Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

Carpenter Peter of Zaandam

On the banks of the river Zaan, about five miles from Amsterdam, lies the picturesque little town of Zaandam, with its cottages of blue, green, and pink, half hidden among the trees, while a multitude of windmills surround the town like so many monuments to thrift and enterprise. Here, two centuries ago, ship-building was conducted on a great scale, the timber being sawed by windmill power, while the workmen were so numerous that a vessel was often on the sea in five weeks after the keel had been laid.

To this place, in August, 1697, came a workman of foreign birth, who found humble quarters in a small frame but and entered himself as a ship-carpenter at the wharf of Lynst Rogge. There was nothing specially noticeable about the stranger, who wore a workman's dress and a tarpaulin hat. But with him were some comrades dressed in the strange garb of Russia, who attracted the attention of the people.

As for the new workman, he did not long escape curious looks. The rumor had got about that no less a personage than the Czar of Russia was in the town, and it began to be suspected that this unobtrusive stranger might be the man, so that it was not long before inquisitive eyes began to follow him wherever he went. The rumor soon brought large crowds from Amsterdam, whose presence made the streets of the small Dutch town anything but comfortable.

It was well known that Peter I., Czar of Russia, was travelling through the nations of the West. A large embassy, composed of several hundred people, some of them the highest officials of the court, had left the Muscovite kingdom, and visited the several courts and large cities on their route, being everywhere received with the greatest distinction. But the czar did not appear openly among them. He was there in disguise, but had given strict orders that his presence should not be revealed. He hated crowds, hated adulation, and wished only to be let alone to see and learn all he could. So while the ambassadors were receiving the highest honors of kingdoms and courts and bowing and parading to their hearts' content, the czar kept himself in the background as an amused spectator, thought by most observers to be one of the servants of the gorgeous train.

And thus he reached Zaandam, which he had been told was the best place to learn how ships were built. Here he saw fishing in the river one of his old acquaintances of the foreign quarter of Moscow, a smith named Gerrit Kist. Calling him from his rod, and binding him to secrecy, be told him why he had come to Holland. and insisted on taking up quarters in his house. This house, a small frame hut, is now preserved as a sacred object, enclosed within a brick building, and has long been a place of pilgrimage even for royal travellers. Emperors and kings have bent their lofty heads to enter its low door.

Yet Peter lived in Zaandam only a week, and during that week did little work at ship-building, spending much of his time in rowing about among the shipping, and visiting most of the factories and mills, at one of which he made a sheet of paper with his own royal hands.

One day the disguised emperor met with an adventure. He had bought a hatful of plums, and was eating them in the most plebeian fashion as he walked along the street, when he met a crowd of boys. Hs shared his fruit with some of these, but those to whom he refused to give plums began to follow him with boyish reviling, and when he laughed at them they took to pelting him with mud and stones. Here was a situation for an emperor away from home. The Czar of all the Russias had to take to his heels and run for refuge to the Three Swans Inn, where he sent for the burgomaster of the town, told who he was, and demanded aid and relief. At least we may suppose so, for an edict was soon issued threatening punishment to all who should insult "distinguished persons who wished to remain unknown."

The end of Peter's stay soon came. A man in Zaandam had received a letter from his son in Moscow, saying that the czar was with the great Russian embassy, and describing him so closely that he could no longer remain unknown. This letter was seen by Pomp, the barber of Zaandam, and when Peter came into his place with his Russian comrades he at once knew him from the description and spread the news.

From that time the czar had no rest. Wherever he went he was followed by crowds of curious people. They grew so annoying that at length he leaped in anger from his boat and gave one of the most forward of his persecutors a sharp cuff on the cheek.

"Bravo, Marsje!" cried the crowd in delight: "you are made a knight."

The czar rushed angrily to an inn, where he shut himself up out of sight. The next day a large ship was to be moved across the dike by means of capstans and rollers, a difficult operation, in which Peter took deep interest. A place was reserved for him to see it, but the crowd became so great as to drive back the guards, break down the railings, and half fill the reserved space. Peter, seeing this, refused to leave his house. The burgomaster and other high officials begged him to come, but the most he could be got to do was to thrust his head out of the door and observe the situation.

"Te veel volks, to veel volks"  ("too many people"), he bluntly cried, and refused to budge.

The next day was Sunday, and all Amsterdam seemed to have come to Zaandam to see its distinguished guest. He escaped them by fleeing to Amsterdam. Getting to a yacht he had bought, and to which he had fitted a bowsprit with his own hands, he put to sea, giving no heed to warnings of danger from the furious wind that was blowing. Three hours after he reached Amsterdam, where his ambassadors then were, and where they were to have a formal reception the next day.

Receptions were well enough for ambassadors, but they were idle flummery to the czar, who had come to see, not to be seen, and who did his best to keep out of sight. He visited the fine town hall, inspected the docks, saw a comedy and a ballet, consented to sit through a great dinner, witnessed a splendid display of fireworks, and, most interesting to him of all, was entertained with a great naval sham fight, which lasted a whole day.

Zaandam has the credit of having been the scene of Peter the Great's labor as a shipwright, but it was really at Amsterdam that his life as a workman was passed. At his request he was given the privilege of working at the docks of the East India Company, a house being assigned him within the enclosure where he could dwell undisturbed, free from the curiosity of crowds. As a mark of respect it was determined to begin the construction of a new frigate, one hundred feet long, so that the distinguished workman might see the whole process of the building of a ship. With his usual impetuosity Peter wished to begin work immediately, and could hardly be induced to wait for the fireworks to burn themselves out. Then he set out for Zaandam on his yacht to fetch his tools, and the next day, August 30, presented himself as a workman at the East India Company's wharf.

For more than four months, with occasional breaks, Peter worked diligently as a ship-carpenter, ten of his Russian companions—probably much against their will—working at the wharf with him. He was known simply as Baas Peter (Carpenter Peter), and, while sitting on a log at rest, with his hatchet between his knees, was willing to talk with any one who addressed him by this name, but had no answer for those who called him Sire or Your Majesty, Others of the Russians were put to work elsewhere, to study the construction of masts, blocks, sails, etc., some of them were entered as sailors before the mast, and Prince Alexander of Imeritia went to the Hague to study artillery. None of them was allowed "to take his ease at his inn."

Peter insisted on being treated as a common workman, and would not permit any difference to be made between him and his fellow-laborers. He also demanded the usual wages for his work. On one occasion, when the Earl of Portland and another nobleman came to the yard to have a sight of him, the overseer, to indicate him, called out, "Carpenter Peter of Zaandam, why don't you help your comrades?" Without a word, Peter put his shoulders under a log which several men were carrying, and helped to lift it to its place.

His evenings were spent in studying the theory of ship-building, and his spare hours were fully occupied in observation. He visited everything worth seeing, factories, museums, cabinets of coins, theatres, hospitals, etc., constantly making shrewd remarks and inquiries, and soon becoming known from his quick questions, "What is that for? How does that work? That will I see."

He went to Zaandam to see the Greenland whaling fleet, visited the celebrated botanical garden with the great Boerhaave, studied the miscroscope at Delft under Leuwenhoek, became intimate with the military engineer Coehorn, talked with Schynvoet of architecture, and learned to etch from Schonebeck. An impression of a plate made by him, of Christianity victorious over Islam, is still extant.

He made himself familiar with Dutch home life, mingled with the merchants engaged in the Russian trade, went to the Botermarkt every market-day, and took lessons from a travelling dentist, experimenting on his own servants and suite, probably not much to their enjoyment. He mended his own clothes, learned enough of cobbling to make himself a pair of slippers, and, in short, was insatiable in his search for information of every available kind.

His work on the frigate whose keel he had helped to lay was continued until it was launched. It was well built, and for many years proved a good and useful ship, braving the perils of the seas in the East India trade. But with all this the imperial carpenter was not satisfied. The Dutch methods did not please him. The ship-masters seemed to work without rules other than the "rule of thumb," having no theory of ship-building from which the best proportions of a vessel could be deduced.

Learning that things were ordered differently in English ship-yards, that there work was done by rule and precept, Peter sent an order to the Russian docks not to allow the Dutch shipwrights to work as they pleased, but to put them under Danish or English overseers. For himself, he resolved to go to England and follow up his studies there. King William had sent him a warm invitation and presented him a splendid yacht, light, beautifully proportioned, and armed with twenty brass cannon. Delighted with the present, he sailed in it to England, escorted by an English fleet, and in London found an abiding-place in a house which a few years before had been the refuge of William Penn when charged with treason. Here he slept in a small room with four or five companions, and when the King of England came to visit him, received his fellow-monarch in his shirt-sleeves. The air of the room was so bad that, though the weather was very cold, William insisted on a window being raised.

In England the czar, though managing to see much outside the ship-yards, worked steadily at Deptford for several months, leaving only when he had gained all the special knowledge which he could obtain. His admiration for the English ship-builders was high, he afterwards saying that but for his journey to England be would have always remained a bungler. While here he engaged many men to take service in Russia, shipwrights, engineers, and others; he also engaged numerous officers for his navy from Holland, several French surgeons, and various persons of other nationality, the whole numbering from six to eight hundred skilled artisans and professional experts. To raise money for their advance payment he sold the monopoly of the Russian tobacco trade for twenty thousand pounds. Sixty years before, his grandfather Michael had forbidden the use of tobacco in Russia under pain of death, and the prejudice against it was still strong. But in spite of this the use of tobacco was rapidly spreading, and Peter thus threw down the bars.

Great numbers of anecdotes are afloat about Peter's doings in Holland and England,—many of them, doubtless, invented. The sight of a great monarch going about in workman's clothes and laboring like a common ship-carpenter was apt to aid the imagination of story-tellers and give rise to numerous tales with little fact to sustain them.

In May, 1698, Peter left England and proceeded to Amsterdam, where his embassy had remained, often in great distress about him, for the winter was cold and stormy and at one time no news was received from him for a month. From Amsterdam he made his way to Vienna, whence he proposed to go to Venice and Rome, but was prevented by disturbing news from Moscow, which turned his steps homeward. Here he was to show a new phase of his varied character, as will be seen in the following tale.