Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives Essay - Critical Essays

Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives


Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives

Travel narratives became one of the most popular and respected European literary genres during the eighteenth century. These narratives included descriptive accounts of the geography, monuments, and customs of foreign lands. Although tales by European travelers to exotic destinations had existed for centuries, eighteenth-century travel narratives proved unique for a variety of reasons. The sheer number of books published about foreign travel far surpassed those of previous centuries, outselling all other published works in England with the exception of the novel. Technological improvements in roads, carriages, and ships meant that a far greater number of ordinary citizens, not just explorers and soldiers, had the opportunity to travel throughout the continent or overseas and record their experiences. Reflecting the scientific spirit of the age, eighteenth-century travel narratives responded to the public's growing appetite for knowledge of the world by more accurately describing the lands and peoples of distant regions than the more fictionalized accounts written from the Middle Ages to the Romantic Period.

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of eighteenth-century travel narratives was their blending of factual information with artistic literary content. In order to garner critical praise or popular success, it was not enough for an author to only record facts about the natural wonders of the lands to which he or she traveled. On the other hand, authors who focused more narrowly on how their travels affected them personally were accused of being egoists and without literary appeal. The most acclaimed travel narratives were like those of Joseph Addison's Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705), Daniel Defoe's A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727), and Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). These narratives entertained the reader with a combination of descriptive analysis of what was distinct or remarkable about a foreign land and people along with philosophical or moral reflections about what those differences might imply.

More often than not, eighteenth-century travel narratives titillated their readers with descriptions of the strange customs of foreigners. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters, written between 1716 and 1718 and published in 1763, offered her readers views of Turkey which few European men would have been allowed to witness, namely Turkish baths and harems. Although Montagu's impressions of Turkey were generally favorable, most accounts of foreign lands and customs emphasized central European cultural superiority. Elizabeth Craven's A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople (1789), for example, depicted Turkey as a depraved and crumbling empire. Jacob Wallenberg's My Son on the Galley (1781) masked the exploitation of the Swedish East India Company with grotesque descriptions of the customs and people of China and the East Indies. Many critics today argue that eighteenth-century travel narratives often served to justify European imperialism through these types of pejorative accounts.

Not all eighteenth-century travel narratives were written by Europeans, nor expressed European cultural superiority. In 1789, Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian who had been brought to Europe as a slave, published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. In this autobiographical account, Equiano described how he gained his freedom before traveling back to Africa where he encountered customs and manners which compared favorably with those in Europe. Painting Africans as “noble savages,” Equiano's travel narrative can be viewed as a corrective to European accounts of Africa as the “dark continent.” Another travel narrative written by a non-European (and the first published work by an Indian in English) was The Travels of Dean Mahomet (1794), which described the author's journeys through India as a soldier in the British East India Company from 1769 to 1784. Although neither Equiano's, Mahomet's, nor the handful of published Indian Muslim travel narratives gained wide circulation in their own day, they are read today as a counterbalance to the dominant European voices of the age.

Representative Works

Joseph Addison
Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (travel narrative) 1705

Thomas Astley
A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels (collected travel narratives) 1746

Frederick Calvert Baltimore
A Tour to the East (travel narrative) 1767

Giuseppe Baretti
A Journey from London to Genoa (travel narrative) 1770

William Beckford
Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (travel narrative) 1783

Daniel Beeckman
Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo (travel narrative) 1718

Angela de Boccage
Letters Concerning England, Holland, and Italy (travel narrative) 1762

Baron Inigo Born
Travels through the Bannat of Temeswar (travel narrative) 1774

James Boswell
An Account of Corsica (travel narrative) 1768

Patrick Brydone
A Tour through Sicily and Malta (travel narrative) 1771

Andrew Burnaby
Travels through the Middle Settlements in North America (travel narrative) 1775

Dimitrie Cantemir
The History of the Growth and Decay of the Othman Empire (travel narrative) 1714-16

Richard Chandler
Travels in Asia Minor (travel narrative) 1775

John Cook
Voyages and Travels Through the Russian Empire (travel narrative) 1770

Elizabeth Craven
A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople (travel narrative) 1789

William Dalrymple
Travels through Spain and Portugal (travel narrative) 1777

Daniel Defoe
A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (travel narrative) 1724-27

Alexander Drummond
Travels through Different...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Charles L. Batten, Jr. (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Batten, Charles L., Jr. “Introduction” and “Toward a Definition of Eighteenth-Century Travel Literature.” In Pleasurable Instruction: Form and Convention in Eighteenth-Century Travel Literature, pp. 1-8; 24-46. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978.

[In the following essays, Batten asserts that the great popularity of travel narratives in the eighteenth-century was due to their blending of imaginative literary content with descriptive information about the world at large. Batten also attempts to define the genre of eighteenth-century travel narrative, suggesting that it is characterized by a combination of autobiographical and scientific elements.]...

(The entire section is 13497 words.)

Amy Elizabeth Smith (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Smith, Amy Elizabeth. “Travel Narratives and the Familiar Letter Form in the Mid-Eighteenth Century.” Studies in Philology 95, no. 1 (1998): 77-96.

[In the following essay, Smith examines British reviews of travel narratives from 1749 to 1780, concentrating on the epistolary form many travel writers used to gain approval for the personal details they often added to their descriptions of foreign lands and customs.]

How does epistolary form affect the content of a narrative? While no two modern critics of the eighteenth-century novel answer this question precisely the same way, all agree that it did have an influence; one can hardly imagine a reading of...

(The entire section is 8097 words.)

Criticism: Eighteenth-Century European Travel Narratives

Robert Bufalini (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Bufalini, Robert. “Saverio Scrofani's Viaggio in Grecia and Late Eighteenth-Century Travel Writing.” Italica 74, no. 1 (spring 1997): 43-51.

[In the following essay, Bufalini argues that by the late eighteenth century, travel narratives no longer tried to combine literary experience with scientific inquiry as they had earlier in the century, citing Saverio Scrofani's 1799 Viaggio in Grecia as an example of the growing separation of science and literature in travel writing.]

The Viaggio in Grecia (1799) of Saverio Scrofani had quick and considerable success, as the fact that it was translated into French by Blanvillain in 1801 and from...

(The entire section is 4056 words.)

Mihaela Irimia (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Irimia, Mihaela. “Defoe and Cantemir: Eighteenth-Century Explorers, West and East.” In 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, Vol. 3, edited by Kevin L. Cope and Laura Morrow, pp. 239-49. New York: AMS Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Irimia compares Cantemir's The History of the Growth and Decay of the Othman Empire and Defoe's A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, finding that the authors are linked by their early eighteenth-century analyses of Empire.]

I want to look at Defoe and Cantemir as explorers in space and time. In so doing, I will consider two works that are given relatively little...

(The entire section is 3572 words.)

John Wiltshire (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Wiltshire, John. “‘From China to Peru’: Johnson in the Traveled World.” In The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, edited by Greg Clingham, pp. 209-23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Wiltshire argues that Samuel Johnson had conflicting opinions about the importance of travel. Wiltshire notes that Johnson’s insistence that the universality of human nature made travel pointless is contrary to the great diversity of customs and material conditions he found during his own travels late in life.]

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.” Johnson made...

(The entire section is 6718 words.)

D. W. Kenning (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Kenning, D. W. “What's in a Name? Earl Miner and the Travels of Basho and Johnson.” Comparative Literature Studies 35, no. 2 (1998): 191-205.

[In the following essay, Kenning reviews Earl Miner's 1996 Naming Properties, a comparative study of Matsuo Basho's 1689 Narrow Roads to the Far North and Samuel Johnson's 1773 A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland.]


In 1689, the great Japanese haikai poet Matsuo Bashō embarked on a walking journey, a pilgrimage of sorts, to the relatively remote country north of Edo, then south down the “shadow” coast on the Japan Sea. In the greatest of all travel diaries,...

(The entire section is 6476 words.)

Deirdre Coleman (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Coleman, Deirdre. Introduction to Maiden Voyages and Infant Colonies: Two Women's Travel Narratives of the 1790's, pp. 1-43. London: Leicester University Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Coleman discusses two late eighteenth-century travel narratives written by British women, Anna Maria Falconbridge's Two Voyages to Sierra Leone and Mary Ann Parker's A Voyage Round the World.]


for the Authoress is open to conviction, and if convicted on this occasion, she will with all due deference kiss the rod of correction.


(The entire section is 7286 words.)

Katherine S. H. Turner (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Turner, Katherine S. H. “From Classical to Imperial: Changing Visions of Turkey in the Eighteenth Century.” In Travel Writing and Empire: Postcolonial Theory in Transit, edited by Steve Clark, pp. 113-28. London: Zed Books, 1999.

[In the following essay, Turner compares the travel narratives of Mary Wortley Montagu and Elizabeth Craven, two English women who had radically different views of eighteenth-century Turkey.]

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters, written between 1716 and 1718 but published (posthumously) only in 1763, remains one of the best known of eighteenth-century travelogues, and Montagu herself was one of the most...

(The entire section is 7627 words.)

Bridget Orr (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Orr, Bridget. “‘Stifling Pity in a Parent's Breast’: Infanticide and Savagery in Late Eighteenth-Century Travel Writing.” In Travel Writing and Empire: Postcolonial Theory in Transit, edited by Steve Clark, pp. 131-46. London: Zed Books, 1999.

[In the following essay, Orr argues that eighteenth-century Scottish travel writers often compelled British women to accept maternal roles by exaggerating the degradation of those who practiced infanticide in foreign lands.]

The following Inquiry is intended to illustrate the natural history of mankind in several important articles. This is attempted, by pointing out the most obvious and common...

(The entire section is 7319 words.)

Sven-Erik Rose (essay date 1999-2000)

SOURCE: Rose, Sven-Erik. “The Funny Business of the Swedish East India Company: Gender and Imperial Joke-Work in Jacob Wallenberg's Travel Writing.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 33, no. 2 (1999-2000): 217-32.

[In the following essay, Rose examines the 1781 Swedish travel narrative My Son on the Galley by Jacob Wallenberg, arguing that the author's comic sexual descriptions are an attempt to deal with feelings regarding Sweden's colonial exploitation of China and the East Indies.]


“Incarcerated for almost eighteen months on a ship and continually surrounded by wearisome monotony, may I not be permitted to seek...

(The entire section is 8112 words.)

Criticism: Non-European Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives

Simon Digby (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Digby, Simon. “An Eighteenth Century Narrative of a Journey from Bengal to England: Munshi Isma'il's New History.” In Urdu and Muslim South Asia: Studies in Honour of Ralph Russell, edited by Christopher Shackle, pp. 49-65. London: University of London, 1989.

[In the following essay, Digby examines Munshi Isma'il's New History, one of the earliest travel narratives written by an Indian, describing his voyage to and experiences in England.]

According to Sir Thomas Roe, ambassador of King James I of England and VI of Scotland to the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahāngīr, a proposal was mooted in 1616 that an Indian ‘gentellman’ should...

(The entire section is 8891 words.)

Geraldine Murphy (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Murphy, Geraldine. “Olaudah Equiano, Accidental Tourist.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 27, no. 4 (summer 1994): 551-68.

[In the following essay, Murphy examines a late eighteenth-century travel narrative written by a former African slave, contending that the author attempted to show Africa in a favorable light and to achieve personal equity with Europeans.]

As most readers will recognize, my title refers to Anne Tyler's recent novel, The Accidental Tourist. Macon, the protagonist, writes travel guides for business types who loathe traveling. The logo for his series is a stuffed living room chair sprouting wings: “While armchair travelers dream of...

(The entire section is 6778 words.)

Michael H. Fisher (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Fisher, Michael H. “Preface: A Text and a Life.” In The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth-Century Journey through India, edited by Michael H. Fisher, pp. xiii-xxii. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Fisher examines The Travels of Dean Mahomet, maintaining that it reflects the author's place in the colonial process.]

[W]e have never been as aware as we are now of how oddly hybrid historical and cultural experiences are, of how they partake of many often contradictory experiences and domains, cross national boundaries, defy the police action of simple dogma and loud...

(The entire section is 3688 words.)

Further Reading


Smith, Harold Frederick. American Travellers Abroad; A Bibliography of Accounts Published Before 1900. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1969, 166 p.

Provides brief annotations on hundreds of American travel narratives written before 1900.


Barton, H. Arnold. “Travelers and Travel in the North.” In Northern Arcadia: Foreign Travelers in Scandinavia, 1765-1815, pp. 7-22. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.

Depicts the growing popularity of travels to and narratives written about Scandinavia between 1765-1815.


(The entire section is 404 words.)