Moravian “Marco Polo”: Photos by traveller discovered in New Zealand
Bohumil Pospíšil, a native of Přerov, was once a famous Czechoslovak traveller and adventure. The man, who spent five years on a journey around the world in the 1920s, was known as the Moravian Marco Polo. His estate, including thousands of photos, was thought to have been lost until recently, when it was discovered in the attic of his house in Auckland, New Zealand. Some of the unique photos are now on display as part of an exhibition in Břeclav.
I discussed the incredible life story of Bohumil Popíšil with Czech historian Martin Nekola, who is now in charge of his estate and I started by asking him when he first came across the name of Bohumil Pospíšil:
“Some three years ago I was working on a book about Czechs in New Zealand, and I had a chapter about Czech travellers and adventurers, who visited the country, including Josef Kořenský, Jiří Daneš and also Bohumil Pospíšil.
“There is also a very short paragraph about Pospíšil in the book but the problem is that there was almost nothing known about his travels and his life at the time- So I felt that this paragraph was just a start for my exploration and research of Pospíšil’s life.”
Who was Bohumil Pospíšil? Can you tell us more about his extraordinary life?
“He was born in September in 1902 in Přerov in Moravia. When he was three years old he lost his mother. His father passed away when he was around eight, so his childhood wasn’t too happy, but I think it actually formed his character.
“In 1926 he decided, together with his friend Josef Hübl, to go on a trip around the world, which lasted for five years. And he never came back.”
“He studied at a primary school in Přerov and he was supposed to become a carpenter and cabinet maker, but he decided to go to Prague instead and became an independent journalist.
“There are still many blind spots in his life. We still don’t know what he was doing between 1910 and 1920, but we know that in 1920 he ended up in Russia in the middle of the Civil War.
“He was kidnapped by the Bolsheviks and spent some time in a prisoner of war camp near Moscow, but he managed to escape and return back to Czechoslovakia.
“He married a woman, who was nine years older, and they had three kids together although they weren’t married. And in 1926 he decided, together with his friend from Přerov, Josef Hübl, to set off on a trip around the world, which lasted for five years. And he never came back.”
Where did they travel? And how dangerous was it at the time?
“First of all, the big mystery is how they financed their travels. It wasn’t a huge expedition covered by some wealthy manufacturers or bankers. They were just two boys, 24 years old, who decided to explore the world.
“They set on the journey in August 1926 and they visited altogether 50 countries. They travelled through the Mediterranean, through Ottoman Empire, Syria, Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, but they spent most of the time in South-eastern Asia, meaning in China, Indonesia, in the Philippines and Korea. So it is really incredible that the two boys, inexperienced travellers, actually made it.”
Pospíšil documented his journey, taking photos and writing travel diaries. After he returned to Prague, he had a big exhibition at the Trade Fair Palace.
“He came back in the summer of 1931. He spent less than three years in Czechoslovakia. He was very active as a freelance journalist. He was writing many articles and was giving lectures about his travels.
“He also had a huge exhibition at Prague’s Fair Trade Palace in September 1931, where he most likely displayed all of the ten thousand photos he made during his trip.
“He published only two books based on his travels, one about China and one about New Zealand. However, both of the books were only published after he left for New Zealand, so he never had a chance to enjoy the prestige and the interest of the readers.”
Pospíšil died in 1974 in Auckland and by then, he was largely forgotten. His photos and articles were believed to have been lost, but they were recently discovered by his grandson Ashley Berrysmith in a trunk in his house. Can you tell us more about his incredible discovery?
“I was pretty lucky, because when I published my book about Czechs in New Zealand, I sent dozens of copies to my friends in New Zealand, including Czech honorary consul in Auckland, Mr. Shanahan.
“The grandson, Ashley Berrysmith, contacted Mr Shanahan and asked him whether he knew any Czech historians who were interested in New Zealand. Mr Shanahan showed him my book and that’s how we started to communicate. That was about two years ago.
“He told me that he discovered this huge trunk filled with photos, notes, diaries and articles published by Popíšil. Almost all of it was in Czech, so the family in New Zealand didn’t understand it.
“They mailed me six huge boxes to Prague and that’s when I realised it was really something special. And I am still processing this incredible material because the five-year-long world trip was something incredible. I think we could actually divide the project Pospíšil into fifty sub-projects and focus on every single country he visited.”
What makes these photos so unique? Is it the fact that he documented an era that is now long-gone?
“Yes. Also, he must have used a very good camera, even back then, in the late 1920s, because the photos are really of a very high-quality. You can see every detail of the clothes of the people he took pictures.
“I am not a specialist on south-eastern Asia, I mostly focus on America, so I discussed this material with sinologists and experts on Indonesia, Korea, Japan and other countries and they all confirmed that the photos were really unique and rare.
“Sometimes they displayed places that don’t even exist today. For example some temples and bridges in China were destroyed during WWII by the Japanese, so I came to understand that this was really something special.”
And was Pospíšil particularly interested in some topics?
“Generally speaking, I would say there are three categories of the photos. First of all, he was interested in daily life of ordinary people, so there are many photos of fishermen or people in the market and villagers.
“In Shanghai, he and Hübl were kidnapped by the pirates, who thought they were some wealthy English businessmen. In Singapore he was attacked by a pickpocket, as a result of which he became deaf in one ear.”
“He was also interested in tribesmen, for example in Taiwan or in Indonesia, in Bali. These places look totally different today than they did a hundred years ago. He was also interested in nature. He took many pictures of rivers, mountains and lakes, and then culture and history.
“So he really spent a lot of time in the foreign countries and he wanted to see even the remote areas and the villages in the middle of the mountains. He wasn’t this kind of fancy traveller who just sits in a bar in the capital, who isn’t really interested in exploring the country.
“Some of his travels were interesting. In Shanghai, he and Hübl were kidnapped by the pirates, who thought they were some wealthy English businessmen. In Singapore he was attacked by a pickpocket, as a result of which he became deaf in one ear. So it was interesting, it was dangerous but it was also incredible.”
And going back to the trunk in the attic, did Pospíšil’s descendants know about his adventures? What did they know about their grandfather?
“Not do much. The grandson, Ashley, he is now 65 years old, so he must have been 16 or 17 when his grandfather died. He says that Pospíšil never told them about his youth in Czechoslovakia or about his travels and adventures.
“He was very sick, so Ashley remembers him sitting on the terrace and reading books. So they are really grateful for my work and research, because it helps them to understand who the grandfather really was.”
What did Pospíšil actually do after he settled in New Zealand?
“In late 1930s he became a chairman of the Czechoslovak Club in Auckland. He was very active in terms of assistance to Czechoslovak exile and he was in touch with the Czechoslovak exile government in London. He collected money for Czech resistance and for the Czech armies abroad.
“At the end of WWII, in 1945, he simply disappeared from public life. He didn’t give lectures, he didn’t show any exhibits and he stopped publishing. He he had three kids in New Zealand, so he probably focused on family life.
“So it’s a great mystery what was he actually doing from the 1940s until his death in 1974. We don’t know. Maybe it was the health condition that kept him back home.”
As you said, you are still going through the photos and other material found in the trunk, but there have already been several outcomes of your research. One of them is an exhibition currently on display in the Moravian capital of Břeclav. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
“Yes. The organizers from the Moravská Krása or Moravian beauty society focus on traditions, costumes, culture and arts. I showed them the photos of the Pospíšil took in Taiwan and Mongolia and other countries, and they were very interested in their clothes, so in the end we selected some 40 photos.
“But the very first exhibit took place in Přerov in September of last year and there was another exhibition in Náprstkovo Museum in Prague, as well as in Zlín.
“In September I will travel to Taiwan for a week because the director of the Taiwanese National Museum was in Prague for a conference last summer and when I showed him the photos Pospíšil made in Taiwan he was excited and he said, we need to show this to our people and our visitors. So Pospíšil project is a big thing and it will continue for a few more years.”
As you said, you actually came across Pospíšil when working on a book about Czechs in New Zealand. Do you also plan to publish a book focusing exclusively his life story?
“Yes, for sure. He passed away in August 1974, so next summer it will be 50 years, so I think will be a good opportunity for a book or another exhibition. We will see.”
New Zealand has been very popular with Czech tourists in recent years, but not many people know that there were Czech settlers back in the 19th century. Who were the first settlers and what mark have Czechs left in New Zealand?
“The very first ones were the Czech/German settlers from Stod near Pilsen. They arrived in 1863 and established a village called Puhoi, which is now the most famous village in New Zealand.
“Later there were other miners and travellers and explorers, but I think the major waves of Czech migration to New Zealand came in the 20th century, after 1939, after the communist takeover in 1948 and later after the Soviet invasion in 1968, when a few hundred people arrived in the country. They were mostly living in Wellington and Auckland, where also the Czech Association and Clubs were working.”
How common is it for a historian to come across a treasure such as tis trunk of photos by Bohumil Pospíšil?
“It was a great surprise. I am very active in terms of doing research on Czechs abroad. Right now I am working on four books at once. It was the same last year, when I received these boxes from Auckland. So it was a change of plan, but this is what I love about my job.
“It is a job, a hobby and a passion of mine to explore the path of our compatriots who ended up in various places. I also coordinate a project called The Czechoslovak Talks.
“If you check our website, czechoslovaktalks.com, you will see that it’s a website simply collecting inspiring life stories of Czechs abroad. Right now we have around 45 or 50 stories of various people who left the country even before WWI, than in the interwar period and then later.
“They ended up in Australia, in Canada, in Western Europe, in South Africa and in the United States and they became well-known and famous in arts, in science, even in politics and business.
“We almost don’t know these names and I feel an obligation to present these incredible life stories to the general public and to the younger generations in particular.”