Garlieb Helwig Merkel (Lēdurga,Latvia, 1st November 1769 – Riga, Latvia, 9th May 1850)
After our somewhat gruesome diversion into throat slashing, highway robbery and the Tyburn tree for Halloween yesterday, we are back in more staid company today with a Livonian gentleman of letters, Garlieb Merkel.
Merkel was born the son of a rural priest and though he did not share the privileged early life of some of our salon guests, he was a studious child, possessed of a fierce intelligence. Encouraged by his family he toiled hard at his studies and by the age of 17 was in regular employment as a private tutor to upper-class children. His work naturally took him to Riga where the young man found himself surrounded by intellectuals, excited by the opportunities and ideas he found in the in the capital. Throwing himself into this new world, Merkel became part of influential intellectual circles, who were impressed by his eloquence and passion.
When Merkel was 27 he published Die Letten (Die Letten vorzüglich in Liefland am Ende des philosophischen Jahrhunderts, Ein Beytrag zur Völker- und Menschenkunde), a searing indictment of the challenges and abuses the peasantry faced at the hands of their Baltic German landlords and landowners. The book made a plea to the Imperial Russian government to address these injustices and set right the many cruel wrongs that the poor were experiencing. Merkel's work found a concerned audience and was republished in several languages.
Perhaps inevitably, the backlash from the landowners was swift and furious and Merkel fled Livonia for Europe, eventually taking up residence in Berlin. He remained in Germany and worked as a writer, journalist and editor for a decade before returning to his homeland. Here he continued to write, publishing several volumes of memoirs and political works; although Merkel would live to a ripe old age, Die Letten was not actually translated into Latvian until the end of the 20th century, long after those furious landowners had shuffled off to pastures new.