Godfried Bomans (1913 – 1971)

Dutch author Godfried Bomans, born March 2, 1913 in The Hague, is arguably Holland’s best humorist author. His comic style makes use of irony and hilarious archaism to parody genres like fairytale, melodrama, biography and detective. Half a year after baby Godfried’s birth, the family moved from The Hague to Haarlem. The leftovers of the 19th century were still unmistakably present in the city of Bomans’ youth. The atmosphere influenced him in a huge way, but it was also the other way round: by writing and speaking of his Haarlem, Bomans shaped an image of the city that was fitting into his own taste and views. Because of this, Godfried Bomans was and is seen as a true ‘Haarlemmer’ and he himself would even tell people that he was born there.

His upbringing was harsh and severe, which would have a huge impact on his personality: “The advantage of a Spartan and senseless upbringing is that in later stages of your life the only way is up, and everything will get more festive. But the disadvantage is enormous. All your life you will stay a little boy that wants to be loved by others”.
Young Godfried found comfort in his catholic beliefs, but would keep on searching for similar coziness for the rest of his life. Nevertheless he refused to follow the ideas of the church adherently when they went in against his personal feelings of common sense. In the last years of his life he became a spokesman for the Dutch catholic people by phrasing their problems and putting these in the right perspective.

Aged 20, Bomans wrote a ridiculous stage drama Bloed en Liefde (Blood and Love) which was released in 1937. As soon as the absurd Bomans humor got to the theatre stage in Haarlem, it became an immediate success. It still is popular with amateur theatre societies. As a law student in Amsterdam, he debuted on the literary stage with De memoires of gedenkschriften van Mr. P. Bas, also shortly referred to as Pieter Bas, visibly influenced by Charles Dickens.

Life in the big city turned out to be too icy for Bomans, so he moved to the friendly, catholic city of Nijmegen in 1939. Here he published his most successfull novel Erik of het klein insectenboek (Erik or the little book of insects), which was reprinted ten times in its first year. He returned to Haarlem and published with regular intervals. His books were popular, especially because of his humorist view on postwar society, which put it all into perspective. The sadness of the war was cured by Bomans: “Humor is conquered sorrow”, he wrote.

His popularity increased after his first appearances on radio and television, in the beginning as storyteller but later also as interviewer, ghost hunter, test subject and traveller. He loved it and the audience loved him. There was just one problem: Bomans could not say ‘no’ to anything and was asked continuously to do this or that. A heart attack ended his busy life on December 21, 1971.

Despite his popularity Bomans never won a literary prize with any of his sixty books. Critics passed judgment on his superficiality on one hand and his story characters being too excessive and unreal on the other hand. They would praise his style ‘though. Fellow author Simon Carmiggelt once said: “Bomans is a great writer, but you cannot not say that out loud”.

British Museum Reading roomAs president of the Haarlem Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, Godfried Bomans visited the UK on many occasions. He wrote several essays on British literature, especially on the admired Charles Dickens, and other English subjects. 
On 19 January 1952 he published in the Dutch magazine Elseviers Weekblad the article ‘Een nutteloos levenswerk’ (A useless life) on the Reading Room in the British Museum in London.
The American astronomer Butler Burton translated the essay to kill time on his cruise to Patagonia and his friend Baldy Tjia did the final editing.


By Godfried Bomans

In the heart of London stands the British Museum. And in the core of the British Museum is the “Reading Room”, an immensely wide, circular space, spanned by a dome. It is deadly still. One feels: here I am in the center of the world. Just as in the center of a hurricane everything is motionless, so the utter quiet in the Reading Room is charged, oppressive, and absolute. In spiral swirls stand the carrels of those studying, winding closer to the center, until, as in the heart of a giant cocoon, there sits a small, grey man, with spectacles and a tired look. He does nothing except look like Buddha, because he knows everything.

Sitting around him in a little circle are other men, also bespectacled and looking tired, there to answer questions. They know almost everything. They know so much that it happens only once in a few years that they do not know something. Then they bend over backwards and whisper the question to the man in the center. This happened once in 1938, and in 1947 it happened again. But yesterday it also happened. And because of a question from me.

I entered the Reading Room with a scrap of paper in my hand, and went, across the windings of this dead shell, to the still center of the world. I handed my little piece of paper, with the words: “I want the Yamana-English dictionary of the Reverend Thomas Bridges, in manuscript.” The fellow read this request carefully, raised his eyebrows, and peered at me with his long-since deceased eyes. “We don’t have that”, he whispered in a dull voice. I smiled. It is a wonderful feeling, albeit in a minor matter, to know the slightest bit more than someone who knows almost everything. “I beg your pardon,” said I, “but you do have it.” The fellow looked surprised by this contrariness. He leaned to his neighbor, and whispered something in his ear. The neighbor also glared at me. “We don’t have that”, he mumbled. I again grinned. “It is here,” said I, “and I would like to see it.” Now the big moment had arrived. The all-knowing-one had awoken. He read my note and suddenly there appeared on that inward-turned face something of happiness. “Indeed, we do have that,” he said, getting up, “will you follow me, please?” He led me to a small room, and turned on a lamp. “How did you know it was here?” he asked. I told him that I had read the autobiography of Lucas Bridges, a son of the Reverend Thomas. He nodded in agreement. “An excellent book,” he said, “and now I will go and fetch his father’s manuscript. It will take me half an hour.” And indeed, after half an hour a little cart rolled in, containing three rumpled, faded, and well-thumbed school notebooks. The attendant placed them in front of me. “You may look at them,” he said, “but I must remain with you. Several of the sheets are loose.”

This then was the dictionary of Thomas Bridges, written in the wilds of Patagonia, a work of thirty years’ labor. It had wandered around the whole world, had been lost three times and had finally been found in the kitchen of a farm near Kassel, on November 10th, 1945, a half-century after the writer had laid down his pen. Certainly, the British Museum knows greater treasures, and next to the Codex Sinaiticus and the logbook of Nelson’s flagship, these three school notebooks are trifles. But they do have their value, for someone who knows their history. I want to tell you about this.

In the year 1827 the English frigate, the Beagle, visited the most extreme point of South America, which we call Fireland, and took three young natives on board. One died there, but the other two arrived in England and received there for several years an upbringing and education, especially in the Anglican religion. Then the Beagle went to sea again and brought these two Patagonians back to their fatherland. Travelling with them was the catechist Richard Mathews, who made use of the long journey to forcefully indoctrinate the two in the fundamentals of Christianity. He had plenty of time to do this, as the trip, with Charles Darwin on board, took a full year. Fifteen months after the two newly converted were set on land, the Beagle returned to see if the seeds of belief had satisfactorily sprouted. A deep disappointment lay in wait. The two converts had completely reverted to their previous state of degenerate savagery. Darwin, hearing about this, considered their tribe from now on the least developed of all mankind. “If they are not actually the missing link,” he wrote, “they are not far removed from it.”

But a certain Allen Gardiner did not lose faith. He founded the Patagonian Missionary Society, sailed over and set foot on the ground in September 1850, together with six fire-breathing missionaries. When the Ocean Queen sailed away, they all stood bareheaded and singing psalms on the beach. This was the last that anyone saw of them. Half of them were stoned to death, and the other three starved. Gardiner was the last to die. His diary, found years later, ended: “I am happy beyond words.” But the Society did not lose heart. It outfitted a schooner, christened the Allen Gardiner, and sent this on a new expedition. After several failed trips, the group managed to build a little wooden chapel in Wulaia, where on November 6th, 1859, the first religious service was held. Despite the natives’ aggressive stance, the missionaries together with the ship’s crew went ashore without any weapons, just taking their Bibles with them. They had just settled in the little chapel when the locals encircled and slaughtered them. This bloodbath, from which only the cook escaped, took place under the leadership of the two converts, who surpassed all of the other natives in their cruelty. This was the final blow. The Society washed its hands of Fireland. Only one weak link remained: Thomas Bridges.

Bridges was then 18 years old. He chose to remain on Keppel Island, fully aware that only a solid grounding in the language and the trust of the locals could allow the mission to proceed. He managed to maintain himself, under circumstances of deprivation and loneliness one can scarcely imagine. His diary from the beginning of this period reveals little of the situation. It is written with the continuous understatement so dear to the English, so one can only guess at his struggles. In a single passage, however, his emotions break through the icy layer of reserve: “My whole being is in a state of excitement. Earnest and frequent are my prayers to Him who alone is able to keep me. I feel God is my only strength. Made me a cup of coffee.”

Gradually he got help. Even in Ushuaia he tried to establish a settlement, but it was decimated by an epidemic, and then he went further eastward and established a farmstead, which soon allowed him to fully devote himself to evangelism. He did this with heart and soul, pushing and pulling and fretting, but nowhere in his diary does it appear that he made any progress. For forty years he recorded his experiences in detail, but still no results were recorded. What is the reason for this? He himself wrote somewhere that the Yamana language, although very rich in concrete words, was totally unsatisfactory for expressing abstract concepts. His son, however, who accompanied his father on many of his trips, sought a deeper reason, one that his father understood well but evidently did not wish to commit to paper. “My father asserted that the Yahgan people had not the faintest idea of a god or any expectation of future life.” We must accept without doubt this firm belief from a man, who lived almost his entire life amongst these people and spoke their language fluently. He had, furthermore, no self-interest in this observation; on the contrary, it conflicted entirely with his own hopes and expectations. But, in fact, this conviction is highly surprising, because ethnology confirms without exception a notion of Divinity to prevail, however weakly, amongst all peoples, yea, theology even bases one of its arguments on this confirmation.

Even while Bridges’ apostolic labors were failing, his dictionary was growing. Untiringly, he described the remarkable sounds, drew up the grammar, constructed the syntax, and before his surprised eyes emerged a language with unbelievable possibilities, rich in the finest nuances and flexible to the subtlest changes in a speaker’s intentions. By 1879 he had 23,000 words, and in 1898, the year of his death, he had come to 32,000 words.

But how could this rare treasure be brought to the civilized world? There were no connections to the outside world, because he lived with his family in complete isolation. But then capricious fortune gave this unlucky bird a smile. Just two months before his death, he met Frederick Cook. Cook had just come back from his South Pole trip, and promised to bring the manuscript to press in Europe. For twelve years Thomas Bridges’ surviving relatives heard nothing until his son Lucas by coincidence learned that the book had appeared in Brussels, entitled:

Yamana-English Dictionary

Doctor of Anthropology

Cook, an imposter, whose imaginary Pole discovery had been revealed as a lie, had tried in this manner to rehabilitate his reputation in the academic world. When this misdeed was revealed, new problems arose. The phonetic spelling that Bridges had used was one of his own invention. If the dictionary was to be used for wider study then the work would have to be brought into line with a more common system, and this would have been a work of years. It was Dr. Hestermann, professor in Munster, who undertook this project. He had finished the work in 1914, when war broke out. The manuscript seemed to have disappeared from the face of the Earth. But fifteen years later, in 1929, it reemerged. A number of times it changed hands again till the family offered the book to the British Museum in 1939. Just as it was to have been sent there from Poland, again war broke out. This time the manuscript seemed lost for good until it came to light near Kassel, in 1945. On January 9th, 1946, the manuscript was received within the safe walls of the British Museum.

What had happened to the Yamanas in the meantime? In Darwin’s time, the tribe numbered some 4000 souls, while in 1884 just 1200 remained. A few years later an epidemic of smallpox brought the number down to 400. In 1908 there were still 170 survivors, but the count in November, 1932 gave the number as 42. Now there is not a single Yamana left. The race is extinct.

No longer does a single mouth speak the language for which Bridges gave thirty years of his life.

We see here one of the most tragic plays of fortune. While the people still lived, the dictionary was lost. And when the dictionary was found again, the people had become extinct. They left no monuments behind, no songs were recorded, and not a single ruin gives a remembrance of this folk. Only the dictionary is still here, written in the thin, precise handwriting of a Protestant missionary.

You can find it in Room 87 of the British Museum. If you sign your name in the register after mine, then that will be two of us. Because in all those six years not a single mortal has come to look at the work.

Bomans, G. (1953). Een nutteloos levenswerk. Capriolen, een tweede bundel buitelingen. Amsterdam/Brussel, Elsevier.
Translated from the Dutch by Butler Burton and Baldy Tjia (September 2015)