Caroline Hanken

Sebald’s Voyages

The sailor’s aspirations in the seventeenth century

Life at sea, according to an eighteenth-century eyewitness, was at least as hard as life in prison. Why then did sailors not seek a more pleasant life on land instead of squandering the money they had scraped together, often over the years, in taverns within a few weeks? To show what being a sailor or a merchantman was like, Caroline Hanken has created an imaginary character, Sebald, whose experiences at sea are based on those recorded by real sailors.

For a common sailor, with only a hammock and a footlocker for his things, it was not easy to keep a journal aboard a crowded, tossing ship. Though many sailors were able to read and write, keeping a diary was often hard, tiring work and only a few of their diaries have come down to us. But we also have detailed accounts of what the crew ate, how duties were allocated and tasks performed in the course of the day – largely thanks to the scrupulous records kept by the great trading companies.

Sebald’s Voyages affords us a fascinating glimpse of the initiation of a young boy from Amsterdam into the rough and miserable life of seamen on board ship and in various ports. The ‘naval culture’, as Hanken calls it, ‘was characteristic of a nomadic society whose first objective was survival in hazardous surroundings.’ This loose collection of shiftless men was completely dependent on their fellows at sea, and even on land sailors sought each other out. In appearance, mentality and status (or their lack of) seamen constituted a world apart, one that stretched from Amsterdam to the Cape, from Batavia to Ceylon, from East to West.

Hanken has Sebald act as a flesh-and-blood guide to this adventurous existence. Apart from learning about daily life on board ship in the company of seamen, the reader learns about the effects of that life on the individual sailor. Sebald’s Voyages is a colourful account of a seaman’s life during his peregrinations on the seven seas at the end of the seventeenth century.

It is remarkable to see how a wealth of almost unnoticed information can give rise to so fresh, accessible and exciting a story about the obscure life of a seventeenth-century sailor.

Thomas Rosenboom

Hanken has assembled her material skilfully into a splendid portrait of eternal triangles during the Ancien Régime that were as changeable as they were obscure

Die Zeit (On 'Kissed by the King')

A scientifically competent and highly readable history of the country’s foremost mistresses.

Der Tagesspiegel (On 'Kissed by the King')


Caroline Hanken

Caroline Hanken read anthropology at the Free University of Amsterdam. She took her doctorate in 1996 with a thesis entitled Gekust door de koning (‘Kissed by the King’). This study of royal mistresses at the French court during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been translated into…

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Sebalds reizen. Het verlangen van de zeeman in de zeventiende eeuw (2001). Non-fiction, 208 pages.

With illustrations, notes and references

Themes: sea travel

Sample translation

English (PDF document)


Meulenhoff Boekerij

Amstelplein 34
NL - 1096 BC Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 (0) 20 53 53 135

[email protected]

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