Duncan Campbell @ the third PiMO annual conference European sea spaces and histories of knowledge, Helsinki and Tallinn, 22-23 June 2022
This paper investigates the North and Baltic Seas as cultural and emotional connective spaces in a hitherto understudied work from the early 18th century, The Supernatural Philosopher, or the Mysteries of Magick. First published anonymously in 1720, then expanded in 1728, this text focuses on the figure of Duncan Campbell (c. 1680-1730), a deaf and mute soothsayer who was a popular attraction in London during the 1720s.
Campbell’s extraordinary faculties were – The Supernatural Philosopher claimed – innate gifts, the result of a birth that combined two mystical cotés: the Scottish one – inherited from his father – and the Sami one – from his mother’s side. The work dwelled on the vicissitudes that brought Duncan’s father from the Shetland Islands on board a Dutch vessel to the Swedish lappmarks, where he met Duncan’s mother and their son was born. This tale outlined a sea connection between the Scottish subarctic archipelago and the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia, embodied by Campbell, whose ‘second sight’ – the preternatural ability to see the future – was drawn from beliefs that were to some extent similar in both areas. The ‘second sight’ had attracted the interest of scholars since the investigations of Robert Boyle in the late 17th century, and rituals and beliefs of Sami culture had been popularised in England by the translation from the Swedish of Johannes Scheffer’s Lapland in 1674.
The proclaimed ability to see the future makes Campbell’s case a vantage point to observe the negotiation of what, in the age of reason, constituted credibility and credulity. This paper aims to thematize the connection between the faculty of the ‘second sight’ and Campbell’s claimed origins. In doing so, it interrogates the political significance of locating supernatural phenomena in spaces physically distant from the British capital, against the backdrop of wider colonial dynamics. This research will highlight the sharing of beliefs between the shores of the norther European seas, the permeability of the cultural boundaries of coastal regions bordering the North and Baltic Seas, and the representation of these bodies of water as spaces of liquidity of cultural and emotional identities.