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On the Road with: Giuseppe Acerbi

On a chilly afternoon in early April 1799, a group of large horse drawn sledges appeared on the ice off the coast of Oulu inGiuseppe Acerbi Finland. They had come all the way from Sweden and the horses were tired. Clouds of steam rose from the animal’s flanks. They blew and stomped on ice so clear and blown free of snow that the travelers could see fish either frozen in the ice or moving along well below. They dallied for several hours, talking to thin groups of shivering men fishing through holes in the ice.

From Italy came young Bernardo Bellotti, the well-heeled son of a bank manager from Brescia and then there was the self-styled leader of the expedition Giuseppe Acerbi. Their goal was to reach Nordkapp, the northern-most point of Europe. From Sweden came the Colonel A.F Skjöldebrand, tasked with guiding the Italians, but also on orders from the King to map, or at least gain a better understanding of, the Tornio river valley and the more remote regions of Sweden’s dying Empire.

By the end of their journey, Acerbi and Skjöldebrand would be sworn enemies.

~ ~ ~

(Editor’s Note: In the winter of 2002-2003, I was privileged enough to sit with one of the last surviving original copies of Acerbi’s “Travels through Sweden, Finland and Lapland, to the North Cape in the years 1798 and 1799, volumes 1 and 2″ while snow flew outside on the streets of Helsinki. It remains one of the profound experiences of my life.)

The party arrived in Oulu – known then by its Swedish name Uleåborg – on April 7th. For Finland, the Oulu of the time was a fairly large town. Horses were tethered along the main street, which ran along the river and then out to the bay. A custom house, one for the land and one for the sea, stood at each end of the street. The storehouses were packed with exports, tar, pitch, butter, salmon, dried pike and planks of pine, waiting for the sea to open. Pigs and sheep and cows were penned along the sides of the buildings. Traders stood, chattering in groups, and there was talk of repairing one of the two saw mills. Two old drunks sat outside a store packed with meat, complaining about the cold.

The smell of smoked meat permeated the street.

~ ~ ~

Giuseppe Acerbi

Nearly twenty years Giuseppe Acerbi ’s senior, Anders Fredric Skjöldebrand was a tall, loping soldier-politician scared by death and loss. His wife had died in childbirth fifteen years before and he still dreamt of the dead from the Östgöta Regiment. He was still to serve on the Swedish diplomatic team that negotiated the surrender of Finland to the Russians in 1809. He was also still to see the death of his son, Karl Erik, in the attacks on Körlbergsbro. As an old man he planted an oak in the boy’s memory at Björka-Säby.

Of Bellotti, nothing remains.

Giuseppe Acerbi was born on the 3rd of May, 1773 in Castel Goffredo, Italy. He was initially educated by his parents and then by hired tutor, a severe man with spectacles and a powdered wig who came to their home demanding the boy master French, German and English in addition to his native Italian. A natural with languages, Acerbi took up the challenge and added Latin to the list. He was taught the Classics, music, art and became well acquainted with the sciences. At the age of twenty-one, he received a degree in Law from the University at Pavia. He was a true Renaissance man, embodying the ideal of a gentleman of his time. After a brief and unsatisfactory stint clerking in a stuffy lawyer’s office, the twenty-six year old Acerbi sought something different:

“…to exchange, for a time, the beauties of both nature and art, for the novelty, the sublimity, and the rude magnificence of the northern climates….there is no people so far advanced in civilization, or so highly cultivated, who may not be able to derive some advantage from being acquainted with the arts and sciences of other nations, even of such as are the most barbarous. The human understanding is benefited by communication, even with ignorance itself…”

It was at Acerbi’s initiative that the expedition to Nordkapp became reality.

~ ~ ~

On June 8th, 1799 after a long and evidently enjoyable stay, they left Oulu for the North. They took with them:

“…a Russian tent to shelter us from the rain and the inclemencies of the weather; and…a stock of provisions for 20 days. This consisted of bread, biscuit, cheese and dried flesh of the reindeer, with a cask of brandy. We provided ourselves with a double barreled gun, a thermometer of Celsius, a map by Hermelin and another by Pontoppidon [both purchased from the Baron Silfverkielm], a compass which also marked the hour, a box for the reception of insects, tobacco, sulpher and campfire for the preservation of birds and skins. By way of presents for the Laplanders we took nothing but brandy and tobacco; the former of these articles being of all other the most acceptable present you can bestow.”

A horse drawn wagon carried all their equipment.

As they moved north, Acerbi’s impression of the western Finnish coast was not one of wilderness as he had expected. Instead of a primeval forest dotted with bands of roving, nature-loving tribes, he encountered a well-ordered society with organized and planned towns where imports and exports were tracked and tallied. There were taxes, laws, professions and education. There were mills and warehouses, bars, restaurants, police, gardens and public parks.

As the expedition passed even further north, it became summer and the Finns were busy cutting hay and corn to thresh for the winter. Everywhere, people were building boats, pulling fish from the river, and fowl and squirrel hunting.

Of course, no event, perhaps no single day, in Finland was to be of note unless there was a sauna – and Acerbi hated the

Giuseppe Acerbi
Finns Singing by Acerbi

sauna. It’s hard to tell what, exactly, Acerbi hated about it. First, he was clearly shocked that men and women could be naked in the same room at the same time. Second, he himself didn’t like being naked. Then there was the heat. He found it unbearable.

~ ~ ~

In 1799, the road ended at Yli-Tornio so the expedition hired several boats in order to continue.

(I wrote about the history of the Tornio Valley here.)

It was at this time, when encounters with the Sámi became increasingly frequent, that Acerbi’s dislike of them became manifest. While idealizing the Finns as industrious, kind and honest, the Sámi were nothing more than itinerate bums, small time thieves, liars and drunks. What Giuseppe Acerbi didn’t understand at the time and wouldn’t come to appreciate until several months later, was that the Sámi he was meeting were the defeated refugees and remnants of a once-thriving civilization that had been and was still enduring a slow, brutal and deliberate genocide. The Sámi that Acerbi met were clinging to the edge of existence.

While the well-paid locals pulled the boats, the expedition members walked. The forest was so thick and interspersed with bogs, moss and massive swarms of mosquitoes that they could hardly make it through. They tried to cross over the swamps on fallen trees but the trees were so decayed that they crumpled. At the river, the Finns were having an equally hard time with the boats and they nearly gave up. Acerbi and Skjöldebrand had had some sort of fight and Bellotti had fallen into a depression.

(My travels in the Tornio Valley are chronicled here)

Worse, the Sámi that surrounded them appeared like horrible wraiths, making the travelers fear for their safety. Their faces were smeared with tar and covered in a white cloth against the mosquitoes. Each man wore a conical cap shaped like “a sugar loaf”, made of red cloth and comprising four pieces. The lower part of the cap was of otter skin. Sometimes the border of the cap extended some length fore and aft and ended in a point. They generally had nothing covering their necks, or just a narrow strip of cloth that went around it once. Many wore a sheep’s tunic with the woolly side inwards. The collar was tall and stiff. There was no opening except at the breast and it was edged with otter’s skin. The Sámi had no pockets on their clothing but each carried a little bag, hanging over the breast, where he carried the equipment needed to light a fire. Their shoes were of skin with fur on the outside. A thong twisted around the ankles to hold the shoes on. Straw was placed into the shoe as a sock. They wore these thick furs despite the heat. They were forever smoking tobacco and worked their fishing lines surrounded by small, smoky fires. They were filthy and disagreeable and he never minded saying so. He hated almost everything about them, down to the way they ate: bare-handed with fish oil running down their arms and into the sleeves of their coats. They could be smelled from several yards away. They were forever ready to be drunk.

The worst for Acerbi now was that the success of his journey and, perhaps, the continuation of his existence, was

Giuseppe Acerbi
Finns Hunting Bears as described by Acerbi

dependant on the people he had come to despise so. The travelers encountered fewer settlements and, with the Sámi, he felt for the first time, truly cut off from the rest of the world.

Acerbi and Skjöldebrand fell increasingly to fighting and arguing about every trifle. At some point, the two men had a massive falling out, although Acerbi never mentions what it was.

~ ~ ~

Still, success was at hand. They FINALLY hit the North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe, in mid July:

Thursday, 18th July

“At twelve o’clock sharp on Wednesday night we arrived safely at the North Cape (Nordkapp). We stayed here till noon

and maybe a bit later to make drawings, to collect plants and insects and to look for birds.This rocky cape that has given us so much effort and strain to reach is but a formless piece of rock projected from the sea and whose only advantage is that nature has given it the position of 71 degrees and 10 seconds, i.e. closer the North Pole than the rest of the capes in Europe. Beside it a huge mountain rises up, so steep and so frightening, that it seems twice its actual height to the climbers. After making such long journey to see this place we thought we were obliged to overcome all fear and climb the mountain whatever it took. We climbed there using more our hands than our legs and feet. Several times we had to grasp loose

Giuseppe Acerbi
NordKapp from Skjöldebrand

rocks that were about to fall down, several times we hung with our hands and had to rely on the strength of our arms. Two souls who enter the Heaven to enjoy eternal life would not have seen greater efforts nor had they exposed themselves to greater danger. From the top the view opening in front of us did not make up for our efforts for there was only sea to be seen in the north and the fells obstructed the view in the south. We amused ourselves by pushing down huge rocks. It was fascinating to watch how fast these rocks crashed down. Some of them were so immense that they took with them everything they got in contact with. It felt as if they were wanting to ruin the other side of the mountain itself. Not even the promontories with big bushes could resist the crash but crushed into dust and rubble. While loosening from the rock they caused a big flame and struck out flames into the air.”

It took months for the travelers to find their way home. They split, and Acerbi detoured, presumably alone, through most of Finnish Lapland, passing through Inari before turning south. Along the way, he recorded hundreds of pages of observations on the Sámi people. He noted their music, their language, the clothing and customs and, by the end of his time there, had grown to appreciate the Sámi and railed publicly against the deprivations they had been forced to suffer by the Swedes and Finns.
Acerbi returned to Italy after the publication of his book. In 1803, Skjöldebrand published his version of the journey: Voyage Pittoresque au Cap Nord in sixty aquarelles based on the nearly one-hundred sketches he made during the voyage. It turned out to be one of the first visual accounts of Lapland to reach southern Europe. There was something about it that displeased Acerbi. Likewise, Skjöldebrand was displeased with Acerbi’s account and the two continued a very public mud-slinging match for several years.

Giuseppe Acerbi retired from an extremely interesting career in 1836 and returned to his home at Castel Goffredo near Milan to begin organizing and administering his notes and collections. He never completed the task.

Giuseppe Acerbi died there on August 25, 1846. He was seventy-three years old.


I traced a good chunk of Acerbi’s route and wrote about it in my book “Notes for the Aurora Society“.

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