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Pieter van Woensel’s ‘Remarks’

Pieter van Woensel, Remarks, made on a journey through Turkey, Natolia, the Crimea and Russia, in the Years 1784–89


A neglected source among eighteenth-century travelogues on the Ottoman Empire is Aanteekeningen (‘Remarks’) by the physician, publicist and world traveller Pieter van Woensel, in which he relates his voyage in Turkey (the Ottoman Empire), The Crimea and Russia, in the years 1784–1789.

For sample pages of Laban Kaptein’s edition of Remarks I (1791), click here for Part I: Translation (PDF), and here for Part II: Commentary (PDF), as well as the Cumulative Index, which concludes Part III: Commentary (continued).

Remember, these books are self-published, so please order only directly through my website. Thank you for your understanding.

Remarks holds a unique position within eighteenth-century travel writing on Turkey, if only for Pieter van Woensel’s atheism. The work appeared anonymously, with the author’s name substituted by his portrait in seemingly Turkish dress, above enigmatic signs resembling Oriental letters. The book’s printer is given as Portlohah Effendi in Constantinople (retrograde for ‘Mr. Holtrop’, Amsterdam), and the year of publication as ‘the year MCCVI of Hijra’. An already suggested, additional tome would appear four years later, in ‘Hegira MCCIX’. It details Van Woensel’s voyage through Anatolia to the Crimea, from the moment he crossed the Bosphorus ‘in the ninth year before the complete introduction of Christendom in Swedish Lapland, or yet more precisely in the month Rebiel-eval 1199 of Hijra’. (An apparent error, as doctor Pieter van Woensel set out in May 1786, i.e. in the month Rajab of 1200.)


Structure and brief analysis of Pieter van Woensel, Remarks, made on a journey through Turkey.

Remarks, vol. 1 (1791), has xx + 454 pages, with two illustrations, one score of Turkish music, and two folding plates in variant formats. Remarks, vol. 2 (1795), has vi + VI + 318 pages, with two illustrations, and five folding plates all in a different format (with the instruction for three of them to be yet inserted in vol. 1).


Volume 1 of Remarks is made up of six thematic chapters, styled ‘bundles’ by Pieter van Woensel, for considering them collages of his dispersed travel notes. They treat of the city of Constantinople, local Turkish manners and morals, ‘The state of learning in Turkey’, the Turkish military force by land and sea, and the Greeks. Leaving aside preliminaries and (long, French-language) intermezzo’s, Remarks, vol. 2 brings the closing chapters 7 and 8 on the journey through Anatolia, and the Crimea.


The work opens with ‘Fragments of a misplaced preface’, firstly misplaced in tone, and then mislaid, for which Van Woensel blames a ‘fever fit’, a delirious origin that deliberately undermines the narrator’s authority. In fact, he continuously challenges the reader to check his allegations. (For example, Remarks, vol. 1, pp. vii, 13, 454.) The book’s waiver is a paraphrase of Grotius’ famous words: ‘if I have said anything contrary to (…) the common agreement of the Jewish, Christian, or Mahometan synagogue, church or mosque, (…) then consider it unsaid.’


The voyage out is skipped save some rhapsodical lines on the sea route from Amsterdam to the Levant. This sudden leap alienates the I-narrator and reader, whose desorientated (cultural) compasses must be adjusted anew in the Turkish capital, as Bettina Noak has remarked. This fits the author’s repeated intention to enter as a fresh-eyed, unbiased observer who sees for himself. He feels this is especially required in the case of Muslim Turkey, often painted in Christenland as the devil incarnate, but actually a country where, ‘once ashore, one soon perceives that the locals eat one another as little as elsewhere’, hence his ‘plea for the case of the Turks’. (Remarks, vol. 1, pp. 86, 204.)


Depending on the subject at hand, Remarks, viz. the first volume, is partly tributary to well-known predecessors on Turkey and Islam, as readily admitted by Van Woensel. He praises Porter and Peyssonnel for their positive (in his eyes objective) stance on the Turks. He is cynical, on the other hand, about writers like Baron de Tott, whom he considers ‘anti-Turkey’. For the same reason, he ridicules Montesquieu’s theory of Oriental despotism, while suspecting a certain ‘Habesci’ (indeed a fake-named plagiarist). Whereas he appears to be only vaguely acquainted with specialists on Islamic culture like Muradgea d’Ohsson and Herbelot, there are many references to a host of other writers, often at the expense of personal insights and observations. (In particular Toderini, Guys, Ferrières Sauveboeuf, Marsigli, ‘Milady’ Craven; less extensively, Tournefort, Choiseul-Gouffier, Capper, Niebuhr, De Bruin, Cantemir, Björnståhl et cetera).


Something new in eighteenth-century travelogues on the Ottoman Empire: Pieter van Woensel in Islamic lands.

Van Woensel’s journey on Muslim soil is bookended by two opposite emotions: the joy on arrival, and the urge to depart from Turkey. (Remarks, vol. 1, p. 16, and vol. 2, p. 116.) In between unfolds a paysage intériorisé, where the descriptions of the land, its people, roads, and indeed the weather seem to mirror the author’s changing mood from sympathetic to désabusé.

For in the final stages in Anatolia the Turks treated him ‘as an unbeliever, an unclean creature’ (Remarks, vol. 2, p. 97). That was a very different experience from the protected days in the Dutch embassy in Istanbul, where he had with Schadenfreude observed that ‘all heterodox, heretical denominations are equally abhorred by the Turks, with the possible exception of the Persian one, much as the Catholics and the Protestants, though both Christian, hate one another more bitterly than either of them does the Turks. The Christians, accustomed to heaping the burden of their contempt on Jews everywhere, must here, much to my glee, eat the humble pie of all being treated the same as them. Neither are permitted to testify against a true believer.’ (Remarks, vol. 1, p. 106.)

And so, arriving from Turkey in the Russian naval base of Sevastopol on the Crimea, he confided to (another) paper that all non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire were ‘kept in utter abasement, basically treated like dogs.’


Remarks is as much a journey in Turkey as a voyage philosophique, about key themes that pervade Pieter van Woensel’s oeuvre: State and Religion as the constant threats to a man’s liberty and sanity, and the rejection of national and religious hatred in favour of cosmopolitanism. If we fail to do this, he observed one year after the first volume of Remarks, this our planet will become ‘one vast scene of bloodshed: the Musulman of the sect of Ali would have to destroy the Musulman of the sect of Omar. The latter would have the right to impale a Jew; and the last-named might pestle the pagans in Africa in a mortar.’ (De Lantaarn voor 1792, pp. 135–137.)


The Muslim backdrop in Remarks gives deeper contrast to his crusade against organised religion and Christians (indicated as curtly as possible as “C.’s”). Discussing the rise of Islam, he states in Voltairian prose: ‘the Christian religion was nothing but (…) idol-worship, a religion suited only to fatten its priests (…) at the cost of (…) a congregation they had raised in dullness, servility and superstition. Might it be impossible that Mahomed had special authority to safeguard the by far most populous part of our earth against such pestilence?’ (Remarks, vol. 1, pp. 216–217.) Besides, he continues, all the criticisms levelled at the Qur’an apply a fortiori to the Bible, with its corruptions, discrepancies, and ‘Little Red Riding Hood fairy tales’. (Remarks, vol. 1, pp. 219–220, 400–401.)

Van Woensel suggests that several Muslim practices deserve to be adopted in the West. The Muhammedans luckily lack a meddlesome clergy who interfere in one’s marriage or divorce; their Qur’an is both Holy Writ and civil code, resulting in more meaningful sermons; and, the ‘barbarian, un-Christian Turks (…) have yet to convert their mosques into burial grounds,’ much unlike ‘several supposedly enlightened nations’ that poison the air inside their churches. (Remarks, vol. 1, pp. 40, 138, 225ff.) Their administration of justice, and punishments, are also often more practical, and humane.

Pieter van Woensel acknowledges his privileged status as a physician, which gave him protection and unique access to the daily lives of Muslim men, and women, of all classes of society. (Remarks, vol. 1, pp. 38, 63–68, 112–113, 444; vol. 2, pp. 15–16, 79.) Simultaneously, he experienced their presumption of superiority, always expecting submissive behaviour from non-Muslims, while never showing them any respect: ‘Their religion, they say, forbids this. On this footing their religion is highly convenient.’


Pieter van Woensel’s ideosyncratic style.

From the year it appeared, 1791, Aanteekeningen (Remarks) was a special work. Dutch publications on Turkey and the Islamic Middle East had petered out. Most eighteenth-century travelogues about the Ottoman Empire now came from the ‘big countries’, and were written in well-behaved prose by upper-class authors (and mostly churchgoers). But here was a book by a clearly irreverent and independent, atheist traveller, full of ‘Wanderlust’ in his own words. Van Woensel’s written prose nears the spoken language, and is interlarded with irony, metaphors and sayings. (In 1873, a reviewer (probably Seligman Susan) evaluating his oeuvre, observed: ‘Van Woensel’s style is almost always eccentric; he sometimes dips his pen in the gutter and his witty sketches are marred by broad vulgarities. (…) But, then again, what else was he supposed to do? Contend with all gravity that things cannot remain as they are? (…) besides, the Dutch market has always been oversupplied with gentility.’)

The reader peeps into mosque interiors, but also body orifices; a lesson in geography seamlessly changes to a hilarious tirade. There are no taboos, whether it’s about a philosophical plea for biological weapons (for Turkey to deter Russia!), or the Empress of Russia as a maggoty wh…. The digressions find their typographical shape in a type page full of footnotes, notes to the footnotes, and again little foot-foot-footnote-asides.


Themes in Pieter van Woensel, Aanteekeningen (‘Remarks’).

Gravure portret van Pieter van WoenselBut underneath this seemingly disorderly multiplicity lies a solid unity. Remarks is imbued with Erasmian ideas, Cervantes’ humanism and key Woenselian themes: on man born free and possessing the Rights of Man; on his relation to his fellow-man; his relation to State and Religion, these two constant threats to his liberty and sanity; the question of Pretence and Competence (and how they seldom match) – is the intriguing sub-species claiming a birthright to rule perhaps related to ducklings who know how to swim the moment they are born? Pieter van Woensel, a judge of human nature, cosmopolitan, atheist and satirist warns his readers against Leaders, crowned, mitred or wearing a revolutionary’s cap. Just follow the money to see their self-serving ends for which you may pray, pay and die.

Pieter van Woensel’s criticism of the Dutch Republic.

Van Woensel’s travelogue Remarks is only partly about the Ottoman Empire. The organisation of society and the position of modern man, questions that engaged our pedlar in thinking materials all his life, both in writing and in his caricatures, run through it as a continuous thread. The link between the Ottoman Empire and the Dutch Republic was easily established: both countries, once significant actors on the world stage, were heading for an exit soon. Innovation was unwelcome and education miserable; diplomas were for sale, the army and the navy in rapid decline; positions were wangled; unhindered by gravity feather-heads floated to the top everywhere. Without radical reforms all would be over for the Netherlands and Turkey, with others deciding their fate.

The fruit of a picaresque, irreverent writer and openly avowed atheist, Remarks is in a class by itself. No previous or contemporaneous travelogue even remotely compares to it. There was already scandal before the book was out, and Dutch ambassador Van Dedem was relieved to see Van Woensel leave Constantinople: ‘I think him a miscreant and most dangerous customer (…) [with] his blasphemous conversation.’

The reader finds scathing critique of religion side by side with scatology, he meets with disdain and distrust for all forms of authority, and sees “lofty themes” treated in colloquial language, and taboos breached with discomfiting ease. Arguably, not one of the honest, godly diplomats, Orientalists and merchants who produced the host of eighteenth-century travelogues on the Ottoman Empire, had Muslim friends so pious that when illness compromised their bodily state of purity, they would ‘plug certain emunctoria with a wad of cotton before going to the mosque.’ (Remarks, vol. 1, p. 54). Nor would any one of them have confessed that ‘although I did go to bed, or the sofa, with them, I never actually saw these ladies [in Anatolia] sleep with their own husbands.’ (Remarks, vol. 2, p. 111.)

Another unique feature that sets Remarks apart from other eighteenth-century travelogues on the Ottoman Empire, is the doctor’s philosophical essay on the permissibility of biological warfare. Since ‘no Evangelical Law encumbers the Turks’, they could threaten with spreading the plague to deter ‘the Russians, who are Christians in their own way too’, and who, with their superior, devastating weapons ‘straight from Señor Satan’s store’, might otherwise annihilate the Turks. (Remarks, vol. 1, pp. 289, 361.)

Contemporary reviews of Pieter van Woensel’s Aanteekeningen (‘Remarks’) were sparse and mostly negative, in line with an English commentator (Thomas Cogan, for the Monthly Review), who found Pieter van Woensel to be ‘strongly disposed to be the apologist of the religion, manners, and government, of Turkey: but to everyone, who peruses his book, the causes of this partiality must be evident: one is, the desire of maintaining his reputation as an eccentric mortal, by thinking, or at least talking, differently from other people, no matter whether right or wrong; the other ground for this preference is, that the Turks have not the misfortune to be Christians.’ In other words, for Cogan, the Doctor had simply found ‘a fresh opportunity of displaying his ignorance of Christianity, and his prejudices against it.’

One of Van Woensel’s political adversaries even accused him of being a renegade secretly circumcised while in Turkey. And when Van Woensel made good on his promise in Remarks to promote the Islamic institution of temporary marriage in The Netherlands, in the form of ‘rental wives’ for needy mariners, in his Seaman’s medical guide (Raadgeevingen voor de gezondheid der zeevaarenden), a shocked reviewer judged that the time had come ‘to deny him all contact with decent women.’

At the other end of public opinion, The Dutch journal De Recensent 11 (1792), a periodical run by an assortment of atheists, and clearly with the writer, teased: ‘To blame it, we can not; to praise it, we dare not.’

Throughout his oeuvre, Pieter van Woensel showed himself part of a longstanding Dutch tradition of radical Enlightenment. Not in the political-philosophical sense, but by writings which could certainly be described as shameless, and which took their radical credentials from a complete lack of morality, religious conscience or a sense of guilt, against the overwhelmingly moralistic and religious literature of the period.

Remarks was too radical to be emulated and have an influence on later thought and travel writing. Both the book, and its controversial author, stood isolated, and, subsequently, sunk into oblivion as Dutch society collectively tried to suppress any memory of the French occupation years. Van Woensel’s legacy was gradually unearthed only from the 1860s, to be fully rediscovered and appreciated by like-minded generations in the latter half of the twentieth century. Due to barriers of language, and mentality, the renown of Remarks is still mostly confined to the area of Dutch culture, and hardly included in studies of eighteenth-century travelogues on the Ottoman Empire.


Political correctness and oriental travel (eighteenth-century travelogues Ottoman Empire)

Even today, Van Woensel’s Remarks continues to be disconcerting for certain circles, for example, the multi-volume series Christian Muslim Relations. A bibliographical history (CMR), published by Brill (Leiden), and based at the University of Birmingham. The individuals who edit this series are themselves secreting titles such as Being Open, Being Faithful: The Journey of Interreligious Dialogue, and The Challenge of Islam: Encounters in Interfaith Dialogue, and true to form they rejected to include an entry on Pieter van Woensel in the CMR Bibliography.



Product details Parts I, II and III

(Remember, these books are self-published, so please order through this website only. Thank you for your consideration.)

Price for the 3-vols. Hardcover set: € 240
Publisher: privately published (Asch, 2015-2019)

Part I. ISBN 978-90-816096-0-9 (Hardcover)
227 mm × 140 mm × 40 mm; 860 g
English translation of Aanteekeningen I (1791 Dutch edition)
Additional materials:
– facsimile of original Dutch edition (Utrecht University Library)
– digitised plain text of the Dutch original

Part II. ISBN 978-90-816096-2-3 (Hardcover)
304 mm × 220 mm × 25 mm; 1,14 kg
Commentary to Preface, Bundle One and Bundle Two.

Part III. ISBN 978-90-816096-5-4 (hardcover)
304 mm × 220 mm × 22 mm; 1,05 kg
Commentary to Bundle Three – Bundle Six; cumulative Index.

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