burgomasters, and Magistrates of the city of Utrecht.

-11-

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A Letter from Olivier Van Noort, Circumnavigator: Pertaining to the First Dutch Voyage around the World, 1598-1601
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • A Foreword v
  • The Setting 3
  • The Voyage 5
  • The Letter 11
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