To Paradise on Earth
The restless life of Jacob Roggeveen, discoverer of Easter Island, 1659-1729
This is the story of a heroic quest to find the mythical Unknown Southern Land, a huge continent imagined as an earthly paradise and presumed to lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The expedition, led by an elderly Dutch lawyer called Jacob Roggeveen, would be long forgotten but for a discovery he made along the way.
On Easter Day 1722, Roggeveen caught sight of an island in mid-ocean from which plumes of smoke were rising; it was not marked on any map, but it was clearly inhabited. He named it Easter Island. The discovery, a mere chance by-product of the expedition, ensured Roggeveen his modest place in history. He stayed on the island only briefly. After a rather unfortunate confrontation with the inhabitants, he hurriedly left to continue his search for the Unknown Southern Land.
What possessed an elderly lawyer to set out on such a journey? That is the central question of historian Roelof van Gelder’s book. Little was previously known about Roggeveen. He turns out to have been quite intriguing, a man who, despite his many abilities, got himself into difficulties wherever he went by his wayward and uncompromising behaviour. He played a leading role in a dissident movement within the Reformed Church and was even banned from his native city of Middelburg as a result. Yet in 1721, already in his sixties, he managed to interest the West India Company in his expedition and three ships were put at his disposal.
Roggeveen was out for revenge, but what followed was a hellish ordeal. No one had more than a vague idea of where the Unknown Southern Land might lie, and during the voyage all the existing maps and travel accounts proved unreliable. By the time Easter Island was spotted, Roggeveen was beginning to have misgivings: perhaps the mythical land did not really exist. Van Gelder offers splendid descriptions of the ships sailing across great expanses of ocean for months on end, with no fixed point of orientation, thousands of miles from the mainland, their crews tormented by hunger, thirst and scurvy. Roggeveen must once have dreamed of being welcomed home as a new Columbus, but in the end he was forced to give up. He decided to head for forbidden territory controlled by the Dutch East India Company, which was at least reliably mapped. He managed to reach Batavia but was arrested on arrival. For Roggeveen the journey was one more humiliating failure, but his life story adds a fascinating dimension to this tale of hope and disaster.
- A compelling account of an early-eighteenth-century voyage of discovery, as well as a portrait of the Netherlands in the late 1600s and early 1700s.
- Van Gelder is a natural storyteller.