- The Funny Business of the Swedish East India Company: Gender and Imperial Joke-Work in Jacob Wallenberg’s Travel Writing
“Incarcerated for almost eighteen months on a ship and continually surrounded by wearisome monotony, may I not be permitted to seek refreshment in literary games?” 1 During an eighteen-month voyage from Gothenburg, Sweden to Canton and back (1769–71), Jacob Wallenberg, chaplain aboard the Swedish East India Company ship Finland, entertained himself and his shipmates by composing Min son på galejan [My Son on the Galley]. 2 First published in 1781, two and a half years after its author’s death at the age of thirty-two, Wallenberg’s comic and episodic travelogue is considered a classic eighteenth-century Swedish prose text and stands out among contemporary Swedish works for its enduring readability. In all, it has seen twenty-five editions and has appeared in a vast number of anthologies. My Son has also been translated into Danish (1944), German (1975), Italian (1971), and English (1993).
The reception of Wallenberg’s text has largely remained within the scope of conventional literary criteria and, despite the historical nature of the narrative, no critic to my knowledge has attempted to negotiate between Wallenberg’s comic text and the context of mercantile expansion in which it is so intimately implicated. Wallenberg’s “literary games” such as placing a “Preface to the Gentle Reader” at the end of the first book prompted the important Enlightenment author Christoph Martin Wieland, in his presentation of a 1782 translation to a German reading public, to [End Page 217] assign My Son a place in the Sternian tradition of comic travel narratives. 3 Subsequent critical treatment has followed Wieland’s lead in assessing Wallenberg’s travelogue according to traditional literary paradigms. While in the 1920s Niels Afzelius, in what remains the most thorough discussion of My Son, argues against reading Wallenberg in the tradition of Sterne 4 and identifies the Linnean tradition as the “solid trunk” [fasta stam] around which Wallenberg’s text winds, his primary concerns remain the text’s generic affiliations and questions of influence. 5 Even more recent treatments of My Son—whether formal analyses of the techniques of Wallenberg’s jokes (Ebel), for example, or arguments concerning the extent to which the text is fact or fiction (Sjöberg)—fail to deal with it as imperial discourse. 6 Indeed, I would argue that the near-total critical disregard of any but the most incidental connections between Wallenberg’s narrative and the mercantile exploitation of the East Indies, which is the occasion of his journey, attests to the effectiveness of Wallenberg’s humor in making a mere joke of the serious business of exploitation.
Yet while Wallenberg’s innovative narrative draws, generically, on traditions as diverse as the French voyage comique, the novels of Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding, the moral weekly (such as, in Sweden, Olof von Dalin’s Then Swänska Argus), and the Swedish Bacchanalian tradition of which Carl Michael Bellmann is the most esteemed representative, it is a comic account of a real voyage. Its most important intertexts remain the meticulous naturalist travel accounts of Wallenberg’s Linnean compatriots. In his highly entertaining text, Wallenberg self-consciously parodies the humorless facticity of the narratives published by, among others, Olof Torén, who described his journey to the East Indies in letters to Linnaeus, and the Linnean disciple Pehr Osbeck. As Mary Pratt and others have noted, the Linnean disciples’ increasingly global enterprise, over the second half of the century, of travel and travel writing was made possible by arrangements with overseas trading companies, above all the Swedish East India Company. 7 Wallenberg, who somewhat reluctantly took the cloth in order to sail with the company, was thus very much in the position to spoof the writings of his more sincere counterparts. But while Wallenberg adopts a parodic stance vis-à-vis naturalist discourse, his comic endeavors are made possible by the same project of mercantile expansion as their scientific research. Indeed, the Swedish East India Company could support the joking cleric and the scientists with ease, as it enjoyed, in its peak period from which...