Lansdell dressed in Samoyede costume.

Lansdell dressed in Samoyede costume.

Essays Henry Lansdell.

This is an English missionary’s tales of Siberia in the late 19th-century The expedition by Henry Lansdell is documented in the two volumes of Through Siberia from 1882.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:2-3, pp 136-140
Published on on October 8, 2020

article as pdf No Comments on Henry Lansdell. Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

The priest checked his baggage. No one could be better prepared. He felt he knew what to expect; this wasn’t the first time he was headed east. He calmly and methodically packed a bundle of letters of recommendation while giving a moment’s thanks to the powerful society luminaries and church fathers who had written them. He then left for the harbor to make sure the bibles and sacred texts in various languages were ready to ship. Estimated to fill three railroad cars, it was no small cargo.

On April 13, 1879, everything was ready and Henry Lansdell departed a misty London. At last, he was on his way to Siberia. Once there, he would visit prisons, mines and hospitals and distribute sacred tracts, scriptures and testaments, thus spreading the Christian message to victims of misfortune.

So began his journey to an unknown country. Thanks to his traveler’s powers of observation and diligent note taking, the expedition is documented in the two volumes of Through Siberia from 1882. It’s available on the Internet in its entirety through Cambridge University Press. An abridged Swedish version entitled Genom Sibirien was published in the same year.

The West’s interest in Siberia had grown during the 19th century, but there were few reports from there. While a great number of west European doctors and mineralogist were active there, not much was heard from them, and the entrepreneurs and merchants involved in mining and the fur trade were presumably too busy doing business to devote their time to publishing. The UK’s politicians were keenly interested in East Asia, and sincerely hoped to make themselves at home in this part of the world too.

They asked themselves what kind of people lived so far away on the endless tundra, where permafrost paralyzes the ground and the harsh climate punishes anyone who ventures outdoors. They painted themselves a portrait of a man created in the wilderness, poor in spirit and capable of every kind of cruelty, above whom a Czar ruled with total power over the people.  Fanciful westerners who’d gotten close to Russia had written reports that reinforced this picture. It was uncertain whether they had ever reached Siberia at all.

Lansdell felt that one particular report stood out. It was by the American journalist George Kennan from an expedition to the northeastern corner of Siberia in 1865. The purpose of the journey had been to investigate the feasibility of running a telegraph line between Moscow and the US. What interested Lansdell was Kennan’s attitude to the people he met. There were no denigrating descriptions, instead he described the people there with warmth and admiration. According to his own analysis, Kennan had been “smitten by love for the Russian people”. His report Tent Life in Siberia was published in the US in 1870. (A Swedish translation, Lägerlif i Sibirien, was published in 1891).

A religious man, Lansdell had high hopes for the trip but was also aware of his limitations. He knew no Russian, but the scriptures he would distribute had been translated into several of the languages known to be spoken in the east, and he would have an interpreter with him. His goal was purely humanitarian; he would not be prospecting for minerals, creating maps or buying furs. His mission was to evangelize for Protestantism. He was also going to document his journey, and this would prove to be significant.

The fact that Lansdell was heading for Siberia did not create much of a stir. Travels of discovery and exploration were a phenomenon of the age. People set out with different objectives, and these might include thirst for scientific knowledge or being caught up in the politically popular quest for colonies. Or merely wanting to see the sights and head off for Jerusalem, Cairo or Rome in the company of like-minded people. By and by, newspapers began supporting travel reportage by intrepid trailblazers who set out for tracts unknown. In 1872, the Thomas Cook and Son travel agency arranged the first round-the-world tour. But back then, not everyone traveled with a wallet-full of money and a return ticket. A great many impoverished Europeans set out on the long journey to America. Nor was this Lansdell’s first missionary expedition as he had previously visited the peoples on either side of the Gulf of Bothnia in an effort to convert them to Protestantism.

British explorers were in a fortunate position. As a rule, they enjoyed sound scientific backing from prestigious academic societies or they traveled on assignments from newspapers.

Henry Lansdell was firmly established with the religious powers that be.  The Siberian mission itself originated with the Irish Church Missions, a somewhat independent body within the Anglican communion that usually kept itself busy trying to convert the Irish from Roman Catholicism. Lansdell also enjoyed support from the highest Anglican echelons, eminently demonstrated by a hard-to-trump letter of recommendation from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Armed to the teeth with letters and suitable means of payment, Lansdell boarded the train from St Petersburg on May 12, 1879. He was joined in Nizhny Novgorod by a pre-arranged interpreter. The railroad from Perm to Ekaterinburg was brand new, and Lansdell was amazed by the comfortable first-class seating. Little did he suspect the strenuous modes of travel he would later be forced to experience. When it was time to use the Siberian means of transport known as the tarantass, it proved to be a harrowing experience. This type of wagon – whose wheels were replaced by runners in the winter – was drawn by one or more horses. The coachman insisted that the design using longitudinal poles instead of springs minimized heeling and jolts. But traveling along the pot-holed roads of Siberia was an arduous physical ordeal for the priest from Great Britain. “May the reader be spared such a fate!” he exclaimed resignedly. “Just getting in behind the coachman is a science unto itself,” he continued. “Avoid trunks like the plague; their corners and edges will jab into your legs and back.” He learned to use flat overnight bags and soft bags as a base, then a mattress and finally a thin rug. Behind him he would place two or more down cushions to make things bearable. The reputation of the tarantass was also impugned elsewhere. When Jules Verne wrote The Courier of the Tsar (published 1876), he has his traveler burst out that the conveyance was hardly the pinnacle of the wainwright’s handicraft.

But Lansdell did not pass the Urals without visiting the famous mines where manganese, copper, malachite and above all iron were extracted. The proud mine officials emphasized how important the wealthy Demidoff family was for Russia’s mining industry. But Lansdell, who had seen plenty of iron deposits on his many travels, graciously declared that “the quality of Demidoff iron is only exceeded by what is mined in Dannemora”.

The next stop was the Tyumen, a city of growing importance with an ambitious school policy. Lansdell was received by the mayor, and he noted how simply the latter’s work room was furnished; it was similar to the Swedish counterparts he had seen as a missionary along the northern Gulf of Bothnia coast in 1876. “These bigwigs live more simply than their peers in England,” he thought, “without their being less happy for that”.

Tyumen proved to have a key role in terms of transportation. It was here authorities brought together hobos, rapists, murderers, robbers, counterfeiters and political prisoners for onward transport to various penal institutions to the east. Including women and children, the number of people transported in 1878 approached 20,000. Around one in six prisoners took along their wives and children, who were allowed to find lodgings outside the penal institution. Every year, around 700 prisoners were said to have escaped during transportation to the east. When asked how this could be possible, the usual answer was: Putting a few rubles in the hand of a Cossack or minor official has a miraculous ability to render them blind in both eyes. It was also said that a reward of 3 rubles per shot escapee was paid upon handing over the body to the police. The transportation of prisoners to the east took various forms; many people were simply made to walk, the worst offenders in handcuffs or shackles. Political prisoners were the exception; they were handled individually and transported “at a furious pace” under supervision in various vehicles.

When Lansdell informed Russian officials that he intended to visit prisons and mines, he was told that Kara was the worst of all the penal institutions in Siberia. However, it turned out that none of the spokesmen had actually been to Kara. “The language of the hearsay witnesses is much keener than that of the eyewitnesses,” sighed Lansdell, as he prepared to pay Kara a visit. Once there, he found a large facility that seemed to be well-managed, noting that there were 793 murderers, 400 robbers, 38 arsonists, 22 rapists, 46 counterfeiters, 86 convicted of malpractice, 677 hobos and 73 convicted of political crimes. In all, 2,135 men and women. They received reduced sentences for good behavior. At the end of their sentences, prisoners could become colonists, i.e. settle somewhere in Siberia, till the soil and try to support themselves and maybe their family, a model common to the other prisons Lansdell visited, and which also provided a way to populate the uninhabited tracts.

Lansdell was well received in Kara and was given wild strawberries for dessert when he was invited to dinner by the “Colonel”. His residence, though simple, had a beautiful fenced yard with a couple of roe dear, “to amuse the children”. His hosts then offered him a visit to the prison hospital and orphanage, where he was impressed by the responsibility and thoughtfulness of the prison management. It was a large area that comprised several habitations. Major gold deposits had been found there, and Lansdell visited an open pit where the prisoners were tasked with excavating a given amount of soil from which to pan gold. Armed Cossacks stood guard. If prisoners were unable to fill their quotas of excavated soil each day, they could receive reduced rations or an extended prison term. If they helped a prisoner escape, they were flogged. No female prisoners could be seen at the mine.

Our traveler had developed a keen eye for detail. In fact, he was a bit of a fact nerd. He seems to have decided early on to complete a full overview of salient Siberian facts as a sideline to his Bible distribution. Thus he noticed numbers of inhabitants, distances, the height of mountains, the number of convicts per prison, the number of escapees, the number of imprisoned women and children, the weight of the inmates’ food rations, the number of days per year inmates had to work and various pay levels in the prison environment, to name but a few of the facts and figures that would flow through his resumes. He seemed determined to possess every fact about Siberia that could be expressed in numbers. In other words, missionary work was not enough. He needed something else, something extra, to elevate his mission and demonstrate his capacity. In a moment of introspection he described himself as an amateur and said that the aim of his fact collecting was to help future, better schooled evangelists.

Lansdell was no do-little; he proceeded eastward across the vast landscape, come rain come shine. He distributed thousands of holy scriptures that were received with joy, and sometimes the recipients came back and asked for more and were prepared to pay for them. He noted down everything he saw, including trials and tribulations. Typhoid patients being cared for in a little hut; workless, listless prisoners, blatant anti-Semitism and the dirty sub post offices. But he also noted the beauty he saw. Flowers, trees, species of birds — they all got their fair share in his notebooks.

There are signs of self irony in Lansdell’s description of his own efforts. For example, he confesses that he tried his hand at meteorology but that his thermometers had broken and it all became a grandiose fiasco. At the same time, he duly noted that Siberia had 14 weather observatories where precipitation, temperature and windspeeds were measured three times a day as part of the Russian meteorological collaboration.

Usually he announced his visits by letter in advance, and as a rule he was received by the highest representatives of the facilities concerned. There were polite meetings where the inquisitive missionary was offered whatever the house was able to provide, while he also took the opportunity to record living standards, furnishings and lifestyles. He noted everything from unexpectedly simple dwellings to elegant residences, where everything was reminiscent of western upper class living. In one location, the great room in the house had a stylish staircase to the upper floor. The two pianos, romantic paintings on the walls and English furniture led him to think of English mansions.

Lansdell was suspicious of the West’s colonial view of Russia and the Russians; for his part, he wanted to see and understand what he encountered. He was already well-travelled; he had visited Prussia, Belgium, Holland, Saxony, Bohemia, Austria, Romania, Bavaria and Switzerland — not forgetting Sweden and Finland – where he reconnoitered and evangelized, and now he condemned the West’s reports from Siberia as “prejudiced and shoddy”. He was most indignant when he returned home and read Dostoevsky’s newly translated novel The House of the Dead, first published in 1861. Lansdell felt that Dostoevsky had taken the liberty to exaggerate the misery in the prisons, and he was also irritated by the way the Russian novelist had described “places that do not exist”. For our English fact seeker, only documentary evidence would do.

So what kind of person was Henry Lansdell? What made him take on such a tough assignment? By all accounts, he was dedicated to his evangelical mission. He was hardly a Western know-it-all. Instead, he showed compassion for the poor souls he encountered in prisons, hospitals and mines, while on other occasions he allowed himself to smile at unexpected absurdities. He was not given to rolling his eyes when he saw how important bribes and contraband spirits were in the lives of prison inmates, but he noted how ethics adapted to prevailing circumstances seemed necessary in the midst of all the misery. While he saw what isolation and despair could do to people, he also noted human warmth in the midst of all their troubles. As his journey progressed, Lansdell felt ever more empathy with the “unfortunate”, as prisoners are called in the Russian vernacular.

In spite of everything, our priest was not only bent on evangelizing, he also wanted to understand the everyday living conditions in the regions he visited. He was particularly fascinated by the traditions of the different peoples and their cultural dress. His interest was so great he was constantly having himself photographed in everyday dress and traditional costumes, when he wasn’t admiring in detail the garments and adornments of the women. In Krasnoyarsk he was astounded by a “beautiful Amazon”. She was sitting astride a horse, had short hair and was wearing pants and high boots. He inquired a little into her status and discovered she was a local mother of three children. He often took the opportunity to buy various objects he found ethnologically interesting.

After traveling by steamboat along the Amur River for several days and having watched passengers play cards dementedly, he finally reached the port of Nikolayevsk. One evening in this colorful city, Lansdell ended up in a place where the locals would dance and amuse themselves. There was a lot to see there. He watched as men nonchalantly left one wall and moved across the floor to where the ladies were gathered, before summoning their desired dance partners with patronizing nods. Dancing was to the sound of violins, accordions and a xylophone as the ladies were swept around while the men stomped the floor hard.  Then there was candy and social intercourse, interspersed with long pauses and a sparse form of talk known by the Russians as Siberian conversation.

One people that won Lansdell’s undisguised admiration was the Koryaks, who inhabited the Northeast and Kamchatka. They were reindeer herders renowned for their steadfast resistance to Russian authority. Lansdell noted that they were the “most denigrated” of all the Siberian tribes. When he visited them, he met a proud, hospitable people with great integrity. They were good fathers. He wrote that their regard for animals was akin to tenderness.

Finally, all that remained was the last leg to Vladivostok before he could begin his journey home via Japan, San Francisco, New York and Liverpool. It was soon September 1879, and Lansdell was busy stowing his collections and notebooks. At the same time, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and Captain Palander were in Yokohama harbor wondering how to strengthen the weakened hull of the ship Vega. They were worn out after finally breaking free of the ice and completing the Northeast passage.

The press and publishers back home knew that Henry Lansdell could write; among other things he had started the Clergyman’s Magazine in 1875. The journals of returning long-distance travelers often contained sensational stuff, and this was meet and drink for the press and publishers. In some cases, the reports were also translated into several languages. Thus people were expecting a great deal from Lansdell’s travel journals. His publisher was Houghton Mifflin Company, an ambitious publishing house with its headquarters in Boston and overseas employees in London.

After returning home on November 25, 1879, Henry Lansdell wrote his report. Its title, short and sweet, was Through Siberia. It was in two volumes and immediately caused a stir. The publishers printed multiple editions and had an abridged version translated into German, Danish and Swedish.

Facts, prison life and folklore depictions were one thing, but what really caught the imagination of the British and American readers was Lansdell’s empathic defense of the character and culture of Russian people. It was this new Russian image that the newspapers wrote about. Not surprisingly, there were also discussions on whether Lansdel’s new image of the Russian truly held up. Had he really seen how the prisoners were treated? Had his judgment being clouded by the warm reception he received from prison wardens and guards? On the other hand, what did this missionary have to gain by painting an idealized picture of peoples far off in the middle of nowhere?

Overall, Lansdell felt that his journey to Siberia had been meaningful. He had succeeded in reaching ordinary people in Siberia with the Christian message, and his book had enjoyed widespread interest at home. So what happened next? Well of course, Henry Lansdell set out again, this time to East Asia. Not just once but twice, and his mission was the same as before. And in the middle of all this meticulously planned missionary work he still found time to marry. Her name was Mary, and following his death she took care of her husband’s ethnological collections from his long journeys in the East before finally donating them to the Canterbury Heritage Museum. Today, parts of the Lansdell Collection are displayed in its permanent exhibition, including an embroidered Tiara, brought home from a school in Kazakhstan. It was presented to Lansdell as a gift by the teacher who noted the delight he took in their beautiful embroideries.


Lansdell, Henry. Through Siberia, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2 volumes. London, 1882. Available online: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107281905. Swedish edition: Genom Sibirien. Albert Bonniers förlag, Stockholm 1882.

  • Essays are scientific articles.

    Essays are selected scholarly articles published without prior peer-review process.

    Would you like to contribute to Baltic Worlds? Click here!