A Review of 'The Travels of Peter Mundy'

I recently had reason to pick up the fifth volume of “The Travels of Peter Mundy”, published by the Hakluyt Society. Peter Mundy was a 17th century merchant and traveler born Penryn, Cornwall, who ultimately traveled through Europe, to Constantinople and back, and later to India, China and Japan. His writings are a fascinating glimpse of the past in the first person, unshaded by foreknowledge of later centuries. For example, his first trip to India was during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, when the East India Company held only a couple of factories in a tenuous position on the subcontinent. Among the anecdotes of life, Peter Mundy relates how he wore local garments and ate curry while sitting on the floor.

It isn’t always easy reading. The dense prose and 17th century English requires a slow and methodical pace. While the Hakluyt Society editions have good introductions, and plenty of footnotes, I recommend using a contemporary map or even Google to trace the journey and find extra context. It is amazing, when following his travels through Venice, for example, to find the same hotels still servicing travelers, or his descriptions of King Akbar’s Tomb or the Taj Mahal still ringing true today. Most of the writing is in diary form, with dates and what he did that day, but he also takes detours to discuss anything and everything - from local plant life and animals to political events or history. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, I found Peter Mundy’s voice fairly authentic and humble. He doesn’t relate a lot of strange and improbable stories, and when he has something second-hand he tells the reader. 

In addition to the writing itself, Peter Mundy left behind illustrations which add a visual element to his work. I found it interesting to compare some places he drew to modern photos.

(see above Mundy’s illustration of Gwalior Fort compared to a cropped photo by Anuppyr007 shared under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0

The volumes are more than just an assembly of historical documents; it's a personal journey laden with emotional richness. Mundy's feelings of awe, despair, or jubilance add a layer of humanity, making these accounts resonate on a deeply emotional level - if you can get through the prose. One episode that has stuck with me is his return from Agra to Surat, where Mundy is clearly a bit fed up and pessimistic. It felt like a mix of bad circumstances, culture shock and missing home. When he completes this traumatic journey, he arrives in Surat to find most of the people he had known there dead from famine and plague. In his diary he lists those who were there when he left, and marks off all those who had died, leaving only a couple left alive. It is, in this form, a reminder of how dangerous and short life could be for those who went abroad (and for those who stayed home). On the other hand he writes about moments of joy, such as making landfall after a long voyage, or in hearing church music again in London after the Restoration in 1660.

With that said, while I have not managed to get through all five volumes (I’m still to read his voyages to China and Japan), it still seems at times I know remarkably little about Peter Mundy. He does not write a lot about family or friends. He notes his passions at times, such as he obviously has an interest in history, politics, food and music. On religion, he seems a product of his time, but not radically so. His thoughts on the matter are more inferences rather than being stated so. While he doesn’t always understand the religions he meets on his travels, he is reasonably fair in their treatment. He was not a fan of the Puritans and the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, but he doesn’t say so in as many words. It is just obvious the Restoration under King Charles II brings him joy.

(see “Gunesh” (Ganesh) above from Volume 2 of "The Travels of Peter Mundy")

For me the best parts of Peter Mundy’s writings are where he brings out little stories that bring history to life. When traveling with a party from Constantinople, for example, they are stopped before crossing to Venice and put into quarantine - and then in Venice itself he describes the way they build ships in the Venetian Arsenal in ways that sound like the beginnings of modern mass production. For Christmas 1630, then in India, Mundy relates the meal they managed to assemble, being roast beef (actually a tough piece of buffalo - a trial for the jaw), salted pork and neat's tongue. The next day they met Dutch merchants, on their way with 800 camels, and shared a meal with them for a few hours in the Dutch camp.

"The Travels of Peter Mundy" offers modern readers an invaluable look at a past world and the lives people lived, in a time so different to our own. I wouldn’t call it a must read - it is anything but. However the various volumes are fascinating for those who have the time and patience to whittle away the hours exploring - with plenty of distractions turning to Wikipedia and Google Maps.