Rodolph Eric Raspe - Robert Hunt, 1885


Author of "The Travels of Baron Munchausen"

THE eastern end of the counting-house on Dolcoath Mine is built, in part, of rectangular blocks of copper slag. These were found buried in the waste heaps on the mine, and the old miners have informed me that many similar masses of copper slag are still hidden beneath the "attle," or waste. Tonkin tells us that "the late John Pollard and Mr. Thomas Worth, of St. Ives, and before them, Mr. Scobel, at Pol-Ruddan, with Sir Thomas Clarke and old Mr. Vincent, formed a company for putting up furnaces for copper smelting; and they were the first to produce a piece of copper in this county (Cornwall), smelted and refined, and brought to perfection." This will have been about 1700. Price tells us that there were, in his time, several copper smelting companies in Cornwall: espe­cially, he names one smelting house at Hayle, another at Entral, in the parish of Camborne, and another established at North Downs, near Redruth. The researches which were made in the Record Office, by the late Colonel Grant Francis, brought to light some curious and interesting information respecting the smelt­ing of copper in Cornwall, and at Swansea, more than a century prior to the date given by Mr. Tonkin. Colonel Francis1 publishes three letters dated, respectively, 1583 and 1584, relative to the production of copper in Corn­wall. He especially mentions a letter from Mr. Thomas Smith "to my loving servant, ULRICH FROSSE, overseer of the Mineral works at Perin-Sands." It is an interesting fact in the history of copper-mining that Queen Eliza­beth invited to this country several German miners of good reputation, and gave them grants of mineral districts in different parts of England, Cumberland, and Wales. From this period until the time when Ulrich Frosse is mentioned as an overseer, there existed a close connection between the German miners and the British mines; and, although after the death of Elizabeth, in 1602, metal mining was neglected, we find the families of Schutz, Houghsetter, Thurland, and others, settled in Cornwall, in Cardiganshire, and in the north­ern counties. The copper, lead, and silver ores from the British mines were, in nearly all cases, treated, during the period named, by German smelters; their education in metal­lurgy being far superior to that given in any schools in this country. This evidently led to the introduction of a singularly remarkable man, Rudolph Eric Raspe, as copper smelter and chemist to the Dolcoath Mining Company.

Raspe was born in Hanover in 1737. We find him commencing the business of life as Professor of Archæology, in the pay of the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. He was, also, Inspector of the Public Cabinet of Medals, Keeper of the National Library, and was so much esteemed for his knowledge and re­spected for his character, that he was elected by the Landgrave as one of his Councillors. In an evil hour, and, probably, under the pressure of circumstances, Raspe pawned some of the valuables entrusted to his care. This dishonest act was speedily detected, and Raspe fled. He was advertised for by the police as "Councillor Raspe, a man with red hair, generally wearing a scarlet dress embroidered with gold, but sometimes appearing in black, blue, or grey clothes." He was arrested at Clausthal, and imprisoned, but effected his escape during the night, and made his way in safety to England.

Raspe published in Leipsic, in 1763, a book in Latin, On the formation of Volcanic Islands, and the nature of petrified bodies. In 1769, the Royal Society of London received, and read, a paper in Latin, by Raspe, On the Elephantine and other animals found in North America, and he was elected an Honorary Fellow. He, therefore, most probably arrived in England a short time prior to this. It was the intention of the Council of the Royal Society to have published the above paper, but Raspe's im­prisonment in Germany becoming known, his name was erased from the list of Honorary Members. For this Raspe threatened to print a satirical essay, under the title of The Unphilosophical Transactions of the English Savans, with their characters, in the same form as the Philosophical Transactions. This was not done, and the matter seems to have been forgotten. He resided in London for some years, working on translations from the German, and pub­lishing original scientific books. A volume On some German extinct Volcanoes was published by him, and also a translation of Baron Born's Travels through the Banat of Tamesvar, Transyl­vania, and Hungary, a book of high mineralogical character. At a subsequent period (about 1790) he issued a quarto volume entitled Born's new process of Amalgamation of gold and silver ores, and other metallic mixtures.

In 1780, Raspe appears to have been very poor. We find Horace Walpole speaking of him as a "Dutch Savant, who has come over here, and is preparing to publish two old manu­scripts in infernal Latin, on oil painting." At another time Walpole writes of Raspe, "He is poor, and has been arrested by his tailor, I have sent him a little money, and he hopes to recover his liberty, but I question whether he will be able to struggle on here." The book on painting was actually published in April, 1781. In that year he announced a design of travelling in Egypt to collect its antiquities, but while this was under con­sideration his chemical and mineralogical knowledge appears to have recommended him to the adventurers in Dolcoath copper mine, near Camborne, in Cornwall. We find him, about 1782 and the following years, residing at the bottom of the hill in Redruth town, near where the Druids' Hall now stands. Raspe was at first elected as Store-master at the mine, but his scientific know­ledge speedily recommended him as chief copper smelter to the company. At this period he is said to have written the Travels of Baron Munchausen. Some of the old miners of Dolcoath have informed me that, as boys, "they have watched the old conjuror working with all sorts of flames about him," in what is now the dining room of the counting house at Dolcoath.

In 1789, Raspe left Dolcoath Mine, and spent the summer and winter in Scotland—searching for minerals—at the cost of Sir John Sinclair, of Ulbster. He is said to have discovered copper, lead, iron, cobalt, and manganese on Sir John's estate, and to have drawn attention to the marble of Tiree and the iron ore of Glengarry. He began a geo­logical survey of Caithness, residing for some time in a spray-beaten castle on the Pentland Firth. Raspe's survey led the sanguine pro­prietor to hope for some rich reward. He appears to have been deceived by the intro­duction of "mundic" iron pyrites—brought from Cornwall, and passed off as rich copper ore—and the discovery of the fraud brought the exploration to an end. Notwithstanding this, Miss Catherine Sinclair states that she has often heard her father relate the story of Raspe's deceptions, but never with the slight­est degree of bitterness: both he and Lady Sinclair always said that "the little loss they made on the occasion was amply compensated by the amusement which the mineralogist had given them while a guest in their house."

Raspe and his "mine adventures" in Caith­ness formed the original of Sir Walter Scott's German miner, "Dousterswivel," in his novel, The Antiquary.

There can be no doubt but that Rodolph Eric Raspe was a well-educated German, possessing a knowledge of minerals and met­allurgy unusual at that time amongst our British miners, but a very ill-regulated char­acter. He does not appear, however, to have been successful in his metallurgical experiments in Cornwall, and there was a certain degree of lax morality following him through life which rendered him untrustworthy. An analogous character to the amusing Baron, of whose travels he wrote so well, would not be likely to inspire his employers with confi­dence; consequently, we find Raspe struggling with poverty whilst residing at Redruth, and during the time when he was endeavouring to make for himself a name amongst the scien­tific men of London. It is stated that he died in Ireland, but of this there is no reliable record.

The following works by Raspe, in addition to those above named, will be found in the Museum of Practical Geology, in London:—

  • 1762. Specimen Historiæ Naturalis Globi Terraquei præcipue de novis e Mari natis Insulis. 8vo. Amster et Leipsiæ.
  • 1774. Beytrag zur allerältester umd natürliehen His­torie von Hessen; oder Beschreibung des Habichwaldes und Niederhessischen alten volcane in der Nachbarschaft vas Cassel. 8vo. Cassel.
  • 1776. An account of some German volcanoes and their productions, with a new hypothesis of the Prismatic Basalts. 8vo. London.
  • 1777. Ferber's Mineralogical History of Bohemia. 8vo. London.
  • 1791. Descriptive Catalogue of a General Collection of Ancient and Modern Engraved Gems cast in coloured Pastes, &c. 2 vols., 4to. London.

Extracted from The Western Antiquary, Vol. 5, No. 4, September 1885, pp73-75.