U. Mücke (Hrsg.): The Diary of Heinrich Witt

The Diary of Heinrich Witt.

Mücke, Ulrich
Anzahl Seiten
10 Bde., CCXX, 7017 S., 604 Abb.
€ 1.457,99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Stefanie Gänger, Historisches Institut, Universität zu Köln

Ten densely printed volumes, each in itself around 700 pages long, contain the extensive diary written by Heinrich Witt (1799–1892), a merchant from Danish Altona who lived for much of his life in the Peruvian capital of Lima. Opening with a narrative of Witt’s first voyage to South America in 1824, where he was to keep ledgers for the British trading company ‘Antony Gibbs and Sons’, and ending around 1890 in Lima, in the quiet of old age and family life, it is an exhaustive personal narrative of a lifeline interwoven with the history of transatlantic migration, travel, and trade in the nineteenth century.

Witt’s diary is an exceptional historical source in that we know of no other private diary from nineteenth-century Peru[1], but also in its sheer length – it is presumably the most extensive private diary written in Latin America[2] – and in the wealth of detail Witt recorded in the course of his long, peripatetic life. Indeed, it is Witt’s meticulous recollection of quotidian events and experiences – of counting house life (e.g. vol. 5, p. 534) and family feasts (e.g. vol. 7, p. 171), transoceanic passages (e.g. vol. 5, pp. 90ff.) and physicians visits (e.g. vol. 8, p. 15) – that render his journal an invaluable source, not only for historians of nineteenth-century Peru and scholars with an interest in autobiographical writing, but also for practitioners in a variety of other fields. Historians of elite sociability and European immigration in the southern Americas would be particularly well advised to consult this remarkable material. Witt’s account of his routine of family dinners, shareholder meetings (e.g. vol. 7, 445), and daily round of visits (e.g. vol. 7, p. 588), which attest to his close ties both to European immigrant circles and – after his marriage to a Peruvian widow, María Sierra, in 1831 – established creole families, provides a unique window into the wealth, cohesion, and worldliness of Lima’s upper classes, particularly during the guano age. Witt’s bent for scrupulous, even pedantic, bookkeeping, which extended into his private life – he documented the cost of Colombian state bonds (vol. 4, p. 6) just as accurately as that of a dinner in Cologne (vol. 2, p. 549) – make him a rich source for historians of prices, trade, and banking. So do his business ties and commercial ventures which ranged from import and guano trade to private credit and extended as far as San Francisco, Hamburg, or Manila (e.g. vol. 4, p. 88). Historians of travel, transport and tourism will take delight in Witt’s detailed accounts of his journeys, for both business and leisure, within Peru, to Bolivia, Chile and – five times, on the whole – back to Europe, where he frequently visited his native Holstein as well as a range of other places, from the Italian principalities to French Algiers. A shrewd, attentive observer of the political events of his time, and involved in government service – he acted as Danish Consul in Peru between 1841 and 1876 – Witt is also a valuable source for political historians of Andean South America. His detailed descriptions of state dinners (e.g. vol. 4, p. 28), worried observations on life under Chilean occupation during the War of the Pacific (vol. 9, pp. 491ff.) and severe remarks about the politicians of his acquaintance – their demeanor or untoward drinking habits (e.g. vol. 4, pp. 45; 126–129) – will add new detail to the study of political sociability, crisis and biography in Peru. Social historians of the region will also find this a noteworthy source. Himself a wealthy Protestant white male, Witt’s asides on Jewish moneylenders, disreputable ladies or a troublesome Chinese servant (e.g. vol. 8, p. 2) attest to, and elucidate, the subtleties of social stratification – along the lines and junctions of gender, ethnicity, religion and class – that governed Witt’s household, and the world, at the time. Historians of print culture, reading, and epistolary networks, in turn, will find Witt’s diary a precious source on the intellectual world of a nineteenth century gentleman merchant. Witt’s access to, and extensive, regular perusal of novels, science, travelogues (e.g. vol. 4, pp. 50, 83; vol. 9, p. 39) and various newspapers from across Europe and the Americas – from “El Comercio” (vol. 9, p. 10) to “Die Gartenlaube” (vol. 9, p. 7) – as well as his vast network of correspondence speak not only to his own bourgeois education and polyglotism, but also to the period’s global print economy and improved communication and transportation. Indeed, global historians more broadly will find Witt’s diary an invaluable window into nineteenth-century worldwide economic, cultural, and social integration.

Several carefully crafted introductory pieces in the first volume by Ulrich Mücke and Christa Wetzel – including a biographical sketch, an account of the diary’s genesis, an essay placing the journal in a wider autobiographical writing tradition, and a list of the passages comprised in earlier Spanish editions – help the reader to navigate, and situate, this edition of Witt’s diary. So does the extensive index of 15,000 entries as well as the original tables of contents prepared by Witt, which allow the reader to browse through the volumes. The sort of guidance, and assistance, is quite necessary, given not only the diary’s defiant length, but also its occasional digressiveness. Indeed, Witt’s is not a classic diary, in that much of it was written in retrospect, on the basis of notes and earlier ‘draft diaries’ – dating back to 1813 – which he revised, amended, translated into English, and expanded on, often anticipating future events; it was only after 1880 that he kept a daily, or weekly, record of events in temporal proximity to them.

The editor’s decision to publish the extant volumes of Witt’s diary unabridged, and full-length, has certainly come at a cost – rendering this a high-priced, bulky publication, and a demanding read. It has also, however, made available to historians, and a general readership, an exquisite and unique historical source – a treasure trove of biographical, economic, and cultural detail that is bound to alter, and deeply enrich, our understanding of the history of Andean South America and the nineteenth century more broadly.

[1] Ulrich Mücke, The Diary of Heinrich Witt and Autobiographical Writing in the Nineteenth Century, in: Ulrich Mücke (ed.), The Diary of Heinrich Witt, Leiden 2016, vol. 1, pp. CXXIII–CXLI, here p. CXXIX.
[2] Ibid., CXXV.