Runaway Sledge! (Christmas History 9)

Heland sledge

“Sled on Brunnsviken” by Martin Rudolf Heland (painted early 1800s)

English travel writer Thomas Witlam Atkinson wrote about his Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor, published in 1860.  The book chronicled a visit to a region of Siberia that had recently been incorporated into Russia, having previously been under the control of the Qing Dynasty of China.  Over the course of just a couple of years, Russia successfully annexed 350,000 square miles of Chinese territory, sending settlers into the region and taking advantage of a weakened China during the Second Opium War.

Atkinson’s work was subsequently called into doubt, with questions raised about whether he had even travelled to Siberia.  Significant portions of his work appeared to have been plagiarised from Travels on the Amur, by Russian explorer Richard Otto Maack, so it is to him that the following Christmas experience should perhaps rightfully be attributed [edit: some light has been shed on this in the comments section – please take a look!]:

A dangerous ride

Thanks to Nick Fielding for providing this illustration from Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor.

My journey into these regions was not without some risks, one of which was near closing my career in Kopal, and giving me a last home among the Cossacks on the hill. The circumstance happened during the Christmas holidays, when all were trying to enjoy themselves, especially those who had a dwelling to shelter their friends in. Old Father Winter had returned with grim severity, bringing with him 20° Reaum. of frost, spreading before him a spotless carpet over mountain and plain. A sharp cutting breeze accompanied him, which rendered the frost sufficiently keen to make even these poor abodes feel comfortable.

My friend Abakamoff, the artillery officer, had invited all his comrades, and as fashion had not yet established late dinners here, we assembled at an early hour to partake of his Christmas fare. If our boar’s head was not placed on the table with all the ceremony in fashion in “olden times,” other parts of him made a grand display at our feast….

The evening was fine and frosty, with a beautiful moon shedding her light over the snowy waste, and rendering every object almost as distinct as day. This induced Abakamoff to propose that he and I should take a drive in his sledge; to this I willingly assented, and the vehicle was ordered.  The carriage-builder had not yet found his way into these regions, and we were content with a common sledge, made like those used by the peasants of Siberia. It had two strong runners, on which a light body, made of rods woven together like basket-work, was secured. In it two persons could be accommodated, sitting down on a carpet spread over straw lying at the bottom; and a few wolf skins were thrown in for covering. In front of this basket-work a narrow board was fixed, on which the driver sat, resting his feet on the runners.

The old artillery horses had recently been changed for some splendid Kirghis, which were now being broken. Three of these wild steeds were harnessed to the sledge, and in a few minutes the vehicle was at the door. Abakamoff’s dwelling stood on the open plain, which extended to the eastward for more than thirty miles, and northward for about twenty. The deep ravine of Tamchi-Boulac ran along on the north-west at about five hundred yards distant.

Several of the officers went out with us to see the horses start, the driver was on his seat, and my host desired me to step into the sledge. I had just sat down when the horses made a plunge, in a moment throwing the driver from his seat and dragging the reins out of his hands. They dashed off at full speed, going straight on towards the ravine. I understood my position in an instant — to attempt to leap from the sledge would have been certain death, and I decided to take my chance in the gorge, believing this to be the least dangerous. The horses rushed madly on, and I felt that a few minutes would decide the fate of all of us, the ravine being sixty feet deep at this part.

As we approached the danger I clutched fast hold of the sides, determined to keep my seat while they made the terrible leap. We were within fifty yards of the ravine, when the opposite precipice was visible, and I felt that in a few moments we must bound over into the chasm. On we went, and I grasped the rods with a firmer hold, ready for the spring. When within about fifteen yards the horses turned, but the impetus of the sledge caused it to swing, and we only just cleared the edge of the precipice.

The wild brutes sprung forward at a tremendous speed, going towards the east, and soon reached a rough track, over which timber had been drawn. Now the sledge was tossed from side to side, and several times I was nearly thrown out. Still I held on, fearing my clothes might be caught by the rods, when I should be dragged along, and nothing could save me. Instead of becoming tired, the horses seemed to increase their speed, and the sledge was nearly turned over, my right hand was wrenched loose by the shock, and coming in contact with the ground was instantly rendered powerless.

The bounding of the sledge added to the fury of the horses, and I saw no hope of their stopping unless they plunged into one of the small ravines which crosses the plain. These were filled with snow, that would cool their fiery tempers and give us a soft bed. I knew that men would be sent after us, but steeds like ours would not be easily overtaken by men on horseback. We had just passed a large tumulus, five miles from the fort, and still the brutes went on at speed. Another half-mile had been galloped over when they were suddenly checked; one horse fell and rolled over into the snow. In two or three minutes we were surrounded by a number of artillerymen, some of whom dashed up to the heads of the horses, secured them, and I leaped out of the sledge.

The cause of our sudden stoppage was quickly perceived; a quantity of timber was lying on a heap, and the long reins caught on one of the trees, they became entangled on the legs of the horse, threw him down, and he rolled over into the snow. We were soon ready to return, A driver took his seat on the sledge; I stepped into it, the artillerymen sprung to their horses, the man shook the reins, and the steeds went back at a rattling pace, but under perfect command.

My hand was much bruised, and one finger broken above the first joint…

The next day it was manifest how much I had been shaken and bruised, for I was unable to stand. My friends, however, were very attentive, they gave me a good stewing in a Russian bath (which I should always recommend under such circumstances), after this I got better, and in a few weeks the bone of my finger was united. The following day Abakamoff and the officers examined the place where the horses turned away from the ravine, and discovered that the sledge in swinging round had actually projected over the brink. This spot will be long remembered in connection with my narrow escape.

Each officer who had succeeded in rendering his dwelling habitable gave a ball during the Christmas holidays, it which it may with truth be said “that dancing was kept up with great spirit.” If the number and efficiency of our orchestra did not equal that of Strauss, our performers succeeded in producing extraordinary effects when under the influence of a few drops of the Chinaman’s brandy. Their deficiency in musical science and melody was compensated for by the vigour of their performances. The instruments were a violin, two balalikas (a guitar with three strings), a flute and a drum, and the latter never failed hiding any discordant tones (if such there were) of the other instruments.


From 1st to 24th December there will be a “Christmas History” article on Windows into History every day, exploring how people spent Christmas in the past through first-hand accounts in forgotten books.  Please come back tomorrow for the next article!

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14 Responses to Runaway Sledge! (Christmas History 9)

  1. Jasne says:

    That’s an interesting expression the translator used, “20° Reaum. of frost” 🙂 I speak Russian, so I know it means “minus twenty degrees Reaumur” (-25°C or -13°F, by the way, brr), but does that expression make sense to an English speaker? I’m curious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was not a word I was familiar with before reading the book, but perhaps it would have made more sense to an educated reader during the 19th Century. Thanks for raising an interesting point!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jasne says:

        If you mean “Reaumur” – I didn’t know that either, had to look it up, too 🙂 What I meant is “this many degrees of frost” versus “minus this many degrees”. Is that a common expression?

        Liked by 1 person

      • It was reasonably common in books about exploration during the 19th and early 20th Centuries, but no, I wouldn’t say it is a common expression, and not really used at all nowadays as far as I know. Thanks for commenting 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It is great that you have included a quote from Thomas Atkinson concerning his near-fatal accident at Kopal (which I have visited) in the winter of 1848-9 in your Windows into History feature. However, you are entirely incorrect to suggest that Atkinson was a plagiarist or a fantasist. This story above is entirely accurate and backed up by Lucy Atkinson’s account of the same incident and also in his diaries, which I have read. Lucy Atkinson (Thomas’s wife) wrote her own account of their seven years of wanderings in Siberia and Central Asia. The only people to make accusations of plagiarism against him were disgruntled Russian explorers, jealous of the fact that he reached these remote places before they did. To the extent that he quotes Maak in his two books (less than 50 pages out of 1200 pages, he acknowledged that fact and wrote in the third person to make it clear. No-one has ever called into doubt the fact that he and Lucy travelled more than 40,000 miles in these regions, particularly Tsar Alexander II, who gave him a ruby ring in gratitude.
    Nick Fielding (biographer of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, author of ‘South to the Great Steppe: the travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan, 1847-52’ ISBN: 978-0-9546409-9-6).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for your valuable insight into this! Much appreciated 🙂

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    • I have updated the post to direct readers to this comments section so they can read your information. Thanks again for your comment!

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      • I really appreciate your prompt response. Thomas and Lucy Atkinson were great heroes of exploration, who have been rather overlooked. It is time to restore their reputations. He was also an extraordinary watercolourist, whose paintings are in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and various other museums around the world.

        Liked by 1 person

      • On a slight tangent, I am a great believer of bringing overlooked travel writers from the past to the attention of modern readers. In fact that is why I set up the blog! I have discovered some amazing writers who have been virtually forgotten, and if a few people discover their work through reading this blog then I will consider it a job well done.

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      • You may also be interested to know that Thomas Atkinson illustrated this story with a splendid woodcut in his book Oriental and Western Siberia. If you send me your email address, I will send a copy to you, which would be far more appropriate than the present illustration.

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      • Thanks for your comment and the kind offer! I am not sure how to send an email address, but you can find it on my gravatar profile, if you click on my picture in the “contact information” section in the widgets area on the right side of the screen. Thanks!

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  3. Did you receive the picture of Thomas Atkinson and his runaway sledge?

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