Translating Melton

by Jim McKeague

Melton  - 1681 snip title page

Figure M1. Title page, first edition, 1681

Performers in Melton's illustration

Figure M2. The performers in Melton’s illustration

Between 1660 and 1677, Edward Melton, a high-born Englishman, travelled widely in connection with the Dutch East India Company, recording his observations in personal notes and letters.  These writings were not published in English, but were translated into Dutch by an Amsterdam bookseller, Jan ten Hoorn, and published there in 1681 under the title Eduard Meltons, Engelsch Edelmans, Zeldzaame en Gedenkwaardige Zee- en Land-Reizen (“Edward Melton’s, English Nobleman’s, Rare and Memorable Sea and Land Travel”).

This book is of great importance to magicians because when Melton was in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies he witnessed a performance by a troupe of Chinese jugglers/magicians which included a version of what we now call the Indian Rope Trick.  Here is Melton’s vivid description of the entire performance, translated back into English from Jan ten Hoorn’s 17th century Dutch text by Linda Klok.  This is a new translation which I commissioned from Linda in 2013.

Among the Chinese can be found many wizards (magicians), diviners, fortune tellers and artful (dexterous) imitators (mimics) and conjurers (prestidigitators), who travel from one place to the next in fear of their lives, or so it appears, to earn their food (daily bread)(make a living).  I have seen one such a company (group) during the month of December in Batavia, do things that could be considered to be magic, and of which I will tell more to the reader of this tale.

Firstly one (member) of the group/company crawled underneath a (wicker) basket/corf that was so narrow/tight fitting that he could hardly sit underneath it.  Almost immediately a colleague/helper pulled a thin bladed (naked) sword and started piercing the basket several times with vigorous strokes, whereupon the person underneath the basket started screaming and blood flowed from underneath the basket and over the victim’s toes, but as soon as he emerged from the basket no wound could at all be detected on him.  I was amazed that not one of the sword thrusts had touched (harmed/hurt) him even though the basket was so (narrow) tight fitting and the sword apparently pierced it several times and we saw with our own eyes the blood that had flowed from it.

Thereafter another one (person, member of the troupe of magicians) with wondrous (strange, mysterious) gestures took a Bamboo that was certainly 18 or 20 feet long and had a thickness at the thick end of approximately 13½ inches and which gradually tapered to the other end.  He placed the thicker end of the bamboo into a girdle worn around his waist (literally that he had wrapped around his waist), whereupon another gang member, a youngster of approximately 20 years of age, leaped from behind onto the shoulders of the Bamboo Carrier, and in the blink of an eye climbed (literally palmed his way hand over hand) to the top (of the bamboo), whereupon he stood on one leg on the tip without holding on to anything.  To us this appeared extremely wonderful (amazing); but even more wonderful (amazing) was when the Bamboo Carrier let go with his hands of the bamboo (literally he let it loose) so that it was only supported by his girdle, and started walking (pacing) about with lively steps without dropping his load.  While walking like that he bravely pushed his abdomen forward in order to better balance his load, his hands on his sides, all the while watching (and matching) the movements of the person he was carrying, his body slowly bending in adjustment (maintaining balance), so that we could clearly discern that this was not magic (sorcery, wizardry) but solely due to expert and competent balancing skills.  After the youngster had come down again, and had done a few tricks, he climbed up in the same way as before and laid himself down on his belly on the tip of the Bamboo, with outstretched hands and feet, similar to the little flying Cupids people used to paint.  With this load the Carrier again, as before, started bravely to pace about, without anyone being able to notice (detect) that he was in any way anxious (nervous, worried) about his load.  For the third time (thirdly) he placed the bamboo flat (directly) on his head and the aforementioned (literally afore thought of) youngster sat on top of the bamboo with his legs crossed under his body, without the stick (bamboo) being in any other way supported.  He again ran about so lively (swiftly, rapidly, nimbly), that every time he made a turn I could not help thinking that the other one (on top) would come falling down, but that one (the one on top) managed with his arms to keep his weight (balance) so that he came down again unharmed and with a cheerful face (countenance).

But now I will relate a matter that is beyond belief and which I hesitate to mention here, were it not that there were a thousand other eye witnesses beside me.  One of the gang took a climbing rope, of which he held (gripped) one end in his hand and threw the rest of it with such force into the air that we could not see the other end (literally could not reach the other end with our sight).  He immediately climbed, with indescribable swiftness, up this rope until we could no longer see him.  I stood there totally amazed (literally full of amazement) not knowing what would come of this, when one of his legs fell out of the air.  One of the magicians immediately grabbed it and threw it in the basket of which I have spoken earlier.  A moment later his hand fell down and immediately also the other leg.  In short all the limbs of the body fell out of the air and were thrown together in the basket by the magician.  The last (ultimate) piece that we saw falling was the head, which had hardly hit the ground before the one who had picked up the pieces and thrown them in the basket set it (the basket of pieces) upside down.  Now we saw before our eyes all these parts crawl (creep) together again, and in short constitute a complete human being, that looked the same as he was before, could stand up and walk and did not have a mark on him.  I have never been so astonished as when I saw (witnessed) this miracle and I no longer doubt that these unenlightened (benighted) people were assisted by the Devil, because according to my thinking it would be impossible to do something similar with just their natural capabilities.

There are two other English translations of this text readily obtainable.  One is Henry Yule’s translation of just the rope trick section of Melton’s account, in a footnote in his edition of The Book of Ser Marco Polo, Vol. 1 (John Murray, London, 1871, pp. 281-2).  The other is Elsa Strietman’s translation, describing the complete performance, in Philip Butterworth’s book Magic on the Early English Stage (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, Appendix 1).  There is close agreement in the three translations, but I will mention below some differences as we examine what Melton witnessed.

To begin, Melton describes what is known now as the Indian Basket Trick.  In Melton’s version the basket is inverted so the opening is downward, but otherwise the trick is the familiar one, although without the disappearance of the victim.  In Strietman’s translation the conjurer is said to stab the basket repeatedly with a “dagger,” whereas Klok says a “sword.”  The word in the old text is “degen” which means a sword or rapier.  The Dutch word “degen” and the English word “dagger” do look alike.  However, the 17th century illustration shows a conjurer stabbing the basket with a sword, so Melton’s contemporaries evidently understood that a sword was used.

Next we read of an act using a bamboo pole.  The old text says the larger end of the pole is one and a half hand-spans thick.  Accepting the usual length of a hand-span as nine inches, Linda Klok translates this as 13½ inches, which seems huge.  The illustration shows this pole, the lower end being drawn as about one and a half hand-WIDTHS in thickness at most.  Perhaps there was a slight mistranslation by Jan ten Hoorn here.  The feats performed with this pole are very different from the rope trick which follows.  Both the text and the illustration make it clear that the rope trick cannot be a misrepresentation or misremembered version of the bamboo balancing act, although several later writers have tried to explain away the rope trick as being so.

Finally there is the rope trick, with Melton himself scarcely daring to include it in his account.  Linda Klok, after translating the entire passage, told me, “I believe this account is true.”  There seems little doubt that Melton actually saw this rope trick performed.  So what did he see?  How was it done?  Most 20th century magicians dismissed this trick as a myth, believing it impossible to be done in the open air.  But in 2012, careful analysis of many eyewitness accounts uncovered a practical method which could readily have been used by poor, itinerant conjuring troupes.  The whole trick is performed very quickly, and the entire Melton routine could have been done as follows.  The rope is said to be “a climbing rope” (Klok), “a coil of rope” (Strietman), and “a ball of cord” (Yule), three different translations of the Dutch phrase “een klouwen touw.”  The illustration shows a ball of thin rope being tossed up.

A ball of cord, with one end retained in one hand, is thrown up forcefully into the air.  Because the cord is unwinding, the ball will appear to be diminishing rapidly in size as it ascends.  At the moment the cord completely unwinds, the ball appears to vanish in the sky.  This is especially true if the sky is overcast and the whitish or greyish cord is similar in colour to the cloud overhead.  Simple, yes, but a very effective illusion.

Without delay, the climber springs upward, pretending to climb the cord, and is assisted in this by a companion who rapidly lifts him.  When the climber’s feet are level with or just above the lifter’s head, a great distraction is raised by other members of the troupe, and under cover of this misdirection the climber drops down into the basket directly beneath him.  By the time the audience’s attention comes back to the climber he is safely hidden, but the lifter looks upward and shouts to the (imagined) climber, and using ventriloquism he obtains answers from the climber which grow fainter and fainter until the climber’s voice has faded away.  Those who have witnessed a good “distant vent” act will know how effective this can be.

The entire troupe gathers around, all looking upward.  Dummy body parts are concealed in the clothing of one or more of the troupe.  Fingers point upward.  Suddenly all the troupe’s heads jerk downward together as a tremendous “thump” is heard and a dummy leg is cast on the ground.  One troupe member quickly tosses it into the basket, for it cannot withstand close or prolonged examination.  Other fingers point upward again to misdirect attention as another limb is produced.  It is cast on the ground with the same loud sound effect.  This is rapidly repeated until all the body parts have apparently “fallen from the sky.”  The use of sound effects to produce the illusion of the falling of the limbs was documented by an Indian Barrister-at-Law, Gulam Mohamed Munshi, in a letter to The Times of India (issue dated 17 April 1934) which described a performance of the Indian Rope Trick which he himself witnessed.

Now we have both the collection of dummy parts and the climber in the basket, so it is a simple matter to produce the restored-to-life climber.  But Melton describes a unique and much more dramatic ending.  The body parts are visibly seen to creep together again!  A logical way to achieve this effect would be for the climber to be a contortionist.  Chinese performers have practiced the art of contortion for untold centuries.  If the performer twisted his body into a weird shape, he could be tipped out onto the ground looking like a jumble of body parts, then slowly untangle himself making it appear that the parts are “creeping together.”  This routine stunned Melton, who thought it the work of the Devil!

The method for vanishing a person up a rope in the open air was known in the 9th century.  The sources of my information and more details of the mechanics of the disappearance are in my 2012 article, Indian Rope, which is also on this website.


By the same author:

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