Flamboyant But Forgotten is a regular column by contributor Rachel Cohen. In this column, Rachel highlights some of the lesser-known historical figures whose backstories, personalities, and occupations make great fodder for creative fanfiction writing.
Whenever I miss the gym one time too often, or generally consumed by existential self-hatred, I go jogging. Because when I jog, my hate extends to everything. I especially hate doing that thing which is the essence of jogging – putting one foot in front of the other. So, to keep doing it (that’s how existential hatred works, after all), I try to imagine all of the people who’ve had to put one foot in front of the other with no choice about it. Canadian trappers. Slaves. Explorers. What’s a little jog compared to making it across India, for example? On foot, no less. (Man, I’ve got to rethink my whole fitness approach.)
It amazes me that the people I think about never turned back. Why? Were they just so interested in what they were seeing? Were they aware of the importance of their mission? Or was it that they feared absolutely nothing and saw no reason to turn back?
Consider, for example, Afanasy Nikitin, a Russian merchant who travelled all the way from beyond Moscow to India and back. Some of it was done by ship, but most of it was done on foot. Here is a map of his journey:
If you look at the very top of the red loop, you see Moscow and, right on the red line above, the city of Tver, where Afanasy began his journey. He chronicled his trip in his Journey Beyond Three Seas writings, travelling to Nizhny Novgorod (the first stop on the map, going clockwise) and his voyage down the river Volga.
The bizarre thing about Nikitin’s story is that it is difficult to tell what the merchant actually traded. He remarks in his book the places selling quality stones or interesting spices, but it is still impossible to discern the nature of his business. Personally, I don’t think he was very interested in trading. He just went. First forward and then, you know, back. The account is not even very detailed.
After two of the four ships in his convoy were stolen (and one destroyed), he crossed the Caspian sea to arrive in Persia. He mentions having cows on the ship, so perhaps they were trading livestock? (God, how it must have stunk in there.) He arrived in Persia (Iran) and chose to live there, in different cities, for several months. Obviously this must mean he was a quick study when it came to languages, because it wasn’t as if there had been a handy lingua franca for the common folk at the time.
He kept going. He crossed the Arabian Sea (Indian Ocean) and arrived in India (one of the first Europeans to do so) in 1469. He elected to live there for three years, even though he described the country as “dirty,” its men as “evil,” and its women as “whores.” But, when I was reading the Journey (it’s very short, only a few pages), I got the unmistakable sense of a man fascinated. Bascially, Nikitin just walked around, his head spinning, taking in all these incredible sights, listening to stories about monkeys that live in the forest with their monkey crown prince and about the bird that breaths fire from its mouth.
I think that Nikitin chose to come back to Russia mainly because he felt he was committing a grave sin by staying in the land of the “infidels.” He had no calendar, so he estimated the Christian feast days using the Muslim calendar. He also laments his becoming a Muslim, a necessary measure, but historians have argued that his could not have been a true religious conversion. At the time, an Islam convert would have been persecuted in Russia. So had Nikitin, in fact, changed his religion, he would not have returned home. But return he did, by a different route (across the Black Sea this time), and died in the city of Smolensk, the last stop before his hometown of Tver.
If you write Nikitin into your fanfiction, he’d make a great character, I bet. A man who conscientiously marches through your story, onwards and onwards, not for gain, not out of a sense of duty, not because he is running for his life. But because he wants to see what’s around the next bend. For he is certain it will be awesome.