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


An English translation and commentary by Laban Kaptein in three parts, of Aanteekeningen gehouden op eene reize door Turkijen, Natoliën, de Krim en Rusland in de jaaren 1784–89. The reader finds detailed discussions on contemporary ideas and developments both in Europe and Islamic Turkey. Years of research in archives and primary sources in many languages spanning many centuries have resulted in numerous discoveries, and a wealth of materials never treated before.



Physician, writer and world traveller

In April 1808, Dutch physician, writer and world traveller Pieter van Woensel tried to heal his broken leg the alternative way, contrary as always. The fracture deteriorated into gangrene and Pieter died in The Hague, only 61 years of age. With his premature death, the country lost a pioneer in modern Dutch, a Cervantista, and the first writer of Voltairian prose in the Netherlands, as well as its finest Enlightenment caricaturist. In the oeuvre left by this staunch critic of antisemitism, slavery and serfdom, his book on a journey through Turkey, the Crimea and Russia, came to take centre stage.


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 books on the subject now came from the ‘big countries’, and were written by upper-class authors in well-behaved prose. Here was a book by a clearly irreverent and independent 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. 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.


pieter-van-woensel-250-portretBut 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.

Criticism of the Dutch Republic

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.

Major source

Pieter van Woensel was a physician with publications on the plague and whooping cough to his name, the first Medical Inspector-General of the Dutch Navy, and a writer notorious for his colloquialisms, atheism, and ‘proposals’ like “Rental Wives” and vivisection on criminals sentenced to death. But it is only in recent years that some, modest attention has been given to the study of the life and work of this picaresque, irreverent, and independent mind, who was decades ahead of his society. None of his books has ever been reprinted in modern times, let alone translated. Remarks constitutes an important and voluminous source for interested readers in many fields: Dutch language and culture, the Eighteenth Century and Enlightenment, the Ottoman Empire, Islamology, travel literature, bibliography, the history of Orientalism, and Russian studies. It is with this worldwide audience in mind that the present integral English translation with Commentary has been undertaken.


The translation of Aanteekeningen I (1791), as Remarks, made on a Journey through Turkey, Natolia, the Crimea, and Russia, in the Years 1784–89, is accompanied by a comprehensive, copious Commentary. Contemporary ideas and developments are discussed, but also details on the level of typography and individual words. The text is assessed in the context of all the drawings and writings by Van Woensel known to date, including Raadgeevingen (Seaman’s medical guide), assumed lost for almost two centuries, but now recovered by editor Kaptein. In addition, against the backdrop of the existing travel and specialist literature in Pieter’s time on Islam and Turkey, an analysis is offered of his use of sources, whether referenced, implied or unreferenced.

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: € 360
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.

Keywords: Pieter van Woensel ; Remarks ; Aanteekeningen ; the influence of the Bible, Grotius, Pufendorf, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, Christian Wolff, Gibbon, Chesterfield, Cervantes, Matthias Claudius, Count Rantzow, Swedenborg, Buffon, Van ’s-Gravesande, Pallas, Sterne on Pieter van Woensel; Baron Munchausen, Jens Baggesen, Rochefoucault, Bernard Mandeville, Marmontel, Bélisaire; lenghty discussion of Van Woensel’s reworkings and translations (Tafreel, and Précis) of Raynal; analysis of sources for Remarks (Aanteekeningen): Toderini, Habesci (Businello), James Porter, Guys, Tournefort, Peyssonnel, Lady Craven, Ferrières Sauveboeuf, Niebuhr, Choiseul-Gouffier, d’Ohsson, Marsigli, Baron de Tott, Björnståhl, Cantemir; in-depth analysis of the enigmatic portrait of Van Woensel by Pieter Wagenaar Jr. and engraver Francis(cus) Sansom; Willem Holtrop; Revs. Ouboter (Kouweboter) and Ockerse; Eugenios Voulgaris; artists De Bruyn (Bruin), Van der Steen, Michel Serre, Menasi, and Chodowiecki; playwrights Jan Vos and Nomsz; Halbertsma, Van der Willigen, Tydeman and Busken Huet on Van Woensel; the use of and play with abbreviations and acronyms by Van Woensel and his relatives like Van der Meersch, Van Limborch, De Riemer, Joannes Drieberge: p.v.w.m.d. , d.m.w.v.p. , portlohah , r.d.b.g.d.i.h.m.v. , t.a.r.p.t.o.l.a. , e.l.e.o.d.h.o. ; never before used, extensive material from archives and primary sources on Van Woensel’s relations with diplomats and merchants in Constantinople: Heidenstam, Hochepied, Van Lennep, Frémeaux, Joost Frederik Tor, Kroll, Panchaud, Testa, Van Dedem, Brentano, Richard Willis (married to Marie, daughter of Samuel and Marie Claire Borneman (Bornman), and befriended with George Baldwin), Van der Schroeff, Bulgakov, Jean François Ribe; Swildens, Oldenkop (Oldecop); his niece Petronella van Woensel and her contribution to Jacobus Kantelaar’s Album Amicorum; Suriname in the lives of Pieter and Joan van Woensel, Christiaan Congo Loango, mombieren, Surinaamsche Almanak and Adriaan Lammens; references to colleague phycisians like Hajrullah Effendi, Mustapha Effendi, Seid Mohammed, Gobis (Gobbis, and the Rodolphe Braggiotti and Marie Dané families), Karadja (Karadgea Caradja), Treves (from Padua), Edward Ives, Boerhaave; Gaubius recommends Pieter, a favourite former pupil, for medical mission to Russia; Hovius, Deiman, De Haen, Galen, Sydenham, Priestley, Thomas Cogan, Schreiber; Pieter van Woensel on Dutch military men and engineers: Van Kinsbergen, Cornelis Redelykheid, J.H.O. de Winter (read: H.J.O. de Winter, Hendrik); Le Roy; Suvorov, Potemkin, Orlov; toraquis, Katib Çelebi (Hadji Khalifa)