Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.