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Heinrich Zimmermann of Wiesloch


Edited version of a paper given at the Captain Cook Society meeting, Bonn, Germany on 26 September 2009

Zimmermann's  entry in the church register
Heinrich Zimmermann's entry in the church register of the Reformed Community of Wiesloch


Front of the  book
The front of the book
Heinrich Zimmermanns von Wißloch in der Pfalz, Reise um die Welt, mit Capitain Cook
The subject of my talk is a small book and its author.

The book is printed in Gothic script on strong rag paper, has some brownish marks caused by mould or mildew, and contains just 110 pages. At an antiquarian trade fair in Stuttgart in January 2009, the book was being offered at €35,000.

The title of the book is Heinrich Zimmermanns von Wißloch in der Pfalz, Reise um die Welt, mit Capitain Cook (Heinrich Zimmermann from Wiesloch in the Pfalz, his travel around the world with Captain Cook).

There is a copy of the original work in the collection of the Wiesloch Town Archive; it is a 2nd edition, published in 1783 by Christian Friedrich Schwan in Mannheim. Schwan was the bookseller to the court of the Kurfürst, the Prince-Elector of Mannheim. The 1781 first edition attracted such massive interest from the public in its day that it was sold out within a short time and had to be reprinted.

The author of this bestseller was born in the town where I have been working for the past 25 years and living for the past 20. We in Wiesloch treasure "our" Heinrich Zimmermann greatly; we maintain a keen interest in him, and there is even a street in our town named after him.



Very little remains as evidence of the time spent in Wiesloch by the man who went on to travel the world, Heinrich Zimmermann. But in the church register of the Reformed Community of Wiesloch in the 18th century is the entry for his birth.

"Johann Heinrich Zimmermann and Anna Maria von Beyerthal" are registering the birth of the child "Johann Heinrich".

The child's sponsor (susciptor) is recorded as "Johann Heinrich Walthi von Maisbach". The date of birth is written as: "1741 d. 25 te Xbris".

In decoding the baroque style of writing used on the date, however, earlier self-declared local historians have made a gross error. Overcoming the peculiarities of the author's handwriting, the day of the month was correctly read as the 25th. However, the month of his birth was mis-read as October. The term used for the month, Xbris, is not the 10th month of the year but (as the Roman numeral X means decem in Latin) December, that is to say the 12th and final month of the calendar year 1741. It means that sloppy handling of historical sources has allowed Johann Heinrich Zimmermann to be born into the world two months earlier than his actual date of birth. What's more, people have also contrived to attribute to his father the fine-sounding professional title of Chirurgus (surgeon) from the birth entry of one Georg Heinrich, son of Christian Friedrich Zimmermann, from 1750.

Regrettably, and much to my annoyance, it is the incorrect (and unchecked) date of birth for Heinrich Zimmermann and not 25th December 1741 that now appears in all publications about this former son of Wiesloch.


Nothing has been handed down to us concerning the youth and childhood of the man who was later to sail round the world, but his little book offers some small indications as to how his career developed. For instance, he writes in the opening chapter: "On my travels, commenced in the year 1770, I had to find all manner of ways to earn my bread, as I was not able to find work everywhere using my learned trade as a Gürtler, partly due to a then lack of foreign languages, and partly because belt-makers themselves were few and far between".

Thus it appears that Heinrich Zimmermann had learned the trade of Gürtler, a very diverse profession.

However, it was not (as commonly assumed) leather or fabric that was the characteristic working material for a Gürtler, but primarily the base and even precious metals that were similarly to be found amongst his working materials. From these, the Gürtler cast and fashioned all kinds of fastenings to satisfy the changing requirements of contemporary taste: buckles, clasps, buttons, and equally small household items such as cooking implements and cutlery, cans and irons. A Gürtler might even produce church objects such as incense boats or sanctuary lamps. Most of the items they manufactured were luxury goods bought by only a very limited group of consumers, with the result that the trade of Gürtler was not established at all in most smaller towns (like Wiesloch) and was only represented to a modest degree even in the bigger towns. The poor prospects for working in this trade are in fact confirmed for us with particular emphasis by Heinrich Zimmermann in the first lines of his book, when he writes that he had to find all manner of ways to earn his bread.

Those ways took him out into the wide world; and thus Heinrich Zimmermann was forced of necessity "to take work, amongst other places, in Geneva with a brass-maker and with a gilder, in Lyon with a foundryman making bells, in Paris with a sword-polisher and in London in a sugar-refining factory."

This kind of work, apart from the last-mentioned, was admittedly not alien to the trained Gürtler, since brass-makers and bell-founders simply worked with larger casting moulds, but with the same materials as the Gürtler - namely bronze, copper and brass. According to contemporary regulations for the guilds, it was permitted for a Gürtler to undertake gilding and silver-plating work, and these were, therefore, a set part of the training for an apprentice Gürtler. The job of an 18th-century sword-polisher was to smooth the surface of the forged, hardened and ground blades for rapiers, sabres, daggers and knives, and to remove the grooves in the blades before polishing to a high shine - initially with stones, and after that with a paste of emery and oil. This was no doubt a dirty job, but the craft of the sword-polisher also included making and fitting the richly-decorated handles.

Within a few short years, these jobs had already taken Heinrich Zimmermann quite a fair distance for those times around the Western European mainland: Geneva, Lyon and Paris were the stopping-off points where he was able to work using the skills of the profession he had learned. However, it was his work in a sugar refinery in London (unrelated to his profession) that was ultimately to give him his first contacts with the far wider world beyond. In his day, sugar from the British colonies overseas was being shipped to London before being refined and readied for use.


We can easily imagine what thoughts were going through the head of the nearly 35-year old Heinrich Zimmermann at that time, living as he was in the large, cosmopolitan city port of London. But we can equally allow him to speak for himself: "I wanted, true to the native courage of my origins in the Pfalz, to see what life was like at sea, and since two fighting ships, the old Resolution and the Discovery, were being sent out from Great Britain in 1776 on fresh adventures, I went into service as a sailor on the latter on 11th March of that year". This is the entry the reader will find in his short book. So the man from Wiesloch became a man of the sea.

With great meticulousness, Zimmermann continues his description as follows: "The Resolution had 112 crew and 16 cannon, whereas the Discovery had 72 crew and 12 cannon; the former was commanded by the famous circumnavigator of the world, Captain James Cook, as Commodore, where the latter was commanded by Captain Karl Klerk. On 12th May of the aforesaid year 1776, both ships put out to sea from Deptford".

What is noteworthy in the extracts read thus far, and something confirmed in the later course of the book, is Zimmermann's impressive ability to recall geographical detail, dates and times, along with countless individual details relating to the course of his travels. What aids, one is tempted to ask, did this simple sailor use to prompt his memory? On that point, we read further in his account of his travels: "I undertook right at the start of the journey to take diligent note of all discoveries and all the events that befell me, as far as my common understanding would permit, but took the precaution - as I knew in advance (as then actually proved to be the case) that people would either have to surrender or destroy papers discussing these matters openly - of hiding away a small writing-book in which I wrote down the main details in much abbreviated form, and using part-words written in German."

What Heinrich Zimmermann was doing was very dangerous at that time! Only the scientific members of the expedition, and the commanding officers, were permitted to keep records of the course travelled and of the discoveries and notable things experienced during the sea journey. Descriptions of places, the names of countries and islands, discoveries relating to the indigenous populations and encounters with the natives were kept away from the competing colonial powers (Spain, Holland and France) like military secrets. That was why all other records were strictly forbidden and subject to penalty.

Subsequent publications about the journeys of discovery that were not part of the official reports approved by the English Admiralty were considered particularly unwelcome. For that reason, in the preface to his book Heinrich Zimmermann sought to justify the breach of these prohibitions. It is almost with remorse that he writes at first: "I reflected for a long time as to whether it was a crime to publish the observations I gathered on our sea journey. Then it occurred to me that it was a duty amongst naval personnel to hand over their papers; that Great Britain, seeking at heavy cost to make and to support the new discoveries, had a sole right to make known the observations of its sailors to the wider world; that it paid us for this service, and that we were therefore bound for that reason only to make observations for Great Britain." But with skilful rhetorical questions such as, "Would it harm the novelty of the English observations to be announced in future?" and "Had I therefore sold my memory?", he takes the wind out of the sails of possible counter-arguments and attacks, using a simple but compelling logic. He even grants that his report, that of a simple sailor, is really not to be considered on a par with the official descriptions. For this reason, he argues, his modest work cannot constitute any competition to the publications of the English Admiralty. That was, of course, a clever ruse to downplay its importance; he even admits to spelling mistakes on the foreign names, due to his lack of education.

The review of Zimmermann's account of his travels by Georg Forster, who accompanied Cook on his Second Voyage, is accordingly biting and arrogant. He attributes the book as having "the advantage of great naivety and simplicity" compared to other publications concerning Cook's last voyage. Nevertheless, as the founder of the new literary form of the scientifically well-versed travel report, Georg Forster, was concerned enough to write about the work of the sailor from Wiesloch, that he has most probably also read it, and this fact alone therefore adds significantly to its value!

At the end of September 1780, after a journey on Discovery lasting over four years, Heinrich Zimmermann returned safe home to the port of Deptford on the Thames. This adventurous journey had cost the lives of 14 of the 184 men on board the two ships, although during the entire voyage (as Zimmermann writes) there was no incidence of the then customary seafaring illnesses, such as scurvy, beriberi or dysentery on either ship. As is certainly known to you, this was above all due to the perspicacity of Captain Cook and his officers, who knew how to protect their crew against the serious consequences of vitamin deficiency by ensuring they ate fresh meat, citrus fruits and various pickled vegetables.

Home Again

One year later, in 1781, Zimmermann's book on travelling the world with Captain Cook was published in Mannheim. In a very clever move, Zimmermann dedicated his work to "Sr. Excellenz dem Hochwohlgebohrnen Reichsfreiherrn Herrn Albert von Oberndorf". At that time, Baron Albert von Oberndorf was the Governor of Mannheim acting for the Kurfürst Karl Theodor von der Pfalz, who resided in Munich. It is possible that this book dedication resulted in the later recommendations to the court of the Prince-Elector which ultimately led to Zimmermann's appointment as the Prince-Elector's personal overseer of shipping ("Leibschiffmeister") on the Starnberger See.

His contract of employment is dated 21st August 1781, and it makes the circumnavigator of the world responsible for supervising the hunting boats and pleasure boats, along with the gondolas, boating on the Starnberger See and on the canals of the Nymphenburg estate. In return, Zimmermann received a generous pension of 400 guilders. But could organising and assisting with pleasure trips for members of high society, in ships as flat and wide as cigar-boxes and pottering about on a shallow domestic waterway, really satisfy a man of the high seas who had sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and narrowly escaped shipwreck in the pack ice of the polar circle? Heinrich Zimmermann did not relinquish his dreams. In his passion, he built two boats, the like of which had never been seen before in that area. They had English-style sails, and the innovative element in their design was the lead-weighted keel that made it practically impossible for the boats to capsize. Contemporaries made reference in particularly admiring terms to the high speed and the ease with which the boats skated over the surface of the lake.

So Heinrich Zimmermann was a respected and well-known figure in the 1780s.


Engraving of  Heinrich Zimmermann by Friedrich Nicolai
Engraving of Heinrich Zimmermann by Friedrich Nicolai
No less a person than the writer and friend of Lessing, Friedrich Nicolai (particularly renowned for his talent for accurate observation), offers us this elegant, sympathetic character study of Heinrich Zimmermann, in his Description of a Journey Through Germany and Switzerland in 1781:
This was a cheerful, healthy free man, lacking knowledge gained through education, but blessed with a very healthy ability to understand and a great capacity for good judgement, and a man who knew how to express himself very well in his narrations. I came across him in a public house, at the table of honour, surrounded by a large crowd. His physiognomy struck me with particular force, even before I knew who he was; it was so very different from those of all the other persons present. The two people sitting on either side of him offered the most striking contrast with him. I have commissioned as Print IV a copper engraving of a fairly good likeness of Zimmermann, together with the portraits of the people sitting next to him. Zimmermann talked a lot about his travels, and was really very interesting and pleasant.
So this offers us a contemporary description depicting our man of Wiesloch as an adept man of the world who could hold his own in the best of company and (as reported in later descriptions by Nicolai) who also caused women's hearts to beat that bit faster.


Off to Sea Again

Travelling on the high seas was an idea which never left the man who had already experienced so much of the world. In 1787, Heinrich Zimmermann answered the call to travel the world's seas once more, as helmsman on an English trading ship to China and East India.

He left his wife and children behind in Starnberg (one source talks of four girls and two boys), in the belief that they were being best provided for through the conscientious payment of his allowance by the Bavarian Court Treasury. However, the payments were not made, which certainly had unpleasant consequences for the family.

Understandably, Heinrich Zimmermann lodged a formal complaint when he returned two years later, protesting these culpable failings to the responsible office. His struggle with bureaucracy was constant for him during the course of the years that follow, in respect of various matters. He asked several times to be given the use of tied accommodation by the Starnberger See, and received the offer of a semi-dilapidated castle. He applied several times for an increase in his allowances, and every time he was refused, put off or otherwise deferred.

Final days at Home

In 1804, Zimmermann finally purchases the shell of a building in Starnberg and was allowed to take out a loan of 1,000 guilders (with the Prince-Elector's permission) to finance the acquisition. Sadly, having decided to put down some roots, this man who had sailed round the world was not favoured to enjoy this long-held wish for a house of his own, since a short time later, on 3rd May 1805, Heinrich Zimmermann from Wiesloch died in Starnberg, after a four-week illness.

The entry in the register of deaths for the Catholic community of Starnberg, translated from the Latin, reads as follows: "1805, 3rd May in the 6th hour of the morning, weakened by a wasting illness, his life ended - Mr Heinrich Zimmermann - of Celtic origin. His Honourable Highness the Ship's Captain at Würmsee by Starnberg."

Aged just over 63 years, the fulfilled and adventure-packed life of Heinrich Zimmermann came to an end, struck down by the wasting illness, consumption.

Paintings of Heinrich and Barbara Zimmermann

At the end of January 2009, the goddess Fortuna (as I was later to find out, in the person of a female member of the Captain Cook Society!) was smiling favourably on the town of Wiesloch. At the antiquarian trade fair in Stuttgart, Wiesloch won the decision (by drawing of lots) as to who was to acquire the oil paintings of Heinrich Zimmermann and his wife Barbara on sale there, thus enabling the town to become the owner of both portraits. Over a dozen other potential buyers from Australia, Hawaii, France and the USA had travelled there as interested parties seeking to get their hands on these keenly sought-after paintings.

The artist who painted the two portraits is no less a figure than the person appointed in 1781 as the artist to the Court of the Prince-Elector Karl Theodor, Johann Georg Edlinger (1741 - 1819). Edlinger was also commissioned to produce paintings for the courts in Augsburg, Mannheim, Stuttgart and many others.

The Munich historian, author and Director of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Lorenz von Westenrieder (1748-1829), praised Edlinger as "indisputably the best portrait painter in Germany". But it was not just the nobility whom the artist recorded in oils on canvas; he also took well-known contemporary figures and "simple, everyday people" as the subjects for his portraits.


Engraving of  Heinrich Zimmermann by Friedrich John
Engraving of Heinrich Zimmermann by Friedrich John
A major sponsor of Edlinger was the Munich book dealer and publisher Johann Bastian Strobel (1747 - 1805), who himself owned around 200 portraits of academics and respected and noteworthy Bavarian men and women painted by Edlinger. Strobel's intention was to arrange for this chronicling of the personalities of his time to be engraved in copper, at his own expense, and printed in book form with a short description of their lives as a "Gallery of Notable Bavarians". Around 30 of these copper engravings were made by Friedrich John (1769 - 1843) in Vienna, including one of Heinrich Zimmermann where it is apparent that the painting by Edlinger served as the template. Unfortunately, this undertaking came to an end due to Strobel's premature death in 1805, and only one edition of the Gallery of Notable Bavarians, with accounts of three lives, was published by his successor, E. A. Fleischmann, in 1807.

The copper engraving, worked using stippling, shows a portrait of Heinrich Zimmermann, nearly en face in the oval; the lettering reads: "Heinrich Zimmermann Kayserl: Schiffs Captain - Painted by Mr. Edlinger - Engrav`d by F. John". It was only a dissertation written in 1983 and listing the works of Johann Georg Edlinger, together with the research into the portrait gallery of Johann Baptist Strobel initiated as part of an exhibition by the Munich City Museum, that brought to light the discovery that the portraits of Heinrich Zimmermann and his wife Barbara (previously sold at auction in Munich in 1998) were part of this unique "pantheon of the everyday people" by Edlinger. Where the portraits spent the intervening eleven years is not yet known to us.

The oil painting of Heinrich Zimmermann shows the Starnberg overseer of shipping in a near-frontal half-length portrait, with his head turned to the right, looking towards the viewer. He is dressed in a double-breasted frock coat (jerkin) with waistcoat and jabot. The accompanying image of Barbara Zimmermann is similarly a half-length portrait, but with her looking to the left.

In closing, I can state that we in Wiesloch are proud today that Heinrich Zimmermann has again returned to his birthplace, in picture form, and we are delighted to welcome the portrait of his wife as an additional dowry. It means that the memory of a great son of the town of Wiesloch is guaranteed for all time. The circle has been completed.


Heinrich  Zimmermann
Heinrich Zimmermann
Oil painting by Johann Georg Edlinger
Barbara  Zimmermann
Barbara Zimmermann
Oil painting by Johann Georg Edlinger

Manfred Kurz
Archivist, Wiesloch, Germany

For information about Wiesloch visit the town's website: http://www.wiesloch.de

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 3, volume 33, number 1 (2010).

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