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THE FIRST FRENCH EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE EAST INDIES
MARTIN, François, de VITRÉ. Description du premier voyage faict aux Indes Orientales par les François en l’An 1603. [including separate title pages for the Description et Remarque de quelques animaux, episceries, drogues… and the Traicte du Scurbut]. . Paris, Laurens Sonnius, 1604.
8vo. [16.8 x 10.5 cm], (4) ff., 134 (i.e. 131) pp. Bound in contemporary vellum, housed in modern book box. Signature I misbound. Impeccable copy, excellent.
$50,000 Extremely rare first edition of the first French account of the East Indies to appear in print (cf. Lach & van Kley, III: 373), here in an impeccable copy bound in contemporary vellum. The work is that of the French adventurer François Martin de Vitré (c. 1575-c. 1631), who, upon his return to Brittany from the East Indies in 1603, prepared this lively account at the behest of King Henry IV (1553-1610). Martin’s narrative inspired Henry in 1604 to establish the first iteration of the French East India Company (Compagnie des Indes Orientales) with designs on exploiting the treasures described in the present work (cf. Lombard, “Martin de Vitré, Premier Breton à Aceh”).
Likely enlisted as ship’s surgeon aboard the Croissant, François Martin of Vitré, along with several companions from Saint-Malo and Laval, sailed from Britanny in 1601, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in May of that year. The Croissant’s companion ship, the Corbin, wrecked in the Maldives, but Martin eventually succeeded in reaching Ceylon and trading with the Aceh in Sumatra. Upon his return journey he was captured by the Dutch at Cape Finisterre but finally returned to France in 1603. In his preface Martin summarizes the European powers’ incursions in the East and laments the tardiness of the French to exploit the region’s riches: “This has made me deplore the defect of the French, who more than any other nation are provided with a vivacity of spirit and a formidable worthiness, but who have nevertheless languished for so long in a slumber of idleness, ignoring information on the treasures of the East Indies with which the Portuguese and Spanish have enriched themselves” (p. 3).
In the first two sections of the work Martin gives ample space to the discussion of flora, fauna, and commercial matters relevant the regions he visits (aromatic plants, spices, crops, the elephant, rhinoceros and tiger, the crocodile, tortoise and bird of paradise, livestock, the hunt, woods, weights and measures, currency, etc.), but he also includes a great deal of anthropological detail. Evidently the stereotypical red-blooded Breton seafarer, Martin, in his chapter on the “habits and customs we observed during our stay in the Indies” (pp. 38-66) dwells mainly on women – the prostitution of premarital women, their perfumes, their bathing rituals, their medicines, and their punishment for adultery. He also notes gestures of salutation (two hands together before one’s forehead), marriage customs (“they can marry seven wives if they have the means to support them”), and gives detailed reports on the traditions and inner workings of both Hinduism and Islam. He notes Turkish merchants to be frequent visitors to these lands, and writes of seeing a cannon of Chinese manufacture. Martin’s intriguing 4-page dictionary of words useful for the traveler includes a section on counting in Malagasy, the language of Madagascar. The volume also contains a brief but significant “dictionary” of the Malay language, described here as “Elegant and easy to learn, like Latin” (“fort beau & facile a aprendre … comme le latin en leurope”). Finally, in his presumed role as ship’s surgeon, Martin penned a third section treating scurvy, recommending among other cures the use of citrus fruits and an aqueous preparation of alum.
As is evident from the title page, Martin fully believed himself to have been the first Frenchman to reach the East Indies, and it is likely that his countrymen believed this, too. A prefatory ode celebrating Martin’s voyage (‘Sur la Navigation du Sieur François Martin de Vitré’), penned by a certain ‘Madamoyselle de Beau-Lieu,’ affirms Martin’s priority. This suggests that the (unpublished) East Indies voyage of the brothers Parmentier in 1529 had long been forgotten in France by the time of Martin’s expedition. A sonnet at the end of the volume signed ‘De Fontenay’ we presume to have been written by one of the most important and outspoken French humanists of his day, Nicolas Rapin, Sénéchal de Fontenay (1535-1608), who concludes his tribute with a prediction of Martin’s lasting fame: ‘il aura donc un nom durable en l’Univers’.
OCLC lists only two U.S. copies of this 1604 first edition: NYPL and the Minnesota’s Bell Library (lacking 2 prelims). The work was reprinted in 1609, and of this second edition OCLC locates U.S. copies only at Harvard and the Boston Athenaeum.
* Atkinson 444; Brunet, Supl. I, 920 (citing only the second edition); cf. also Denys Lombard, “Martin de Vitré. Premier Breton à Aceh (1601-1603),” Archipel 54: 3-12 (1997).
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