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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Czar as a Carpenter

By Eugene Schuyler (1840–1890)

[Born in Ithaca, N. Y., 1840. Died in Venice, Italy, 1890. Peter the Great. A Study of Historical Biography. 1884.]

AT Vorónezh, at Archangel, and elsewhere, Peter had met shipwrights from Zaandam, who had praised so much their native town, that he was convinced that only there could he learn the art of ship-building in its perfection. His journey from Koppenbrügge and down the Rhine had been rapid, and passing through Amsterdam without halting, the Tsar reached Zaandam early on the morning of August 18, having with him only six volunteers, including the Prince of Imeritia and the two brothers Menshikóf. On the way he saw an old Moscow acquaintance, the smith Gerrit Kist, fishing in the river. He hailed him, and told him for what purpose he had come to Zaandam. Binding him to absolute secrecy, the Tsar insisted on taking up his quarters in his house; but it was necessary first to persuade the woman who already lodged in this small wooden hut to vacate it, and then to prepare it a little for the illustrious guest. Peter therefore took refuge in the “Otter” Inn, for it was Sunday, and the streets were thronged with people, and although he was in a workman’s dress, with a tarpaulin hat, yet the Russian dress of his comrades excited the curiosity of the crowd. The next day, he entered himself as a ship-carpenter at the wharf of Lynst Rogge, on the Buitenzaan.

Peter’s stay in Zaandam lasted a week only, and as, during this time, he visited nearly all the mills and factories in the neighborhood, at one of which he made a sheet of paper with his own hands, and as the next day after his arrival he bought a row-boat, and passed much of his time on the water, supped, dined, and talked familiarly with the families and relations of men whom he had known in Russia, he could not have done much work. The popular curiosity proved too annoying for him….

The house in which Peter lived at Zaandam has been a place of pilgrimage for a century, beginning with a royal party, which included the Emperor Joseph II., Gustavus III., King of Sweden, and the Grand Duke of Russia (afterward the Emperor Paul), then travelling as the Comte du Nord. Even Napoleon visited it. Bought in 1818 by a Russian princess, at that time Queen of Holland, it is now preserved with great care inside a new building. In itself it is no more worth visiting than any other house where Peter may have been forced to spend a week. It is only of interest as being the spot where the ruler of a great country sought to gain knowledge of an art which amused him, and which he thought would be beneficial to his people. His real life as a workman was all in Amsterdam.

During the festivities Peter asked the Burgomaster Witsen, whose personal acquaintance he had at last made, whether it would not be possible for him to work at the docks of the East India Company, where he could be free from the public curiosity which so troubled him at Zaandam. The next day, at a meeting of the directors of the East India Company, it was resolved to allow “a high personage, present here incognito,” to work at the wharf, to assign him a house in which he could live undisturbed within the precincts, and that, as a mark of their respect, they would proceed to the construction of a frigate, in order that he might see the building of a ship from the beginning. This frigate was to be one hundred or one hundred and thirty feet long, according to the wish of the Tsar, though the Company preferred the length of one hundred feet. The Tsar was at the dinner of state given to the embassy by the city of Amsterdam when he received a copy of this resolution. He wished to set to work immediately, and was with difficulty persuaded to wait for the fireworks and the triumphal arch prepared in his honor; but as soon as the last fires had burnt out, in spite of all entreaties he set out for Zaandam on his yacht in order to fetch his tools. He returned early the next morning, August 30, and went straight to the wharf of the East India Company, at Oostenburg.

For more than four months, with occasional absences, he worked here at ship-building, under the direction of the Baas Gerrit Claes Pool. Ten of the Russian “volunteers” set to work at the wharf with him. The rest were sent to other establishments to learn the construction of masts, boats, sails, and blocks, while Prince Alexander of Imeritia went to the Hague to study artillery, and a certain number of others were entered as sailors before the mast. The first three weeks were taken up with the preparations of materials. On September 19, Peter laid the keel of the new frigate, one hundred feet in length, to be called “the Apostles Peter and Paul,” and on the next day wrote to the Patriarch at Moscow as follows:

“We are in the Netherlands, in the town of Amsterdam, and by the mercy of God, and by your prayers, are alive and in good health, and, following the divine command given to our forefather Adam, we are hard at work. What we do is not from any need, but for the sake of learning navigation, so that, having mastered it thoroughly, we can, when we return, be victors over the enemies of Jesus Christ, and liberators of the Christians who live under them, which I shall not cease to wish for until my latest breath.”

Peter allowed no difference to be made between himself and the other workmen, and it is said that when the Earl of Portland and another nobleman came from the king’s chateau at Loo to have a sight of him, the overseer, in order to point him out, said: “Carpenter Peter of Zaandam, why don’t you help your comrades?” and Peter, without a word, placed his shoulder under the timber which several men were carrying, and helped to raise it to its place. In the moments of rest, the Tsar, sitting down on a log, with his hatchet between his knees, was willing to talk to any one who addressed him simply as Carpenter Peter, or Baas Peter, but turned away and did not answer those who called him Sire or Your Majesty. He never liked long conversations.

When Peter came home from the wharf, he devoted much of his time to learning the theory of ship-building, for which he had to make additional studies in geometry. His note-books, which have been carefully preserved, show the thoroughness with which he worked….

In his hours of recreation, Peter’s curiosity was insatiable. He visited factories, workshops, anatomical museums, cabinets of coins, botanical gardens, theatres, and hospitals, inquired about everything he saw, and was soon recognized by his oft-repeated phrases: “What is that for? How does that work? That will I see.” He journeyed to Texel, and went again to Zaandam to see the Greenland whaling fleet. In Leyden he made the acquaintance of the great Boerhave, and visited the celebrated botanical garden under his guidance, and in Delft he studied the microscope under the naturalist Leeuwenhoek. He made the intimate acquaintance of the Dutch military engineer Baron Van Coehorn, and of Admiral Van Scheij. He talked of architecture with Simon Schynvoet, visited the museum of Jacob de Wilde, and learned to etch under the direction of Schonebeck. An impression of a plate he engraved—for he had some knowledge of drawing—of Christianity victorious over Islam, is still extant. He often visited the dissecting- and lecture-room of Professor Ruysch, entered into correspondence with him, and finally bought his cabinet of anatomical preparations. He made himself acquainted with Dutch home and family life, and frequented the society of the merchants engaged in the Russian trade. He became especially intimate with the Thessing family, and granted to one of the brothers the right to print Russian books at Amsterdam, and to introduce them into Russia. Every market day he went to the Botermarkt, mingled with the people, studied their trades, and followed their life. He took lessons from a travelling dentist, and experimented on his servants and suite; he mended his own clothes, and learned cobbling enough to make himself a pair of slippers. He visited the Protestant churches, and of an evening he did not forget the beer-houses, which we know so well through the pencils of Teniers, Brouwer, and Van Ostade.

The frigate on which Peter worked so long was at last launched, and proved a good and useful ship for many years, in the East India Company’s service.