Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bell, John (1691-1780)

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BELL, JOHN (1691–1780), traveller, son of Patrick Bell of Antermony, was born on the paternal estate in 1691. No details of his education are extant, but it is stated that, after obtaining the degree of doctor of medicine, he determined to visit foreign countries. He obtained recommendatory letters to Dr. Areskine, chief physician and privy counsellor to the Czar Peter I, and embarked at London in the month of July 1714. An embassy was then preparing from the czar to the sophy of Persia, On Dr. Areskine's recommendation Bell was engaged in the service of the Russian emperor. He left St. Petersburg on 15 July 1715, and proceeded to Moscow, from thence to Cazan, and down the Wolga to Ostracan. The embassy then sailed down the Caspian Sea to Derbent, and journeyed by Mongan, Tauris, and Saba to Ispahan, where they arrived on 14 March 1717. They left that city on 1 Sept., and returned to St. Petersburg on 30 Dec. 1718, after having travelled across the country from Saratoff. On his arrival in the capital Bell found that Dr. Areskine had died about six weeks before; but he had now secured the friendship of the ambassador, and upon hearing that an embassy to China was preparing he easily obtained an appointment in it resting part of his travels. His description of the manners, customs, and superstitions of the inhabitants, and of the Delay-lama and the Chinese wall, deserve particularly to be noticed. They arrived at Pekin, 'after a tedious journey of exactly sixteen months.'

Bell has left a very full account of occurrences during his residence in the capital of China. The embassy left that city on 2 March 1721, and arrived at Moscow on 6 Jan. 1722. Bell next accompanied an expedition into Persia as far as Derbent, returning thence in December 1722. Soon afterwards he revisited his native country, and returned to St. Petersburg in 1734. In 1737 he was sent to Constantinople by the Russian chancellor, and Mr. Rondean, the British minister at the Russian court. It was his last effort in Russian diplomacy. He afterwards abandoned the public service, and seems to have settled at Constantinople as a merchant. About 1746 he married Mary Peters, a Russian lady, and returned to Scotland, where he spent the latter part of his life on his estate, enjoying the society of his friends. After a long life spent in active beneficence and philanthropic exertions he died at Antermony on 1 July 1780, at the advanced age of eighty-nine.

His only work is 'Travels from St. Petersburg in Russia to various parts of Asia' 1763, in two vols, quarto, printed by Robert and Andrew Foulis of Glasgow, whose beautiful fount of type enhances the value of the book. The 'Quarterly Review' (1817, pp. 464-5) says that Bell wished to obtain literary help in writing his book, and applied to Robertson, who could not help him, but advised him to take 'Gulliver's Travels' for his model. The advice was accepted with the best results.

Besides the Glasgow edition of 1703 the 'Travels ' were published in Dublin 1704, in Edinburgh 1788 and 1806, and they are reprinted in the seventh volume of Pinkerton's 'Collection of Voyages and Travels.' The 'Gentlemans Magazine' of 1763 (p. 392) contains a long extract from the 'Travels,' describing in a graphic manner the reception of the Russian embassy by the Shah of Persia. A French translation of the whole work appeared in Paris, 1766, 8 vols. 12mo.

[Bell's Travels; Quarterly Review; Chamber's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen.]

R. H.