Enrique Stanko Vraz
Enrique Stanko Vraz is a traveler who has won a place Czech people's memory, which is proved by the fact that when his books were published in the 1980s, readers of all ages showed immense interest in them, despite the fact that they were written some 100 years ago. I spoke with associate professor Josef Kandert from the Department of Sociology at Charles University in Prague:
"Vraz was a traveller who showed great talent in what we would call in modern terms marketing and promotion. One of the main facts that undoubtedly added to his charismatic personality was his origin, which has remained shrouded in mystery till today, although many academics have worked on finding new facts about this remarkable man. He himself used to say - but his claims changed very often - that he was born in 1860 in Bulgaria, where his father was a diplomat and Enrique, as a young cadet, reportedly fought against the Turks and was seriously wounded."
In any case, we are certain about what Vraz did in the 1880s: he lived in Western Africa. He himself wrote in his diaries that he travelled first to Senegal and then moved to Ghana and the Ivory Coast. He apparently stayed with the Basle Missionary Society, which still exists in Switzerland and can boast of rich archives. When we compare photographs from the Swiss archive with those we have in the Naprstek Museum in Prague, we can see Enrique Stanko Vraz in some of them, showing him and his Swiss colleagues standing side by side.
"Although he did not bring anything from his first stay in Africa, he started exchanging letters with Vojta Naprstek, a great enthusiast for African and Asian cultures and the owner of the Naprstek Museum in Prague, where he displayed various items from those parts of the world. At that time Vraz was living on money he was getting from sending raw materials to Europe. But he soon left for South America, where he traded in India-rubber, together with a countryman of his, a man called Brazda. In 1890 he set out on his most famous journey along the Orinoco river down to the Amazon river and then across the Cordilleras down to the Pacific coast. He described his experiences on this journey in a book called 'Across Equatorial America', which was published in the year 1900."
From there he started sending all kinds of items to Naprstek, and in 1894, shortly before Naprstek's death, he returned to Prague and started giving lectures at his museum and integrated fully into Czech cultural and intellectual life.
As far as his name is concerned, he claimed that it was a pseudonym, and that he borrowed the name Stanko Vraz from a Slovenian national freedom fighter. In his autobiographies he writes that he feels warm affinity to the Czech nation thanks to a visit as a young man to Prague's National Museum when he was feeling down. The collections made such a strong impression on him, that he decided to devote all his future work to the Czech people.
Soon real deeds followed, and Vraz joined the struggle of the Czech nation for freedom and independence from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Vraz was expelled from Bohemia several times, because he had an American passport and the government forced him out of the country for political reasons. Talking about passports, Dr. Kandert told me that his colleagues had found several passports that Vraz used, including a US passport and a Venezuelan one, but each of them contained a different place of birth and sometimes even date of birth.
"After staying some time in the United States but mainly following the great success his lectures had in Prague, Vraz decided to create a project called Orbis Pictus - or the Picture of the World - a kind of richly illustrated encyclopaedia, complemented with lots of photos, about nations and their cultures in various parts of the world. To fulfill this goal, he again traveled to various countries, and he must have been a brave man, because some of the regions were truly volatile, such as China which he visited during the so-called 'Boxer uprising.'"
Vraz proved his boldness also by visiting those parts of New Guinea where only a few people had been before him, and he brought back collections which even nowadays are considered to be most precious, because at that time nobody did collecting in those parts of the world.
"Vraz also played an active role in the creation of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, when he helped the future president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk and other emissaries of the Czechoslovak exile government to establish contacts with Czechoslovak ex-patriots in the United States. It is interesting that unlike other builders of the Czechoslovak state he never received any distinction. Nor was he offered a significant post. "
He returned to Czechoslovakia from the United States as a private person with the aim of settling down in Prague, which he did, but at that time he was already a seriously ill middle-aged man. It is said that he suffered from several kinds of venereal diseases, which he tried to cure himself with the help of arsinic and similar drastic methods. The result was that his left hand had to be amputated.
Many Vraz's letters indicate that he was not much fond of women, but in Prague he fell in love with a young woman from Chicago, the daughter of an American newspaper tycoon, a descendant of the Geringer family, and three years later they married. They moved to the United States, and during a journey to Mexico, they both climbed Popocatepetl volcano. In 1921 Vraz arrived in Prague to give lectures, and in last years of his life he also spoke on the radio. He died in Prague in February 1932.
Dr. Kandert told me that Enrique Stanko Vraz was a kind of independent traveler. Independent because in terms of preparations for his trips to remote areas he did all the organizational work himself. But in South America, for example, he used specially trained men to carry all his luggage and when sailing on the two big rivers - Orinoco and Amazon - he of course used rowers and his ship had a captain.
"Enrique Stanko Vraz never wrote an autobiography, but his daughter, Mrs. Vlasta Vrazova did write a biography of him . It is based on diaries he used to write during his travels. The diaries, however, have not been preserved. Mrs. Vrazova lived in Czechoslovakia till the Nazi occupation in 1939 and then she moved to the United States, as she had American citizenship. She returned to Czechoslovkia after WWII as a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration representative, but as such she was a thorn in flesh of the Communist authorities when they seized power in 1948, and she was expelled from the country."
The Communists confiscated all her property, and her father's diaries disappeared - either during the confiscation or she herself destroyed them - no one knows.
The Vrazes had two children, a daughter and a son, and for many years the family lived apart - while Enrique lived with his daughter in Czechoslovakia, his son stayed in the United States with his mother. And so even in his family life, Enrique Stanko Vraz remained a traveler.