Review of The Diary of Heinrich Witt (Edited by Ulrich Mücke)


Here is my review of the massive, ten-volume collection of Heinrich Witt’s memoirs. Kudos to Ulrich Mücke. As I stress in the review, this is a wonderful source for Peruvian history. I would love to see someone digitalize the index (and perhaps translate it). That way researchers can find references to topics as diverse Chinese in Lima to muleteers in the Andes. Translate all ten volumes, thousands of pages, might be too much to ask. -CW

Born near Hamburg in 1799, Heinrich Witt arrived in Peru in 1824 and spent most of his life there as an agent for a number ofmerchant houses, including his own. He crossed the Atlantic numerous times, traveling extensively in Europe as well as Peru and Chile. Witt dedicated extraordinary effort to his diaries, writing almost daily (in English) and revising it with the aid of secretaries. When his vision declined in his old age, he had friends and employees read it out loud to him, allowing him to relive his anecdotes and to make corrections and additions. He ultimately wrote thirteen volumes with more than 11,000 pages, although only ten volumes are available today. In print, the ten volumes add up to more than 5,500 pages. The online version sold by Brill includes two rough drafts of diaries not part of the print edition.

A bit over a century after Witt’s death in 1892, the German historian Ulrich Mücke became fascinated by this massive personal diary and oversaw this herculean editorial effort. The diaries and the collective project to publish them are remarkable. The introductory material to The Diary of Heinrich Witt includes the 78-page “Short Biography of Heinrich Witt” by Christa Wetzel (invaluable but stiffly translated), an illuminating 19-page essay by Mücke on autobiographical writing, another essay by Wetzel on the content and format of each diary, a summary of 1987 and 1992 Peruvian publications that reproduced a small selection of the diaries, a guide to the publishing norms used, and photographs of Witt and his family. The index in volume 10 extends for 300 pages and includes over 16,000 references. Pictures of the diaries—with stains, rips, and handwriting that is at times sloppy—reveal the enormous task in converting them into print.

Witt grew up in Altona near Hamburg, then part of Denmark, in a comfortable Protestant family. After several internships with companies in England, in 1824 he accepted a position with Anthony Gibbs & Sons in newly independent Peru. He relates in great detail the rigors (numerous descriptions of seasickness) and intermittent joys of his first trip across the Atlantic. Volume 1 epitomizes Witt as a diarist: his unflagging eagerness to explore via hikes, muleback, horseback, or ship; his attention to geography, commerce, and customs; his frank assessment of the Peruvians and Europeans who made up his social and professional worlds; and his subtle disdain for Peru’s dark-skinned masses. I point out this inattention to common people not to underline the obvious (bourgeois or cosmopolitan nineteenth-century racism) but to note my disappointment: his descriptions of treks into the Andes provide great details about trails and mountains but then barely describe the people who accompanied him or lived in the villages where he stayed. Witt visited a great deal of Peru, frequently leaving his base in Lima. He lived for extended periods in Arequipa and in his younger days volunteered to visit mines, check on finances in Chile, and inquire about accounts and investment possibilities in distant towns. He has numerous tales of being lost in the rainy Andes, alone with his mule and short on food.

Witt lived and captures the arc of nineteenth-century South America, specifically Peru: postindependence disarray; the growing presence of European financiers and their personal connections to the Peruvian upper classes; extractive export capitalism, particularly guano; technological change (for example, the trips become easier as time passes); and the harrowing War of the Pacific (1879–1883). These are diary entries, not essays, and so Witt rarely reflects on these sea changes but instead discusses the details of his personal and business life and his daily observations. And in doing this, he provides a gold mine for historians of Peru’s nineteenth century. Specialists in fields from cultural to economic history will benefit greatly, and I jotted down notes on topics such as domestic servants, Lima’s weather, the memory of the 1814 Angulo-Pumacahua uprising in Cuzco, the Peru-Bolivia Confederation, slave uprisings, the Chinese in Lima, lawsuits and corruption, the nascent merchant elite (the Pflucker and Garland families, among others, are prominent), mining in Huancavelica, and much, much more. In the midst of reading this, I sent notes to about a dozen people alerting them to Witt’s passages on topics ranging from Andean mummies in Denmark to the 1876 census. (I’ll admit that I became particularly intrigued when reading about “Mrs. Walker’s Hotel” in Lima in the 1820s and 1830s.) Witt presents an astonishing amount of information, even some sketches, and historians, guided by the indispensable index, will mine these diaries for decades.

His observations of social customs in Lima and his description of the horrors of the War of the Pacific stand out. Numerous theses can and probably will be written on the upper classes and their customs (sociability) based on Witt’s diaries. During the Chilean occupation of Lima, Witt drops his objective, dry tone and describes the despair of learning about loved ones’ deaths, the financial ruin, the uncertainty and hunger that spread throughout the city. These passages in volume 9 include passionate and valuable depictions of the war. Unfortunately, there is a gap in the diary for the immediate postwar years.

As befits a nineteenth-century merchant writing in his second language (he was a polyglot), Witt is precise yet not a great writer. People will read these diaries not for their literary value but instead for information about specific topics or to track changes across decades. Witt has a nice eye for detail and ultimately provides a rich autobiography. He presents many of his more social or political observations in the middle of longer sections about his financial situation or dinner plans. Laconic would not be the correct word for a writer of such extensive diaries, but he often mentions labor turmoil or international tensions in passing. He spends much of his life in whist games, cocktails, cenas, and other gatherings in Lima, substantiating José Carlos Mariátegui’s observation that the “City of Kings” was enormously tedious. In fact, Witt himself complains of Lima’s humdrum monotony, which explains in part why he dedicated so much time and energy to writing and preserving these diaries and volunteered so eagerly for work-related travel.

I skimmed over the hundreds or perhaps thousands of pages that detail his trips to Europe, focusing more on his time in South America. By volume 8 or so I was exhausted, but the narrative picks up notably with the War of the Pacific. And by the last volume, I realized that I had grown fond of the author, as one does with almost any autobiography. I winced as Witt mourned his wife Marı´a Sierra and as he grieved the deaths of people around him and his relatives in Europe. In the latter half of his life, he stopped traveling as extensively in Peru, although he did return to Europe, and by his 80s he had to give up one of his favorite pastimes: hikes up Cerro San Cristobal, then a bare peak stretching above Lima and now a densely populated neighborhood. In addition, he had to ask friends and employees to read to him. I felt the melancholy of realizing that someone you care for has aged and even the kind of guilt when you have not paid sufficient attention to an elderly relative or you never wrote down stories told by an aunt who passed away. Even though I tired of his writing, particularly in the middle volumes, I grew to like Mr. Witt.

Ulrich Mücke should be commended for his stubborn, quixotic persistence in making this colossal project come to light. He has made sure that the ten volumes have reached some Peruvian libraries. But the price makes it prohibitive for all but a few individuals, and even some major research libraries will be unable or unwilling to purchase it. Historians of nineteenth-century Peru, however, should track it down. I would hope that an online version of the index will be made widely available, perhaps with Spanish subheadings as well. A full Spanish translation might be too much to ask for, but the diligent researcher will be able to put this incredible resource to good use.

* Published in The Hispanic American Historical Review 97.4 (2017): 719-21.

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Review of The Diary of Heinrich Witt (Edited by Ulrich Mücke) — 3 Comments

  1. Esta reseña invita a explotar el enorme material informativo que el diario completo debe contener y que conozco por las dos versiones parciales que se han impreso en el Perú. Comparto que sus descripciones de rutas y lugares a veces son superficiales y desde el ojo cultural del viajero, pero se vuelven valiosas al contrastarlas con otras fuentes y visitas de campo, como me ocurrió en el caso de Arequipa. También es revelador la cultura del silencio y la invisibilidad de los grupos sociales que no alternan con los intereses de Witt. ¿Cuánto de ello es un común denominador con la gente que si alterna es un tema fascinante?. Concuerdo finalmente, que las descripciones comerciales son una fuente exquisita y abundante para los historiadores económicos.

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