Otto van Eck died from tuberculosis in 1798 at just 17 years old. For more than 200 years his name was lost to history. But now his diary has been found, catapulting the teenage boy into the limelight.
Otto's diary was found in the Van Eck family archive. It had been gathering dust for more than two centuries. Only when this bundle of papers was analysed and edited was it realised to be an exceptional find.
Two Dutch historians, Arianne Baggerman and Rudolph Dekker, both from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, have co-authored a book entitled 'Child of the Future, the Wonderful World of Otto van Eck.’ It uses the diary to reconstruct Otto's milieu and the great social and political changes taking place in the latter half of the 18th century.
"It's a big pile of papers, hand-written and with a very childish hand,” explains Arianne Baggerman. “When he grows older the handwriting becomes neater and smaller but it starts with very big handwriting and many mistakes. That's also very charming about his diary."
Otto's diary is no ordinary expression of a child's life and thoughts. Its six years span a period of great social change. Children were beginning to be seen very differently by the adult world. The principles of the Enlightenment had taken hold and Otto was one of its first experiments. He was being groomed as a model citizen for the forthcoming 19th century and his diary shows how his parents were trying to condition him.
“Their main vision was that you had to learn to know your child so that you could give him an education which fits within this specific character,” says Baggerman. “Children are born as a blank sheet and everything you do with them makes an impression on the mind and will make that person. Then they will become good citizens.”
The diary is part of that education. Otto was forced to write one from the age of eleven. It was read each week by his parents who made comments on its content.
“This morning, when mother saw my journals of last week, she said that my way of keeping them was not to her liking, and that instead of filling them with my lessons and games, these being almost the same every day, I should rather refer to my rational behaviour and the passions that guide me.”
This revolutionary approach to bringing up a child coincided with other changes, too. For the first time children's books were being published. Using a simple language, mostly moral tales were told. The impact was enormous. Until this point a child's education was composed of reading books meant for an adult readership.
The diary is punctuated with descriptions of Otto's fragile health, although tuberculosis wasn't diagnosed until not long before his death. He describes how he would bathe in seawater, brought fresh to the house every day by a local fisherman, to help with his eczema. By the time consumption had taken hold though, the diary abruptly stopped.
“Yesterday, because of a heavy cold I didn’t go to church. Bad weather and snow. Today’s better, with frost, wind east.”
Those were the last words he ever wrote in his diary. That was November 1797 and his declining health coincided with a dramatic downturn in his father's political fortunes. Little did he know that his son's name would rise from the ashes of history and give historians a rare glimpse into the mind of a child of the Enlightenment.
The Diary of Otto van Eck was produced by Chris Chambers. The program was originally broadcast in August 2005.