Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lettre de Penthes

As Henri de Büren's journal and letters get ever closer to publication I am ramping up some PR surrounding the eventual launch. The following is a small article for the newsletter of the Museum of the Swiss Abroad who are helping me publish Henri's reflections of his time in the Americas.

A Swiss Abroad Tracking a Swiss Abroad

The sun glistened off the surface of the blue Caribbean Sea gently rocking a small water taxi as it made its way to port. Mid-morning sunlight shone on an imposing fort and lighthouse crowned by the Spanish colors gently waving in the breeze. Below in elegant cursive the word “Havane”.

This is my first memory of a journal that has consumed my life for the last three years. I was initially ignorant to its author and provenance; to me, it was simply a beautiful watercolor of an exotic destination. Visions of Castro and the Cuban Missile Crisis wafted through my conscious like so much cigar smoke. However, this image was not painted during a time of casinos, mobsters and revolutionaries but rather one captured a century earlier in the Cuba of colonial Spain.

While my initial interaction with the journal made an impression, I found it as a boy who was preoccupied with school, and soccer practice. I returned it to the armoire from whence it came, to be read another day. That day would not come again for 20 years. In 2007 I found the journal again while looking through family papers and when I picked it up time seemed to collapse as if my boyhood fascination with the object had never left me. Instead of merely skimming its beautifully penned pages, I decided to read it and hoped it would have secrets to tell. I would not be disappointed.

I discovered that Cuba was only a very small portion of the journal; it was dedicated almost entirely to the day-to-day documentation of an 1853 expedition of European settlers venturing deep into the Amazon of Northern Peru. The pages were brimming with tales of natural beauty, social conflict and internal power struggles. I was hooked. To my utter amazement I found the journal to have been written by my great-great-grandfather, Henri de Büren.

How did I not know of this before? It would have seemed to be a great family story, passed down from generation to generation told over sumptuous dinners, getting more fanciful in each retelling. “Did you hear how grand-père cleared the jungle with only his Swiss Army knife?” Alas, all I knew about Henri was that he sold the family castle of Vaumarcus near Neuchâtel at the end of the 19th century, and I believe this choice tainted his family legacy.

Passionate about his voyage, I searched for any additional writings from the journey and to my delight found another journal that compiled all of his correspondence home to his family in Switzerland. The letters home covered a grander journey than just Cuba and Peru. It documented a Grand Tour that lasted almost two years and covered thousands of miles. Starting with his Liverpool departure on a British mail steamer, they document how he crisscrossed the Eastern United States calling on Swiss compatriots and scholars. He visited Cuba, spent four months exploring Mexico, six months traversing the Peruvian Andes with an expedition of 90 and finally canoeing down the Amazon river into Brazil.

What had started with the fascination surrounding one watercolor illustration had blossomed into finding a detailed first-person account of a journey that covered large parts of the Americas. I felt at that moment, that I had discovered a unique artifact and a piece of Swiss cultural history that needed to be shared.

When I started this process what I knew about the 1850s in the Americas revolved around the California gold rush. Therein lies the tragic tale of another Swiss, John Augustus Sutter, but that is another story. In the past three years of research, my scholarly knowledge of the 1850s has increased considerably. Thanks in large part to JSTOR, Google Books and the fact that Henri travelled in illustrious circles, I have been able to find most of those mentioned in his journals and letters. The names of Louis Agassiz, Arnold Guyot, Leo Lesquereux, and Asa Gray were at first just handwritten words on a page. Given my new found understanding of the time period their existence makes the narrative all the more fascinating.

In spite of the early exhilaration of discovery, there have been moments that I doubted my sanity for throwing myself headlong into this endeavor. There were also those along the way who dismissed my project as simply a quaint family research project. I have come to feel very strongly that it is far more than that. Henri was a witness to scientific, social and cultural history in the Americas and in a era of one-way immigration. His return home is something to be acknowledged in itself. When I felt a lead go cold, a new bit of information would be revealed, or when I became dispirited, an invaluable word of encouragement would come from the unlikeliest of sources. Early interest in my project by swissinfo, former Peruvian President Alejandro Tolledo, Peruvian-American author Marie Arana, and Benedict von Tscharner, Foundation President for the Museum of the Swiss Abroad, were invaluable.

As Henri took a chance and leap of faith when he left Neuchâtel for points unknown I have tried to do the same. I intend to retrace his original journey for a documentary and am currently writing a feature film screenplay about Henri and his son. I will readily admit that I have been very un-Swiss like in my promotion of my project and Henri’s journey, acting at times like his PR manager. One blogger commented that I was “Hoping to secure a place for Henri in the history books.” He could not be more correct.

This year, Henri's journal and letters will be published with the gracious support of the Edition de Penthes and the Institute of the Swiss Abroad. Not only did the Institute of the Swiss Abroad realize the merit of the source material, they have been instrumental in the both transcription and fundraising.

Working with Henri’s journals and trying to understand who he was has taught me a great deal, not simply about my ancestor but what it means for me to be Swiss. I have grown up around family heirlooms my entire life, but reading Henri’s passages about his love for family and his country has stayed with me and deepened my personal attachment to Switzerland. I hope that my project reveals in some small measure the impact that the Swiss have made historically in the Americas and one we will continue to make into the future. As Henri brought back botanical and agricultural knowledge with him from the Americas, I want to give back to Switzerland a success story of one of its native sons. As a result I hope Switzerland will look more closely at its culturally rich past and celebrate more stories like Henri’s – they are national treasures waiting to be revealed.

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