Gateway to the Classics: Peter the Great by Jacob Abbott
Peter the Great by  Jacob Abbott

Conclusion of the Tour

W HILE the embassy itself was occupied with the parades and ceremonies at the Hague, and at Utrecht, where they had a grand interview with the States-General, and at other great political centres, Peter traveled to and fro about Holland, visiting the different ports, and examining the shipping that he found in them, with the view of comparing the different models; for there were vessels in these ports from almost all the maritime countries of Europe. His attention was at last turned to some English ships, which pleased him very much. He liked the form of them better than that of the Dutch ships that he had seen. He soon made the acquaintance of a number of English ship-masters and ship-carpenters, and obtained from them, through an interpreter of course, a great deal of information in respect to the state of the art of ship-building in their country. He heard that in England naval carpentry had been reduced to a regular science, and that the forms and models of the vessels built there were determined by fixed mathematical principles, which every skillful and intelligent workman was expected to understand and to practice upon; whereas in Holland the carpenters worked by rote, each new set following their predecessors by a sort of mechanical imitation, without being governed by any principles or theory at all.

Peter immediately determined that he would go to England, and study the English methods himself on the spot, as he had already studied those of Holland.

The political relations between England and Holland were at this time of a very intimate character, the King of England being William, Prince of Orange. The king, when he heard of Peter's intention, was much pleased, and determined to do all in his power to promote his views in making the journey. He immediately provided the Czar with a number of English attendants to accompany him on his voyage, and to remain with him in England during his stay. Among these were interpreters, secretaries, valets, and a number of cooks and other domestic servants. These persons were paid by the King of England himself, and were ordered to accompany Peter to England, to remain with him all the time that he was there, and then to return with him to Holland, so that during the whole period of his absence he should have no trouble whatever in respect to his personal comforts or wants.

These preparations having been all made, the Czar left the embassy, and taking with him the company of servants which the king had provided, and also the few private friends who had been with him all the time since leaving Moscow, he sailed from a certain port in the southwestern part of Holland, called Helvoetsluys, about the middle of the month of January.

He arrived without any accident at London. Here he at first took up his abode in a handsome house which the king had ordered to be provided and furnished for him. This house was in a genteel part of the town, where the noblemen and other persons belonging to the court resided. It was very pleasantly situated near the river, and the grounds pertaining to it extended down to the water side. Still it was far away from the part of the city which was devoted to commerce and the shipping, and Peter was not very well satisfied with it on that account. He, however, went to it at first, and continued to occupy it for some time.

In this house the Czar was visited by a great number of the nobility, and he visited them in return. He also received particular attentions from such members of the royal family as were then in London. But the person whose society pleased him most was one of the nobility, who, like himself, took a great interest in maritime affairs. This was the Duke of Leeds. The duke kept a number of boats at the foot of his gardens in London, and he and Peter used often to go out together in the river, and row and sail in them.

Among other attentions which were paid to Peter by the government during his stay in London, one was the appointment of a person to attend upon him for the purpose of giving him, at any time, such explanations or such information as he might desire in respect to the various institutions of England, whether those relating to government, to education, or to religion. The person thus appointed was Bishop Burnet, a very distinguished dignitary of the Church. The bishop could, of course, only converse with Peter through interpreters, but the practice of conversing in that way was very common in those days, and persons were specially trained and educated to translate the language of one person to another in an easy and agreeable manner. In this way Bishop Burnet held from time to time various interviews with the Czar, but it seems that he did not form a very favorable opinion of his temper and character. The bishop, in an account of these interviews which he subsequently wrote, said that Peter was a man of strong capacity, and of much better general education than might have been expected from the manner of life which he had led, but that he was of a very hot and violent temper, and that he was very brutal in his language and demeanor when he was in a passion. The bishop expressed himself quite strongly on this point, saying that he could not but adore the depth of the providence of God that had raised such a furious man to so absolute an authority over so great a part of the world.

It was seen in the end how wise was the arrangement of Providence in the selection of this instrument for the accomplishment of its designs—for the reforms which, notwithstanding the violence of his personal character, and the unjust and cruel deeds which he sometimes performed, Peter was the means of introducing, and those to which the changes that he made afterward led, have advanced, and are still advancing more and more every year, the whole moral, political, and social condition of all the populations of Northern Europe and Asia, and have instituted a course of progress and improvement which will, perhaps, go on, without being again arrested, to the end of time.

The bishop says that he found Peter somewhat curious to learn what the political and religious institutions of England were, but that he did not manifest any intention or desire to introduce them into his own country. The chief topic which interested him, even in talking with the bishop, was that of his purposes and plans in respect to ships and shipping. He gave the bishop an account of what he had done, and of what he intended to do, for the elevation and improvement of his people; but all his plans of this kind were confined to such improvements as would tend to the extension and aggrandizement of his own power. In other words, the ultimate object of the reforms which he was desirous of introducing was not the comfort and happiness of the people themselves, but his own exaltation and glory among the potentates of the earth as their hereditary and despotic sovereign.

After remaining some time in the residence which the king had provided for him at the court end of the town, Peter contrived to have a house set apart for him "below bridge," as the phrase was—that is, among the shipping. There was but one bridge across the Thames in those days, and the position of that one, of course, determined the limit of that part of the river and town that could be devoted to the purposes of commerce and navigation, for ships, of course, could not go above it. The house which was now provided for Peter was near the royal ship-yard. There was a back gate which opened from the yard of the house into the ship-yard, so that Peter could go and come when he pleased. Peter remained in this new lodging for some time. He often went into the ship-yard to watch the men at their operations, and while there would often take up the tools and work with them. At other times he would ramble about the streets of London in company with his two or three particular friends, examining every thing which was new or strange to him, and talking with his companions in respect to the expediency or feasibility of introducing the article or the usage, whatever it might be, as an improvement, into his own dominions.

In these excursions Peter was sometimes dressed in the English citizen's dress, and sometimes he wore the dress of a common sailor. In the latter costume he found that he could walk about more freely on the wharves and along the docks without attracting observation; but, notwithstanding all that he could do to disguise himself, he was often discovered. Some person, perhaps, who had seen him and his friends in the ship-yard, would recognize him and point him out. Then it would be whispered from one to another among the by-standers that that was the Russian Emperor, and people would follow him where he went, or gather around him where he was standing. In such cases as this, as soon as Peter found that he was recognized, and was beginning to attract attention, he always went immediately away.

Among other objects of interest which attracted Peter's attention in London was the Tower, where there was kept then, as now, an immense collection of arms of all kinds. This collection consists not only of a vast store of the weapons in use at the present day, laid up there to be ready for service whenever they may be required, but also a great number and variety of specimens of those which were employed in former ages, but are now superseded by new inventions. Peter, as might naturally have been expected, took a great deal of interest in examining these collections.

In respect to all the more ordinary objects of interest for strangers in London, the shops, the theatres, the parks, the gay parties given by the nobility at the West End, and other such spectacles, Peter saw them all, but he paid very little attention to them. His thoughts were almost entirely engrossed by subjects connected with his navy. He found, as he had expected from what he heard in Holland, that the English ship-carpenters had reduced their business quite to a system, being accustomed to determine the proportions of the model by fixed principles, and to work, in the construction of the ship, from drafts made by rule. When he was in the ship-yard he studied this subject very attentively; and although it was, of course, impossible that in so short a time he should make himself fully master of it, he was still able to obtain such a general insight into the nature of the method as would very much assist him in making arrangements for introducing it into his own country.

There was another measure which he took that was even more important still. He availed himself of every opportunity which was afforded him, while engaged in the ship-yards and docks, to become acquainted with the workmen, especially the head workmen of the yards, and he engaged a number of them to go to Russia, and enter into his service there in the work of building his navy.

In a word, the Czar was much better pleased with the manner in which the work of ship-building was carried on in England than with any thing that he had seen in Holland; so much so that he said be wished that he had come directly to England at first, inasmuch as now, since he had seen how much superior were the English methods, he considered the long stay which he had made in Holland as pretty nearly lost time.

After remaining as long and learning as much in the dock-yards in and below London as he thought the time at his command would allow, Peter went to Portsmouth to visit the royal navy at anchor there. The arrangement which nature has made of the southern coast of England seems almost as if expressly intended for the accommodation of a great national and mercantile marine. In the first place, at the town of Portsmouth, there is a deep and spacious harbor entirely surrounded and protected by land. Then at a few miles distant, off the coast, lies the Isle of Wight, which brings under shelter a sheet of water not less than five miles wile and twenty miles long, where all the fleets and navies of the world might lie at anchor in safety. There is an open access to this sound both from the east and from the west, and yet the shores curve in such a manner that both entrances are well protected from the ingress of storms.

Directly opposite to Portsmouth, and within this inclosed sea, is a place where the water is just of the right depth, and the bottom of just the right conformation for the convenient anchoring of ships of war. This place is called Spithead, and it forms one of the most famous anchoring grounds in the world. It is here that the vast fleets of the English navy assemble, and here the ships come to anchor, when returning home from their distant voyages. The view of these grim-looking sea-monsters, with their double and triple rows of guns, lying quietly at their moorings, as seen by the spectator from the deck of the steamer which glides through and among them, on the way from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, is extremely imposing. Indeed, when considered by a mind capable of understanding in some degree the vast magnitude and extension of the power which lies thus reposing there, the spectacle becomes truly sublime.

In order to give Peter a favorable opportunity to see the fleet at Spithead, the King of England commissioned the admiral in command of the navy to accompany him to Portsmouth, and to put the fleet to sea, with the view of exhibiting a mock naval engagement in the Channel. Nothing could exceed the pleasure which this spectacle afforded to the Czar. He expressed his admiration of it in the most glowing terms, and said that he verily believed that an admiral of the English fleet was a happier man than the Czar of Muscovy.

At length, when the time arrived for Peter to set out on his return to his own dominions, the King of England made him a present of a beautiful yacht, which had been built for his own use in his voyages between England and Holland. The name of the yacht was the Royal Transport. It was an armed vessel, carrying twenty-four guns, and was well-built, and richly finished and furnished in every respect. The Czar set sail from England in this yacht, taking with him the companions that he had brought with him into England, and also a considerable number of the persons whom he had engaged to enter into his service in Russia. Some of these persons were to be employed in the building of ships, and others in the construction of a canal to connect the River Don with the River Wolga. The Don flows into the Black and the Wolga into the Caspian Sea, and the object of the canal was to allow Peter's vessels to pass from one sea into the other at pleasure. As soon as the canal should be opened, ships could be built on either river for use in either sea.

The persons who had been engaged for these various purposes were promised, of course, very large rewards to induce them to leave their country. Many of them afterward had occasion bitterly to regret their having entered the service of such a master. They complained that, after their arrival in Russia, Peter treated them in a very unjust and arbitrary manner. They were held as prisoners more than as salaried workmen, being very closely watched and guarded to prevent their making their escape and going back to their own country before finishing what Peter wished them to do. Then, a large portion of their pay was kept back, on the plea that it was necessary for the emperor to have security in his own hands for their fidelity in the performance of their work, and for their remaining at their posts until their work was done. There was one gentleman in particular, a Scotch mathematician and engineer, who had been educated at the University of Aberdeen, that complained of the treatment which he received in a full and formal protest, which he addressed to Peter in writing, and which is still on record. He makes out a very strong case in respect to the injustice with which he was treated.

But, however disappointed these gentlemen may have been in the end, they left England in the emperor's beautiful yacht, much elated with the honor they had received in being selected by such a potentate for the execution of important trusts in a distant land, and with high anticipations of the fame and fortune which they expected to acquire before the time should arrive for them to return to their own country. From England the yacht sailed to Holland, where Peter disembarked, in order to join the embassy and accompany them in their visits to some other courts in Central Europe before returning home.

He first went to Vienna. He still nominally preserved his incognito; but the Emperor Leopold, who was at that time the Emperor of Germany, gave him a very peculiar sort of reception. He came out to the door of his ante-chamber to meet Peter at the head of a certain back staircase communicating with the apartment, which was intended for his own private use. Peter was accompanied by General Le Fort, the chief embassador, at this interview, and he was conducted up the staircase by two grand officers of the Austrian court—the grand chamberlain and the grand equerry. After the two potentates had been introduced to each other, the emperor, who had taken off his hat to bow to the Czar, put it on again, but Peter remained uncovered, on the ground that he was not at that time acting in his own character as Czar. The emperor, seeing this, took off his hat again, and both remained uncovered during the interview.

After this a great many parades and celebrations took place in Vienna, all ostensibly in honor of the embassy, but really and truly in honor of Peter himself, who still preserved his incognito. At many of these festivities Peter attended, taking his place with the rest of the subordinates in the train of the embassy, but he never appeared in his own true character. Still he was known, and he was the object of a great many indirect but very marked attentions. On one occasion, for example, there was a masked ball in the palace of the emperor; Peter appeared there dressed as a peasant of West Friesland, which is a part of North Holland, where the costumes worn by the common people were then, as indeed they are at the present day, very marked and peculiar. The Emperor of Germany appeared also at this ball in a feigned character—that of a host at an entertainment, and he had thirty-two pages in attendance upon him, all dressed as butlers. In the course of the evening one of the pages brought out to the emperor a very curious and costly glass, which he filled with wine and presented to the emperor, who then approached Peter and drank to the health of the peasant of West Friesland, saying at the same time, with a meaning look, that he was well aware of the inviolable affection which the peasant felt for the Czar of Muscovy. Peter, in return, drank to the health of the host, saying he was aware of the inviolable affection he felt for the Emperor of Germany.

These toasts were received by the whole company with great applause, and after they were drunk the emperor gave Peter the curious glass from which he had drunk, desiring him to keep it as a souvenir of the occasion.

These festivities in honor of the embassy at Vienna were at length suddenly interrupted by the arrival of tidings from Moscow that a rebellion had broken out there against Peter's government. This intelligence changed at once all Peter's plans. He had intended to go to Venice and to Rome, but he now at once abandoned these designs, and setting out abruptly from Vienna, with General Le Fort, and a train of about thirty persons, he traveled with the utmost possible dispatch to Moscow.

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