Review: “British Orientalisms, 1759-1835”

“The main objective of this study is to historicize the different and shifting modes through and ways in which Britons may have conceived of themselves and their nation as ‘open’ to the East across the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” So writes James Watt, historian of the Britain in the Eighteenth Century, in the introduction to British Orientalisms, 1759-1835. It opens with the “year of victories”. In 1759 Britain won victories over the French in Madras, the West Indies, Quebec and Minden and the French invasion of the British Isles failed. It saw Britain become the supreme world power and the consolidation of a worldwide empire. It was also a time when intimations of corruption of the state and British identity as the British were forced to administer and mix with nations distance and dissimilar to her neighbouring nations. Watt concludes his study in 1835 with T.B. Macauley’s Minute on Indian Education (1835), a paper in which the colonial administrator demeaned native Indian culture and recommended the active promotion of British standards via education of Indians. He recommended the replacement of Persian with English as the language of administration. “[…] Macauley serves as a fitting end point since the ethnocentrism of his ‘Minute’ ostensibly signals a decisive transformation in British self-understanding: rather than thinking of Britons as in any way disoriented by colonial contact, it instead calls for the nation to wield its civilizational authority so as to afford moral direction to its colonies.” Watt uses literary texts of the period as a lens through which to examine these issues.  

Watt analyses Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), an apologue (moral tale). Prince Rasselas tires of entertainment in the cossetted kingdom of the Happy Valley. He escapes with his sister and travels to Egypt. However, he is disillusioned of exotic sights and returns to his kingdom. It was criticised as providing little by way of local colour, thereby frustrating the expectations of those wanting the detail and variety that they expected of tales of the Orient. Johnson was known to be an opponent of imperial conquest and sceptical about the spread of Christianity among non-Western peoples. Rasselas is considered an indirect satire of imperialism and a recommendation for the British to stay on their isle, their own Happy Valley.  

Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1760) was a series of fictional dispatches from Lien Chi Altangi, a Chinese traveller recording England. His errors and misinterpretations both make him a figure of fun and allow Goldsmith to satirise the manners and customs of England. Altangi delights in vivid descriptions of the East and lionises the warrior spirit of the English. In texts of the time, “Goldsmith’s various narrators and authorial personae at different times share in popular exhilaration at British military triumphs and stand back from the crowd in order to warn that victory comes at a price.” (Namely, the difficulty of governing such a vast and diverse empire.)  

The rise of the East India Company, which provided the foundation for British imperial rule in India, provided opportunity for British administrators and traders (and their servants and families) to visit India and leave written records. The records varied from letters and reports to poems and novels, all of which contributed to the British public perception of India. Charles Johnstone’s The Pilgrim (1775) was the fictional tale of a woman’s adventures in India before returning home. Watt considers the story to be critical of Major-General Robert Clive, whose administration was considered to have contributed to the 1770 Bengal famine. In Samuel Foote’s play The Nabob (1772) “Sir Matthew Mite attempts to use his riches [obtained by trade in India] to gain the hand of a baronet’s daughter and to buy his way into Parliament, and the mixture of social ambition, conspicuous consumption, and Orientalized manners that he displays identifies him as a composite portrait of Clive and other prominent contemporaries. The Nabob satirizes Mite’s efforts to pass as a gentleman and to legitimize his new wealth […]”

Other accounts were lewder and indulged the readers’ libidinal curiosity – but in doing so they tended to confirm the corrupting and decadent nature of the East, region of the feminine and sensual abandon. Hartly House, Calcutta (1789, publ. 2007) by Phebe Gibbs includes an account of a rape by a British man of an Indian woman, which likely resulted in capital punishment. Although the author declared that such crimes were “more oftener perpetrated than detected”, it shows that far from impunity, British people in India could expect equal punishment. It also shows that British writers approved of this legal equality in regard to serious crimes.   

In The History of Women (1779), William Alexander discussed the situation of women in the East. He advanced the idea that as society advanced, it freed women from labour but that this freedom caused now-indolent women to gravitate to corruption and pursuit of vice. Thus, financial and material security led women to become less maternal and faithful, more selfish and depraved. “[…] female virtue is becoming ever more scarce, as the feminine qualities of care and concern for others ‘diminish gradually, in proportion as women advance more toward that perfection, or rather imperfection of politeness’.” Materialism undercuts morality; freedom leads to transgression; absence of hunger heightens the drive to satiate carnal desires. According to Alexander, this is seen no better than in the harems of the East, where there is nothing more for a woman to do than indulge herself – she is literally permitted to do nothing else.

One interpretation of Orientalism is one of horizon expansion rather than a means of “otherising” or “exoticising” inhabitants of foreign societies. An example is Sir William Jones’s Poems Consisting Chiefly of Translations from the Asiatick Languages (1772) and his Persian grammar (1771). Jones was a judge in Bengal and developed into a fluent Persian speaker. He developed the idea of Indo-Aryan cultures and languages sharing a root – the first time that English language had been associated with non-European languages. Jones hugely advanced British understanding of India and Persia. He translated Hindu myths and poems into English; he codified Hindu and Moghul law. Upon his premature death at the age of 47, Jones was idolised for his erudition and sympathy for the peoples of India.

Robert Southey’s Thabala the Destroyer (1801) “is an important text for my book as a whole since it both helped to establish the Orientalist epic poem as a medium of political engagement and in its own distinctive fashion extended the Jonesian project of cultural translation.” Watt dissects the politics and symbolism of Southey’s epic (which was heavily footnoted by the poet), showing how the attitudes and ideas relate to the wider trends. Roderick the Last of the Goths (1814) about the king of the Visigoths battling the Moors in Spain. It is compared by Watt to Thabala and assessed as an allegory of Continental politics under Napoleon. Watt notes how contemporary critics responded to it. Southey led the way for the Romantics taking up Orientalist epics. Thabala was followed by Byron’s The Giaour (1813), Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam (1818)

As Watt demonstrates, the response of the British to newly gained empire was mixed and often hostile to the corruption, death and cultural influence that came with subjugating and administering peoples of far-off lands. Far from welcoming the glory of supremacy, British people saw empire as an enterprise that brought out the worst in individuals – the temptation to carnally sin, the opportunity to abandon land, family and religion and the lure of gold and indolent life were identified (with some evidence) as ever-present threats to Englishmen.

Watt’s assessment of British writing reflecting upon Empire in the Enlightenment-Romantic period is well grounded, thoughtful and catholic. British Orientalisms helps to explain the complexities of responses to empire and dismantle recent narratives that are driven more by present-day politics than evidence.

James Watt, British Orientalisms, 1759-1835, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 285pp + vii, hardback, £75, ISBN 9781108472661

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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