Small 4to. [17 x 13 cm], (x) pp., (62) pp. London, Robert Raworth for Richard Clutterbuck, 1633. Tastefully bound in ruled red morocco, interior gilt dentelles; title-page dusty and trimmed at upper & outer margins; occasional cropping of running heads & catchwords; blank upper right corner of prelims. repaired. Complete.
Rare first edition of the first book on Vietnam in English, an eyewitness account of the commerce, government and cultural life of Cochin-China (central Vietnam) written by the Jesuit missionary Cristoforo Borri and first published in Italian in 1631.
Borri begins by marking the kingdom’s boundaries, identifying it as a narrow strip of land between Laos and the South China Sea, bordered to the north by Tongking and to the south by Champa. A discussion of the kingdom’s fertile land and rich natural resources follows, emphasizing the abundance of fruits, nuts, rice, fish, textiles, domestic stock, and “all other things requisite for the entertainement of a man’s life.” Silk is produced in such quantities that “the baser sort of people wear it dayly.” Gold and silver mines abound, and “the Wood and Timber of this countrey is the best of all the world.” Having piqued his readers’ curiosity, the author goes on to describe Cochin-China’s vibrant commercial climate, declaring it free of the red tape and bureaucratic hostility that so often greeted European traders in East Asia.
Borri’s 1631 Relazione, a Jesuit missions letter directed at his Catholic superiors and lay readers, was already unusual among works in its genre for devoting a substantial part exclusively to non-religious content. Ashley, the translator, executed further changes of his own in order to render the present work more attractive to Protestant business interests—most notably by omitting the part where Borri testified to the struggle and success of his Jesuit missions (particularly the conversion of Pulucambi province). The translation also cheerfully elides two disastrous episodes in recent European trade with Cochin-China: the 1601 massacre of 23 members of an envoy from the VOC, and a similar massacre in 1613 of the crew of an English trading vessel. This attempt to coax England’s notoriously skittish merchants into commerce with Cochin-China is also borne out by Ashley’s choice of dedicatee: Maurice Abbot, the newly-elected governor of the British East India Company.
According to Pollard and Redgrave, the work’s last signature is in 3 rather than 4 because the unsigned title-page was printed as the 4th and final leaf.
Cristoforo Borri (1583-1632), a Milanese astronomer, lived in Cochin-China from 1617-1622, where he learned enough of the language to hear confession. By 1633, two years after its first appearance, his Relatione had been translated into French, German, Dutch and English. This is the first copy to appear on the market since 1988 [Christie’s sale of John Fleming, 11.08.88].
* STC 1504; Lach.III, v. 3, p. 1250-1266; Dror & Taylor, Views of 17th C Vietnam, pp. 66. Not in Löwendahl, who nonetheless records translations in French, German, and Dutch.