Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives

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Robert Bufalini (essay date 1997)

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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 French into German that same year, and even into Swedish in 1806, would attest.1 “Avventuriero” as well as economist, Scrofani was keen at judging what his contemporaries wanted and at providing them with it; so much so that his Viaggio and its accompanying Relazione su lo stato attuale dell'agricoltura e del commercio della Morea can be seen as exemplifying the trends of European travel writing in the last decades of the eighteenth century—a period when the genre was undergoing radical change, dividing into ever more exclusively objective and subjective currents as the Enlightenment dream of collaboration between science and letters was beginning to fade.

Born in 1756 in Sicily, Scrofani pursued studies of agronomy and statistics and, as it seems, engaged in a life of shady business, involving forgery and probably fraud and espionage as well. As an unlucky gambler in Palermo, the young abate (he had studied for the priesthood) falsified a document, pretending to have been accorded a large sum of money by the King of Naples. When the scheme was uncovered, Scrofani fled to the continent. From that point in 1787 he traveled extensively, studying in Florence and then in France. While in Paris he witnessed the first years of the French Revolution and put his thoughts about it into a piece entitled Tutti han torto, which he published upon his return to Florence in 1791. In this same year appeared his Memoria sulla libertà del commercio dei grani della Sicilia presentata a S. M. il Re di Napoli.

In 1792 and 1793 Scrofani was in Venice, where he brought out his Saggio sul commercio generale delle nazioni d'Europa and his Corso d'agricultura. He departed Venice for Greece in the summer of 1794. At the end of 1795 he returned to Trieste but left again for Morea at the beginning of 1796.2 This second trip lasted until 1798. Scrofani published his Viaggio in Grecia in 1799 at Rome, though London was given on the title page. The Relazione su lo stato attuale dell'agricoltura e del commercio della Morea, though originally intended as an appendix to the Viaggio, had come out separately a year earlier.

After Scrofani's return from the Eastern Mediterranean and his stay in Rome, he was again in Florence and then in 1799 again in France, initially as secretary to the elderly statesman of the Cisalpine Republic Paolo Greppi. In 1809 Scrofani moved to Naples where he worked for the minister of police. He returned to Palermo in 1822, publishing a revised edition of his Viaggio in Grecia in 1831. Scrofani died in 1835.3

Some testimonies of Scrofani's character and reports of his activities in the years immediately after the publication of the Viaggio in Grecia have come to light. At the death of Greppi in Paris in 1799, it seems that Scrofani tried to get hold of part of his estate, but was prevented from doing so by Greppi's close friend Ferdinando Marescalchi and the French authorities. Marescalchi asked...

(This entire section contains 4056 words.)

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various people for information on Scrofani's past. Alberto Fortis wrote back (September 30, 1800) about Scrofani's years in Venice and about the fact that the crime he had committed in Sicily was covered up: “L'égrillard était très bien avec les dames, et personne n'osait leur en parler. Une de leurs amies, à qui j'en avait dit quelque chose, brusqua la tentative; elles jetterent les hauts cris contre la calomnie.” Cesare Paribelli (in a letter of 1800 or 1801) writes about Scrofani's activities in Palermo, about his being chased out of Venice by the government, and speaks of him as “celui-ci, dont l'esprit inventif dans le mal ne manque jamais de ressources.”4

But let us turn to the Viaggio in Grecia. It would be difficult to find in this book, composed of “letters” sent to “intimate” friends, many literary fashions of which Scrofani does not make some use. He fantasizes on the courtesans dedicated to the temple of Venus at Syracuse in the spirit of Montesquieu, he recreates the everyday life of ancient Greece in the spirit of Barthélemy. Like Volney he loses himself in profound reveries upon the ruins, like Gessner and Delille (both of whom he mentions) he draws landscapes of ideal pastoral beauty. The element of “ribrezzo,” so important to the dramatic theory of his times, is not absent, for at the town of Casopo Scrofani includes gruesome details of Nero's debauchery. Nor is the self-irony that Sterne had made so popular in his Sentimental Journey missing. At the site of Sappho's suicide Scrofani depicts himself losing his self-control—“O come ti vedrei volentieri, Faone, in mezzo a Tizio ed a Sisifo pagar la pena della tua durezza: ti vedrei rodere”—only to regain it humbly, in the manner of “Yorick” (whom later he apostrophizes): “Ma questo rimprovero è sicuramente un'ingiustizia, un effetto della mia fantasia riscaldata” (Mutini, ed. 19).

Another fashionable theme that we find in the Viaggio in Grecia is that of abandonment to “religious” or “mystical” fervor, followed by a dramatic fall from that height to the disappointment of reality. The 1780s and 1790s, partly in reaction against the rationalism of the century, were decades filled with Mesmerists, Rosicrucians, Swedenborgians, along with all sorts of alchemists, cabalists, theosophists. It was a time as well when religion and even superstition were coming to be recognized as expressions of imaginative power and as forces of social cohesion. Scrofani himself notes the role that the Delphic Oracle had in inspiring and unifying the Greeks: “La Grecia cadde,” he writes, “al cadere della sua superstizione” (62). Whereas the inveterately rational travelers of the earlier eighteenth century tended to look skeptically upon religious matters, or even to satirize them, as Addison did, giving verbatim the text of Saint Anthony's sermon to the fish (Addison 45), travelers of the later eighteenth century often seem to want to give religious ceremonies a chance. But the age of light had not yet entirely passed: enthusiasm and willingness to believe could quickly dissolve into disillusionment and denunciation when expectations were not met. One thinks of Goethe's desire to be “transported” at a papal mass on All Saints Day in Rome (his language here being highly mystical) and of his utter disappointment and stern rebuke of Roman Catholic ritual when the Pope does not speak.5 At Patras Scrofani attends a mass celebrated one hour after midnight in a grotto covered with stalactites. He is moved, even prays, and goes so far as to compare the religious presence of the pastor—his intense penetration in the celebration of the mysteries, the glances full of celestial love that he raises towards the heavens—to that of Moses recommending the people of Israel to God. But when, at the conclusion of the service, this pastor addresses the faithful only to complain about someone having committed a slight misdeed against him, Scrofani becomes filled with disdain. All images of compunction disappear “come le tenebre all'arrivo del sole” (54). The traveler recognizes the truth of the subterranean mass, which the incantation had hidden from his eyes: the sanctuary he says (paraphrasing Mark 11:17) was nothing more than a cave of bandits and the pastor the head of the band.

Scrofani employs several eighteenth-century styles of traveling. He can be as convivial as if on the Grand Tour, traveling in the company, as he tells it, of the Venetian Consul Baldassarre Palese (10). But we find him often traveling alone and by foot—a means made popular by Rousseau. At times Scrofani portrays himself as the out-of-place traveler (like “Yorick” again) viewed as strange by the locals. Occasionally, as was becoming the fashion, he dresses up as the locals—climbing a mountain, for example, with “le doppie pelli di capra attorniate a' piedi” (65). Then too we find him traveling in the febrile manner of the Sturm und Drang, galloping on a horse for ten hours straight and arriving in a village exhausted and unable to stay on his feet (138).

Often Scrofani travels with the “pilgrim” attitude. The once flourishing practice of the pilgrimage had long since receded. Yet something of its spirit was resurfacing in literary works of Scrofani's day, again as a reaction to the dominantly rational comportment of the eighteenth century. Winckelmann had viewed the Greek antiquities he had found in Rome with nearly religious enthusiasm, and those who followed came in the same spirit, Karl Philipp Moritz, for instance, even setting “Romam quaero” as the epigraph of his Reise eines Deutschen in Italien in den Jahren 1786-88. Scrofani transfers traditional pilgrim motifs quite thoroughly to the new “holy land” of Greece. As each spot in Palestine evoked sacred events for the Christian pilgrim, so at each ruin the ancient stories come to his mind and he retells them, attempting to convey to the reader something of his transport. Indeed he amasses image upon image, for his intention is to give the impression of the enormous and wonderous wealth of an age gone by. As Palestine was important to the pilgrim only for its past, so present-day Greece, compared to classical times, seems paltry, dissonant, dismaying: Scrofani sees it as inhabited by a people who have lost touch with the greatness of their ancestors and occupied by ignorant and brutal foreigners. Like the Christian pilgrims in their reports, Scrofani combines yearning and a sense of isolation. Nor does he omit expressing fervent hope for the land's rebirth: “Oh, se io la vedessi risorgere, ricomparire, mostrare il vero cammino! … Io sarò morto, ma i miei voti saranno compiuti” (75).6

During the middle of the eighteenth century the reading public, by in large, had expected its travel writers to be equally instructive and pleasing, to connect, as Samuel Johnson says, science to events.7 Scrofani's Viaggio in Grecia is not without its “facts.” At Zante, for example, we find details about the island's prosperity, how a mere eight thousand men extract annually “300 mila libbre d'olio e 5 milioni d'uva passa” (30). At Mount Enos he notes how the rock strata are vertical instead of horizontal and how three earthquakes there were reported at intervals of almost exactly one year (24). But these, and other facts like them that crop up here and there, are rather exceptional, for in the Viaggio Scrofani prefers to sacrifice the “informative” element. This we can see most clearly in his letter about the Turkish government. Technically it corresponds to the descriptive middle section of traditional travel books, but Scrofani has made it brief. More significant yet is the attitude with which he writes it. He begins by saying that he does not want to write it at all, that he only does so because he has promised. He insists that he is not writing a typical travel book: “Non credere per ciò ch'io debba individuarti il loro governo, la religione, i costumi; no, non ho voglia di farti un libro, ma quel che ti scrivo sarà per riposarmi del passato viaggio” (122). He then proceeds to talk about himself, the condition of his spirit and heart, which he describes as “equale a quella d'un naufrago che dopo lungo stento arriva alla spiaggia” (122-23). Only after this does he present his observations. He closes the letter in the same fashion in which he had opened it. After maintaining that the true Illyrian language would be that of the Albanians, he writes:

Non mancano autorità e ragioni onde provarti questo assunto, ma non m'importa. Ho già ottenuto il mio scopo: mi sono sollevato dal peso che m'infastidiva dopo l'ultimo viaggio e rimesso in stato di riprenderne un altro più lungo e più interessante.


Throughout the Viaggio, in fact, Scrofani repeatedly disclaims competence or real interest in scholarly matters and professes a lack of energy and desire to enter into debates. He brushes off a discussion of whether the site of Ithaca was at present-day Teachi or Atoco with “I geografi e gl'istorici ne disbrighino la questione fra loro.” He has more important matters to tend to: in this case a meditation on Ulysses (19-20). And such is the pattern of Scrofani's book. After devoting two paragraphs to the tides in the sea of Euripo, he concludes: “Del resto io non assegno ragioni: i fisici e naturalisti la discorrano a lor talento.” To this he adds: “Quanto riescono più gradite le sensazioni del cuore dietro le fredde ricerche dell'intendimento” (144). Only grudgingly does he give any details about the remains of theaters, temples, etc., and rarely does he give any measurements. Is it possible, he asks, to find oneself in front of Agamemnon's sepulchre and pass the time “a misurare l'altezza e la profondità, a contarne le pietre, ad analizzarne il cemento?” (108).

It is not difficult to understand how the more traditional travel book readers of Scrofani's day would not have been happy with this sort of writing. Not that all of the “old guard” rejected sensibility altogether. Even such a dedicated geographer as Immanuel Kant was ready to compromise. Speaking of a Savoyard farmer's amazement, as the traveler Saussure reports, that anyone would want to climb the Alps, he wonders whether, had Saussure in fact faced these dangers as most travelers do out of “dilettantism” or simply to be able to fashion “elevated” descriptions out of them, he might not have been right. But then Kant goes on to approve of Saussure, saying that the traveler's intention was to instruct and that he was able to convey to his readers soul-lifting “Empfindung” (337). Similarly the eminent Göttingen philologist Christian Gottlob Heyne was a sympathetic reader of Georg Forster's Ansichten vom Niederrhein, believing imagination to be a “beneficent gift of nature” when accompanied “by diversity of knowledge and by discernment and fine feeling.”8 From such an audience—for whom information about specific localities mattered so much, and especially with regard to the elucidation of the classics—the Viaggio in Grecia came in for sharp criticism. A reviewer in the Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen of October 5, 1801 states that though the author saw a lot of places that are not easy for travelers to reach, one learns nothing from him, that what one finds are “studied declamations” about what the places once were and what they are now.9

But Scrofani had intentionally composed the Viaggio in Grecia in a literary fashion and the Relazione su lo stato attuale dell'agricoltura e del commercio della Morea in a scientific fashion (much as Volney composed his Les Ruines, ou méditations sur le révolutions des empires of 1791 in a somber and declamatory style after having written his dry and exact Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte of 1787). In the Viaggio Scrofani exploits that dislike of the antiquarian mentality that one already detects in Winckelmann's wariness towards the “Gelehrsamkeit” of his colleagues in Göttingen, and which will culminate in the rebellion of poets and artists of the Romantic period (of Friedrich Hölderlin, above all) against the methodological accumulation of facts, so adverse, to their mind, to an imaginative understanding of ancient Greece.10 In the Relazione Scrofani sets himself to satisfying the demands of the “lumi” for precise information—about ports, population, government, agricultural products, commerce—that could be applied to overcoming the obstacles that hindered economic improvement and the revitalization of a people. The Viaggio, as Blanvillain explains it, proves to what point Italian prose is capable of expressing truth and sentiment; in the Relazione the author follows in the footsteps of Genovesi, Filangieri, Verri, and Galliani (Voyage en Grèce v).

One can say, then, that Scrofani was being faithful to the “literary” experience by separating it from the science, and faithful to the “science” by separating it from the diversion of the literary work. And in this too, certainly, he was following a trend, for it was this very period that witnessed, on the one hand, the birth of the Forschungsreise (one thinks especially of the Danish expedition to Arabia 1761-67, organized with such rigor and precision by the Göttingen orientalist Johann David Michaelis) and, on the other, a shift in literary travel writing (coming in the wake the broad change in aesthetics that substituted passion and inspiration for clarity and order) away from the perceptible world towards an inner world of emotions and ideals.11

This bifurcation of the travel genre into distinctly “scientific” and distinctly “literary” currents, was part of the broader divarication of science and letters that was taking place. Earlier in the century it had been supposed that the two would collaborate, producing insights accessible to all. In the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, with the tremendous growth and diversification of the sciences and with the technicalization of their languages, these goals of collaboration and accessibility became impossible.12 It is true that there were many, especially in the field of natural history, who would have liked to bridge this growing gap. Alexander von Humbolt still hoped to combine science and letters in his Ansichten der Natur (1807), following his few but beautiful pages on the world's landscapes with many pages of tightly-printed technical commentary. But in the preface to later editions he too had to admit that the wish to engage the imagination and at the same time to enrich life through increase in knowledge made what “unity of composition” demanded hard to achieve. (Humbolt xii).

At the very opening of the Viaggio in Grecia, Scrofani scraps the Horatian dictum, so often quoted in the prefaces of earlier travel books—“Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci / lectorem delectando pariterque monendo.” He warns all those seeking instruction not to read his book. “Vegga in cambio,” he writes,

i Viaggi di Stuwart, di Le Roi, di Choiseul-Gouffier, di Volsney [sic] … di Spon, di Wheler, del Pacifico, di Pockocke, di La Guillottière, di Savary, di Guise e di cent'altre accurate e dotte persone che hanno tutto osservato, misurato, analizzato.13

And as so many literary travelers must have felt by the end of the century, he asks: “Cosa dopo di loro doveva io fare?” (3) In wishing to have both the Viaggio and the Relazione under the same cover, Scrofani reveals something yet of the older Enlightenment mentality. But by assuming the role of “letterato” in the one and the role of scientist in the other, and expecting each work to be judged against completely different criteria, as if the one were meant to be read in the salon and the other in the academy, he helps to distinguish all the more clearly the fatal separating of the two camps.

To be sure, writers of sentimental journeys have not always been judged kindly. Thackeray questioned Laurence Sterne, writing of him:

How much was deliberate calculation and imposture—how much was false sensibility—and how much true feeling? Where did the lie begin, and did he know where? and where did the truth end in the art and scheme of this man of genius, this actor, this quack?

(Thackeray 219)

There is even more room for doubting the “sensibility” of the lesser artist Saverio Scrofani. And yet it is hard to read the Viaggio in Grecia without acknowledging the skill of its author, who, after all, was able to exploit, not unentertainingly, so many literary fashions of his day and one major intellectual tendency of his age.


  1. For an account of the reception of the book and of its French and German translations, see Claudio Mutini's introduction to his edition of the Viaggio in Grecia (xxv-xxviii). The Library of Congress has a copy of a Resa i Grekeland 1794 och 1795, 2 vols, trans. G. A. af Sillén (Stockholm, 1806) by Savario Scrofani.

  2. Blanvillain says that Scrofani traveled in the service of the Venetian government. See Voyage en Grèce de Xavier Scrofani, Sicilien, fait en 1794 et 1795, ed. Blanvillain (viii). Benedetto Croce is sceptical: “… opera, ch'egli aveva scritto (diceva) in occasione dell'incarico avuto dal governo della Repubblica veneta di formare un quadro dell'agricoltura e del commercio di Levante” (398).

  3. For accounts of Scrofani's life and works, see, in addition to Mutini's introduction and Croce's article: Zapperi; Cordie; Giarrizzo. See also the most recent publication of the Viaggio in Grecia, edited with introduction and full commentary by Ricciarda Ricorda and with a preface by Claudio Magris.

  4. For details of this matter, see Zapperi. Zapperi quotes Fortis on page 478. Paribelli is quoted on page 397 of Croce's article.

  5. The passage opens: “Mich ergriff ein wunderbar Verlangen, das Oberhaupt der Kirche möge den goldenen Mund auftun und, von dem unaussprechlichen Heil der seligen Seelen mit Entzücken sprechend, uns in Entzücken versetzen” (Goethe 170).

  6. For characteristics of the medieval pilgrim reports, see Trubetzkoy. For the contrast that travelers to Greece felt between their hightened vision of the past and what they considered the distorted reality of the present (especially after the failed Greek insurrection against the Turks in 1770), see Constantine (168-72), and Augustinos (165-70).

  7. Johnson says this in his “Adverticement” for The World Displayed, included in Hazen (217). See also Batten (46).

  8. Heyne's review of Forster's book appeared in the Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen of April 21, 1792. Gerhard Steiner discusses it in his introduction to the Ansichten vom Niederrhein (Berlin: Akademie, 1977) 354-55.

  9. The review appeared on pages 1594-98 and was unsigned. Zapperi has attributed it to Heyne. See Mutini xxvii.

  10. For the views of Winckelmann and of Hölderlin on the scholarly studies being undertaken of ancient Greece, see Constantine 96-103.

  11. The mature Goethe, looking back on the resolution he had taken in 1789 to describe as objectively as possible the Roman Carnival, speaks of travel writing as having become in the last decades of the century almost completely dedicated to the feelings and opinions of the traveler. See Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Tag- und Jahreshefte (623-24).

  12. For the eighteenth-century origins of the division of science and letters see Kleinert.

  13. To be sure Scrofani might have added Richard Chandler's name to the list, for the instructions that had been drawn up for his expedition of 1764-66 stressed that the explorers were to be exact in their marking of distances, to check their watches and compasses often, to keep a diary “in the plainest manner, without any regard to Style or Language, except that of being intelligible.” See Constantine 188.

Works Cited

Addison, Joseph. Remarks on Several Parts of Italy etc. In the Years 1701, 1702, 1703. Vol. 2 of The Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Addison. Ed. A. C. Guthkelch. London: Bell, 1914.

Augustinos, Olga. French Odysseys: Greece in French Travel Literature from the Renaissance to the Romantic Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Batten, Charles L. Pleasurable Instruction: Form and Convention in Eighteenth-Century Travel Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Blanvillain, ed. Voyage en Grèce de Xavier Scrofani, Sicilien, fait en 1794 et 1795. Paris, 1801.

Constantine, David. Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Cordie, Carlo. “L'abate Saverio Scrofani e i corrispondenti del Viaggio in Grecia con alcune note su Madame de Stael e il Paragone delle donne francesi con le italiane.” Rassegna della letteratura italiana 85.1-2 (1981) 131-48.

Croce, Benedetto. “Intorno a Saverio Scrofani.” La rivoluzione napoletana del 1799: Biografie, racconti, ricerche. 4 ed. Bari: Laterza, 1926.

Giarrizzo, Giuseppe. “Introduction.” Memorie inedite, by Saverio Scrofani. Palermo: Grafindustria, 1970.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Italienische Reise. Ed. Christoph Michel. Vol. 1. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1976.

_____. Tag- und Jahreshefte. Ed. Ernst Beutler. Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche. Vol. 11. Zürich: Artemis, 1950.

Hazen, Allen T. Samuel Johnson's Prefaces and Dedications. New Haven: Yale UP, 1937.

Humbolt, Alexander von. Ansichten der Natur mit Wissenschaftlichen Erläuterungen. Vol. 1. Stuttgart: Cotta, 1849.

Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der Urteilskraft. Ed. Otto Buek. Immanuel Kants Werke. Vol. 5. Berlin: Cassirer, 1922.

Kleinert, Andreas. Die allgemeinverständlichen Physikbücher der französischen Aufklärung. Aarau: Sauerländer, 1974.

Mutini, Claudio, ed. and introd. Viaggio in Grecia. Roma: Ateneo, 1965.

Ricorda, Ricciarda, ed. Viaggio in Grecia. Preface by Claudio Magris. Venezia: Marsilio, 1988.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. “Sterne and Goldsmith.” The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century: A Series of Lectures. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1916.

Trubetzkoy, N. S. “Reisebeschreibungen.” Vorlesungen über die altrussische Literatur. Firenze: Sansoni, 1973. 86-89, 108.

Zapperi, Roberto. “La ‘fortuna’ di un avventuriero: Saverio Scrofani e i suoi biografi.” Rassegna storica del Risorgimento 49 (1962) 447-84.

Mihaela Irimia (essay date 1997)

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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 attention, if any at all, today. One is A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, which we could easily dismiss from the terrain of literature because it looks so much like a Whitaker avant la lettre, or a Baedeker before its days, or a Domesday redivivus. Defoe committed it to paper between 1722 and 1726 following the observations occasioned by a number of apparently well-organized “circuit tours” in Britain. The mid-century saw successive editions of the text, which had already acquired the qualities of a palimpsest. Richardson's “improvements” and the typical eighteenth-century editor(s)' personal note(s) were obvious deflections from the initial notations of an objective, even though not disinterested, observer. We now know that The Tour is to some extent Defoe's mere fabulations about places and happenings related to them, as we know that this exploration in space is also a plundering of Camden's Britannia.

The other work that I wish to consider is The History of the Growth and Decay of the Othman Empire, which Cantemir compiled between 1714 and 1716. Hospodar of Moldavia, a personal friend of Czar Peter the Great and an erudite conversant with all the prominent living languages of Eastern Europe, Cantemir spent twenty years in the heart of the Ottomanness, Constantinople before offering up his History to Europe. The writing of the original in Latin, as Incrementa atque Decrementa Aulae Othomanicae, is a clear indication of the Latin, therefore European, therefore Christian, identity of a culture under the suzerainty of the Turkish, and soon, like the rest of Eastern Europe, of the Russian, Empire. An act of cultural prestige and of political courage, this history had been written for the West. It was soon circulated in French and English translations, under Western courtly patronage, and remained for a remarkable lapse of time the source of information about the menacing otherness of the east. A splendid copy of the accredited English translation by Nicholas Tindal (1734-5) can now be consulted at the British Library (1756).

Why put these different works together? What should be the common denominator among a businessman's mercantile interest in solid British markets (as seen from within the lofty walls of prosperous empire), and an aristocrat's refined curiosity to look surreptitiously through the corridors of imperial power, still from within, but with a stranger's eye? An infrastructure of evaluative metatext rounds off the factual agglomeration on which these two explorations are built. In Defoe's and in Cantemir's excogitations we find the century's Weltanschauung with its melioristic penchant. As Todorov would say, both authors articulate a receivable discourse free of the value-sanctioning function, a discourse expected to fit a pattern of “idées reçues.1 Or, as the phrase goes in Italian, se non è vero, è ben trovato.

Rooted in the real, Defoe's Tour is no less an illustration of the life as journey metaphor. We are warned in the Preface to volume I that this book aims to “correct” the careless observations of foreign visitors to Britain. Whatever is is right for Defoe, as for Pope. The official voice of Enlightenment speaks through Daniel Foe's down-to-earth evaluations: we live in the best of worlds, and if, at times, we people have a feeling that something goes wrong, the fault is ours and only ours, and comes out of taking the part for the whole; the part can be erratic, but not the whole, and we are fatally blind to the perfect project of the ensemble, because we see only bits. If only we could penetrate the whys and whereofs of the world, or, for that matter, of the political, economic, financial, social, institutional ensemble called England! On a small scale, the England of Defoe's Tour is the world. His is a synecdochic logic advertising an imperative and imposable pattern. Defoe's Weltanschauung is optimum (there is no better world, look at England!), optimal (the model is to be proposed to, and imposed on, others), optimistic (everything advances according to the law of progess), and optimizing (at the same time as the model is promoted, people prosper).

Likewise rooted in the real, Cantemir's History of the Growth and Decay of the Othman Empire is nothing short of a full-scale philosophy on the fate of power. Power is human. It acts in the world. Cantemir's subtle meditations sound so much like the New Historicist or the Cultural Studies critical jargon today! Power is inscribed through a set of perfectly conducted rituals, the rules of a subtle and most efficient public “grammar.” This keeps the world together. Cantemir's worldly variant of this cosmic pattern is the Ottoman Empire, a hugeness of a reality, whether in space or in time, which he is ready to explore. His metatext of meditative assessment recalls incipient twelfth-century Ottoman rule in Anatolia, only to gradually emphasize Ottoman prestige under Murat I, who established his capital in Adrianople, the former Hadrianopolis. It evokes the exploits of the fearful Bajazet, “The Lightning,” as well as the glory of Mehmet II's capital in Constantinople, already a legendary echo of the first Christian Emperor's polis. It stops at some length to paint the taking of Constantinople in 1453, of the exemplary city founded on ancient pagan glory now translated into a discourse of Ottoman discipline. It contains spacious descriptions of imperial pride embodied by Solyman the Magnificent, but it equally gives due attention to the reiterated sign of decadence that the Ottomans will not see. For we see what we want to see, Cantemir indirectly admits, as does Defoe. The Lepanto defeat of 1571 is a sign, the 1699 Karlowitz Peace is another. The Kutchuk-Kaynardji treaty in the late eighteenth century would be another. Concomitant with the dislocation of the Ottoman, the inscription on the body of history of the Russian, imperial discourse is a process occurring under Cantemir's eyes. He writes as a onetime Moldavian prince now hosted by the Czar, never oblivious of his gratefulness to the worldly Christian “father” Peter I. But, eiron-like, and unlike Defoe, for whom calling a spade a spade is the passport to efficiency, Cantemir has the distance not only of a different religious and political allegiance, but of a different intellectual stance. Hence his respect for otherness when this slides into intellectual sameness: a typically Enlightenment image of Solyman the Magnificent irradiates the melioristic energy of the book's center to each and every line. Solyman, the one Sultan among Ottoman Sultans, is depicted with the book in his hand. The book. The written word sacrosanct, the “technology of symbolism” that can conquer worlds.2 Islam is a religion of the logos, of the book, to be propagated through the force of weapons, whereas Christianity's force lies in its pathos. Yet Cantemir's praise is preeminently the scholar's praise raising grandeur somewhere above the relevance of military skill and political cunning.

The word and the book—here are Cantemir's paragons. The spirit endures, whereas the way merely of the world is one of ups and downs, “incrementa atque decrementa”—Vico's “corsi e ricorsi.” The calculation and the accountant's book—here, by contrast, are Defoe's measurements. The one, the aristocratic spectator to the “squabble” of the world (in Cantemir's own words), the other, the bourgeois engaged in transactions with the world. Defoe can only negotiate, as Greenblatt would say, in his characterization of a world of constant exchanges of energy. Nec-otium, the denial of otiose philosophizing. The one, the enacter of an ironic show, the other, the actor of a comedy (in Frye's acceptation of the term). Both fabricators: Cantemir, the fabricator of exemplary growth and decay, a Pope of the Essay and of The Dunciad; Defoe, the fabricator of growth as accumulation, a bourgeois gentilhomme, who had been born only to the name of “Foe.”

Exploration is literally an enterprise whereby one goes out into the world (Lat. ex, “out”), in order to advertise one's discovery (Lat. plorare, “to cry out”). Discovering is uncovering the yet un-seen. But the explorer never simply falls upon something brand new; rather, he creates something so far untreated, and once the local habitation is there, he will bestow upon it a name. Exploration is a poetic enterprise recognizable in the interpretive framework that articulates it. As it sediments into discourse, it acquires and propagates a normalizing force eventually crystalizing in unequivocal, therefore univocal, expression. It reinscribes into its text the newly discovered and domesticates it by iconic representation, or stabilizing stereotypes. Such things give comfort in the face of the new. Silencing the other, the new, is thus a therapeutic operation, and the iconography of official grand history usually rises on the ashes of difference defeated. Putative moral superiority, which is as much as saying denigration of the other. The rule of the center, versus the margin, of the metropolis versus the provinces. The capital city, for instance, the “caput,” “capitis,” both time- and space-wise. As origin of power, through prestige accumulated in time, and transposed into legend and eventually into myth, it becomes the exemplary, paradigmatic city.

Such is Byzantium in Cantemir's History. Edirne, the fourteenth-century Ottoman capital, assumes a new dignity in European eyes, as the City of Emperor Adrian, at once Latin and Greek: Adrianople-Hadrianopolis. By public mise-enabîme, the city of hic et nunc rises to the dignity of an atemporal, utopian center. Opposite the Bosphorus, the other half of the same temporal city is Constantinople, or also Istanbul. Preeminently, this is the City of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor in an empire echoing the other imperial power. The pagan and the Christian, the European and the Islamic meet here. Byzantium, the miracle of survival after fall, the legendary dwelling place, the stronghold of identity under the constant menace of otherness, becomes the City-Empire in a telling overlapping of center and margin—orbis et urbis, like ancient Rome.

Modelled on the pattern of Rome, the London of Defoe's Tour is at once Lundinium, the City of Anne, reduplicated in Annapolis, and the City of the Augustus Monarch of the day. London is Augusta, the Civitas Augusta, whose singleness is consecrated by successive circumferences irradiating order from the center. Central London (city and court) is the country, and round it lies England, and father off lie the other countries in the kingdom, and overseas lie the colonies. Defoe reads the dense text of Englishness all compact in London. Symbolically, the pilgrim in Defoe periodically reaches his destination by exemplarily returning to London. London is the site of more than mere physical centrality, but in the comic mode of middleclass values this status is tested under mercantile circumstances. Huge amounts of goods are being carried and displayed in a London marketplace to which the witness is no other than a Spanish ambassador, exemplarily humiliated by the spectacle of plenty. Defoe's first measure of excellence is quantity: the aristocratic Spaniard has to admit that not even in the whole of Spain is the equivalent of these colossal quantities of “flesh, fish, and fowl” sold, that are sold here, in one market in London. At this point Defoe stops being a mere traveller-explorer; he is a teleologist who knows in advance what he will “discover”: the cornucopia of imperial Englishness. The dull accountant-like formulation fringing on reportage is “poetic” through what it implies (Lat. implicare < in + plica, “fold”). Between the folds of literal meaning adjacent meanings complete the “story,” not the “history.” Is there such thing as history, when everything is discourse, confabulation? And intentionality: being Spanish, versus being English is a matter of questioning imperial prestige in the world, for in the diffuse text of history is inscribed the defeat of the Invincibile Armada, a paradox deserving the aura of myth. Being Spanish also means being Catholic, and dissenter Defoe's explorations is The Tour are imbued with anti-Popish attacks. Last, but not least, being an ambassador is representing, rather than simply being present. The Spanish ambassador is the Spanish nation in a nutshell, so, metonymically, his amazement is the amazement, not less the envy of, the Spanish race, of Spanishness in front of Englishness. A second axis mundi rises in the middle of a London market.

For Cantemir, the scholar, myth rises out of, and is sustained by, the exemplary book. Phanar, the center of intellectual power in Istanbul-Constantinople, is the seat of schools and of the Academy recalling and revigorating the onetime fame of ancient pagan Akademos, the grove where peripatetic Plato taught. Cantemir's exploration starts in space and extends backward into the original time of European philosophy. Leaps in the boundless time of founding wisdom give the true dimension of this metaphysical exploration: most importantly, the Patriarchs of Constantinople are associated with the Academy of Phanar! They are the exemplary fathers of an exemplary family dwelling in an exemplary city. Constantine is another way of saying Augustus, or Gloriana, or Victoria, or Adrianus. Superposed on the image of Solyman the Magnificent (yet another Augustus) holding the Book in his hand, this certificate of paradigmatic identity of the place is the key to our reading of another “story” in Cantemir's “history.”

In Bakhtinian terms, Defoe and Cantemir are each engaged in chronotopic exploration. Places are visited which are “discovered” for the sake of confirming the landscapes devised collectively in a “tableau” of overall harmony. And encounters occur during the journey that satisfy such collective expectations. And this is how London or Byzantium condense into zero degree points of reference in space and in time. Exploration can be stirred by a number of motives, from the Odyssean itch of pushing out the limits of the known world, to the Quixotic rambling in search of ideality, to religious missionarism, or colonial conquest. All of these forms of exploration are encounters with the Other. They all presuppose a system of interpretation to accommodate the other and make it familiar. It is interesting to see how the more widely collective unconscious operates through similar protocols of assimilation, whether by agglutination or by exclusion. Both Defoe and Cantemir lend an occasional ear to the small gossip of history. The spicy “petites histories” of royal courts, like the spicy episodes of “komos,” everyday life, are the salt and pepper on the main course of large-scale history.

The Tour is mainly an exploration of economic possibilities whose pragmatic aim is to extend the English model over otherness at home and abroad, over Scotland, Ireland, and the colonies. Where Scotland has been domesticated through the Union Act, stubborn Ireland remains the wilderness to Defoe's disciplining eye. He is over-observant of Scottish and Irish sloth, laziness, and recklessness. And when the short visitation of metaphysics is allowed an infinitesimal space in the narrative, the otherworldly must be Scottish. In Letter VI, Defoe the traveller comes to the brink of a most curious hole in the earth, where the man of the mountain dwells. The wildness embodied in the black-faced sweating collier makes him shudder not romantically, but rather with the rancour of the civilizing colonist who cannot fail to domesticate the text of his exploration all through. The narrator does not miss the chance to remark that this is an apparition not simply from the entrails of the earth, but ab inferis. Even the so very English folly of Bath summer hybris seems to fall on deaf ears in The Tour. Defoe cannot afford to waste time on gratuitousness. He is not mere presence in his circuit tours through the whole island; he is a representative, and the model he has embarked upon installing has to have regulatory power even without the least exception. As the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century were to invent a Scotland of romantic raggedness, so Defoe's equalizing eye invents an exemplary England to be consumed as universal panacea. And while middle-class Daniel Foe himself falls at times prey to meditations on the fate of empires in history, especially when consciously or less so he grows Camdenian, England is of necessity rendered timeless, even eternal.

At once an insider and an outsider, Cantemir can elegantly pendulate between the discourse of official Ottoman rule and that of peripheral “aberration.” There are reports of Turkish monks that are able to live merely on one olive or one fig a week, and to fly as far as the Church of Sancta Sophia in Constantinople. They fly from the margin to the center. They are spiritual fathers, but their unheard-of capacity cannot help succumbing to questioning. And yet, the center appears tolerant to the margin, in Cantemir's account, because mediated by spiritual, rather than material, value. “If any Christian questions the Truth of this Story, a Turk thinks it sufficiently prov'd, if he shows it to be written in his Book. For the illiterate among them believe nothing false can possibly be recorded in their Books.”3 The Book is the one Original Center for Moslem illiterate and Christian scholar. This spiritual relativization of the wordly center can be seen at work in anonymous collective art produced on the margin of empire at about the same time as Cantemir compiled his History. The paradigmatic city circulates in its variants in the famous churches in Northern Moldavia boasting spectacular frescoes on their external walls. One particular theme, the siege of Constantinople, arrests the explorer's interest. The Moldovitsa fresco, above all, shows Constantinople as a Moldavian fortress assaulted by referentially identifiable Turks: costumes, hairdos, and weapons are a guarantee that they are unequivocally Turks. They are the infidels besieging the Christian Capital, the last bastion of identity, at least for Eastern Europe. Symbolically, the “small gossip” of farmer culture has made the Capital migrate to the margin: Constantinople as the Capital of Moldavia. Axis mundi stands up and out there. If the center absorbs otherness, to hush it into acquiescence, the margin does not do otherwise! Let us read the whole text, and we shall see that even the zig-zag line of history is patterned on teleological expectations. The next fresco, set in narrative sequel after the one we have just referred to, completes the exemplary “story,” not “history”: Hell, or rather descent into Hell, a sine-qua-non scene in each of these famous frescos, is here the descent of so many Turks into the bowels of infernal blazes! The two scenes are framed at human height, on display for the Everyman of the margin, at once an illustrated Everyman's History and Bible. If not everybody can read the cryptic signs of writing, everybody can, instead, read the visual text. The New Historicist's appetite for anecdote (literally the “unpublished,” the still “secret,” and because of this latently richer) is here excellently satisfied.

Why bring these so different texts together? Defoe's Tour codifies eighteenth-century reality in typically Defoesque listings, but also in philosophical take-offs that bring it closer to meditative literature produced at the time. Respect for the written word is obvious. We need hardly remark how important the written word is for the erudite Cantemir. His resorting to the universal European language (Latin) makes of him a believer in some universal grammar, which was one of the dreams of the century. Defoe believes in his own grammar of pragmatic precision, and it is hard to deny how persuasive the Defoesque text usually is, if only because of its referential quality. Both Defoe and Cantemir venerate codification. The English translation of Cantemir's work is an overlooked entry into the archive hosting Defoe's Tour. This mutual jostling of text by text, of discourse by discourse, yields one more possible image of one more possible eighteenth century. The Ecole des Annales in France and the New Historicism, in the English-speaking world have long specialized in discovering (and producing) such multiple eighteenth centuries by means of literary and other texts; it is not uninteresting to approach the non- or paraliterary text with the tools of the literary critic. Defoe's jottings, entries, records, and tabulations, like Cantemir's, add vitality to their sometimes overly serious discourse. Both these authors, moreover, are inescapable. When the first grammar of a modern European language was composed, the grammar of the Spanish language by Antonio de Nebrija, its author sent into the world a statement that has not, to this day, lost its acute human meaning: “language has always been the companion of Empire.” My use of the term “empire” focuses on the statement of power, itself inescapable, like fabulation, because, like the latter, human. West and east, authors in the eighteenth century tried to decode the code of power. The history of modern Europe begins in the eighteenth century. As an Eastern European, I hope this history will have a history. Which gives us plenty of reasons to resume exploring it.


  1. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America—The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 54.

  2. Todorov, The Conquest of America, 153.

  3. Dimitrie Cantemir, The History of the Ottoman Empire (Bucharest: Alexandru Dutu & Paul Cernovodeanu, 1973), 68.

John Wiltshire (essay date 1997)

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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 this famous declaration in 1777, but he had already said something similar to James Boswell on 11 October 1773 whilst they were both temporarily marooned on the island of Coll in the Hebrides. Boswell had commented that until their joint expedition, “You yourself, sir, had never seen, till now, any thing but your native island,” to which Johnson replied “But, Sir, by seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew.” It seems clear that “life” in these pronouncements cannot mean whatever it was that Johnson had come to the Hebrides to see. London could encapsulate “life” because life everywhere—that is to say human character—is the same. London's social and cultural diversity, the richness of its human resources, means that it is the perfect laboratory for the study of human nature. Johnson's remarks can be read as testimony not only to his love of the city, but to his conviction that human beings are alike everywhere, the same, in fact, in London as (to use his phrase at the opening of The Vanity of Human Wishes) “from China to Peru.” What then had taken him to the highlands of Scotland?

Boswell was correct, of course: for most of his life Johnson had lived only in one city. What these comments conceal is that for long he had perforce to be content with the life that London could afford. He left Lichfield for the metropolis in 1737, when he was twenty-eight, and, as far as is known, scarcely left London at all for the next twenty-odd years. Confined there by his literary toils and penury, Johnson would often, in those decades, mock the idea that one would necessarily be better off, or feel better, if you could travel somewhere else. Most memorably in Rambler 6, he compares the desire for a change of place with the struggles of a dog maddened with rabies. “It is common for a man, who feels pain, to fancy that he could bear it better in any other part,” the Rambler tells his readers (and no doubt himself) ridiculing “the persuasion that content was the inhabitant of particular regions” (III, 35). Similarly, Rambler 135 (2 July 1751) is a sardonic commentary on “this time of universal migration” when London is emptied for the countryside. The happiness supposedly found in rural retreat is a myth, Johnson declares:

Should any man pursue his aquaintances to their retreats, he would find few of them listening to Philomel, loitering in woods, or plucking daisies. … Some will be discovered at a window by the road side, rejoicing when a new cloud of dust gathers towards them, as at the approach of a momentary supply of conversation, and a short relief from the tediousness of unideal vacancy.

(IV, 353)

Envious or not, this contempt for the supposed happiness of country life is a theme that runs through Johnson's writings from the satire on the pastoral in Rasselas (chapters 19-21), to the discussion of Cowley's dreams of retirement (Lives, I, 15-17). Residence in another place, Johnson insists, will not, of itself, help your moral life or state of mind: it is no therapy. The idea that you might assuage your discontent, or fulfill your desires by travel is a constant target for the stern moralist who insists that “the fountain of content must spring up in the mind” (Rambler 6, III, 35) that reformation must come from within. But on this topic he seems later to have had second thoughts.

At the same time as Johnson frequently derided those who imagined they could change themselves by changing their place, he shared his age's conviction of the therapeutic virtues of journeying. The essays are full of metaphors of inertia and stagnation, but, in contrast, movement and activity are equated with vigor and health (sorrow, Rambler 47 declares, “is the putrifaction of stagnant life, and is remedied by exercise and motion” [III, 258]). Johnson shared his contemporaries' belief that traveling, whether on horseback, as Dr. Thomas Sydenham had recommended, or in a coach, was good for both body and mind. “Dr. Horse” was widely—and perhaps perfectly reasonably—thought to be of more benefit than the attentions of the medical man; David Garrick, for example, attributed his own recovery on one occasion to “that excellent physician, a horse.1 Motion in itself, underwritten by a conception of the body as a system of tubes and vessels that become hardened and blocked in sickness is understood to perform the therapeutic function. And so in 1782, towards the end of his life, Johnson wrote to John Perkins, the Thrales' clerk, “I am very much pleased that You are going on a very long Journey, which may by proper conduct restore your health and prolong your life,” adding that he should “get a smart seasickness if you can” and that only by casting away anxiety can the benefits of travel be attained (Letters, IV, 63-64). In his later life, too, Johnson seems to have attained a more nuanced view of the possible benefits to be attained from a change of place. Whilst reaffirming that “no man can run away from himself.” as an old one of seventy-four he goes on to declare to Mrs. Thrale that in traveling “he may yet escape from many causes of useless uneasiness. That the mind is its own place is the boast of a fallen angel, that had learned to lie. External locality has great effects, at least upon all embodied beings. I hope this little journey will afford me at least some suspence of melancholy” (Letters, IV, 191).

This, then, may be one of the routes by which Johnson came to be in the Hebrides. But in fact he was deeply and passionately interested in travel, and in travel narratives, throughout his life. Those remarks about London's sufficiency also conceal the urgency of his wanderlust; even, so it was reported, in his early days as a student at Oxford he declared “I'll go and visit the other Universities abroad” (Life, I, 73). At various times he expressed wishes, or made plans, to travel to Iceland, to India, to Sweden, to the shores of the Mediterranean. He even—if momentarily—thought of joining Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on their proposed expedition to the South Seas in 1772 (Life, II, 148). He was fascinated by travel books, which he reviewed and read voraciously, only lamenting, in Idler 97, in 1760, how little they satisfied the desires and curiosity of their reader. After 1762, when Johnson was granted a pension, he left London at least once a year, sometimes for several months. In 1773 he was traveling, mostly on horseback and in boats, but occasionally on foot, across the highlands and western islands of Scotland, with Boswell, thirty years his junior, fit and agile, as Johnson, who passed his sixty-fourth birthday at Dunvegan, was not. In the next two years he went with the Thrales on a tour to north Wales, and then to Paris. When he was sixty-six he wrote to Mrs. Thrale that “Perhaps, if you and Master did not hold me I might go to Cairo, and down the Red Sea to Bengal, and take a ramble in India. Half fourteen thousand [the profits of Thrale's brewery that year] would send me out to see other forms of existence and bring me back to describe them” (Letters, II, 243).

It was “forms of existence,” rather than “life,” then, that he was out to see. Johnson's restless desire to travel, his eager curiosity “to examine the laws and customs of foreign nations” (Life, I, 89) might seem at odds with the conviction of the stability of truth, the universality of human life, and the penchant for the grandeur of generality that distinguishes his work. Johnson was both a man of his time and very modern, both convinced that “wherever human nature is to be found, there is a mixture of Vice and Virtue, a contest of Passion and Reason” as he put it in his Preface to his first published work—the translation of a travel book, Father Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia in 1735), and eager to discover and record the different species of human existence, as his being drawn to Lobo in the first place, of course, proclaims.

The History of Rasselas, The Prince of Abissinia, a Tale, its settings evidently prompted by his earlier interest in Father Jerome Lobo's A Voyage to Abyssinia 1735), indicates something of its author's passionate interest in foreign cultures. But it is easy to forget that Rasselas is set in exotic locations, in Abyssinia, Cairo, and the Egyptian desert, that it tells the story of a journey, and is indeed a kind of travel narrative. Few readers think of it this way because Rasselas, like most of Johnson's work, insists not on variety of experience and culture, but on the homogeneity of human nature whatever its local setting or circumstances. His hero's mentor, Imlac, may be born near the fountains of the Nile, and travel through India and Persia before living three years in Palestine, but the book in which Imlac speaks calls attention continually to the premise that human nature is the same the world over, indeed, that “Human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” Yet Imlac—perhaps he is a vehicle for the author's longings here—tells his listener that when he saw the shores of the Red Sea his “heart bounded like that of a prisoner escaped. I felt an unextinquishable curiosity kindle in my mind, and resolved to snatch this opportunity of seeing the manners of other nations” (Rasselas, p. 34). His impulse in traveling seems to be to see how different customs and cultures are in other parts of the world.

Between Rasselas as travel narrative—drawing on the idiosyncrasies, the differences, of exotic cultures—and Rasselas as moral fable, in which Cairo is just any big city, in which young men are drunken and thoughtless and philosophers betray their precepts, just like anywhere else, there is an odd disparity. “Their way lay through fields, where shepherds tended their flocks, and the lambs were playing upon the pasture”: it scarcely matters that this very English landscape is supposedly to be found “near the lowest cataract of the Nile” (Rasselas, p. 76) because one recognizes implicitly that Johnson's shepherds, like his hermit and philosopher, are representative, lay, figures. Though Johnson certainly makes use of his oriental locale, and includes scenes set near the great pyramid (of which Rasselas's party, interestingly, “measured all its dimensions”) the monument is most memorably used as a text for Imlac to dilate upon “the insufficiency of human enjoyments.” The moralist whose reflections upon human life the tale contains and illustrates is in creative tension with the incipient, perhaps more novelistic, desire to capture particularities of culture and location. Imlac, the reader is told, “was diverted with the admiration which his companions expressed at the diversity of manners, stations and employments” on their journey from the valley: yet the prose that points to this diversity is itself abstract, general, and notional. There is thus a tension between the writer's professed interest in diversity and specificity, and the controlled form and style through which he views them.

Imlac is eager not only to see the manners of other nations, but also “to learn sciences unknown in Abissinia.” Johnson, too, partook of his age's intense curiosity about the natural and physical worlds, as his reviews of books on scientific experiments and medicinal innovations, as well as on travel, suggest. He was himself touched, in a small way, by that drive for knowledge which became so intimately connected with exploration. In 1755, on behalf of his ailing friend Zachariah Williams, he wrote a pamphlet called An Account of an Attempt to Ascertain the Longitude at Sea. Williams had been trying for the large prize that, since 1714, had been offered by parliament for a more accurate way of determining longitude, since the difficulty of doing so was a major impediment to exploration by sea and the development of overseas trade. For this was, of course, the period of British imperial expansion, of the colonization of North America, India, and the Pacific. Imperial and commercial ambitions came together with scientific curiosity and research to jointly promote the exploration of previously unknown regions of the globe.

Foremost among such endeavors were those which surveyed the world (even if a largely watery world) that stretches from China to Peru. Captain James Cook's three voyages to the South Seas (1768-71, 1772-75, 1776-79), in particular, undertaken in the first place for scientific and navigational reasons, came upon many new and isolated island cultures, and contributed much material toward what Johnson describes, in his Preface to Shakespeare, as the current “contest about the original benevolence or malignity of man.” Whether, as followers of Shaftesbury and others were claiming, the native people were innocent and happy, or, being bereft of education and learning, sinful, and vicious, became a major controversy. Johnson's work inevitably reflects, and reflects on, these initiatives, discoveries and arguments.

“The business of a poet,” says Imlac, famously, “is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip” (Rasselas, p. 43). While Johnson is not identified with Imlac's ideals of Enlightenment criticism, the voyages to unknown regions also tested those ideals in an unforeseen way. When the Admiralty and the Royal Society sent out artists to sail with Cook and Joseph Banks in the Endeavour, their instructions were precisely the reverse: they were to number the streaks of the tulip, they were to draw the details of the botanical specimens Banks found on remote islands, to render the forms and colors of exotic life with exact precision. But as Bernard Smith argues in his famous study European Vision and the South Pacific (1959), the artists, when confronted with the need to depict native life, fell back upon the topoi, the poses, the compositional structures bequeathed to them by Enlightenment practices. They rendered the distinct scenes before them as versions of universal human images. A similar tension or ambiguity can be found in Johnson's own work. When Johnson himself began to travel, and to record his experience in the Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), the scientific and anti-romantic imperative—the drive to depict only what he saw and to recount only what he could be sure of—coexisted within a mind and imagination imbued with literary classics and with the desire to see the general within the instance, the need to enhance the particular with the aura of the universal. On the island of Armadale, Boswell discovered a monument to Sir James Macdonald with an eloquent tribute in English. “Dr Johnson said,” he reports, “the inscription should have been in Latin, as every thing intended to be universal and permanent, should be” (Life, V, 154). Accordingly, Johnson bestowed on his Odes commemorating the particular qualities of the isle of Skye the dignity of that classical language.

European colonial expansion occupied Johnson's thinking a good deal, and in his commentaries on this subject, he is especially arresting. The same Preface to Lobo that praises him for recognizing the uniformity of human nature also excoriates the hypocrisy of colonizers who “preach the gospel with swords in their hands, and propagate by desolation and slaughter the true worship of the God of peace.” The European exploration of the world should always, Johnson insisted, be accompanied by an ethical and civilizing mandate, though it was a mandate that in practice, he found, was almost always disregarded. Excited by the prospect of travel and by foreign cultures, he also consistently applied a universalistic Christian moral view to the topic of imperial expansion—whether it was in Africa, America, India, or in Scotland. One recurrent theme in all his travel writings, as Clement Hawes discusses above, concerns what we should now call the rights of indigenous peoples.

His Introduction to “A Collection of Voyages and Travels” called The World Displayed, written in the same year as Rasselas (1759), is an ironic, and at times caustic, history of European (mostly Portuguese) exploration of the African coast in the fifteenth century, and culminating in Columbus's discovery of America. The narrative treats the Europeans as invaders, and devotes a good deal of sarcasm to the civilizing and missionary pretensions of those who are seen to be motivated only by the hope of gain and dominion. The historians Johnson is summarizing describe the amazement of the African natives at Portuguese firepower, and in terms reminiscent of his trenchant criticism of Soame Jenyns's rationalistic theodicy, he comments as follows:

On what occasion, or for what purpose, cannons and muskets were discharged among a people harmless and secure, by strangers who without any right visited their coast, it is not thought necessary to inform us. The Portuguese could fear nothing from them, and had therefore no adequate provocation; nor is there any reason to believe but that they murdered the negroes in wanton merriment, perhaps only to try how many a volley would destroy, or what would be the consternation of those that should escape.

(Works, II, 217-18)2

Johnson is certainly a Christian moralist, but he can hardly, in his many pieces that touch on imperial expansion, be called Eurocentric: the Europeans treated native peoples so badly, Johnson continues, “because they scarcely considered them as distinct from beasts” (II, 218). Here, as in his “Introduction to the Political State of Great Britain” of 1756, “European” is used as an ironic, or even derisory, term. It is apparent that Johnson's thought about the expansion of European horizons, trade, and culture, which was taking place with great energy in his time, turned upon this question of moral values. In his Dictionary of the previous year the words “savage” and “barbarian” are more or less interchangeable, used to define each other, but in this passage, touched with the same mingled indignation and fear at random violence as his review of Soame Jenyns's A Free Inquiry, Johnson discriminates between “savage people,” who are the innocent occupants of their land, and “barbarians,” the European, and British, whose cruelty is the main thing that distinguishes them from the natives. Boswell claimed that “the truth is, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, he allowed himself to look upon all nations but his own as barbarians” (Life, V, 20), but this possibly quite accurate reflection of Johnson's casual talk quite fails to appreciate his attitude in the introduction to The World Displayed. If “the power of Europe has been extended to the remotest parts of the world,” Johnson insists, that is not to be seen as the conquest of civilization. “The Europeans have scarcely visited any coast,” he declares, “but to gratify avarice, and extend corruption; to arrogate dominion without right, and practise cruelty without incentive” (Works, II, 220).

Yet like the imperialist designs that sent Cook across the South Seas, Johnson's interest in foreign places and civilizations was partly utilitarian or centripetal. He was motivated—as were many travelers to India, the Far East, the Pacific, and Australasia—by the possibility of the discovery of “useful arts,” and the hope of finding new medicinal substances; in other words of bringing back useful information to the metropolis. Confessing how much he himself longed to travel in India, he wrote to its Governor-General, Warren Hastings, in 1774 of

how much may be added by your attention and patronage to experimental knowledge and natural history. There are arts of manufacture practised in the countries in which you preside which are yet very imperfectly known here either to artificers or philosophers. Of the natural productions animate and inanimate we yet have so little intelligence that our books are filled, I fear, with conjectures about things which an Indian Peasant knows by his senses.

(Letters, II, 136-37)

At the same time, the apprehension that colonies might be merely exploited never left him. When in 1773 Johnson was “imprisoned” in Skye by the weather, he wrote to bid farewell to his friend and protegé, Robert Chambers, who was soon to depart for Calcutta. “You are going where there will be many opportunities of profitable wickedness,” he declared, adding the hope that Chambers would return “but with fortune encreased, and Virtue grown more resolute by contest” (Letters, II, 86).

In December 1774, Johnson, hearing of the departure of a ship to Bengal, sent Hastings a prepublication copy of his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. “A region less remote and less illustrious than India,” Scotland had yet afforded him “some occasions for speculation” (Letters, II, 160). The Journey, the fruit of his tour with Boswell, is Johnson's only strict contribution to the literature of travel, and in it his universalism and his absorbed interest in local conditions and specific cultures meet and intertwine. Imlac had spoken of “the manners of other nations”; writing to Mrs. Thrale, Johnson speaks of “forms of existence.” There is a subtle difference between these phrases, since “manners” suggests merely styles, cultural idiosyncrasies that decorate or clothe an unchanging moral core. Other “forms of existence” tend to collapse the distinction between nature and culture, implying that the entire human life—its moral as well as its cultural dimensions—may be distinct in different civilizations, that culture, so to speak, goes all the way down. In the Journey, an accurate picture of the distinctiveness of highland life is framed by an encompassing narrative form that holds firm to a reflective or “speculative” standpoint.

In many respects, Johnson's book is a work of early sociology or ethnography. The fruit of much impatience with the vagueness of travel writers, and spurred by the desire to emulate, in however minor a way, the travels that others were undertaking all around him (thus Boswell called it his “transit of the Caledonian hemisphere”) the Journey is filled with the distinctively modern concern of the scientific observer to obtain reliable reports and valid evidence. Both Johnson's devotion to literature and his scrupulousness about evidence contrast, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, with the culture that he is studying and presenting. The highlanders are “an illiterate people, whose whole time is a series of distress.” In Johnson's estimation, they can have no interest in accurate history. Even among the better-off Scots, stories, myths, and false information are continually circulated. They are credulous and uninquiring. This is a largely premodern society in which orality predominates, and which notably lacks a concern with the accuracy and permanence of record. As scholar, and as observer and reporter, Johnson personates a culture very different from the world he is passing through.

But this is not the only way in which the attitude, or sensibility, of the narrator is incommensurate with the cultural landscape he depicts. Johnson's Journey is both episodic and contingent—reflecting the incidents, the vicissitudes, of the journey—and carefully structured and organized. It is a hybrid form whose basic shape is that of a diary, or record of temporal events, yet it contains, in its lengthy middle section, under “Ostig in Sky” (pp. 78-120), a broad sociological overview of all aspects of the culture of the highlands in which narrative momentum is forgotten. The text is also hybrid in that whilst it is committed to a broadly episodic format, picking topics as they are thrown up in the course of the journey certain questions seem to recur continually. In the event, they are thematized, and come to resemble a structured or coherent meditation. Johnson is concerned from the first sentence, with questions that occupy the field marked out by his recurrent terms—“civil,” “elegant,” “polished”—and by “savage,” “primitive,” “barbarian.” This is a traveler's tale, a journey, but it is also the tale of a traveler whose mind is full of questions about civilization, what it is, and what conditions make it possible. A third set of terms—“monuments,” memorials, “letters”—cumulatively become key markers in this pondering of the various meanings of civil and agricultural “cultivation” when confronted by this uncongenial landscape and the primitive hardships of life in the Hebrides.

The culture of the narrator of the Journey is “polished,” ironic, allusive, scholarly; his narrative ranges over times and places. He spans the globe. The stone heads of arrows on Raasay resemble those that “Mr Banks has lately brought from the savage countries in the Pacifick Ocean” (p. 63). He compares the wildness to “the desarts of America” and Col to the Czar of Muscovy. He recalls Roman road builders and Greek poetry. The women of the Macraes “like the Sythian ladies of old, married their servants.” But the terrain before him is isolated, hemmed in by mountains and the sea, an intensely specific and local culture, whose inhabitants are constrained by their circumstances. Their eyes, through barrenness and isolation, are bent on the immediate tasks before them. Johnson, on the other hand, sees beyond the local and the present. He is both a scientific observer, verifying detail with his own eyes (“No man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances,” he writes), and the learned scholar, seeing through the spectacles of books, remarking, for instance, that the road to Fores “to an Englishman is classic ground” (p. 25) or comparing his stay at Raasay with Odysseus at Phaeacia. The presence of both the local, scientific interest and the broad, classical, reflective quality of the text gives the Journey its inner dialectic.

Johnson's qualities as a reporter are best illustrated by the famous passage devoted to his first sight of a highland hut. (He has just compared the highland goats to ones described by Plutarch.) This dwelling place is described at first, as by an ethnographer, in generic terms. “The wall, which is commonly about six feet high, declines from the perpendicular a little inward,” Johnson writes, with typical exactness of mesuration. Yet this careful and specific description passes into the wry reflection that “Huts however are not more uniform than palaces, and this which we were inspecting was very far from one of the meanest, for it was divided into several apartments; and its inhabitants possessed such property as a pastoral poet might exalt into riches” (p. 32). Through the ironic or laconic comparison the reader senses that the speaker is possessed of the civilization, the amenity, that the family he contemplates lacks. The passage continues in a sparse prose that is at least as common in Johnson as his more pompous manner:

When we entered, we found an old woman boiling goat's-flesh in a kettle. She spoke little English, but we had interpreters at hand; and she was willing enough to display her whole system of economy. She has five children, of which none are yet gone from her. The eldest, a boy of thirteen, and her husband, who is eighty years old, were at work in the wood. Her two next sons were gone to Inverness to buy “meal,” by which oatmeal is always meant. Meal she considered as expensive food, and told us, that in spring, when the goats gave milk, the children could live without it. She is mistress of sixty goats, and I saw many kids in an enclosure at the end of her house. She had also some poultry. By the lake we saw a potatoe-garden, and a small spot of ground on which stood four shucks, containing each twelve sheaves of barley. She has all this from the labour of their own hands, and for what is necessary to be bought, her kids and her chickens are sent to market.

(p. 33)

This passage is remarkable for its borrowing of the peasant woman's own voice. Like the other old woman whom Johnson finds living in the vault of the ruined cathedral at St. Andrews, her own speech, in the present tense, comes directly into the narrative.3 The phrase “She has all this from the labour of their own hands” captures even the cadence of her personal pride. By this technique Johnson conveys his subject's stature, and his respect for her, even whilst his material defines the narrowness of her circumstances. Hers is a functioning “system of economy,” a successful wresting from harsh conditions of the rudiments of civilized existence. Johnson specifically relates that, though the kirk is a long way off, “she goes thither every Sunday.”

His account concludes “she begged snuff; for snuff is the luxury of a Highland cottage.” Thus this description is specific, factual, and infused with pathos—the pathos that is brought to the material facts by their association with the broader prospects, the richer resonances, of the narrator's own ironic references to the “pastoral poet,” and to “luxury.” The combination, as exemplified in the episode under consideration, of a reflective, sophisticated sensibility and the starkness and resistance of the life recorded contributes to make the Journey uniquely moving among Johnson's works.

He begins his travels, as many commentators have noticed, with ideas that he is later forced to revise.4 He hopes or expects “to hear old traditions and see antiquated manners,” but he comes too late, for the clans have been reformed by their English conquerors. He discovers as he travels through the barren and inhospitable landscape that “the fictions of the Gothick romances are not so remote from credibility as they are now thought.” At first he harshly criticizes the highlanders for their neglect in planting trees. Later, when he understands more about the highland environment, he perceives that his earlier expectations are the result of an unthinking imposition on this culture of ideas and opinions appropriate only to another. “It may soon be discovered, why in a place, which hardly supplies the cravings of necessity, there has been little attention to the delights of fancy” (pp. 139-40)—soon discovered, that is, by an imaginative observer, able now to participate by proxy in the life before him.

Johnson's earlier notion that “manners” are separate from other aspects of life, that manners may be different but nature is the same, starts to break down. In his section on “The Highlands” he deduces the “savagery” of highland “manners” from the highlanders' geographical situation, each clan cut off by the terrain from each other. The “manners of mountaineers are commonly savage, but they are rather produced by their situation than derived from their ancestors”—an account that derives cultural formations from geographical and economic circumstances. Yet it seems here that “manners” may be indistinguishable from “forms of life”: “such were the qualities of the highlanders,” Johnson concludes, “while their rocks secluded them from the rest of mankind, and kept them an unaltered and discriminated race” (p. 47). This “discriminated race,” filled with enmity “against the wicked inhabitants of the next valley” seems to belie the earlier confidence in the undifferentiation of humankind from “China to Peru.”

Johnson's own broad view—his capacity to survey humankind, and to look back to the Greeks and Romans—is a flower of more genial soil than the highlands provide. In this environment, the records of human struggle over adversity, over time and the elements, acquire a special importance. This is why Johnson is so indignant about the depredations of Calvinism: it has “blasted ceremony and decency together,” obliterating and effacing the records that are the only testimony to man's power to transcend the here and now, and thus to escape from mere “naked existence.” The peasantry of the highlands and the islands have no time nor energy to spare to think about anything but providing for the day that passes over them. Rather than condemning the highlanders for their lack of interest in history, their failure to provide for posterity, he comments now that “we soon found what memorials were to be expected from an illiterate people, whose whole time is a series of distress.” Johnson becomes, in effect, a spokesperson for the highlanders, an advocate for them against the lowland Scots, to whom “the state of the mountains and the islands is equally unknown with that of Borneo or Sumatra.” “Every one is busy for himself, without any arts by which the pleasure of others may be increased; if to the daily burden of distress any additional weight be added, nothing remains but to despair and die” (p. 133). The terms “primitive,” and even “barbarian,” come to evoke not so much savagery, as deprivation.

These are people whose energies are utterly absorbed in the struggle to survive in a bleak, unyielding landscape. Evidence of human life not so absorbed—of the power to reflect on the past and plan for the future—thus acquires a peculiar poignancy. “We did not perceive that this tract was possessed by human beings, except that once we saw a corn-field, in which a lady was walking with some gentlemen,” he writes, and the casual, fleeting glimpse of leisure and cultivation has a epiphanic quality, inscribing value by its rarity. Another such moment is on Mull, inflected more sardonically. “We travelled many hours through a tract, black and barren, in which, however, there were the reliques of humanity: for we found a ruined chapel in our way” (p. 139). “Romance does not often exhibit a scene that strikes the imagination more,” Johnson writes of Inch Kenneth, than ladies and gentlemen practicing “all the kindness of hospitality, and refinement of courtesy” in “these depths of western obscurity” (pp. 142-43).

It is such graphic contrasts as these that make the Journey a testimony to the preciousness of civilized life (see plate 8). Against this remote and harsh background the values that Johnson's own reflective, learned narrative style incorporates are understood and celebrated. “More notions than facts,” as Johnson described his writing to Boswell (Letters, II, 145), the Journey amounts to a powerful meditation on the crucial role that “letters” play in such a life. What defines savagery and barbarianism, in fact, is the absence of literature, of records, and of the capacity to reflect that these denote. The culmination of such thoughts, is Johnson's famous meditation about the ruins of Iona.

“Truth,” declares Imlac, sternly, “is always found where it is honestly sought.” Yet even in Rasselas, it is allowed that since we are embodied and imaginative, rather than wholly rational beings, pilgrimage to sacred places may have its efficacy. “He who supposes that his vices may be more successfully combated in Palestine, will, perhaps, find himself mistaken, yet he may go thither without folly,” declares the sage (Rasselas, p. 48). On Iona, Johnson expresses a sense of the imaginative power of place more fully and genially, and yet with a new moral force drawn from his recent study and understanding of a culture absorbed by the immediate struggle for existence, without reflection and without learning. The speaker, for a moment avowedly confessional, draws together the themes that he has contemplated through the journey from the first sights of ruined cathedrals in St. Andrews and Aberbrothick:

We were now treading that illustrious island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground that has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona?

(p. 148)

With its references to the past and the classics, this writing exemplifies a form of that transcendence over time and immediate contingency that the cathedral itself once instantiated. This is both a representative and a particular place. Like the passage in which Johnson describes the bank surrounded by “unknown and untravelled wilderness” in which he first conceived the thought of writing his book (pp. 40-41), the setting is the necessary adjunct to, part of, the thought, necessary to the thought's full flowering. Yet the thought transcends its moment, its occasion. Iona, in being a particular place, is an exemplar of all such places, and being there prompts Johnson's meditations to rise into their accustomed expansive and generalizing form. Thus in this passage Johnson brings about a rapprochement between his moralizing, universalizing bent and his newly acquired sense of the power and authority of particular landscapes, the spirit of particular places.

Johnson ends the Journey with a modest remark about his having passed his time “almost wholly in cities” (p. 164). His appetite for exploration, at last acted upon, was an expression of that modern, progressive side of his temperament which shared his age's curiosity about the natural world. In his writings on travel there is a creative tension between Johnson the classicist and moralist, insisting on the uniformity of the moral world, and Johnson the modern, the progressive, delighting in the diversity, variousness, and promise of the natural and experiential world. Johnson's thought on the subject of travel is thus caught between the ancient idea of universality and the modern interest in distinctness, between essentialism and ethnography. He is a scientific traveler, observing and measuring, a seeker after facts, yet he admits, especially later in his life, that places cast a spell, and that imagination may legitimately flourish in the presence of the Egyptian pyramids or the ruins of Iona. The central struggles of Johnson's temperament, between the stern rebukes of reason and the solicitations of an irrepressible imagination, are perhaps, then, nowhere more strikingly illustrated than in his thinking about the traveled world.


  1. Roy Porter, Doctor of Society: Thomas Beddoes and the Sick Trade in Late Enlightenment England (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 123.

  2. See Hawes's discussion of this passage, above, pp. 120-21. Compare Johnson's depiction of European cruelty in the World Displayed with the inhumanity of Soame Jenyns's rationalistic theodicy in A Free Inquiry (Greene, pp. 535-36).

  3. “One of the vaults [of the religious buildings in St. Andrews] was inhabited by an old woman, who claimed the right of abode there, as the widow of a man whose ancestors had possessed the same gloomy mansion for no less than four generations. The right, however it began, was considered established by legal prescription, and the old woman lives undisturbed. She thinks however that she has a claim to something more than sufferance; for as her husband's name was Bruce, she is allied to royalty, and told Mr. Boswell that when there were persons of quality in the place, she was distinguished by some notice; that indeed she is now neglected, but she spins a thread, has the company of her cat and is troublesome to nobody” (Journey, pp. 8-9).

  4. See, for example, John B. Radner, “The Significance of Johnson's Changing Views of the Hebrides,” in The Unknown Samuel Johnson, ed. John J. Burke, Jr. and Donald Kay (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), pp. 131-49.

Short Titles and Abbreviations

Rambler III-VThe Rambler, ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, 3 vols. (1969).

Journey A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, ed. Mary Lascelles (1971).

Rasselas Rasselas and Other Tales, ed. Gwin J. Kolb (1990).

Works The Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. Arthur Murphy, 15 vols. (Edinburgh, 1806).

Letters The Letters of Samuel Johnson. The Hyde Edition, ed. Bruce Redford, 5 vols. (Princeton University Press and Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992-94).

Life James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., with a Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L.F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-64).

Greene Samuel Johnson. The Oxford Authors. ed. Donald Greene (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

D. W. Kenning (essay date 1998)

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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, Oku no Hosomichi (“Narrow Roads to the Far North”), he writes his thoughts in a highly compressed prose (haibun) in which are set jewel-like haikai poems. Haikai are short fragments derived from linked-verse sequences (renga), often irreverent, which later were to be called haiku. The account runs no more than eleven pages for the entire nine months of the tour. His companion, Sora, recorded the practical details of the journey in a prose quiet, totally self-effacing (self-erasing), and as dry and matter-of-fact as Bashō's was allusive and evocative. They were the ideal marriage of travel companions.

In 1773, the nagging of James Boswell finally overcame Johnsonian inertia, and their three-month Scottish tour on horseback left us with Samuel Johnson's impressionistic A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Opposite to Sora's, Boswell's account takes us expansively, not only across a landscape, but across the breadth of two extremely rich, varied, forthright, and often conflicting personalities. This is a tour of the mental landscapes of Johnson, and even more, of Boswell himself.

A new book by Earl Miner is always a major event in Japanese literature studies. Now we have the pleasure of Naming Properties: Nominal Reference in Travel Writing by Bashō and Sora, Johnson and Boswell.1 In their mischievous perversity, the Fates let him publish immediately before the recent discovery of the original Bashō manuscript of the journey (as yet unpublished). So much of Miner's convincing deductive speculations of Bashō's thinking, drawn from his evocative brush strokes of prose and poetry and Sora's dusty-dry record, now must face confirmation or possible contradiction.


Miner's project might seem a problematic comparison, as the two protagonist travelers perceived themselves as doing two very different things. Boswell claims Johnson was after people: “Our business was with life and manners.”2 So between being whiskey'd and venison'd by every lord and laird along the way, they also made a point to observe the simple folk, stopping at highland huts which seemed authentic. Across the cultural divide, patronizing condescension met with wary hospitality. Johnson did not moralize much on the rustic folk, though he might well have done so. He did speculate much on social conditions as affected by climate, geography, isolation, and English intrusions. His was endlessly the ever-inquisitive Western mind probing into causality.

This restless Enlightenment intellect is opposite to the Zen plumbing of still waters of Bashō. Johnson is ever thinking empirically, ever judging, ever deciding the independent veracity of what the highlanders would tell him, assuming the truth of the objective must rule the truth of the subjective. Johnson also claimed to have traveled, so Boswell reports, to see “wild objects—mountains, waterfalls, peculiar manners, in short, things which he had not seen before,” though Boswell knew that in truth Johnson had little “taste for rural beauties.” Johnson's “Sir, it is surprising how people will go to a distance for what they have at home” suggests rather an attitude of travel for diversion than for life-changing enlightenment (Journal 334). They may have been on the cusp of Romanticism, as Wordsworth was just at that moment drinking in the sound of the Derwent from his crib, yet this somewhat reactionary sexagenarian was trying to fit Scottish gothic scenes into an old classical “grand tour” paradigm. He was not on the kind of Romantic “grand tour” of a backpacking Keats several decades later, seeking Scottish sublimity with a Romantic epistemology, by which grand scenes would act an autonomous (Wordsworthian) agency within him to inspire and empower his poetry. Johnson's motives were, in fact, rather weak. He was no natural traveler, though his inertia was like a great tanker, hugely slow to force underway, then long to stop. Once Boswell had pushed and pulled Johnson onto the road to Scotland, momentum carried him to Wales in 1774, France in 1775, the Peak District in 1776 and 1777, Lincolnshire in 1778.

Not for them was the self-imposed austerities of the religious pilgrimage of Bashō. Johnson and Boswell were self-indulgent, full-living men in a full-living age. Johnson fed sumptuously off the generosity of his friends and a royal £ 300 allowance; “not a temperate man,” Boswell noted—an observation which would have been an understatement regarding his own often wildly epicurean pleasures, as he often admitted. Bashō's life was dedicated the opposite way. Zen is not about filling the mind (nor the stomach) but in emptying it. His “only desire for this life is to see the beauty of the seasons.” Even austerity must not be allowed to be an indulgence: “It is a sin for me now to love my little hut, and my attachment to solitude may also be a hindrance to enlightenment.”3

Brahmin asceticism laid out a fourfold career. A pious man begins as a student of a Brahmin master, then becomes a family man, then withdraws from his family to become an itinerant holy man, a sannyásin, and the spiritual arc of his life culminates in his becoming a sramanas, a wandering ascetic. This pattern was taken up by Buddhism and reached its most elevated and austere expression in Japanese Zen. In Europe, the stream of this Eastern asceticism, which trailed westward and merged into Christianity, all but vanished with the Renaissance. It resurfaced with the Romantics (Wordsworth's St. Basil, the “eremites” of Blake and Shelley), but it was not part of Johnson's materialist Christianity.

Religions in general, and Eastern religions especially, traditionally speak their revelations in poetry. In most cultures, poetry took the dual track of the demotic and religious. In the Chinese legacy, in the poetry of learning and high culture, Buddhist values shaped and defined poetic expression. And in its deferential way, Japanese poetry of learning and the court sought its power in honka-dori, a poetic reference or allusive gesture back to Chinese culture. Mostly as a result of his prominence during the most Sinophilic age for the Japanese, Li Po (712-60) was adopted as their mentor for poetry, as the highest road to spiritual transcendence. The great poets of Japan devoted themselves to this tradition. Saigyō (1118-90) had chosen when twenty-three to become a recluse, and his contemptus mundi life and poetry became the chief bridge from the Chinese into the Japanese tradition.

Bashō revered Saigyō, taking him as his exemplar, almost his personal bodhisattva. Oku no Hosomichi followed the footsteps of one of Saigyō's own journeys. Bashō had entered fully into the role of wandering poet-priest, the deeply “religious” life-as-art moral aesthetic of Japanese tradition. His motives also were derived from his class, as he was of the rōnin class of redundant wandering samurai. The Chinese tradition behind Saigyō and Bashō is not only of the traveling poet-priest, or the wandering bard, but also the young aristocrat (e.g., Hseih Ling-yün, AD 385-433, as well as Bashō himself and Gautama) adopting this role. Bashō did not seek to proselytize Zen, but to be a non-denominational “kind of Nature troubadour.”4 No more than the young Romantics did he trust formal religion, however deeply he and all Japanese aesthetics were steeped in the Buddhist-Confucian iconography and ethic, as the Romantics were in the Christian. For both, the religious establishment had almost from the beginning sold its soul for political power and become cabalistic and priest-infested. Yet, his adopted role was Zen regardless, and self-consciously so, saying of himself that he “resembles a priest but is soiled by the dirt of this world; and he resembles a layman but has a shaven head.” Bashō's stepping into this tradition was exactly the strong move a serious poet must make.

          Another year gone
straw travel hat and sandals
          I find I'm wearing.

More than a kind of mendicant friar, where the act is private and the virtue personal, this is a public role of saint and seer. So, human nature being what it is, both Buddhist and Christian ascetic traditions fell into self-mythologizing, self-conscious role-playing. Saigyō and Bashō became the living definition of wabi, as Gautama had been and Gandhi was to be. In each case, as in Christ's riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, self-consciously they put themselves into a tradition of ascetic humility, a tradition which they knew would resonate deeply with the people they hoped to save from the follies and miseries of their age. There is only a faint echo of this takuhatsu-sō idea in the Romantic hiking and traveling, in the backpacking of Keats, in the Wordsworth of excursions, reclusions, and itinerant leechgatherers, in the Coleridge of tempest-tossed mariners and long foot tours of Scotland.

In the real world, of course, the wabi role of asceticism, the poet as wandering priest, poverty as a virtue, cultivated simplicity, could never fully be realized. In his maturity, Bashō found ever more tiresome the materialism and grotesque, flagrant public immoralities of Edo life. And as his fame grew, even blandishments of well-wishers and hangers-on drove him to seek solace on pilgrimages: “we may form an image of him as a person whose life was spent in journey after journey.” Both his nature and his role demanded humility, but he was dogged by an adoring retinue close on his heels and a welcome committee in every town. An unassuming man who sought little more than quiet evenings with a few friends, the spiritual demands of his age thrust him to the head of a movement. He became and remains the voice for that Japanese yearning to find virtue, not in the sublime mysteries of the unintelligible or the pyrotechnics of wit, but in slow-rolling comfortable (though bottomless) ordinariness (sabi), a yearning that always sought spiritual redress in poetry.

Bashō's three-fold purposes in travel, Miner notes, seem quite strange to us: “to recognize and honor places poetically familiar, to compose poetry in sittings (za) with others met on the journey, and to set out as if death may be expected.” The first of these we will consider in a moment; the third takes us beyond this study (or should, though Miner spends some small time on it). The second, conviviality and comradeship, was critical, for poetry in Japan meant a communal enterprise, communally defined, and a poet's art existed only as interwoven with, evaluated by, and completed by others. Japanese identity (the “self”) was only completed in relations with others. Bashō's role merged the tradition of poet-as-holy recluse with the communality of linked poetry; his simple dwelling, significantly, lurked on this margin, at the edge of the city. The shōmon poets (the followers of Bashō) were torn within this schizophrenic tradition: Japanese sociability encouraging the idea of the poet as a social communal fellow, exemplified by renga conviviality, against the long religious-ascetic tradition of the Buddha, through Li Po and Saigyō, of the poet in self-contained internal exile. They felt the need to serve both the god of seclusion and the mammon of camaraderie. In practice, the shōmon poets gathered like monks, trying to be recluses and communal at the same time. Likewise, but without the excuse of a tradition of communal poetry, the English Romantics, especially, honored the Wordsworthian ideal of the Recluse more in the breach. Yet, whatever the communality, unlike Johnson's long reception line of new acquaintances, Bashō's sought poetic company was long past. In the broad reverence for ancestral echoes of the Asian religions, for Bashō, “the important names are those of named evocative places and poets of a valued past evoked by allusion.” Not a visionary company, but the company of visions.

Whether to be a Shintō-Zen “troubadour,” or simply to seek what was different, it was necessary for both that travel be away from their normal milieu of the city and into the countryside. “I have now the pleasure of going where nobody goes, and seeing what nobody sees,” said Johnson, not so as to impress the crowd back in London, but rather with some vague sense of enriching himself (or less charitably, diverting himself) with novelty: “We go to see something different from what we are accustomed to see.” After the Jacobite ’45, increasing waves of English tourists rolled north to gawk at the primitives. Few had much better idea than Johnson of why they were going, beyond curiosity. Travel, then as now, often merely justifies itself.

Bashō, like the Romantics, had a loftier vision, and again we sense that Miner would have found more fruitful comparison with one of the many travel narratives of the Romantics than with the Enlightenment Johnson. Keats' own “oku no hosomichi” to Scotland (his Sora was his friend Brown) made a strong Romantic break with the classical “grand tour,” just as Bashō sought to counter the secular Neo-Confucianists of his time. More to the point, both pursued a natural sublimity itself autonomous, to be approached with negatively capable humility, in deference to be touched. “I thought it would give me more experience, rub off more prejudice, use to more hardship, identify finer scenes, load me with grander mountains, and strengthen my reach in Poetry, than would stopping at home among books, even though I should reach Homer.”5 For Bashō, the landscape equally was infused with spiritual life, though in a far more animist Shintō-Celtic way. Though he was a Buddhist following a long Buddhist tradition and emphasized the power of the sublimities of history and cultural provenance welling up from the great pilgrimage sites for priest-poet-scholar, his Japanese eye caught the moving shadows of the minor genii of a place, the Shintō animist divinities that sprinkle their magic over the timeless moment of a haikai.


Johnson and Bashō traveled out of great urban centers in full flood of economic boom and bourgeois revolution, but Johnson celebrated London as the very definition of life, while Bashō fled Edo as from Sodom. Each found a landscape of rugged mountains and rushing rivers; in Japan there were deep and dark forests. Each found a people as rough-hewn as the land, as isolated from modernity and distrustful. Yet they found a land already long under the human yoke. In both cases slightly more than a millennium of intensive use had transformed what they would see; in Japan rice spread across every horizontal acre, and in Scotland the hills were denuded of their trees to support the seafaring English and increasingly fuel-hungry industry. Further, each also found a land which within their own generation finally had been conquered, was newly under an oppressive central authority, and was being drained of vitality by great gravitational cities. Thus, each found a rural culture in decline. The very year of Johnson's travels, 1773, saw the first ship transporting the highlanders into exile, and the clearances figure large in Johnson's account. The ’45 had brought down the English fist hard upon the people. English forts stood watch over highland castles, and military roads tramped across the moors, bringing not only soldiers, but merchants, goods, books, and “slumming” English travelers. Clan society was ripped apart by English policy, the social tissue sloughed off in the birth pangs of the industrial, commercial society. “We came too late to see what we expected,” Johnson lamented. Bashō found a people newly under the thumb of the Tokugawa bakufu, and if its writ could never be enforced as firmly as the English in Scotland, its greater demands in tax and tribute strangled the productivity of a people never before touched by the world outside of their valleys. The culture shock and social disruption was as great.

Boswell said they sought rustic “life and manners,” but Johnson, the less empathetic soul, little distinguished wild people from wild landscapes. Johnson claimed to value travel, as he advised Boswell on another occasion, to “read the book of Mankind,” but he himself was not always a kindly or tolerant reader of what he saw there. One thing none of them was after was to approach too closely the actual poor. The rural poor could be championed while being safely pastoralized from a distance, while the urban poor could be pitied or scorned while easily avoided. Social concerns lay shallow. Only in a general way did their sympathies go out to folk and rural culture, and only from the standpoint common in liberal thought today, a patronizing fear of its loss under the pressure of overwhelming bourgeois modernism.

Seemingly with the Romantic twinge of a Burns or Scott, in the twenty-fourth entry of Oku no Hosomichi, Bashō gestures toward valuing the rural folk songs and traditional ballads he finds on his travels in the far valleys:

          Beginnings of culture
in the rural countryside
          rice-planting songs.

Yet, if he felt strangely touched by these songs, still, this is a poem of observation, not of the heart. Less than to Johnson would it ever occur to him that these songs were worth collecting or preserving. Rather, his thoughts were on the contrast of primitive song and high culture as illustration of the Buddhist lotus-blossom allegory of transcendence arising from the dulling and stupefying mud of common existence. For the allegory to work, the peasant must remain firmly in the mud:

          All day in the fields
working in mud and water
          bowing to the truth.

Social criticism is exactly what Zen and the poetics of revelation are not about. Miner makes too much of Bashō's allusions to the sad stories of Yoshitsune (in the Hiraizumi passages) and elsewhere. Surely Bashō's point is as in the Nō, the sublimity of suffering, the religious power of the unresting soul, and not veiled references to the current Tokugawa government. Like Wordsworth and his “hunger-bitten girl,” Bashō uses social injustice as evocative material for his own poetic-religious insight, for revelation, not revolution. Johnson may be insensitive enough to conflate rustic landscape and muddy peasants, but Japanese poetic religiousness demanded finding a timeless spirituality in specific place, across which the lives of peasants flicker like clouds of mayflies.


Both required specificity, not just general inspiration, but specific sites and views of Nature. Johnson, it is true, expressed little more idea of specific objectives than a vague desire to see the Outer Hebrides, and even this Boswell dismissed as “a very romantick fancy.” Boswell was in control and no more than necessary (usually when Johnson roused himself to complain) would he permit Johnson's wishes to interfere with his own purposes for the trip. His highly specific itinerary meant to give Johnson the packaged Scottish highlights tour, including a succession of clan chieftains, whose grandeur, or at least civility, Boswell hoped would reflect well on his country and of course on himself. The tour was to have a focus or climax on Iona, though it was more to give shape to the logistics of the itinerary than for any putative spiritual centering of their journey. Iona had more power for Boswell, in the Bashō way, as evocative of the melancholy receding line of Scottish kings, and from this deep provenance, in the event, Boswell has his own epiphany.

The Japanese are a bit more self-consciously spiritual about the purpose and shape of travel and less concerned with epistemology or moral inspirations. Specific sites were more overtly pilgrimage destinations. Similar to images of Nature in their spiritual power were sites associated with former poets, now elevated to “sacred” places. Poets made pilgrimages to touch tangibly the physical expression of important moments in the poetic heritage. Two of Bashō's journeys ostensibly were to see a certain full moon in a certain season at a certain notable place. He made a detour of several days to see a specific cherry tree in a lagoon at Kisagata of which Saigyō had written. Utamakura (“pillow song”) suggest the poetic power of places quite specific and historically significant. The renga linked verse tradition categorized places of aesthetic hence spiritual importance in four categories: peaks (sanrui), waterside (suihen), residences of inspired men (kyosho), and places of poetic importance (nadokoro). A specific catalogue of these was compiled and revered in the tradition. Other places, though perhaps of equal beauty, did not matter. Sōgi (1421-1502), the other great influence on Bashō, observes in his travel diary of one site, “It was not a famous place, so I took no special note of it.”6 By contrast, it was for opposite reasons Johnson neglects to describe Edinburgh: “On the eighteenth of August we left Edinburgh, a city too well known to admit description, and directed our course northward. …” Miner observes how the Western tradition uses travel to seek for difference (Johnson sought to see “things which he had not seen before”), while the Japanese seek for affirmation of what they already know. Certainly we can see this in the group pilgrimages of Japanese tourism, where the most familiar and archetypical images of the most familiar and archetypical sites are most prized. Yet, to seek affirmation is a religious quest, and travel to affirm the roots of our ethics and world view is common for Westerners as well; it certainly drives America tourism to Europe. So had Shelley and Byron sailed around Lake Geneva on a quest for Rousseau. Inevitably, reality could not match a spiritualizing, idealizing mind and there must be a letdown. Byron ducked the problem by sneering at all descriptive writing. Keats' secondary purpose on his Scotland tour was a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Robert Burns, but he was infuriated at the commercialization, the sacrilege he found there. Bashō felt disappointment and poetic blockage at the great site of Matsushima. Both Keats and Bashō returned home wearied and touched by approaching death.

Emphasizing place and the specific moment brings us closer to Miner's promised investigation of naming, for if it can universalize something, initiating it into a family hierarchy of a world of similarly named things, a name also gives it particularity. Bashō's poems quite specifically “evoke a context,” are “not isolated instances of lyricism, but cries of their occasions.”7 Enlightenment writers and Romantics both used specificity, and often to absurd lengths in titles, such as Coleridge's “Effusion XXXV, Composed August 20th, 1795, at Clevedon, Sommersetshire,” or Wordworth's “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.” Exactness in geographical or temporal specificity really did empower the moment of experience. First, in terms quite like Zen, as we are creatures of a day, living in the day's dulling and specifying light, the timeless can be entered only through the portal of an exact moment. Further, for the English Romantics especially did such specificity justify the poet's attempts to weave a coherent moral picture of the developing man and even further to make cohere the very sense of self. Yet, by contrast, specific dates or seasons and places of poetic importance achieved sublimity ironically through an unspecific sublime evocativeness of its name. So the Japanese place names are highly specific and inflexible in their referent, but the reference itself has the opposite effect from the wordy precision of the Romantics, being brief and as simple and suggestive as a brushstroke, yet with rolling echoes. Miner notes,

The aesthetic of place-names (chimei bigaku) in Japanese literature … differs from Western concepts in one direct and one more contextual way. The direct reflects the existence of a Japanese aesthetic of poetic place-names in a sense and to a degree not true of most other cultures … [including] a systematic view of places as sacred to local divinities or to codification in literature over the centuries. Bashō is required somehow to recall the autumn at Shirakawa no Seki, although he has arrived in summer.

Places of poetic importance (nadokoro) were passed and touched like prayer beads, each a different kind of prism-jewel, and like beads there is nothing of the road between. Speaking their names, like the ritual chant of the name of Amida, itself has transcending power. As its name evoked its Platonic image and power, its name was more important than the physical site itself. For Sōgi, unpoetic places did not exist and thus there was only one kind of existence for the traveling poet-essayist: a landscape of timeless verities. In Oku no Hosomichi, unpoetic places and dates are relegated to Sora; the nadokoro Bashō took for himself. He met as many notables and was as honorably wined and dined as Johnson and Boswell, but this has no place in his account of a spiritual journey. Yet if we are to take the poet on his own terms, then Miner is right to dwell longest on where Bashō himself failed (or succeeded) in entering the eternal truth the site offers through the portal (the textual, poetic) of its name. Bashō judged honestly his own state of revelation, his own spiritual worthiness against his aesthetic response to the crucial utamakura of nakokoro like Shirakawa Barrier or Matsushima.


Miner argues that specificity of “place” (hence names) has more importance than specificity of time, and as Bashō floats timelessly across a landscape of names we can see his point. It was left to Boswell and Sora to record the progress of time, though Boswell too felt this to be a secondary necessity; his eye was on immortality as well, and time loosens slightly from narrative as he poses craggy Johnson for us against a backdrop of craggy landscapes and obsequious lords.

If Sora, Boswell, and Dorothy Wordsworth were self-effacing and deferential to the geniuses they traipsed along behind, yet in the Western necessity of individualism, Dorothy and Boswell could not but let their own geniuses blossom into brilliant journals. (To be fair, even Sora, in his Zen self-discipline, did not only record names and dates, but slipped a few haikai into the text as well.) In this Renaissance-Romantic moral imperative of self-realization for every individual imagination lay a fundamental religious difference between the two cultures: if the individual imagination is the voice of divinity, then it must be expressed; if it muddies pure revelation, then dharma humility requests it not be. The gulf to Bashō here is unbridgeable, for Sora's very punctiliousness frees Bashō for complete detachment. Sora must be there scribbling dates, for without time it ceases to be travel, but in “place” (and its own echoes of a different measure of time) lay the spirituality of the experience. It has nothing to do with the actual quotidian, lunar, or annual round; on a path laid down of hokku stones, his is a Platonic journey, the spiritual arc of the Brahmin-Buddhist tradition, emblematic of life, spiritual growth, and transcendence. The passage of time for Bashō is a golden thread running through a classical poetic sequence where place-names are the poem-like beads. So it is that Bashō shapes the actual physical travel as a kasen, a thirty-six stanza linked poetry sequence, then shapes his account of the trip to match the pattern. With this insight, Miner touches on the heart of the incompatibility of these two sets of narratives. Travel as a metaphor for life is a Western commonplace. For the Japanese, a spiritual journey through the intricate and complex thematic structure of a linked poetry sequence is itself a mandala; so poetry becomes a metaphor for travel. If all travelers fictionalize their accounts, only the Japanese would do so to fit an ideal spiritual journey. Bashō invented the two-prostitute episode in Oku no Hosomichi for precisely this structural reason, placing it in the arc of the travel-poem where the subject of “love” should appear in a kasen. This ironic puncturing of a pretense while simultaneously honoring the tradition was very much to the purpose of his lifetime poetic mission.

So revelation comes out of reference and specificity of place through the portal of a name, and Miner's purpose, he tells us, is to come to understand this very human act of naming, the Adamic act of highest importance whereby we come to possess and then control our world. This is the great and first expression of human agency, as Miner observes, the great act of Adam (with its analogy to the earliest language) in naming things as the first step to defining, classifying, then controlling our world. Naming means acquiring psychological possession of something. As a horror or sin which could not be named existed without shape, in darkness and thus threateningly out of control, then our own first infant acts of language were naming acts, as we struggled to gain control over a threatening world. Likewise, as these four men made their way across a strange landscape, they too needed to define it and their relation to it by the quintessentially human act of naming. Miner wants to know what (and how) the specific names they use—pre-existent, invented, or modified—tell us about these men, their cultures, their times, about the places, and about the act of naming itself. And what might have seemed to be a somewhat abstruse academic study becomes a window on the entire human response to an external world of uncertain reality. Johnson might have kicked a stone in skeptical irritation, but Bashō would have approved.

Yet, Miner approaches his putative subject—the actual naming done by our travelers—like a minefield. One-third of the book passes in a painstaking combing of the philosophical ground. He opens with a look at the scholarly work of comparative literature itself and finds it wanting, finds it lacking an agreed theory or methodology (this “scandal” has been a bugbear of his for some time). Thus, he proceeds to supply us with one:

First, then, for (intercultural) comparison to be just, it is necessary that there be a credible assumption of sameness in the two sides. Second, it must be assumed that the differences do not disqualify the “credible assumption” but are revealing and important. Third, there must be a standing caveat that neither the sameness nor the differences violate the integrity of those observed.


This is sufficiently general as hardly to brook argument, though it might be argued that it does not take us very far. Still, it is a start, and gives him leave to take us on a quick troll through the various philosophical treatments of the meaning of names and naming. Questions about what kind of word constitutes a name and how names relate to their associated objects steers us toward names as “signifiers,” and onto the shoals of literary theory. All words (but for articles and conjunctions, the footmen and doormen of language) are types of naming. Plato's Cratylus becomes the foundation text, the initiation of notions of the arbitrariness of naming and of its baptismal quality. But Platonic detachment brings only sporadic mists over notions of reality in accounts as tied to the physical world as travel narratives. Especially in more quotidian narratives and texts we are more comfortable when names are nouns and adhere more stubbornly to objects, as we would prefer reality to have some enduring identity. To keep this continuity, he observes, more readily will we change titles than names. Perhaps we are, as were Johnson and Boswell, too much children of the secular, empirical, classifying Enlightenment to be comfortable with shiftiness in naming. We were not so in our more religious ages, when under Platonic or Judeo-Christian sway renaming could be rebirth, so that Jacob became Israel and Saul become Paul. In Japan, there never was such a schism between the ontologies of faith and the language of daily discourse with the world. Buddhism never admits to the comforts of continuity, and as reality is only flux, then names likewise are free to change with the redefinition of the referent.

Miner brushes aside concerns about referentiality and the truth value of names. He has little patience for any slipperiness of names (as language) as signifiers, less for names as signs having agency. He nails his colors to the mast of referentiality, in defense of “meaning,” “psychology,” and the coherence of experience in general. He wants to talk about how we use names, not the reverse. So Miner does not linger in abstract discussions of the ambiguities of names as referents, but limits himself to three kinds of common noun genre: names of people, places, and times, and only “real” people, places, and times.

Writing on travel puts most stress on person, but unlike any other form of writing, it specifies that “person” be defined and outlined, a player on a stage whose dimensions are time and space. Johnson's purpose of travel “to see something different,” the encountering of something you had not before seen, requires some kind of act of naming, some adoption of adaptation of a name, to situate it in reference to yourself. Throughout the narrative, we are reminded of how reciprocal this act of naming can be; only in the least important sense do we give names to places from their intrinsic qualities. We impress ourselves upon the world by attaching our own names to places and things no less than do rulers or explorers. Bashō takes his nom de plume from a plantain tree his followers planted next to his cottage, then turns around and names the cottage after himself, his Bashō-an. So the landscape returns the honor by naming us, as, for example, Johnson observed (with disapproval) how highland lairds took the name of their dominion or estate, being spoken of as “Col” or “Raasey.” Boswell, Miner suggests, more than most loses his sense of self without external referent. He defines himself in terms of Johnson (and others) and then defines Johnson (for us) in terms of himself.

Japanese literature is notable for the absence of a strong sense of “self,” of the all-consuming Romantic “Ich.” But it is there regardless, as Miner subtly observes, only as a self not seeking constant reassurance by babbling on about its own selfhood. The continuing self is what Bashō stressed and by which the changing self must be defined. Bashō must define himself, as Sora offers no self against which he might be defined. These two, of course, have adopted these roles—the selfless ministrant to the self-defined master—as the tradition and the aesthetic act of travel-as-poem requires it. Miner decides that it is Bashō who best fuses travel and art, who brings the physical landscape, natural and human, into his aesthetic response to it across the bridge of naming it, a bridge that is an act of appropriation and assimilation, but also one of passive, Zen, response, that a name might indeed shape the namer.

Yet, not satisfied with this fruitful investigation of the interaction of name and namer, regretfully Naming Properties wanders into the notion of the “self” as a named property. Miner lets his discussion drift up from the rocky business of place-names and the dialogue of place and its evocations, into dreamy flights of its speculative consequences for ideas of the “self.” In pursuit of illuminations of “selfhood,” like the close reader of poetry he is, Miner loves to find endless caverns of reverence and meanings within the most ordinary passages. A phrase in Boswell, like “we had roasted kid,” he gnaws to the bone and worries like a highland terrier. Textual labyrinths are his roasted kid, and wonderfully enigmatic quotations introduce chapters. It is all great fun and for tens of pages we forget all about naming properties. Rather, “properties” come to include “selfhood and personhood,” of “naming as one means of defining, human identity.” This opens the door onto whole new landscapes of problematic philosophical tangles, dark forests seeded by Locke's speculations on self-ownership, which unnecessarily confuse our way. Not only does this diffuse the focus, but studies of character and explorations of psychologies are familiar and not nearly as unique and illuminating as a comparative study of the naming qua naming of places, of the external landscape shaping and shaped by internal landscapes, which Miner promised us.

Chapter Five returns finally to the theme, but then again he feels the need to fend off more dragons of criticism and prove that our travelers were real, with thoughts and intentions. So again we go to battle with deconstruction, idealism, and skepticism, and the chapter trots off on a crusade of truth-defining. He spooks too easily at eidolons of idealism, which seem not to remain in the pit he continually digs for it. He is convinced that modern critical skepticism is death to his project, as the authorial act of naming itself, already an act and product solely in the mind, might evaporate entirely if the author's mind itself were ruled out of bounds. Ultimately, he argues, naming as language makes a claim on truth in a way non-linguistic realities cannot, in that names have no independent reality as things-in-themselves, and thus their truth value resides entirely in authorial use and convention. For such a conservative conclusion, it seems a long way to go to discover what we already knew (and accepted or knew and rejected).

Still, throughout this study, Miner takes us on a useful and insightful journey, and if the way is not always straight, there is much to stimulate thought. We arrive at “the conclusion that naming is a species of reference,” which requires “an agent referring,” something “physical or conceptual referred to,” some “spatiotemporal place” for the naming act, and, some other, for whom the naming is done. This other—for an author presumably it is the readers—gets short shrift, for Miner is most interested in naming as an act of self-definition. If, as both Zen and Romanticism tell us, we are drifting clouds, then it is by tossing out defining lines of names that we may take measure of ourselves and the passing world. Bashō, in his last known verse, reaches out to us as he felt his anchorage slipping:

          Broken by travel
dreams whirl and chase each other
          across wasted fields.


  1. Miner, Naming Properties (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, P, 1996).

  2. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell: A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, [1775, 1786] 1984) 54.

  3. Sankashú (1207), trans. Donald Keene, qtd. Seeds in the Heart (New York: Henry Holt, 1993) I:764.

  4. Daisetz Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959) 254.

  5. Letter to Bailey, 18 July, 1818, from Inverary.

  6. Meisho naraneba shíte kokoro tomarazu (“Journey Along the Tsukushi Road,” 1480), qtd. in Keene, Seeds 973.

  7. Cid Corman, Back Roads to Far Towns: Bashō's Oku-no-hosomichi, Introduction.

Deirdre Coleman (essay date 1999)

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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.

As her narrative makes plain, Anna Maria Falconbridge had no intention whatsoever of venting her rage by kissing the rod which had punished her. Indeed, the image of such a double chastisement, dealt out by patriarchal authority to children and other subordinates, is ironically positioned at the opening of a text in which the author's ‘infant pen’ rises up rebelliously against a misguided and oppressive paternalism. If the infant colony of Sierra Leone was growing up to be a refractory child rather than a docile and obedient one, then the responsibility for that lay wholly, she argues, at the feet of its absentee ‘father’ in London, the Directors of the Sierra Leone Company. It could even be argued that, from the start, this particular colonial infant was destined to be a turbulent and dissatisfied child. Sharp's trope of the ‘ill-thriven swarthy daughter’ reminds us of the inequality built into the paternalist, colonial relationship—the inequality of his unquestioned authority as a wealthy white male, and the disenfranchised, dependent condition of women and blacks in the late eighteenth century. Falconbridge was acutely aware of her relative insignificance, her subordinated ‘child’ status vis-à-vis the prestigious Company, with its board of prominent, wealthy abolitionists, several of whom, like Wilberforce, were amongst the most powerful men in the land. Realistically, she chose irony as the best weapon to brandish at the outset, whilst prudently seeking ‘protection’ for her ‘infant pen’ from her native, slave-trading port of Bristol.1

John Clarkson, who brought the loyalist blacks from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, is the good father figure of Falconbridge's story, a mild and kindly first governor who did his best, in unpromising circumstances, to fulfil the promises which he in good faith believed had been made to the loyalists by the Company's Directors. His rule in Sierra Leone did not go unchallenged by the blacks,2 and there is more than a hint of arrogance in his belief, reported by Falconbridge, that by lifting up his finger he could do what he pleased with them. Nevertheless, he prized the settlers as potentially first-rate colonists, and despaired when they grew disaffected by the mismanagement and corruption of the petty white officers placed over them.3 Surviving letters from the Nova Scotians often refer to his sweet and gentle behaviour, ‘as kind and tender to us as if he was our Father’.4 In contrast, Botany Bay's William Dawes was the bad father figure, both for Falconbridge and for the black settlers. His severe demeanour and remote, autocratic behaviour, whilst suitable, Falconbridge wrote, ‘for a Colony formed wholly of Convicts, and governed by the iron rod of despotism, should be scrupulously guarded against in one like this, whose basis is Liberty and Equality’. Clarkson held similar reservations about Dawes's appointment, noting in his journal that the ‘arbitrary proceedings’ of a penal colony would never do as a model for Sierra Leone because the Nova Scotians required careful handling, having been ‘deceived through life’ by whites.5 Later, incensed by the news that the Company had dismissed Clarkson, and that Dawes was to be their new governor, the Nova Scotians lost no time in capitalizing on the recent sensational news from France. With some glee, Falconbridge tells us they intimidated their new ruler by ‘reminding him of the recent melancholy fate of Louis XVI. and threat[e]ning something similar to him, if he did not instantly acquiesce with some demand they made relating to provisions’.

If bad, despotic fathers abound in this tale, we also have in Alexander Falconbridge the tyrannical, capricious husband. This marriage seems to have been a mistake from the start, with Falconbridge unsympathetically presenting her new husband as a hot-tempered and argumentative zealot in the anti-slavery cause. There is no doubt that he was a courageous man, an invaluable ally in Thomas Clarkson's campaign to lay first-hand evidence of the slave trade's barbarity before the House of Commons. But he had a weakness for drink, and by all accounts was brutal to his wife.6 Thus, when he obligingly killed himself with drink on the second trip out, Falconbridge bluntly informs her correspondent that she has no regrets, and promptly re-marries another Company employee—Isaac DuBois, a cotton-planter and prosperous American loyalist from a southern slave-holding family.7 Indeed, her two marriages, the first in 1791, the second in 1793, reflect the waning popularity of abolitionism as it became more closely associated with radicalism. Towards the end of 1793, after leaving Sierra Leone for the last time, Falconbridge hears that Wilberforce and Tom Paine have been burnt together in effigy at Kingston, Jamaica. Although ostensibly offended by the bracketing of Wilberforce with that ‘incendiary’ Paine, she nevertheless couples them as extremists. Wilberforce's abolitionist zealotry springs, she writes, from ‘too keen notions of humanity, and too zealous a desire of doing good.’

While the Company's Report of 1794 may have provided the immediate provocation for Falconbridge's Two Voyages, there is no doubt that her book seeks to undermine the authoritative moral position of her first husband's well-known Account of the Slave Trade, published in 1788.8 Certainly one reviewer of Two Voyages made the connection between husband and wife, cross-referencing her book with his horrifically detailed and explicit description of the sufferings of the middle passage.9 Clearly, six years later, the Account still had currency in any discussion of Africa or of the slave trade. On the first of her two journeys to Sierra Leone, Falconbridge begins to complicate her first husband's anti-slavery case by dramatically positioning herself between the English slave traders on Bance Island and an abolitionist husband who, in refusing to fraternize with those ‘diabolical’ traders, imprisons her on board the Company's trading vessel. Placing herself in the position of the captive slave, she describes herself as ‘pent up in a floating cage, without room, to walk about, stand erect, or even to lay at length’. Ironically, socializing with the ‘genteel’ slave traders on Bance Island seems like freedom compared to the coarse slavery of her marriage to an abolitionist.10 Furthermore, by the time of her happy second marriage she has won through, she says, to a new independence of mind, one which argues that slavery is the only efficient and rational economy for the present (in this she proves herself to be a true daughter of Bristol). Two years later, with second husband in tow, she leaves Sierra Leone for good on the Nassau, a Bristol slave ship commanded by her brother, Captain Morley.11 Complete with human cargo en route to England via Jamaica, the Nassau sounds like the eighteenth-century equivalent of a luxury liner. Although Falconbridge is apprehensive of being ‘exposed to indelicacies, too offensive for the eye of an English woman’ she is ‘agreeably disappointed’ by the excellent food, accommodation and care given to the slaves. Yet again the aim is to subvert her first husband's well-known description of the slaves' appallingly cramped conditions and inedible food.12

Falconbridge's encounter with Africa is relatively unique in offering us the story of a woman's attempt to find her feet in an infant, rather than settled, colonial venture. Unlike later wives who accompanied their husbands to farflung places where the hierarchies of gender, race and class appeared to be rigidly in place, and where racial segregation and the public/private spheres were more clearly delineated, Falconbridge finds herself in a more fluid and unformed environment. Motivated primarily by an appetite for new and exciting adventure, she does not view herself as the standard-bearer of civilization to a benighted world. Quite the contrary: if anything, she is something of a rogue, conspicuously lacking in the stricter codes of propriety familiar to us in English women travellers of a later period. Adultery, polygamy, male gullibility and female wit, the difficulties of reading other cultures: all these topics crop up humorously in the narrative. One of the funniest incidents begins with a self-parodying moment of reversal, when the female spectator is suddenly transformed into the spectacle: ‘The people on the island crowded to see me; they gazed with apparent astonishment—I suppose at my dress, for white women could not be a novelty to them, as there were several among the unhappy people sent out here by government’. While the people on the island stare at Falconbridge's attire, she stares back at their ‘native garbs’. The offence against ‘delicacy’ caused by their nakedness gives way, she writes, to the supposedly more comforting sight of other black women apparently ‘of superior rank, at least I concluded so from the preferable way in which they were clad; nor was I wrong in my conjecture, for upon enquiring who they were, was informed one was the woman or mistress of Mr.———, another of Mr. B———, and so on: I then understood that every gentleman on the island had his lady’. Falconbridge's satirical play here with notions of delicacy and indelicacy, non-dress and European dress, the white lady and the black lady: all this is part of a sharpèyed narrative which enjoys exposing the arbitrariness and unreliability of codes, such as those associated with dress and manners.

Dress figures largely in Falconbridge's narrative, as it does throughout many of the late eighteenth-century records of cross-cultural encounters on this part of the coast. One of the reasons for this was the need to keep up appearances in situations fraught with racial and political tension. Throughout his journal, John Clarkson stressed the importance of appearing confident and in command of the situation, even when there was reason to feel quite otherwise.13 For instance, he went to great lengths to prepare for his first meeting with the local head-man, Naimbana, whom he regarded as an ‘absolute’ ruler,14 ordering the Company's ships to fire off their cannons upon his approach, and placing the whole colony under arms to salute him upon landing. His purpose was twofold: to pay due deference to Naimbana, but also (nervously) to impress upon him some idea of the colony's fire-power.15 Both men decked themselves out in ceremonial dress: Clarkson ‘in a full-dress Windsor uniform, with a brilliant star, etc., etc.’, Naimbana with

a sky-blue silk jacket with silver lace, striped cotton trowsers, ruffled shirt, green morocco slippers, a cocked-hat with gold lace, and a white cotton cap, for which a large old judge's wig was afterwards substituted. He had a belt round his neck from which hung the figure of a lamb bearing a cross set with rays formed of paste.16

If Clarkson thought the king cut a comical figure, he kept his thoughts to himself, which was more than could be said for Naimbana who could barely restrain himself from laughing out loud at the sight of his counterpart, exclaiming: ‘That he had never seen so young a king before’.17 That Naimbana was an experienced and clever negotiator, well-accustomed to making the whites dance to his tune, is evident in this and all the other records which survive of him. Clarkson noted, for instance, that although Naimbana spoke and understood a little English, ‘on matters of business, he always spoke through his interpreter’, a process drawn out to such fatiguing length and complexity ‘as to occasion strong hysterics’ in Clarkson as soon as he got away. Alexander Falconbridge also found the palavers protracted and stressful, believing at one point that Naimbana and the other chiefs were only ‘bamboozling’ him. Naimbana spelt out his position bluntly to Falconbridge, saying ‘he liked the English in preference to all white men, tho' he considered every white man as a rogue, and consequently saw them with a jealous eye’. Like other prosperous coastal chiefs he prized education as the essential key to his people's ability to trade equally with the Europeans, but he also believed in keeping his options open: one son he sent to France, another to England, a third he entrusted to Muslim clerics. In the lore of a coastal people who had dealt with Europeans for centuries: ‘“Read book, and learn to be rogue so well as white man;” for they say, if white men could not read, or wanted education, they would be no better rogues than black gentlemen’.

Falconbridge's first encounter with Naimbana resembles Clarkson's in its theatricality, and in its highly wrought, even dangerous comedy. Unlike Clarkson, though, she did not have to conduct serious business with the old king, so her account is more satirical. At first, when they arrive in Robana town, they catch Naimbana in undress, ‘in a loose white frock and trowsers’. Half an hour later he re-appears, attired for the occasion ‘in a purple embroidered coat, white sattin waistcoat and breeches, thread stockings, and his left side emblazoned with a flaming star; his legs to be sure were harliquined, by a number of holes in the stockings, through which his black skin appeared’ (Plate 11). Naimbana's real self, anything but regal in Falconbridge's eyes, peeps clownishly through the worn-out stockings, puncturing all illusion of ceremony and reducing the scene to the level of pantomime. Naimbana appears before her as just another of Robana town's ‘raree-shows’, a term evocative of the world of popular fairs where freaks and oddities, such as hermaphrodites, dwarfs, giants and other ‘curiosities’, were displayed, including, of course, Hottentots and American Indians.18

The parti-coloured, ‘harliquined’ stockings are the one constant feature of what are to be no less than three costume changes in a single afternoon; at one point, when he reappears in a black velvet suit, Falconbridge writes:

I often had an inclination to offer my services to close the holes: but was fearful least my needle might blunder into his Majesty's leg, and start the blood, for drawing the blood of an African King, I am informed, whether occasioned by accident or otherwise, is punished with death: the dread of this only prevented me.

Naimbana may be a figure of fun for Falconbridge, but as the stockings remind us, he is a harlequin too, with a mischievous, dangerous edge to his performance.19 In some ways her description of him fits Bakhtin's notion of the carnival-grotesque: buffoon-like and comic, this ‘King of Kings’ is also formless and a bit terrifying, an unfinished body whose apertures cannot be closed.20 The parti-coloured appearance of his lower body, part black skin, part pale fabric, also reflects his mixed-blood ancestry: ‘the features of his face resemble a European more than any black I have seen’, comments Falconbridge; ‘he was seldom without a smile on his countenance, but I think his smiles were suspicious’. So convinced did Falconbridge become of Naimbana's malign intentions towards the settlement that she ‘swooned into hystericks’ at one of the natives' initial, lengthy palavers. The inadvertent revelation of her fear and suspicions severely impeded the course of negotiations, as her husband was quick to point out to her.

Falconbridge's Two Voyages is relatively unmarked by the commonplaces of racist hostility so often applied by travellers to African natives: that they were lazy, treacherous and revengeful.21 On the contrary, it is a point of pride in her narrative that she enjoyed such friendly, even flirtatious, relations with the local chiefs. King Jemmy, for instance, in some respects the settlement's greatest enemy, she regarded as a man of his word, and a man of sensibility. That he always came to see her before anyone else exposed the bogus authority of the men supposedly in charge. She even agreed to stand hostage for him when he stipulated that this was the only condition on which he would consent to go on board one of the Company's ships.22 With Naimbana she is on less certain ground, as we have seen, but in one of her early ‘courtly encounters’ with him she triumphs in the knowledge that she is the only woman ever to sit down and eat with him.23 They are also the only ones to eat dinner with silver forks, and this flattering notice is further enhanced by Naimbana's gift of ‘two beautiful pines’.

Falconbridge was not shy of emphasizing the sensational and unprecedented nature of her voyage to the ‘inhospitable Coast of Africa’. This was her maiden voyage, she tells us, and her story is chequered throughout ‘with such a complication of disasters as I may venture to affirm have never yet attended any of my dear Country Women, and such as I sincerely hope they never may experience’. In some ways, though, because her authorship is proof of her survival, we are less impressed by the physical dangers she encounters than by those moments of psychological danger, when inadvertently and unexpectedly she is ensnared by some twist or complication in the threads of her narrative. One of these disconcerting moments occurs at Bance Island House, where she is about to dine with her new friends, the slave traders. Happening to stroll to one of the windows, she looks out only to find herself confronted by the Dantesque vision of the slave yard, with ‘between two and three hundred wretched victims, chained and parcelled out in circles, just satisfying the cravings of nature from a trough of rice placed in the centre of each circle’. So horrible is the sight, and yet so insatiable her ‘female curiosity’, that she assures her correspondent that she ‘avoided the prospects from this side of the house ever after’.24


Nothing very extraordinary is related, for nothing extraordinary happened: but, if the particulars do not fill us with astonishment, neither do they excite our incredulity by the marvellous, with which travellers are so apt to embellish their relations.

(Monthly Review, May-August, 1796, p. 112)

It is not at all true that nothing extraordinary happened on Mary Ann Parker's voyage round the world. The return journey alone was remarkable for a number of incidents, not least of which was the captured shark with the First Fleet convict's prayer book in its belly. Another serendipitous connection with First Fleet convicts occurred at the Cape where the Gorgon took on board the escaped convict Mary Bryant and some of her surviving fellow fugitives, all of whom had sailed from Port Jackson in an open boat to Timor. Tench, for one, was simply astounded by these escapees' ‘heroic struggle for liberty’. Also, having travelled out with these convicts to the colony four years earlier, he reflected as well on the strange combination of circumstances which had brought them together once again, circumstances which could only ‘baffle human foresight, and confound human speculation’.25 Parker makes little of these and other incidents, but despite her best intentions of maintaining a smooth, uninterrupted surface, full of witty accounts of pleasant excursions, dinner parties and picnics, her travel narrative is, like Falconbridge's, occasionally troubled by ‘female curiosity’. For instance, on the journey out, after arriving safely at the Cape, and having had a good night's sleep on shore, Parker arises in the morning ‘particularly thankful to Providence for His protection’. Her prayers of gratitude are, however, immediately greeted by the disturbing sight of the Gorgon's ship-wrecked predecessor:

Curiosity then directed my steps to a window, whence I beheld the small remains of his Majesty's ship the Guardian … To avoid as much as possible any disagreeable reflections which might arise from the idea of a probability of our sharing the fate of the above vessel … I hastened to my companions, and was, for the first time, surprized with a Cape breakfast …

Similarly, near the Falkland Islands on its return journey, the Gorgon encountered numerous ice-islands, whose ‘pleasing and grotesque’ shapes would have been more thoroughly enjoyed, she tells us, had she been able to divest her mind of the ‘horror’ occasioned by reflections on the number of navigators ‘arrested and frozen to death in the midst of these tremendous masses’.

Having found her sea-legs on earlier travels in France, Spain and Italy, Parker is much more low-keyed than Falconbridge about her journey, even though she describes it as one ‘to the remotest parts of the globe’. Of course, unlike Falconbridge, who had only Matthews's book to precede her, Parker was writing amidst a spate of recent publications on the colony at Botany Bay.26 There were, however, aspects of her book she might have capitalized on, such as its being the first account of the colony written by a woman; there was also the ‘rare circumstance’, as one reviewer put it, of seeing ‘a female name in the list of circumnavigators.’27 But bolstered by her ample and distinguished list of subscribers, Parker no doubt felt it would be beneath her dignity to puff her own work; self-advertisement would also have jarred somewhat with the genteel persona of the retired, impecunious widow. So, rather than dwell on the many discomforts associated with the journey out, she alludes briefly to ‘a fortnight's seasoning and buffeting’, after which she begins to enjoy herself: ‘with the polite attention of the officers on board, and my amiable companion Mrs. King, we glided over many a watery grave with peace of mind, and uninterrupted happiness’. Similarly, on the return journey, we hear little of the ship's encounters with wild storms, and virtually nothing of the terrible mortality amongst the marines' children. In contrast, other surviving accounts of the Gorgon's return journey comment movingly on the many children ill and dying: ‘the children are going very fast - the hot weather is the reason of it’, wrote one marine officer.28

Throughout her brisk and entertaining narrative, Parker displays the ‘little dash of satire’ in her composition noted by one of her husband's officers.29 Marvelling at the bulk of the Cape Town women, she attributes their fatness to ‘going without stays’, together with a total neglect of their persons after marriage. Of one of her hostesses, Mrs de Witt, she jokes that her size ‘was nearly equal to that of a Dutch man of war’.30 That her own figure is a good one, we learn from one of the many excursions at the Cape, when a downpour requires her to borrow a jacket, ‘one half of which I could have spared with great convenience’. But her most glorious moment in the narrative is the stay at Teneriffe, where her fluency in Spanish enlivened many dinner parties and procured her ‘unusual attention’ from the people she met. Perhaps the most astonished of all was her muleteer, who when he discovered that she spoke his language, seems to have regarded his charge with almost superstitious reverence. Prior to entering any town or village, he ‘with great form, requested me to sit up-right, and then spread my hair very curiously over my shoulders’, wishing, she supposed, to show her person off ‘to the greatest advantage’.

Parker devotes approximately a third of the book to her stay in Port Jackson. Apart from the appalling glimpse of the dead and dying convicts unloaded from the Third Fleet, she gives a positive view of the colony's infancy. She and her husband enjoyed ‘the fatherly attention of the good Governor upon all occasions’; nor, on her optimistic view, were the convicts themselves denied Governor Phillip's benevolent paternalism. No doubt inspired by Phillip's devotion to the Crown (even the Gorgon ‘dressed ship as well as her scanty allowance of colours would permit’ for the anniversary of the King's accession), Parker dubbed him ‘The Father of his People’, adding that ‘the Convict, who has forsaken the crimes that sent him to this country, looks up to him with reverence, and enjoys the reward of his industry in peace and thankfulness’.31 This idealized and abstract picture of the redeemed convict as grateful, docile child stands in contrast to Parker's many particularized descriptions of exotic birds, about which she appears to have been quite knowledgeable. But if Parker never gets close enough to the felons to describe them to us, she is very much aware of them as a brooding, invisible presence, for instance during the night she spends at Parramatta where she finds ‘every thing perfectly quiet, although surrounded by more than one thousand convicts’ (Plate 12).

Similarly, if Parker learnt during her stay at Port Jackson of the fear, isolation and deprivation some of the free settlers had been experiencing, she does not speak of these, choosing instead to focus upon the ‘pleasant excursions’ up the river to Parramatta with her friend Mrs King and other ‘Ladies’ residing at the colony. One of these ladies was Elizabeth Macarthur, who only the year before had complained in a letter to England of ‘having no female friend to unbend my mind to, nor a single Woman with whom I could converse with any satisfaction to myself’.32 Mrs Parker obviously went some way towards alleviating that want. Describing her new friend as ‘a very amiable intelligent Woman’, Macarthur now spent ‘many pleasant days together’ with the new visitor. Indeed, since the arrival of the Gorgon and the Third Fleet, she could boast that her ‘little Circle has been of late quite brilliant; we are constantly making little parties in boats up & down the various inlets of the Harbour, taking refreshments with us, & dining out under an awning upon some pleasant point of Land, or in some of the Creeks or Coves in which for Twenty miles together these waters abound’. These pleasant ‘excursions’, as Elizabeth Macarthur called them, were never entirely safe, however, ‘a Soldier or two always attending’ because of sporadic and hostile ‘incursions’ by the natives.33

The isolation which Elizabeth Macarthur experienced before the arrival of the Gorgon was of course not confined to women. In the first year of settlement Watkin Tench complained of ‘the listlessness’ of camp evenings at Port Jackson, where all was ‘quiet and stupid’. Eager for variety of company, and for some news from home, his heart would leap at ‘every fleeting speak which arose from the bosom of the sea’.34 But if the Gorgon was rapturously welcomed for its delivery from boredom and isolation, it also brought release from the spectre of starvation. Reactions to the loss of the supply ship Sirius in 1790 are indicative of the psychological as well as physical toll this remote and precarious new settlement often took upon its inhabitants. David Collins wrote that the news of the supply ship's loss ‘was of itself almost sufficient to have deranged the strongest intellect among us. A load of accumulated evils, seemed bursting at once upon our heads’.35 Writing of the same episode, Elizabeth Macarthur confessed that ‘a Chill seems to overpower my faculties … a dread comes over me, which I am unable to describe’.36

At several points, Parker dips into and transcribes verbatim small sections from Tench's two books on the colony, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (1789) and A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1793). In one topographical passage on ‘the face of the country’ she names Tench as her source; at other times she simply takes what she needs.37 Her chapter on the natives is also indebted to Tench in the way in which it begins with a ‘general view’ of a negative kind, especially concerning the natives’ physical appearance, then descends to ‘particular inspection’ of an individual (Banalong, in Parker's case),38 a scrutiny which paradoxically results in a general ‘rise in estimation’.39 This progress from negative to positive, from height to depth, is also, in both authors, interrupted by an exception-to-the-rule of the natives' physical unattractiveness—in Tench's case the remarkable passage on the ‘attractions’ of Gooreedeeana; in Parker's text an encounter with an unnamed man of ‘a most engaging deportment’ and ‘pleasing’ countenance, to whom she gives her ‘travelling knife and fork’. But the passage on Banalong which concludes the chapter marks a significant departure from her source. Whereas for Tench Banalong is war-like and untrustworthy, for Parker he is a creature of exquisite sensibility and ‘natural goodness’, a tear trickling down his cheek at the sight of a portrait of Captain Parker, at that time away on duty. Written in London, where Banalong was being paraded around, dressed in the clothes of his civilizers (Plate 13), Parker's set-piece on the native's sensibility, together with a quotation from one of the period's best known abolitionist poems, is very much a metropolitan vignette.40 As such, it forms a striking contrast to her decidedly more ambivalent encounters with natives in the colony, such as the time when she finds herself ‘seated in the woods with twelve or fourteen of them, men, women, and children’. Despite being repelled by their unfamiliar appearance, she does not feel fear, she says, being accompanied by a party ‘more than sufficient for my protection’. At the same time, however, she confesses that her ease and confidence are a pretence, for should her real feelings of disgust have appeared, the natives ‘would have rendered my being in their company not only unpleasant, but unsafe’. Again, as at Sierra Leone, we see the importance for white intruders of keeping up appearances in these new settlements.

When the Gorgon sailed out of Port Jackson in December 1791, the spaces occupied on the outward voyage by ‘live stock and all kind of necessary provisions’ for the colony's survival were now, Parker tells us, ‘crowded with Kangaroos, Opposums, and every curiosity which that country produced. The quarter-deck was occupied with shrubs and plants, whilst the cabin was hung around with skins of animals’. There were also many birds, the care of which fell to our author. Parker's contrast between in-coming necessities and out-going curiosities accounts for the somewhat trivializing view of the colony held by the British public. There was already, for instance, a busy commerce in live specimens, the staple of raree-shows for the entertainment of a public eager for displays of the novel, the exotic and the freakish.41 Governor Phillip also found the colony's specimens and products a valuable means of promoting his own and the settlement's prospects, and a good proportion of the Gorgon's rarer items were ear-marked as gifts for his patrons. But there were also the specimens designed for the royal collections and for learned societies, and for gentlemen like Sir Joseph Banks who subscribed to Mrs Parker's book. Like the clay from Botany Bay which had been sent by Phillip in 1788, scientific analysis of New Holland's productions might possibly yield directions for the colony's future prosperity, including, it was hoped, the colony's eventual financial independence from the mother country. The Parker narrative itself participates in this circular economy of reciprocity and exchange. The very act of writing her narrative, with its naming of all those who had extended their hospitality to her during the long voyage, was to be, in Parker's own pun, the only ‘return’ she, as a widow, could ever now make.


  1. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, three-fifths of Bristol's commerce was represented by the African and West Indian trades.

  2. Thomas Peters, ex-slave and spokesman for the Nova Scotians, resented Clarkson's governorship. Had he not died suddenly in the colony, he might have led a rebellion against the whites (Clarkson's journal in Ingham, Sierra Leone, pp. 38-44, and Wilson, Loyal Blacks, pp. 248-56). An overview of the documents relating to his life is given by C. Fyfe in ‘Thomas Peters: History and Legend’, Sierra Leone Studies, vol. 9 (1953), pp. 4-13.

  3. ‘Great dissatisfaction appears amongst the settlers, and many of them begin to be very troublesome. The bad example set them by the Europeans when they first landed, the unfeeling manner in which they are often addressed … may in a great degree account for the irritability of temper, and peevish disposition which it is painful for me to observe amongst them …’ (Ingham, Sierra Leone, pp. 26-27). He also noted new habits, like their consumption of rum; see ‘Diary’, Sierra Leone Studies (1927), p. 98.

  4. This phrase occurs in the settlers' petition to the Directors (Fyfe, ‘Our Children Free and Happy’, p. 36).

  5. Ingham, Sierra Leone, p. 144, and ‘Diary’, Sierra Leone Studies (1927), p. 31. Clarkson's view of Dawes hardened; in July 1793 he wrote to Isaac DuBois that ‘his manners are disgusting’ and that he was not ‘a fit or proper Person to be at the Head of a Colony founded upon the Principles of the Constitution of Free Town’ (British Library, Clarkson Papers, MS Add. 41263, vol. 3).

  6. Clarkson described him as ‘extremely unkind & violent’ to his wife (Wilson, John Clarkson, p. 126).

  7. For information about DuBois, see his journal (Clarkson Papers, MS Add. 41263, vol. 3). John Clarkson was astonished at the Company's dismissal of DuBois in Sept. 1793, protesting to Thornton, Chairman of the Directors: ‘His behaviour was so exemplary, his Manners so engaging, and his Zeal and Industry to promote the Happiness and Comfort of the Colony so conspicuous that I … attribute the first foundation of the Colony in a great part to him’ (Clarkson Papers, MS Add. 41263, vol. 3).

  8. Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (London: J. Phillips, 1788). The book was often quoted by abolitionists; see An Abstract of the Evidence delivered before a Select Committee of the House of Commons in the years 1790, and 1791; on the part of the Petitioners for the Abolition of the Slave-Trade (London: J. Phillips, 1791).

  9. See Monthly Review, vol. 16 (January-April, 1795), p. 103.

  10. Falconbridge's story appears to bear out a certain strand of contemporary feminist complaint: that anti-slavery enthusiasts were often the greatest slavers when it came to their own domestic relations. See, for instance, Hannah More's essay ‘The White Slave Trade’, The Works of Hannah More, 11 vols (London: T. Cadell, 1830), vol. 3, pp. 384ff. For the view that slave trading was ‘a genteel employment’ see John Newton's An Authentic Narrative of some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of ******** Communicated in a Series of Letters to the Reverend Mr Haweis (London: J. Johnson, 5th edn, 1782), p. 148.

  11. ‘The Nassau Captn. Morley arrived from the Isles De loss—he seems to be a good honest fellow & I am rather gratifyed by his being highly pleased at his sisters Marriage’ (Isaac DuBois's Journal, Jan. 20, 1793; British Library, Clarkson Papers, MS Add. 41263, vol. 3).

  12. Cf. Letter XIII of Two Voyages, pp. 133-34 below, with her husband's Account of the Slave Trade, pp. 19-32.

  13. ‘It is my constant practice, when I visit any of the native chiefs, or go into their villages, for myself and those who attend me, to be unarmed’ (Ingham, Sierra Leone, p. 98).

  14. Ingham, Sierra Leone, p. 132.

  15. Similarly, in Botany Bay in 1788, during the first contact period with the aboriginals, Watkin Tench wrote of how the colonists' first object was ‘to win their affections’, the second, ‘to convince them of the superiority we possessed’ (Tench, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (London: J. Debrett, 1789), p. 57).

  16. See Ingham, Sierra Leone, p. 24. Writing of the influence of Portuguese Roman Catholicism on the coastal Africans, Matthews claimed: ‘Their religion principally consists in repeating a Pater Noster, or an Ave Maria, and in wearing a large string of beads round their neck, with a cross, or crucifix, suspended’ (Matthews, Voyage, p. 14).

  17. Ingham, Sierra Leone, pp. 23-26.

  18. A spotted negro boy was one of the freaks on display at Bartholomew Fair in the late eighteenth century; see P. Edwards and J. Walvin, Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade Macmillan, 1983, and R. D. Altick, The Shows of London (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978).

  19. Harlequin was the name of a ‘white-negro’ woman displayed at travelling shows in the late eighteenth century; see Paul Edwards and James Walvin, ‘Africans in Britain’ in The African Diaspora, p. 193.

  20. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp. 29, 43.

  21. For instance, Matthews, Voyage, pp. 23-24, 96, 159. Matthews was influenced by Edward Long's racist theories in his History of Jamaica, 3 vols (London, 1774).

  22. Hostage taking, or pawning, was central to slavery transactions on the coast, operating as security between payment and receipt of slaves from the interior. Matthews gives a full account of how the system worked; see Matthews, Voyage, pp. 155-56. This form of bartering was well documented by other travellers too; see Thomas Winterbottom, An Account of the Native Africans in the Neighbourhood of Sierra Leone to which is added An Account of the Present State of Medicine among them, 2 vols (London, 1803), p. 126, and John Newton, in Fyfe (ed.), Sierra Leone Inheritance, p. 75.

  23. The term ‘courtly encounter’ is taken from Mary Louise Pratt's ‘Scratches on the Face of the Country; or, What Mr Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen’, Critical Inquiry, 12 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 131-32.

  24. For thought-provoking analysis of the concept of curiosity in travel literature, see Harriet Guest, ‘The Great Distinction: Figures of the Exotic in the work of William Hodges’, in New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts, ed. I. Armstrong (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 296-41, esp. pp. 320-22; more recently, see her essay ‘Looking at Women: Forster's Observations in the South Pacific’, in J. R. Forster, Observations made during a Voyage round the World, ed. N. Thomas, H. Guest and M. Dettelbach (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1996), pp. xli-liv.

  25. Tench, Complete Account, p. 108.

  26. To name only the best known: John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (London: J. Debrett, 1790), John Hunter, An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island (London: John Stockdale, 1793), and Tench's two books, Narrative of the Expedition (1789) and Complete Account (1793).

  27. Monthly Review, vol. 20 (May-August, 1796), p. 112.

  28. The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark, 1787-1792 (Sydney: Australian Documents Library, 1981), p. 234. See also James Scott, Remarks on a Passage to Botany Bay, 1787-1792 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1963).

  29. Lieutenant Gardner, quoted by Gavin Fry in his introduction to Parker's Voyage Round the World, n. p.

  30. One reviewer pounced with delight on this detail; see Gentleman's Magazine, 65 (1795), p. 941.

  31. The reconstruction of the Crown within Phillip's Government has recently been described by Alan Atkinson as one of the most remarkable and complex features of his benevolent paternalism; see Atkinson, Europeans in Australia, pp. 108-10.

  32. Elizabeth Macarthur, The Journal and Letters of Elizabeth Macarthur, 1789-1798, ed. Joy N. Hughes (Glebe: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 1984), p. 24 (hereafter Journal and Letters).

  33. Macarthur, Journal and Letters, pp. 34, 31.

  34. Tench, Narrative of the Expedition, p. 79; Complete Account, p. 163.

  35. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales: with remarks on the dispositions, customs, manners &c. of the native inhabitants of that country (London: T. Cadell, 1798), p. 103.

  36. Macarthur, Journal and Letters, p. 22.

  37. Such as the description of the natives' huts in Chapter 8; for other debts, see my notes to the text.

  38. Bennelong (c. 1764-1813) is the most common form of his name. Kidnapped by Governor Phillip in 1789 in order to interrogate him about the new land, Bennelong travelled to England in 1792 and was presented to King George III.

  39. Tench, Complete Account, p. 188.

  40. One of Tench's reviewers in 1793 castigated him for excessive pessimism about the colony, citing Bennelong's presence in the metropolis as counter-argument. Instead of displaying the ‘ferocious and intractable manners’ described by Tench, Banalong was ‘delighted with every thing he sees, and courteous to those who know him’ (British Critic, vol. 2 (1793), pp. 62-67).

  41. A live kangaroo in 1791 was worth £500, but only £30 by the end of the decade.


Writings by Anna Maria Falconbridge

Two Voyages to Sierra Leone during the years 1791-2-3, In a Series of Letters. To which is added a Letter from the Author, to Henry Thornton, Esq. M. P. and Chairman of the Court of Directors of the Sierra Leone Company (London: Printed for the Author, and sold by different Booksellers throughout the Kingdom, 1794).

Matthews, John, A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone, on the Coast of Africa; containing an Account of the Trade and Productions of the Country, and of the Civil and Religious Customs and Manners of the People; in a series of Letters to a Friend in England, during his Residence in that Country in the Years 1785, 1786 and 1787. With an additional letter on the African Slave Trade (London: B. White and Son, 1788; 2nd edn 1791).

Works Cited by the Editor


Clarkson Papers, British Library, MS Add. 41262A, Add. 41262B, Add. 41263, Add. 41264.

Printed Works

Altick, R. D., The Shows of London (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978).

Atkinson, Alan, The Europeans in Australia: A History, vol. 1. (3 vols planned) (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

Clark, Ralph, The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark, 1787-1792 (Sydney: Australian Documents Library, 1981).

Clarkson, John, Sierra Leone after a Hundred Years, ed. E. G. Ingham (London: Frank Cass, 1968).

Clarkson, John, ‘Diary of Lieutenant Clarkson, R. N.’, Sierra Leone Studies, n. s., vol. 8 (March, 1927), pp. 1-114.

Collins, David, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales: with remarks on the dispositions, customs, manners &c. of the native inhabitants of that country (London: T. Cadell, 1798).

Edwards, P. and Walvin, J., ‘Africans in Britain, 1500-1800’, in The African Diaspora: Interpretive Essays, eds M. Kilson and R. Rotberg (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).

———, Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade (London: Macmillan, 1983).

Fry, Gavin (ed.), A Voyage Round the World by Mary Ann Parker, facs. 1st edn (Potts Point: Hordern House for the Australian National Maritime Museum, 1991).

Fyfe, C. (ed.), Sierra Leone Inheritance (London: Oxford University Press, 1964).

———, ‘Our Children Free and Happy’: Letters from Black Settlers in Africa in the 1790s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991).

The Gentleman's Magazine, 70 vols (1731-1800).

Guest, Harriet, ‘The Great Distinction: Figures of the Exotic in the Work of William Hodges’, in New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts, ed. I. Armstrong (London: Routledge, 1992).

———, ‘Looking at Women: Forster's Observations in the South Pacific’, in J. R. Forster, Observations made during a Voyage round the World, ed. N. Thomas, H. Guest and M. Dettelbach (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1996).

Hunter, John, An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, with the discoveries that have been made in New South Wales and the Southern Ocean (London: John Stockdale, 1793).

Ingham, E. G. (ed.), Sierra Leone after a Hundred Years (London: Frank Cass, 1968).

Long, Edward, History of Jamaica, 3 vols (London, 1774).

Macarthur, Elizabeth, The Journal and Letters of Elizabeth Macarthur, 1789-1798, ed. Joy N. Hughes (Glebe: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 1984).

Matthews, John, A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone, on the Coast of Africa; containing an Account of the Trade and Productions of the Country, and of the Civil and Religious Customs and Manners of the People; in a series of Letters to a Friend in England, during his Residence in that Country in the Years 1785, 1786 and 1787. With an additional letter on the African Slave Trade (London: B. White and Son, 1788; 2nd edn 1791).

Pratt, Mary Louise, ‘Scratches on the Face of the Country; or, What Mr Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen’, Critical Inquiry, 12 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 119-143.

Scott, James, Remarks on a Passage to Botany Bay, 1787-1792 (Sydney: Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales in association with Angus and Robertson, 1963).

Tench, Watkin, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (London: J. Debrett, 1789).

———, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales (London: G. Nicol, 1793).

White, John, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (London: J. Debrett, 1790).

Wilson, Ellen Gibson, The Loyal Blacks (New York: Putnam, 1976).

———, John Clarkson and the African Adventure (London: Macmillan, 1980).

Winterbottom, Thomas, An Account of the Native Africans in the Neighbourhood of Sierra Leone, to which is added An Account of the Present State of Medicine among them, 2 vols (London: C. Whittingham, 1803).

Katherine S. H. Turner (essay date 1999)

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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 celebrated woman writers of her time. Born in 1689, she was an indefatigable and accomplished letter writer, corresponding with leading literary figures such as Alexander Pope as well as an extensive network of family and friends. She also wrote essays and poems (both romantic and satirical), and a play (collected in Montagu 1977); her participation in a wide range of genres, including travel writing, indicates her ability to transcend gender-based literary categories. Fewer than twenty British women published travel narratives during the eighteenth century, and Montagu was a pioneer of this small but highly significant cluster of women, whose works provide a fascinating, often oblique, commentary on the cultural and political trends of their time.

The attractive vision of Turkey presented in the Embassy Letters typifies a particular version of English Enlightenment culture and aesthetics. Bernard Lewis sees in Montagu's account ‘the new myth, still in its embryonic form, of the non-European as the embodiment of mystery and romance’ (Lewis 1993: 83). In many ways, however, Montagu's Letters are uncharacteristic of the eighteenth century of which they are so often claimed to be paradigmatic. In 1789, Lady Elizabeth Craven, England's other great eighteenth-century woman traveller to Turkey, takes issue with many of Montagu's opinions in her own travelogue, A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople, and pronounces indeed that Montagu ‘never wrote a line of them’ (Craven 1789: 105). In her later Memoirs, and in the enlarged edition of the Journey, published in 1814, Craven expands on this view, pronouncing that the Embassy Letters ‘were most of them male compositions, pretending to female grace in the style, the facts mostly inventions’ (Craven 1814: 289). There had in fact been a spurious ‘fourth’ volume of Montagu's Embassy Letters published in 1767, perhaps written by John Cleland; but by the 1780s its spuriousness, and the authenticity of the 1763 volumes were not in doubt.

Montagu's highly favourable impressions of abroad, especially of Turkey, and especially of Turkish women, are Craven's chief targets. Craven found an unexpected ally in the person of Lady Bute, Montagu's daughter, who, having failed to suppress the publication of the Embassy Letters in 1763, was later delighted to find support for her disowning of her mother's vulgar publishing activities. Ladies Craven and Bute later corresponded about the authorship of the Embassy Letters, Lady Bute agreeing heartily that most of the Letters were ‘composed by men’, and suggesting that Horace Walpole ‘and two other wits’ had written them (Craven 1826: II 116).

No one else seems to have taken these assertions seriously; yet, questions of personal grievance and arrogance aside, this curious episode suggests how uncongenial Montagu's account became to at least some later eighteenth-century readers. It therefore provides a point of entry into a wider discussion of changes in eighteenth-century perceptions of travel writing, of women travel writers, and (not least) of Turkey itself. It is worth noting here that Craven's critical observations on Turkey, which to a large extent are a reactionary engagement with Montagu's, were taken seriously by the influential reviews (the Monthly, the Critical and the Analytical), although they slyly mocked her style and arrogance. Moreover, the Monthly Review commended her liberal reflections, ‘which do honour to the writer, both as a lover of her own country, and as a citizen of the world’ (Monthly Review 80 [1789], 209).

There are two main reasons for the generally positive reception of Craven's text in 1789. First, little else in the way of original travel writing on Turkey had been published since Montagu's text in 1763: James Porter's Observations on the Religion, Law, Government, and Manners, of the Turks (1768) was a compilation of travellers' accounts, and the focus of Richard Chandler's Travels in Asia Minor (1775) was largely archaeological. Second, a woman travel writer was still something of a novelty in her own right, no doubt because the genre's roots in masculine erudition and experience—at least until the closing decades of the century—remained powerfully deterrent (see Turner 1995: 168-246). The Analytical Review, anticipating its readers' interest in Craven's travelogue, notes that ‘The letters of this sprightly female will naturally excite curiosity’ (Analytical Review 3 [1789], 176). Craven's personal notoriety—her private life was nothing if not colourful—is also hinted at here.

The Turkish aspect of Craven's account seems to have been its main source of marketable interest. The title of the travelogue places Constantinople as the climax of her journey, and the running head throughout the volume is ‘Lady Craven's Journey to Constantinople’. In fact, only about 70 of the 327 pages of Craven's Journey deal with Turkey, as critics were quick to point out (e.g. Monthly Review 80 [1789], 200-1; Critical Review 67 [1789], 281; Gentleman's Magazine 59 [1789], 237); and the revised title of the 1814 edition duly read Letters from the Right Honorable Lady Craven, to His Serene Highness the Margrave of Anspach, during her Travels through France, Germany, and Russia in 1785 and 1786. In 1789, though, Craven was no doubt exploiting public interest in Turkey: not only did the harem still exert a powerful pull on the British reader's imagination, but recent political developments made the Turkish focus of the Journey topical. The increasingly aggressive behaviour of Russia and Austria towards the declining Ottoman Empire was becoming an alarming threat to British trading interests in the Levant. Craven's account was published during the Russian and Austrian war against Turkey, 1787-92 (though her journey was made earlier, 1785-86). Britain had formed the Triple Alliance with the United Provinces and Prussia against Austria in 1788; and by 1789 all parties were eager for peace between Turkey and its aggressors, not least because the Triple Alliance were anxious to direct their energies against the tide of the French Revolutionary army (Shaw 1976: i 258-60). With the turmoil, indeed even disintegration of European affairs, following a decade on from the loss of America, it seems likely that Britain was anxious to preserve trading links with a safely weak but intact Ottoman Empire, which might indeed offer itself as an arena ripe for colonial domination; by British rather than Russian or Austrian interests.

What follows is a comparison of Montagu's and Craven's accounts, which will illuminate crucial changes in representations of gender and empire, as mediated through the eyes of the woman travel writer in Turkey. An account of the publishing histories of the travelogues will lead—through the issue of gender and propriety—into an analysis of the conflicting visions of Turkish women offered by Montagu and Craven. The latter part of the chapter will probe the changing concepts of cultural politics and history which the texts illuminate. In particular, Craven's repudiation of Montagu is a significant contribution to an emergent colonial discourse, displacing Montagu's classical, tolerant and largely ahistorical stance. Craven's text exemplifies what Homi K. Bhabha has defined as ‘the objective of colonial discourse’, which is to construe the colonised as a ‘population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction’ (Bhabha 1986: 154).

The mere existence of their narratives testifies to the privileged status of Montagu and Craven. Their rank made possible nor only their access to European and Turkish high society—‘The Turks are very proud, and will not converse with a stranger they are not assured is considerable in his own country’ (Montagu 1763: II 131-2)—but their very expeditions. Lady Mary, who travelled through Austria and Hungary to Constantinople, with ‘thirty covered waggons for our baggage, and five coaches … for my women’ (vol. II, p. 110), points out that:

The journey we have made from Belgrade hither, cannot possibly be passed by any out of a public character. The desert woods of Serbia, are the common refuge of thieves, who rob, fifty in a company, so that we had need of all our guards to secure us; and the villages are so poor, that only force could extort from them necessary provisions.

(Montagu 1763: II 2)

Elsewhere, she describes her distress at the ‘insolencies’ of their escorts ‘in the poor villages through which we passed’ (vol. I, p. 152). Craven travelled with a smaller entourage but rather less sensitivity. Her Journey (1789) is peppered with name-dropping, and pervaded by a strong sense of her own importance, as in this passage: ‘At Soumi I conversed with a brother of Prince Kourakin's and a Mr. Lanskoy, both officers quartered there; and to whom I was indebted for a lodging: they obliged a Jew to give me up a new little house he was upon the point of inhabiting’ (p. 154).

The Critical Review concludes its account of Craven with the waspish pronouncement that the ‘rest of the journey affords little subject of remark, except that whatever accommodations rank and beauty could demand, and despotic power could procure, Lady Craven enjoyed’ (Critical Review 67 [1789], 286).

The circumstances under which Montagu's and Craven's texts were published testify to the critical significance not only of their rank, but also of their gender, and illuminate changing concepts of private and public identity. The Embassy Letters emerged into the literary world like the elegant ghost of their recently deceased author, appearing in 1763 in three small octavo volumes. The first of these contained a preface written in 1724 by Mary Astell, confessing herself

malicious enough to desire, that the world should see, to how much better purpose the Ladies travel than their Lords; and that, whilst it is surfeited with Male-Travels, all in the same tone, and stuff with the same trifles; a lady has the skill to strike out a new path, and to embellish a worn-out subject, with variety of fresh and elegant entertainment.

(Montagu 1763: I viii)

Montagu is the eighteenth-century woman travel writer of whom it was most often and enthusiastically proclaimed that her gender qualified her to describe scenes ‘not to be paralleled in the narrative of any male Traveller’ (Monthly Review 28 [1763], 392): namely, the Turkish bath, the harem, and the lifestyles of aristocratic Turkish women. She was evidently proud of this privilege and of the distinction it guaranteed her within the corpus of travel literature; she concludes the letter describing the bath as follows: ‘Adieu, Madam, I am sure I have now entertained you, with an account of such a sight as you never saw in your life, and what no book of travels could inform you of, as 'tis no less than death for a man to be found in one of these places’ (Montagu 1763: I 164-5).

For all her contempt of authors who descended to the vulgar activity of publication (see for example Montagu 1965-67: III 37; ‘it [is] not the busyness of a Man of Quality to turn Author’), Montagu was clearly anxious that the Embassy Letters eventually be published. She kept the manuscript with her wherever she travelled, and on her final journey home entrusted them to an English clergyman at Rotterdam, with instructions to publish them after her death. (See Halsband 1956: 278-9, 287-9, for an account of their journey into print.) It was her travel letters, rather than her poems or essays (some of which had been circulated in manuscript or even published anonymously during her lifetime), that Montagu was concerned to have preserved for posterity.

Astell's ‘Preface’ aside, the propriety of publishing is not an issue within Montagu's text, for all its prominence in her thought and activity elsewhere. Craven, however, engages vigorously with the issue. She seems to have had few qualms about the propriety of publishing; indeed, she somewhat showily published in a quarto volume illustrated with six engravings. Of the women travel writers who published in the eighteenth century, only Craven and Radcliffe (whose literary reputation was already well established) published in anything grander than octavo; and only Craven's book had plates. The Gentleman's Magazine is unimpressed, however, noting that ‘What Lady C. here offers to the publick in a costly quarto might certainly have been very well compressed to the size of Lady Montague's Letters’ (Gentleman's Magazine, 59 [1789], 237). The Journey is prefaced with a claim that Craven is publishing in order to satisfy friends' curiosity, and ‘to show the world Where the real Lady Craven has been’, her husband's mistress having for some years passed herself off as Lady Craven on her travels through France, Switzerland and England. The Monthly Review observes: ‘the one great object in view, in publishing this correspondence, appears to be an effort to wipe away some unfavourable imputations at home, and to manifest the respect shewn to the writer abroad’ (Monthly Review 80 [1789], 201).

The ‘letters’ which make up the Journey are written to the Margrave of Anspach, with whom Craven had developed ‘a more than sisterly affection’ on her travels in Europe following her scandalous separation from Lord Craven in 1781 (Monthly Review 53 [1789], 201). Unfortunately, his wife the Margravine was still alive, albeit in a sickly fashion, and it appears that Craven decided on a grand tour of exotic locations in order to remove the embarrassment to the Margrave created by her continued residence at Anspach, and to kill time until both the Margravine and Lord Craven had expired; he in fact held out until 1791, at which point she promptly married the Margrave. She and the Margrave then returned to England, but her long absence and widely publicised adultery had enabled Lord Craven to turn their children against her: all six refused to acknowledge her (J. Robinson 1990: 87). Moreover, she was no longer received at court, which must have been a serious blow to a woman of her pretensions. In 1814, Craven, now the Margravine of Anspach, reissued the Journey with minor alterations and additions. The new title blazons the name and rank of her correspondent, and celebrates their relationship: Letters from the Right Honorable Lady Craven, to His Serene Highness the Margrave of Anspach … Their relationship and Craven's virtue are indignantly defended in several additional letters, and in the new preface, where we are informed that she ‘constantly refused estates and titles’ offered by foreign potentates lest she be called suddenly home by her husband and children:

my husband had all his [sic; for ‘my’] fine property in his own power, and therefore I could not consent to take any duties on me, when I felt, that my first duty, that of a mother, must make me forsake those duties my gratitude and pride might have made me take elsewhere—my duty as a mother lay in England.

(Craven 1814: v)

The 1814 edition also inserts references to her marital problems with Lord Craven and her deepening friendship with the Margrave; he is presented as a saintly refuge from the callous Lord Craven, who had prevented their children from writing to her, and whose appalling behaviour is clearly intended to exonerate her from any accusations of unwifely conduct. Craven casts herself in the role of restless exile, happy neither at home nor abroad, whose journeying is less a violation than a proof of propriety. The changes made to the 1814 edition engage with the increasingly severe moral climate of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth, and negotiate the difficult no-man's-land between public propriety and private affairs which the earlier Journey had, perhaps naively, opened up for public inspection.

Craven capitalises (in both editions) not only on her personal notoriety but also on the increasingly autobiographical scope of travel writing in the later eighteenth century. While Montagu's reasons for travel and her personal affairs are largely absent from the Embassy Letters, Craven's private dramas provide, quite publicly, a moral justification for her travels, as well as an almost novelistic source of semi-scandalous interest. This expanding narrative scope within travel writing could create problems for women travel writers, for whom the acts of publication and indeed travel might appear morally questionable, and for whom autobiographical frankness might be problematic. Craven's text and apologetic signals her awareness of these issues, but her aristocratic self-importance permits her to rise above bourgeois anxiety. When it comes, however, to describing Turkish women, Craven's moral sensibility is closer, as we shall see, to the middle-class propriety of the 1780s and 1790s than to any aristocratic largesse. Moreover, the emphasis she increasingly places on her submissive married relationship (Montagu, by contrast, barely mentions her husband, although she does briefly describe her experiences of childbirth in Turkey) can be related to an emergent imperial sensibility, within which visible domestic affection in the Christian institution of marriage testifies to the moral superiority of the coloniser. Craven and Montagu present strikingly different accounts of Turkish women. Montagu's approach is poetic and aesthetic, Craven's moral and economic. Robert Halsband has observed that while in the courts of western Europe Montagu mingled with princes and diplomats, at the Ottoman court her sex deprived her of this privilege (Halsband 1956: 71). Craven is similarly excluded, but with chagrin; at one point she resorts to spying on the Sultan through a telescope. This exclusion partly explains the absence of political and diplomatic material in both women's accounts and their focus instead on the status of Turkish women. Both writers commend the respect and apparent liberty granted to Turkish women, but Montagu's account of their grace and beauty is vigorously contradicted by Craven. Montagu describes the women of the harem with admiration:

They have naturally the most beautiful complexions in the world, and Generally large black eyes. They generally shape their eye-brows, and both Greeks and Turks have the custom of putting round their eyes a black tincture, that, at distance, or by candle-light, adds very much to the blackness of them. I fancy many of our ladies would be overjoyed to know this secret; but 'tis too visible by day.

(Montagu 1763: II 31-2)

Craven is less favourably impressed:

I have no doubt but that nature intended some of these women to be very handsome, but white and red ill applied, their eye-brows hid under one or two black lines—teeth black by smocking, and an universal stoop in the shoulders, made them appear rather disgusting than handsome … The frequent use of hot-baths destroys the solids, and these women at nineteen look older than I am at this moment.

(Craven 1789: 225-6)

‘Nature’ here is implicitly associated with British standards of beauty; Craven frequently equates it with western, and usually British, behaviour. The Critical Review notes the prevalence of the adjective ‘ugly’ in her account (Critical Review 67 [1789], 282). More recently, Montagu has also been accused of forcing Turkish women into a western frame of reference, most notoriously in this famous description of the Turkish bath:

They walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our General Mother with. There were many amongst them, as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn, by the pencil of a Guido or Titian,—And most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair, divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the graces.

(Montagu 1763: I 161-2)

Such aestheticising strategies, Isobel Grundy (1992) and Cynthia Lowenthal (1990) have argued, allow Montagu simultaneously to appreciate the exotic otherness of Turkish women and to evade the more problematic issues of freedom and happiness within the harsher realities of Turkish women's experience. Elizabeth Bohls (1995), however, has recently presented a more radical version of Montagu's aestheticising strategies, arguing that she presents herself, daringly, as an aesthetic subject (a privilege usually reserved for males) in order to neutralise orientalist stereotypes of women, and to re-present them as aesthetic rather than erotic objects: statues and paintings rather than the lascivious harpies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century male-authored travels by the likes of Paul Rycaut and Aaron Hill.

Craven's strategy, by contrast, is simultaneously to de-aestheticise the oriental female, and to render her morally dubious once more. Where Montagu celebrates the steamy beauty of the Turkish bath, Craven (1789) is appalled by the baths at Athens, ‘full of naked fat women; a disgusting sight’ (p. 264). Craven's account of a ‘Turkish’ bath in fact occurs in Athens. This displacement testifies not only to Craven's tendency to lump together Greeks, Turks, Tartars and Cossacks as eastern and primitive, regardless of politics or national identity—and indeed to use the term ‘Turk’ as a term of abuse for any objectionable eastern individual—but also to the distance which Craven strenuously constructs between herself and the eastern other, especially in Turkey and its dominions, where the pernicious influence of Islam is stressed. The Critical Review observes that Craven is interested not only in ‘the stupidity and indolence of the Turks’, but also in ‘the effects of their despotism on the conquered Greeks’ (Critical Review 67 [1789], 285).

Craven's horror at the Turkish bath is similar to her ‘disgusted’ reaction to a Cossack belly dancer, ‘who never lifted her feet off the ground but once in four minutes, and then only one foot at a time, and every part of her person danced except her feet’ (Craven 1789: 173). A description in Montagu's earlier account of a similar entertainment had, by contrast, employed the term ‘proper’ in an aesthetic sense devoid of moral implication, and envisaged a neutralising coalescence of art and eroticism which would cast the insensitive western prude as the villain of the piece:

This dance was very different from what I had seen before. Nothing could be more artful, or more proper to raise certain ideas. The tunes so soft!—the motions so languishing!—Accompanied with pauses and dying eyes! half-falling back, and then recovering themselves in so artful a manner, that I am very positive, the coldest and most rigid prude upon earth, could not have looked upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of.

(Montagu 1763: II 89-90)

In the more proper climate of the 1780s, Montagu's aesthetic oriental women are re-becoming lascivious. Craven's reintroduction of moral judgement signals a germinating imperial ideology, as potent as had been previous moral assaults on Turkish sexuality (see Bohls 1995: 28-31 on the ‘sexualised Orient’ constructed by earlier male travel writers), but further bolstered, as we shall see, by a broader sense of Turkish cultural degeneracy. This new groundling permits Craven to claim what Norman Daniel (1966) has described as ‘imperialism's perceived “moral right” to civilise any alien people which comes to replace the legal right that had characterised the Crusading impulse’ (p. 67).

Craven treats with prurient disapproval what Montagu had appraised with amused tolerance in their respective accounts of Turkish women's ‘liberty’. Both mention the freedoms offered by the anonymous garb of Turkish women, but Craven dwells repeatedly on its possibilities for intrigue and licentiousness, even imagining sexual assignations being conducted during services at Santa Sophia, by figures ‘wrapped up like a mummy’ (Craven 1789: 218). Montagu herself exploits the liberty which Turkish dress affords, wandering the streets of Constantinople ‘every day, wrapped up in my Feriae and Asmak’ (Montagu 1763: III 26). Craven would not countenance such assimilation:

As to women, as many, if not more than men, are to be seen in the streets—but they look like walking mummies—A large loose robe of dark green cloth covers them from the neck to the ground, over that a large piece of muslin, which wraps the shoulders and the arms, another which goes over the head and eyes … If I was to walk about the streets here I would certainly wear the same dress, for the Turkish women call others names, when they meet them with their faces uncovered—When I go out I have the Ambassador's sedan-chair, which is like mine in London, only gilt and varnished like a French coach, and six Turks carry it; as they fancy it impossible that two or four men can carry one; two Janissaries walk before with high fur caps on—The Ambassadors here have all Janissaries as guards allowed them by the Porte—Thank Heaven I have but a little way to go in this pomp, and fearing every moment the Turks should fling me down they are so awkward.

(Craven 1789: 205-6)

Montagu's experience of Turkey stands in opposition to the restrictive idea of gendered space which was becoming a fact of life in eighteenth-century England, and London especially (see Lew 1991: 445-6). The trappings of Turkish femininity offer unlimited access to public spaces (and Craven also notes that ‘as many, if not more’ women than men occupy the streets). Craven's text rewrites the concept of separate spheres so that space and activity are divided along racial lines. Her ‘if I was to walk about the streets here’ is purely rhetorical. The Englishwoman is resolutely opposed to the anonymity of Turkish feminine costume (perhaps here the developing discourse of English individuality and strong character is an influence). Consequently, her evident difference opens up perceptible hostility between the women of different races, which can only be contained, quite literally, within a sedan chair borne by Turkish males. And yet this too poses a threat, Craven ‘fearing every moment the Turks should fling me down they are so awkward’. For her journey out of Turkey, Craven is given as an escort another threatening male, ‘a Tchouadar, that is to say, a kind of upper servant, or rather creature of the Visir’ (Craven 1789: 285). This ‘yellow looking Turk’ (p. 286) is a constant source of irritation to Craven, competing with her for the servants' attention and for the lion's share of the party's provisions. At one point she finds that he has used her kettle to make himself coffee:

If any travellers were to meet us, they would certainly take him for some Grand Seigneur, and that I am of his suite, by the care taken of him, and the perfect indifference all, but my two companions and my servants, show for my ease and convenience … I thought it right to point to two most excellent little English pistols I wear at my girdle, and assure him they would be well employed against any offence I met with. And when the interpreter had done I could not help calling him a stupid disagreeable Turk, in English, which he took for a compliment, and bowed his head a little.

(Craven 1789: 291)

Turkish degeneracy and luxury here emerge as sexual savagery, barely containable through the brandishing of English pistols worn in a highly defensive position, ‘at my girdle’ (and through the futile yet cathartic effect of English insults). The ‘moral right’ of the English over the Turk is again asserted.

In 1763, the Monthly Review praises the Embassy Letters in gendered terms: ‘There is no affectation of female delicatesse, there are no prettynesses, no Ladyisms in these natural, easy familiar Epistles' (Monthly Review 28 [1763], 385). Paradoxically, Montagu is celebrated as a writer because she is not typical of her gender, even though it is her gender which makes possible her most novel observations (her descriptions of the harem). In 1789, by contrast, the Critical Review notes archly that Craven saw objects ‘in the true female view’ (Critical Review 67 [1789], 282). If this is true, then Craven is doing so partly in response to the increasing cultural and ideological separation of male and female fields and abilities. Similarly, her highly restrictive notions of sexual propriety are very much of her time. If we recall Craven's aspersions on the authorship of Montagu's text, moreover, it becomes clear that narrowing concepts of female activity colour Craven's reading of Montagu's text to the extent that the Embassy Letters' tolerant view of Turkish manners evinces their spuriousness.

Montagu's broader cultural tolerance is if anything still more offensive to Craven than her views on women. Jill Campbell (1994) has described how Montagu imagines Turkish culture as ‘outside history, as a place where past and present, the literary and the natural, coexist’ (pp. 74-5). She relates this to the anthropological phenomenon observed by Johannes Fabian (in Time and the Other), by which western travellers deny the contemporaneity of different cultures, co-existing in the same historical moment, and instead imagine the alien cultures they encounter as inhabiting the distant past of their own culture's history or prehistory (p. 75).

A letter to Pope, written at Adrianople, shows Montagu adopting precisely this position:

I read over your Homer here, with an infinite pleasure, and find several little passages explained, that I did not before entirely comprehend the beauty of: Many of the customs, and much of the dress then in fashion, being yet retained. I don't wonder to find more remains here, of an age so distant, than is to be found in any other country, the Turks not taking that pains to introduce their own manners, as has been generally practised by other nations, that imagine themselves more polite.

(Montagu 1763: II 44)

This is to Pope, and about poetry, and is therefore consciously idealistic. This letter invokes a cultural continuity which dissolves national boundaries and represents difference as innocence from the ravages of civilisation: ‘I never see half a dozen of old Bashaws (as I do very often) with their reverend beards, sitting basking in the sun, but I recollect good King Priam and his counsellors’ (vol. II, p. 45). The Embassy Letters as a whole strives to articulate an innocence of history and politics, which are barely mentioned, and also of cultural judgement. Crucial to this project is the fragmentation of narrative identity which occurs within the Embassy Letters. Montagu's text differs markedly from Craven's in being addressed (rather unusually, in eighteenth-century travel literature) to a wide range of correspondents (fifteen in all, twelve of whom are women), ranging from her depressed sister, Lady Mar, to the Abbe Conti, to Alexander Pope, and including assorted female friends. All of Craven's letters, by contrast, are addressed to the Margrave (which may partly account for their celebration of her virtues and of the esteem in which she is held throughout Europe, Russia and Turkey). This formal difference makes for a greater stylistic variety within the Embassy Letters than in Craven's Journey. Montagu uses different literary and conversational registers for different correspondents, and deploys a range of descriptive topics. She addresses one letter to the Princess of Wales, writing as ambassadress for Christendom as well as Britain: ‘I have now, Madam, finished a journey that has not been undertaken by any Christian, since the time of the Greek Emperors; and I shall not regret all the fatigues I have suffered in it, if it gives me an opportunity of amusing your R. H. by an account of places utterly unknown amongst us’ (vol. I, p. 151).

To Lady Mar, Montagu writes anecdotal, humorous accounts of social and sexual customs and visits to exotic notables like the Grand Vizier's ‘lady’ and the Sultana Hafiten. With assorted Ladies, she is chatty and occasionally risqué. All her detailed (and celebrated) accounts of Turkish women, in harem or public bath or private audience, are addressed to women.

With the Abbe Conti and with Pope, not surprisingly, Montagu is most scholarly and philosophical. To the Abbe she writes ‘of manners and religion’ (vol. II, p. 1), government and welfare, antiquities and architecture, commerce, military parades, and Islam. To Pope she addresses witty and sometimes flirtatious letters, writing about poetry and pastoral; she resolutely denies Pope the almost erotic satisfaction which her letters to women friends offer, in accounts of her Turkish costume and luxurious lifestyle. One detects a distinctively plaintive note to Pope's declaration: ‘I long for nothing so much as your Oriental Self. I expect to see your Soul as much thinner dresed as your Body’ (Pope 1956: I 494). Through this dazzling variety of subjects and styles, Montagu refracts her narrative identity into a prismatic multiplicity. The Letters' observing self becomes, quite literally, an embodiment of Enlightenment pluralism. Their multi-faceted narrator was no doubt an important factor in the enthusiastic reception of the Critical Review which itemises the narrator's separate attractions, declaring that the letters will display, ‘as long as the English language endures, the sprightliness of her wit, the solidity of her judgement, the extent of her knowledge, the elegance of her taste, and the excellence of her real character’ (Critical Review 15 [1763], 435).

The freedom of the Embassy Letters from opinion, judgement, or ‘vulgar prejudice’ (to use a frequent eighteenth-century criticism of travel writing) seems to have made them peculiarly attractive to the critical and reading public of the 1760s. Montagu must have seemed a true citizen of the world. The Embassy Letters were published in the year of the cessation of the Seven Years' War in Europe; the war had in some ways undermined the viability of Enlightened ideals and seen them compromised by political contingency and nationalistic feeling. Montagu's visions of a distant and not immediately threatening foreign world perhaps reassured the reading public that Enlightened tolerance was still, albeit remotely, alive and possible. Alternatively, the confidence-boosting territorial gains made at the Peace of Paris may have fostered a relaxed and culturally tolerant mood among the reading and critical public. Furthermore, remarks like ‘Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women, as the only free people in the Empire’ (Montagu 1763: II 35) must have offered a pleasurable alternative to the bitter resonances of ‘liberty’ in its domestic context in 1763. The Embassy Letters were published and reviewed in May of 1763; the anti-government North Briton edited by John Wilkes had published its incendiary issue 45 in April; and ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ was becoming a rallying cry.

For all the enlightened pluralism of the Embassy Letters, one might argue that there are letters in which Montagu's narrative persona is more emphatically English and where, correspondingly, things Turkish are presented in a more ambivalent light. The first is in a letter (her only) to the Princess of Wales, in which (as mentioned earlier) she writes as spokeswoman for Christendom. She describes her arrival in Turkish territory:

The country from hence to Adrianople, is the finest in the world. Vines grow wild on all the hills, and the perpetual spring they enjoy, makes every thing gay and flourishing. But this climate, happy as it seems, can never be preferred to England, with all its frosts and snows, while we are blessed with an easy government, under a King, who makes his own happiness consist in the liberty of his people, and chooses rather to be looked upon, as their father than their master.

(Montagu 1763: I 155)

This is a striking passage in Montagu's text; all the more so in that it sounds, almost parodically, like a great deal of other eighteenth-century travel writers who draw such comparisons so frequently as to make them at best a trope, at worst a cliché, of the genre. It is, however, hardly xenophobia; the same could not be said for a letter to Pope, describing Austro-Turkish atrocities in the battle for Belgrade, which contains a virulent diatribe against the Turks:

You see here that I give you a very handsome return for your obliging letter. You entertain me with a most agreeable account of your amiable connexions with men of letters and taste, and of the delicious moments you pass in their society under the rural shade; and I exhibit to you in return, the barbarous spectacle of Turks and Germans cutting one another's throats. But what can you expect from such a country as this, from which the muses have fled, from which letters seem eternally banished, and in which you see, in private scenes, nothing pursued as happiness but the refinements of an indolent voluptuousness, and where those who act upon the public theatre live in uncertainty, suspicion, and terror.

(Montagu 1767: 27-8)

This letter implicitly rejects the classical idealising of Turkey which dominates most of the Embassy Letters, and declares indeed: ‘I long much to tread upon English ground, that I may see you and Mr. Congreve, who render that ground classick ground’ (Montagu 1767: 32). These passages are almost worthy of Smollett's Smelfungus, and disrupt the tolerant pluralism of the other letters. Or, I should say, would disrupt; although a recent editor of Montagu (Clare Brant, Montagu 1992: 148-50) includes this letter, it did not in fact appear in the 1763 edition of Embassy Letters. It was first published in the spurious ‘fourth volume’, containing five fake letters and some genuine material (an essay, a letter, some verse), which appeared in 1767. Robert Halsband, in his definitive edition of Montagu's letters, has documented the inauthenticity of most of the 1767 volume (Montagu 1965-67: I xviii and I 371). Discredited by the time Craven was writing, this literary imposture had nevertheless ‘deceived even … the critics’ in 1767, as the Monthly Review (70 [1784], 575) ruefully admits. The 1767 volume is a fascinating hoax, and reveals the extent to which Montagu's pluralistic tolerance is already nostalgic, indeed outdated, by the later 1760s; or at least is co-existing somewhat uneasily with a more xenophobic, politically defensive sensibility. Revealingly, Lady Bute was convinced that the volume published in 1767 must be ‘genuine’ (Montagu 1965-67: I xviii). In the genuine volumes of the Embassy Letters, by contrast, Turkish indolence is invested with a complex philosophical value, embodying both classical (specifically, Elysian) tranquillity, and the possibility of a modern epicureanism:

I am almost of opinion they [the Turks] have a right notion of life. They consume it in musick, gardens, wine and delicate eating, while we are tormenting our brains with some scheme of politicks, or studying some science to which we can never attain … Considering what short liv'd weak animals men are, is there any study so beneficial as the study of present pleasure? I dare not pursue this theme.

(Montagu 1763: III 52-3)

Elsewhere, Montagu surrenders to the ‘wicked suggestions of poetry’, and observes ‘the warmth of the climate, naturally inspiring a laziness and aversion to labour’ (Montagu 1763: II 40-2). For Craven in the 1780s, however, indolence is anything but ‘naturally’ inspired: her ‘nature’ favours industry and (where such industry is not indigenous) colonisation. And her version of pastoral, as in this description of the valley of Baydar in Turkey, is decidedly imperial: ‘a most enchanting and magnificent spot, intended by nature for some industrious and happy nation to enjoy in peace—A few Tartar villages lessen the wildness of the scene, but, in such a place, the meadow part should be covered with herds, and the mountainous with sheep’ (Craven 1789: 190-1).

Craven's response to Turkish languor is one of prosaic disapproval: ‘The quiet stupid Turk will sit a whole day by the side of the Canal, looking at flying kites or children's boats … How the business of the nation goes on at all I cannot guess’ (p. 207). Her visions of commercial imperialism are couched in the language of emancipation and vision:

Can any rational being, dear Sir, see nature, without the least assistance from art, in all her grace and beauty, stretching out her liberal hand to industry, and not wish to do her justice? Yes, I confess, I wish to see a colony of honest English families here; establishing manufactures, such as England produces, and returning the produce of this country to ours—establishing a fair and free trade from hence, and teaching industry and honesty to the insidious but oppressed Greeks, in their islands—waking the indolent Turk from his gilded slumbers, and carrying fair Liberty in her swelling sails … This is no visionary or poetical figure—it is the honest wish of one who considers all mankind as one family.

(Craven 1789: 188-9)

This passage is especially commended by the Monthly Review for its ‘liberal reflections, which do honour to the writer, both as a lover of her own country, and as a citizen of the world’ (Monthly Review 80 [1789], 209). This judgement testifies to the ideological gulf not only between Montagu and Craven, but between the values of mid-century and those of later eighteenth-century culture, which looks forward to a new world of imperial expansion. The East is no longer merely an exotic playpen, but a land ripe for the type of colonial appropriation already well under way in India.

Although the reviews criticise Craven's arrogant style, her ideological stance is congenial, and she represents an important strand in travel literature (and much else) of the 1780s and 1790s. P. J. Marshall and Glyndwr Williams (1982: 67) have claimed that, despite continuing interest in the Near East, the growth of British influence in India was rapidly eclipsing Near Eastern concerns. Craven's account and its reception would suggest otherwise; or, indeed, might suggest that the Turkish experience was providing a paradigm for British attitudes towards India in the following century. As Norman Daniel puts it:

It was in Turkey that the imperial attitude developed most rapidly, and not in India, where empire was further advanced. The mood of the conquerors of Bengal was as humble culturally as it was active, even aggressive, in war and commerce. Warren Hastings was a great patron of the study of Persian culture. The serious-minded servants of the Company contributed learned notes and translations and adaptations of Persian verse to specialised periodicals. The forms of the Mogul Empire were carried on, and diplomacy in India still used the Persian language. The significant change in the European attitude came in relations with the Ottoman Empire, a change that soon affected India.

(Daniel 1966: 71)

The years separating Montagu and Craven show quite graphically the disappearance, as far as Turkey is concerned, of such cultural interest and humility. Montagu transcribes Turkish poetry, pronounces herself ‘pretty far gone in Oriental learning’ (Montagu 1763: II 46-56), and is enormously impressed by Turkish cultural traditions. Craven displays no such interest, and represents the Turks as barbaric philistines. Admittedly, she has some justification for this view, given that the Turks are bombarding Athens during her journey; however, her concern is less with the destruction of the Parthenon per se, and more with the British failure to get in on the act: ‘ruins, that would adorn a virtuoso's cabinet, are daily burnt into lime by the Turks; and pieces of exquisite workmanship stuck into a wall or fountain’ (Craven 1789: 221). She is particularly chagrined when the Turks forbid any of her party to remove any fragments of sculpture: ‘alas, Sir, I cannot even have a little finger or a toe’ (p. 256).

The sense of Turkey as a degenerating culture which is expressed only in the spurious letter from Montagu to Pope dominates Craven's account, and chimes with contemporary opinion, which was coming to view the Turks not only as ‘idle and effete under the influence of despotism, but as worse than savages’ (Burke, speech on 29 March 1791; cited Marshall and Williams 1982: 165). Montagu combines a respect for Turkish cultural history with a poetic imagining of Turkish culture as existing outside history and indeed politics; Craven constructs an alternative history, within which Turkish culture is erased, and the Turks are instead configured as almost pre-historic in their barbaric indolence. Craven's travelogue looks forwards, not back, to the assimilation of the East into British imperial history. And the forceful narrative personality projected by Craven's text foreshadows the emergence of the moral centre which the colonial woman is to provide for the colonial project.


1. Primary

Craven, Elizabeth, Lady. (1789) A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople. In a Series of Letters from the Right Hon. Elizabeth Lady Craven, to his Serene Highness the Margrave of Brandebourg, Anspach, and Bareith. Written in the Year MDCCLXXXVI, London: G. G. J. Robinson.

———. Margravine of Anspach (1814) Letters from the Right Honorable Lady Craven, to His Serene Highness the Margrave of Anspach, during her Travels through France, Germany, and Russia in 1785 and 1786, London.

———. (1826) Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach, Written by Herself, 2 vols, London: Henry Colburn.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. (1763) Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M—e: Written, during her Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa, to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters, &c. in different Parts of Europe. Which contain, among other curious Relations, Accounts of the Policy and Manners of the Turks; drawn from Sources that have been inaccessible to other Travellers, 3 vols, London: T. A. Becket and P. A. de Hondt.

———. [spurious] (1767) An Additional Volume to the Letters Of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M—e: Written, during her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa, to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters, &c. in different Parts of Europe, London.

———. (1965-67) The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols, Oxford: OUP.

———. (1977) Essays and Poems, and ‘Simplicity, a Comedy’, ed. Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

———. (1992) Letters, ed. Clare Brant, London: Dent.

Pope, Alexander. (1956) Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. George Sherburn, 5 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Porter, Sir James. (1768) Observations on the Religion, Laws, Government and Manners of the Turks, London: J. Nourse.

2. Secondary

Bhabha, Homi K. (1986) ‘The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism’, in Francis Barker et al. (eds), Literature, Politics and Theory: Papers from the Essex Conference 1976-84, London: Methuen, 148-72.

Bohls, Elizabeth A. (1995) Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics 1716-1818, Cambridge: CUP.

Campbell, Jill. (1994) ‘Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Historical Machinery of Female Identity’, in Beth Fowkes Tobin (ed.), History, Gender and Eighteenth-Century Literature, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 64-85.

Daniel, Norman. (1966) Islam, Europe and Empire, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Fabian, Johannes. (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, New York: Columbia University Press.

Grundy, Isabel. (1992) ‘“The Barbarous Character We Give Them”: White Women Travellers Report on Other Races’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 2: 73-86.

Halsband, Robert. (1956) The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lew, Joseph W. (1991) ‘Lady Mary's Portable Seraglio’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 24: 432-50.

Lewis, Bernard. (1993) Islam and the West, Oxford: OUP.

Lowenthal, Cynthia. (1990) ‘The Veil of Romance: Lady Mary's Embassy Letters’, Eighteenth-Century Life 14: 66-82.

Marshall, P. J. and Glyndwr Williams (1982) The Great Map of Mankind: British Perceptions of the World in the Age of Enlightenment, London: Dent.

Robinson, Jane. (1990) Wayward Women: a Guide to Women Travellers, Oxford: OUP.

Shaw, Stanford. (1976) History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, 2 vols, Cambridge: CUP.

Bridget Orr (essay date 1999)

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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 improvements, which gradually arise in the state of society, and by showing the influence of these upon the manners, the laws and the Government of a people.

With regard to the facts made use of in the following discourse, the reader, who is conversant with history, will readily perceive the difficulty of obtaining proper materials for speculations of this nature. Historians of reputation have commonly overlooked the transactions of early ages, as not deserving to be remembered; and even in the history of later and more cultivated periods, they have been more solicitous to give an exact account of battles, and public negociations, than of the interior police and government of a nation. Our information therefore, with regard to the state of mankind in the rude part of the world, is chiefly derived from the relations of travellers, whose character and situation in life, neither set them above the suspicion of being easily deceived, nor of endeavouring to misrepresent the facts which they have related.

(Millar 1779: 14)

As John Millar, the eminent author of The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks acknowledge, the great synthetic accounts of the progress of civil society produced in the Scottish Enlightenment relied heavily on ‘the relations of travellers’. The genre thus not only mediates direct encounter with other cultures; it also provides the basis for more ambitious philosophical extrapolation of ‘the natural history of mankind’. The reliability of these source materials was, however, known to be questionable. Although there were early modern travel narratives and histories of exotic cultures by aristocrats, diplomats and missionaries which commanded considerable respect, and a separate tradition of plain-style testimony in the voyage narratives of merchants and seamen, these had to confront a long-established scepticism about travellers' tales (‘the suspicion of being too easily deceived’ and even of ‘endeavouring to misrepresent the facts’ [see Adams 1983]). De Buffon went so far as to doubt the very existence of customary cannibalism, infanticide and parricide among savages, arguing that reports of such incidents recorded isolated events rather than established practices, the effects of ‘passion and caprice’ rather than a ‘determined standard of manners’ (de Buffon 1812: III 412). Both Millar and Buffon emphasise the provisional and tendentious nature of their accounts, self-conscious about their status as Lévi-Straussian bricoleurs avant la lettre, suturing examples from other men's dubious reports into new forms of speculation. These good intentions notwithstanding, however, the philosophical use of voyage literature shows an unmistakable tendency to harden into certain regulatory operations of its own (‘the interior police and government of a nation’). In this chapter I wish to argue that these are analogous to, even formally homologous with, the satiric and didactic attempts to govern female nature and behaviour legible in contemporary conduct books and misogynist verse which also drew on travel writing and, sometimes, on speculative history itself.

Recent accounts of ‘Enlightenment’ discourse are more certain than its originators of its truth-claims, as well as being convinced of its implication in oppressive class, gender and colonial relations. In her recent Torrid Zones (1995), Felicity Nussbaum attempts to rethink the way gender and maternity functioned in eighteenth-century imperial ideology. The control of reproduction, including the eighteenth-century perception of an epidemic of child murder, has become the focus of much recent research but little other than Nussbaum's work focuses on the connections between colonialism and the panic over, and the practice of, infanticide. My aim here is to re-examine the extensive and often ambiguous incorporation of travellers' accounts of infanticide as precisely, in Buffon's terms, a ‘settled usage’ in ancient, savage and oriental societies by philosophers such as Millar, Kames, Hume and Ferguson. Rather than providing a reliable marker of difference between civility and savagery, ancient barbarousness and modern British ‘humanity’, citations of the practice of infanticide often seem to provoke reflections on the frighteningly ubiquitous desire by women to escape what Luce Irigaray would call ‘reduction to the maternal function’ (Whitford 1989). Though generally convinced of the superiority of their own gender order, the Scottish philosophes often figure its perfect instantiation as a vanishing point, glimpsed in the very recent past or just visible in a reformed future. The imaginary figure of female virtue is haunted not just by her violent savage antithesis but by the actual practice of infanticide among Highland women; by a self-indulgent avoidance of maternal duty through the use of wet-nurses; and by the deluded cultural ambition of bluestockings. The most literal and lurid expressions of such anxieties form the focus of the ephemeral satire which recirculated the tropes of Pacific sexuality articulated in Hawkesworth's Account of the Voyages … in the Southern Hemisphere (1773). The apparent opposition between the Enlightened discourse of an incipient human science and the Menippean expatiation of misogynist contempt collapses as the two sets of texts identify a violent depravity common to Tahitian and English women alike.

Feminist scholarship has begun to attend to the role the representation of the position of women played in the ‘natural histories’ of mankind, following Sylvana Tomaselli's (1985) claim that for a wide range of Enlightenment thinkers, the status of women determined the degree of any society's civility (p. 101). Felicity Nussbaum (1995) develops this argument by claiming that a strong cultural emphasis on the unprecedented liberty of eighteenth-century Englishwomen was, however, accompanied by a desire to compel their acceptance of an exclusively domestic and maternal role, and demonised figures of cannibal or infanticidal savage mothers which violated the idea of a naturally nurturant female nature proliferated along-side the celebration of the English matron (pp. 1-53). This identification of a drive to enforce English women of all classes to accept a maternal identity in the mid-eighteenth century is supported by other recent scholarship: Ruth Perry, for instance, argues in ‘Colonizing the Breast’ (1992) that the cult of maternity, drawing on the anatomical discovery of the specificity of the female reproductive system, emerged in the later eighteenth century to redefine women in maternal rather than sexual terms, as agents of reproduction. Other arguments set the date for such a redefinition earlier (see L. Brown 1982; Armstrong 1987; C. Gallagher 1992), with Catherine Belsey suggesting in The Subject of Tragedy (1985: 219) that the late seventeenth century is the period in which women are first installed as domestic and maternal subjects through the redefinition of the family which accompanied the defeat of English absolutism. Charles Gildon's (1698) prefatory remarks to his redaction of Euripides' Medea—surely the ur-text of maternal infanticide in the West—seem to support Belsey's contention. Justifying his softening of Medea's character, Gildon comments in his Preface to Phaeton: or, the Fatal Divorce:

I saw a necessity on my first perusal of Euripides of alt'ring the two chief Characters of the Play, in consideration of the different Temper and Sentiments of our several Audience. First I was Apprehensive, that Medea, as Euripides represents her, would shock us. When we hear of her tearing her Brother to pieces, and the murd'ring of her own Children, contrary to all the Dictates of Humanity and Mother-hood, we should have been too impatient for her Punishment, to have expected the happy Event of her barbarous Revenge: nay, perhaps, not to have allow'd the Character within the Compass of Nature; or at least decreed it more unfit for the Stage, than the cruelties in Nero. Monsters in Nature not affording those just Lessons a Poet ought to teach his Hearers.

(Gildon 1698: np)

In a process consonant with the cultural shift identified by Belsey, Gildon's Phaeton transforms the violent, vengeful, barbarian sorceress of Euripides and Seneca into a loving mother forced by male perfidy into destructive madness. Jason is also altered, reflecting Gildon's conviction that ‘the Character … of JASON, which however justifiable in the Original, I had some reason to fear would not be forgiven in my Copy. In the first Scene of my Fourth Act, on their meeting after his forsaking her, Jason, wou'd seem too harsh, rough, and Ungentleman-like, to a Lady on our Stage’ (Preface). Revision of the characters banished female monstrosity and masculine barbarousness natural to the Ancients from a stage Gildon defended (contra Collier) as both polite and patriotic, exemplifying and inculcating the private and public virtue of the modern English nation. Phaeton's action, focusing on the cost exacted by masculine ambition on domestic happiness, also demonstrates affective tragedy's refiguration of catastrophe as the invasion of the private by the public.

Writing well into this new system of ‘interior police’, the Enlightenment bricoleurs invoked classical literature along with the exemplary narratives provided by travellers, generally concurring with Gildon's judgement that the conduct displayed by the Greeks and Romans was disgusting by modern standards. In his Sketches of the History of Man (1773), Lord Kames (Henry Home) castigated Jason as unchivalrous and unmanly:

The manners of Jason, in the tragedy of Medea by Euripides, are woefully indelicate. With unparallelled ingratitude to his wife Medea, he, in her presence, makes love to the King of Corinth's daughter, and obtains her in marriage. Instead of shunning a person he had so deeply injured, he endeavours to excuse himself in a very sneaking manner, ‘that he was an exile like herself, without support; and that his marraige would acquire powerful friends to their children.’ Could he imagine that such frigid reasons would touch a woman of any spirit?

(Home 1773: I 32)

The gradual idealisation of the modern British form of companionate marriage and a maternal female nature which is highlighted in the various eighteenth-century revisions of the Medea was not uncontested, however. Scriblerian and, later, more ephemeral satire continued to invoke the misogynist tropes of female concupiscence and immorality legible in the late seventeenth-century satires on women. Travel writing, which in its various modes regularly focused on exotic differences from the contemporary British gender order, served as continual provocation to satiric denunciations of female sexuality, both metropolitan and ‘savage’. There was a striking eruption of such attacks, including references to an unrecuperated Medea, in the satires which followed the publication of Hawkesworth's Account of Voyages to the Pacific.

To a man, the Scots instance infanticide as the effect of male custom and male law, a violation of maternal instinct which reflects the depressed position of women in classical, Asian and savage societies. According to Kames in his ‘Essay on the Progress of the Female Sex’ in his Sketches:

It was by slow degrees that the female emerged out of slavery, to possess the elevated station they are entitled to by nature. The practice of exposing infants, among the Greeks and many other nations, is an invincible proof of their depression, even after the custom ceased of purchasing them. It is wisely ordered by Providence, that the affection of a woman to her children commences with their birth: because, during infancy, all depends on her care. As, during that period, the father is of little use to his child, his affection is but slight, till the child begin to prattle and show some fondness for him. The exposing an infant, therefore, shows that the mother was little regarded: if she had been allowed a vote, the practice would never have obtained in any country.

(Home 1773: II 258).

In his Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, John Millar discusses infanticide as an index of the tyrannical nature of paternal power in the ancient world, concurring with Hume's view that the exposure of children functioned as a means of population control:

The exposition of infants, so common in a great part of the nations of antiquity, is a proof that the different heads of families were under no restraint or control in the management of their domestic concerns. This barbarous practice was probably introduced in those rude ages when the father was often incapable of maintaining his children, and from the influence of old usage, was permitted to remain in later times, when the plea of necessity could no longer be urged in its vindication.

(Millar 1779: 152)

In his essay ‘On the Populousness of Ancient Nations’ Hume argues:

The common reason why any parent thrusts his daughters into nunneries is that he may not be overburdened by too numerous a family; but the ancients had a method more innocent, and more effectual to that purpose; to wit, exposing their children in early infancy. This practice was very common, and it is not spoken of by any author of those times with the horror it deserves.

(Hume 1753: I 415)

And he comments later: ‘China, the only country where this practice prevails at present, is the most populous country we know of, and every man is married before he is twenty. Surely such easy marriages would scarcely be general, had not men a prospect of so easy a method of getting rid of their children’ (vol. I, p. 416). While Hume emphasises the material and sexual benefits men accrue through infanticide, Monboddo (Burnett 1773) sticks to population control: ‘To prevent the too-great increase in population … the ancient legislators used strange expedients, such as allowing the exposition of infants, and even the unnatural passion of men for one another’ (vol. I, p. 255).

Hume's claim that China provided the only contemporary example of institutionalised infanticide ignored other references to the practice in societies considered to be ‘savage’ in contemporary voyage literature. Prior to the publication of Hawkesworth's versions of the Pacific voyages, accounts of South American ‘savages’ provided a significant number of examples of infanticide. In de Charlevois' History of Paraguay (1769), for example, it is claimed of the Abipone people:

They seldom rear but one child of each sex, murdering the rest as fast as they come into the world, till the eldest are strong enough to walk alone. They justify this cruelty by saying, that, as they are almost constantly travelling from one place to another, it is impossible for them to take care of more infants than two at a time, one to be carried by the father, the other by the mother.

(de Charlevois 1769: I 405)

In his ‘Essay on the Female Sex’, Kames also cites testimony provided by Lockman's compendium of Jesuit narratives as to the practice of infanticide in South America. Instead of an eyewitness account, however, he quotes a first-person confession:

Father Joseph Guillama, in his account of a country in South America, bordering upon the great river Oroonoka, describes pathetically the miserable slavery of married women there; and mentions a practice, that would appear incredible to one unacquainted with that country, which is, that married women frequently destroy their female infants. A married woman, of virtuous character and good understanding, having been guilty of that crime, was reproached by our author in bitter terms. She heard him patiently with eyes fixed on the ground: and answered as follows:—‘I wish to God, Father, I wish to God that my mother had by my death prevented the manifold distresses I have endured, and have yet to endure as long as I live. Had she kindly stifled me at birth, I had not felt the pain of death, nor numberless other pains that life hath subjected me to. Consider, Father, our deplorable condition. We are dragged along with our infant at the breast, and another in the basket. They return in the evening without any burden; we return with the burden of our children; and though tired with a long march, are not permitted to sleep, but must labour the whole night, in grinding maise to make chica for them. They get drunk, and in their drunkenness beat us, draw us by the hair of the head, and tread us underfoot. And what have we to comfort us for slavery that has no end? A young wife is brought in upon us, who is permitted to abuse us and our children because we are no longer regarded. Can human nature endure such tyranny? What kindness can we show our female children other than relieving them from such oppression, more bitter a thousand times than death? I say again, would to God my mother had put me under ground the moment I was born.’

(Home 1773: II 288)

Guillama's native informant speaks in the accents of pathos; the brief but general sketch of gender relations in this nameless, vaguely located society embeds ethnographic detail (hunting and gathering, maize-grinding, marital arrangements) within a sentimental tale of domestic tyranny whose climax is female infanticide. Ventriloquising the confession allows Kames and the reader to share Guillama's position as intimate witnesses to the account, a witnessing which is simultaneously judgemental and pitying. Ethnographic ‘evidence’ is represented as a sentimental exchange in which European men stand in a relay of sympathetic auditors to an individual misery characterised as endemic, and clearly in need of reform; whether through conversion (by Guillama) or the civilising ‘commerce’ and settlement preferred by the British.

Millar also cites a South American instance of infanticidal violence, quoting directly from Byron:

The following account, given by Commander Byron, may serve in some measure to show the spirit with which the savages of South America are apt to govern the members of their family:

‘Here,’ says he, ‘I must relate a little anecdote of our Christian Cacique. He and his wife had gone off, at some distance from the shore, in their canoe, when she dived for sea-eggs; but not meeting with great success, they returned a good deal out of humour. A little boy of theirs, whom they appeared to be doating fond of, watching his father's and mother's return, ran into the surf to meet them: the father handed a basket of sea-eggs to the child, which being too heavy for him to carry, he let it fall; upon which the father jumped out of the canoe, and catching the boy up in his arms, dashed him with the utmost violence against the stones. The poor little creature lay motionless and bleeding, and in that condition was taken up by the mother, but died soon after. She appeared inconsolable for some time; but the brute his father showed little concern about it.’

(Millar 1779: 152)

Millar announces that the anecdote is intended to be exemplary of the nature (the ‘spirit’) of domestic governance among South Americans but the narrative is much more legible in Buffonian terms as a singular event rather than ‘the fixed laws’ of a nation (de Buffon 1812: III 314). As evidence, the story relies on an implied eyewitnessing by Byron, who was widely regarded as an unreliable narrator after he claimed to have seen the Patagonian giants when shipwrecked on Anson's 1767 expedition. But the spectator/narrator's position is in fact occluded, with the story's credibility turning on the inclusion of a few exotic details such as sea-eggs and an implicit reliance on familiar tropes of savagery. Thus the father's brutality is rendered plausible as the effect of an unrestrained passion which manifests itself initially as an excessive affection (‘doating fond’) and then turns into an equally excessive violence. The mother's inconsolable maternal grief testifies both to the universality of maternal feeling and the superior civility of the European men (Byron and Millar) who have twice memorialised her loss.

Adam Ferguson's Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) provides a final example by contrasting the prudent sexual abstinence of North American Indian women with the suffering inflicted in Formosa:

In warmer latitudes, by the different temperament, perhaps, which the climate bestows, and by a greater facility in procuring subsistence, the numbers of mankind increase, while the object is itself neglected; and the commerce of the sexes, without any concern for population, is made a subject of mere debauch. In some places we are told, it is even made the object of a barbarous policy, to defeat or to restrain the intentions of nature. In the island of Formosa, the males are prohibited to marry before the age of forty; and females, if pregnant before the age of thirty-five, have an abortion procured by order of the magistrate, who employs a violence that endangers the life of the mother, together with that of the child.

(Ferguson 1767: 213)

The American examples of infanticide were used not just to provide evidence but to claim sympathy for the mistreated maternal objects of masculine savagery: sentimental rhetoric confirmed the Enlightened reader as benevolently civil. The Chinese instances, almost all drawn from Jesuit narratives, operated with a different logic. Child murder served as a lurid signifier of barbarity and scarcity in an otherwise formidably powerful and civilised state; notwithstanding Hume's emphasis on the masculine advantages gained by Chinese infanticide, missionary accounts of China often stress poverty as a cause: ‘Yet, notwithstanding the great sobriety and industry of the Inhabitants of China, the prodigious number of them occasions a great deal of misery. There are some so poor, that for want of common necessaries for their children, they expose them in the streets, especially when the Mothers fall sick, or want milk to nourish them’ (New General Collection 1747: IV 76).

Even more striking, however, is the emphasis on the provocation to maternal care outlined in these narratives, the appeal to a feminine reader. Despite the dearth of travelogues authored by women during the period, gender remains a paramount factor in the reception of the genre. John Lockman's 1743 translation of The Travels of the Jesuits includes a letter from a Father Premare to a Father Le Gobien in which the former suggested that affluent and devout Parisian women should be petitioned to provide funding for hospitals to rescue such abandoned infants:

Among various Establishments wanting, and which would greatly advance the progress of the Christian Religion, by the Honour they must necessarily reflect upon it, there is one which myself, as well as several other Missionaries, have greatly at Heart. I mean the building, in five or six of the greatest Cities belonging to the chief Provinces of the Empire, a kind of Hospitals for bringing up those Foundlings whose Lives, as well as Souls, may have been saved. This would properly be a work worthy of the Piety of Ladies, to whom you subsequently ought to explain this Design. For these Hospitals would consist principally of Maidens; such being exposed, rather than the Males, by those Parents who have more Children than they can well maintain … A considerable Number of pious Establishments are daily being founded in Paris, unless the Face of things be greatly changed, in this Particular, since I left that City. Now, could not a Lady of Quality do something like this, in favour of Peking, the Capital of China?

(Travels of the Jesuits 1743: I 88-9)

Premare invokes the duty of care European women owe to Chinese female infants as, implicitly, an extension of their maternal solicitude. Whether by conversion or civil mission, these appeals to (civil) men and (maternal) women prefigure the invocation of infanticide as an important trope in British justifications of empire in India and in the Pacific.

Despite variations in reports of savage or exotic infanticide, then, there was a general consensus in the philosophical discourse which processed the voyage accounts, that the occidental eschewal of the practice was symptomatic of Europe's supersession of classical and oriental brutality. Equally pervasive was the assumption that mothers, whether savage or civilised, would resist the practice in that maternal feeling was understood as universal even while the British gender order was celebrated as peculiarly benign. Joseph Banks, writing one of the earliest accounts of infanticide in Tahiti in 1770, shared these assumptions. Describing the institution of the arioi, troupes of intinerant, aristocratic thespians, who were ‘reputed like Comus in Milton to have entered into a resolution of enjoying free love in liberty without a possibility of being troubled or disturbed by its consequences’, the normally imperturbable Banks expresses horror at the practice of smothering children begot at the moment of their birth. Unsurprisingly, he holds the men responsible:

This custom, as it were natural to suppose, Owes as we were told its existence cheifly to the men. A Woman howsoever fond she may be of the name of Arreoy, and the liberty attending it before she conceives, generaly desires much to forfeit that title for the preservation of her child: in this she has not the slightest influence; if she cannot find a man who will own it, she must of course destroy it; and if she can, with him alone it lies whether or not it shall be preserv'd.

(Banks 1963: I 315)

John Hawkesworth's rewriting of this passage, published in his widely read Account of the Voyages (1773), is informed by a pietistic revulsion alien to the philosophical Banks. The former's ‘voice-of-Cook’ opines:

the poor infant is smothered the moment it is born, that it may be no incumbrance to the father, nor hinder the mother in the pleasures of her diabolical prostitution. It sometimes happens indeed, that the passion which prompts a woman to enter into this society, is surmounted by that instinctive affection which nature has given all creatures for the preservation of their well-being; but even in this case she is not permitted to spare the life of the child, except she can find a man who will patronise it as his child; but both the man and the woman, being deemed by this act to have appropriated each other, are ejected from the community, and forfeit all claims to the privileges and pleasures of Arreoy, for the future, the women from that time being distinguished by the term whannownow ‘bearer of children’ which is here a term of reproach; tho' none can be more honourable in the estimation of wisdom and humanity, of right reason, and every passion that distinguishes the man from the brute.

(Hawkesworth 1773: II 208)

For Banks, the women ‘generally’ wished to keep their children, while for Hawkesworth, it is only ‘sometimes’. In the latter's account, maternal love no longer figures as the ground of female nature; instead, the customary contempt for childbearing ascribed to Tahitians marks them out as scarcely human, violators of nature, wisdom, humanity and right reason (cf. Rennie 1995: 98).

Hawkesworth's account of Tahiti was the one which circulated and it provided the occasion for a widespread debate over the projects of natural historians, speculative or navigational, in which sexuality was a primary focus. Rejecting the philosophical ascription of infanticide to male custom, the welter of ephemeral verses published in response to Hawkesworth's Account which included Otaheite (1774); Seventeen Hundred and Seventy-Seven (1777); An Historic Epistle from Amiah to the Queen of Otaheite (1775) and the Poetical Epistle, Moral and Philosophical, from an Officer at Otaheite to Lady Gr[os]v[e]n[o]r (1775) all call up the unrecuperated figure of ‘savage infanticidal maternity’: ‘even in Arcadia there is Medea’, as Rennie (1995) observes (p. 107). In the first example, Otaheite, published anonymously in 1774, the recent voyages of discovery are celebrated as triumphs of science and pedagogy, figuring the British as ‘Teachers of Mankind’ who will turn the Tahitians from a savagery chiefly characterised by maternal infanticide:

Can cruel Passions these calm Seas infest,
And stifle Pity in a Parent's Breast?
Does here MEDEA draw the vengeful Blade,
And stain with filial Gore the blushing Shade;
Here, where Arcadia should its Scenes unfold,
And past'ral Love revive an Age of Gold!
          Ah! See in vain the little Suppliant plead
With silent Eloquence to check the Deed:
He smiles unconscious on th' uplift'd Knife,
And courts the Hand that's arm'd against his Life.
Nor his last sighs the Mother's Bosom move;
She dooms his Death, her Sacrifice to Love:
Impatient hastes her am'rous Vows to plight,
And seals with Infant Blood the barb'rous Rite.
Reclin'd upon her Lover's panting Breast,
See in his Arms the beauteous Mur'dress prest!
No keen Remorse the Wanton Trance destroys,
No thrilling Terrors damp their guilty Joys
Nor Ties of social Life their Crimes reclaim,
Nor rigid Justice awes, nor virtuous Fame.

In contrast to Banks's emphasis on the mother's reluctance to sacrifice her child, Otaheite stresses her shameless eagerness to dispose of the impediment to her voluptuous abandonment. The poem uses maternal infanticide as the chief means of contesting the already widespread figuration of Tahitian culture as Arcadian, suggesting instead that the failure of maternal love is symptomatic of an irreligious (‘No keen Remorse’), uncivil (‘Nor Ties of social Life’) and lawless savagery (‘Nor rigid Justice’). The trope resurfaces in Anna Seward's famous Elegy on the Death of Captain Cook (1780):

Nor has he wander'd, has he bled in vain!
His lips persuasive charm th'uncultur'd youth,
Teach Wisdom's lore, and point the path of Truth.
See! Chasten'd love in softer glances show
See! With new fires parental duty glows.

She glossed the passage thus: ‘Captain Cook observes in his second voyage, that the women of Otaheite were grown more modest and that the barbarous practice of destroying their children was lessened.’

Many of the satires produced in response to Hawkesworth's publication were, however, much more sceptical about the assumption that a huge gulf divided the savage mother from the refined English matron, and sceptical in consequence about the moral rectitude of British exploration and commerce with ‘Indians’. The addressee of the Epistle to Lady Gr[os]v[e]n[o]r was herself sexually notorious and the poem climaxes in a deliberate blurring of an infanticidal Tahiti and a civil England. The poem's account of Tahitian mores closes with an evocation of child-murder which segues into an attack on bluestockings or, to quote Hume, ‘the fair sex’ in their role as the ‘sovereigns of the empire of conversation’:

Can the fond mother act Medea's part?
Can she expose the darling of her heart?
Without a tear, her infant cherub, doom,
And stab the smiling off-spring of her womb?
O dire effect of passions unrestrain'd,
O dire effect of Nature's laws profan'd.
From such black scenes the Muse indignant turns,
Where lust depraved, the maddened female burns.
Far different scenes in Britain's isle I see,
Where shines conspicuous the fam'd Coterie.


The apparent ‘difference’ in the scenes is collapsed, however, as the ‘Coterie's’ ‘social orgies’ (or salons) are revealed to be as depraved as the Tahitians': ‘So the stale Countess by a strange embrace / Yields to her Lord an unresembling race’ (291-2).

The satirists' citation of Medea invokes the ancient figure of barbaric female violence to refute the increasingly widely-held assumption—codified by the Scots—that women everywhere are not only maternally benevolent but that their social position reflects a culture's progress towards civility. Given the extent to which an orthodox Christian scepticism—that of Samuel Johnson as much as Hawkesworth—continued to shape opinion about local and exotic gender orders and polities, that is hardly surprising. Interestingly, if less predictably, however, the satiric attacks on bluestockings castigated as vicious, sound in the end not unlike the misogynistic suspicion of female ‘voluptuousness’ articulated by the philosophical Kames. In modern states marked by opulence, he remarks, ‘Women … regarding nothing but sensual enjoyment, become so careless of their infants, as even, without blushing, to employ mercenary nurses’ (Home 1776: I 205). Despite his insistence on the ‘equality’ of the sexes, Kames was adamant that women were by nature not designed for sculpture or letters but for child-rearing.

With regard to the outlines, whether of internal disposition or of external figure, men and women are the same. Nature however, intending them for mates, has given them dispositions different, but concordant, so as to produce together delicious harmony. The man, more robust, is fitted for severe labour and for field-exercises: the woman, more delicate, is fitted for sedentary occupations; and particularly for nursing children. The difference is remarkable in the mind, no less than in the body. A boy is always running about; delights in a top or a ball, and rides upon a stick as a horse. A girl has less inclination to move: her first amusement is a baby; which she delights to dress and undress. I have seen oftener than once a female child under six getting an infant in its arms, caressing it, singing and walking about, staggering under the weight. A boy never thinks about such matters.

(Home 1776: II 270)

Kames's belief in women's maternal instinct is shared by Millar (1779), for whom women are ‘Loaded by nature with the first and most immediate concern in rearing and maintaining the children’ (p. 109), and, like Kames, Millar simultaneously celebrates the improved condition of women which accompanied his own culture's attainment of refinement while deploring a tendency to decadence most visible in the decline of female virtue. He praises the domestic women of a recent age: ‘Accustomed to live in retirement, and to keep company with their nearest relations and friends, they are inspired with all that modesty and diffidence which is natural to persons unacquainted with promiscuous conversation; and their affections are neither disappointed by pleasure, nor corrupted by the vicious customs of the world’ (p. 110). But he notes that such modest virtue seems to breed its own corruption as:

Women of condition come to be more universally admired and counted upon account of the agreeable qualities which they possess, and upon account of the amusement which their conversation affords. They are encouraged to quit that retirement which was formerly esteemed so suitable to their character, to enlarge the sphere of their aquaintance, and to appear in mixed company, and a public meeting of pleasure. They lay aside the spindle and the distaff, and engage in other employments more agreeable to the fashion.

(Millar 1779: 121)

This contradictory impulse to celebrate and condemn contemporary British womanhood and the civilising process of which their maternal virtue is so crucial an index, is nowhere more apparent than in Kames's etiology of infanticide in the barbarous Celtic fringe of England:

We scarce ever hear of adultery among savages: though among them incontinence before marriage is not uncommon. In Wales, even at present, and in the Highlands of Scotland, it is scarce a disgrace for a young woman to have a bastard. In the country last-mentioned, the first instance of a bastard-child being destroyed by its mother through shame is a late one. The virtue of chastity appears to be there gaining ground; as the only temptation a woman can have to destroy her child is to conceal her frailty.

(Home 1776: II 281)

In fact, of course, for many women not just reputation but social and economic survival depended on their ability to dispose of an illegitimate child. Legal historians Peter Hoffer and N. E. N. Hull (1981) have argued that the precipitous decline in indictments for child-murder in the late eighteenth century can be understood in terms of a widespread acceptance of the universality of maternal instinct—as juries found the crime more monstrous, so too a higher standard of proof was required for conviction (p. 109). This cultural investment in maternity is not only manifest in the speculative historians' contradictory invocations of lurid instances of the infanticide in ancient, oriental and savage societies, which allow them to emphasise the civil difference of their own gender order, but is equally apparent in their denunciations of contemporary female luxury.

During the 1770s, the authors of conduct books, tying the reform of female manners not just to modesty but to maternity, also begin to include comparisons between the unhappy condition of women in ‘barbarous’ countries and the fortunate circumstances of British womanhood. Writers such as Hester Chapone and the Rev. James Fordyce followed Hume in emphasising that voyages and travels were proper subjects and texts for young women's instruction. Thus Fordyce exhorts, in a sermon on ‘Female Virtue, With Intellectual Accomplishments’:

On both accounts we would also recommend books of Voyages and Travels; a favorite study of the celebrated Mr Locke. How amusing to curiosity! How enlarging to our prospect of mankind! How conducive to cure the contracted prepossessions of national pride, and withal to inspire gratitude for the peculiar blessings bestowed upon our country; to excite our pity towards the many millions of human beings left by mysterious heaven in ignorance and barbarism.

(Fordyce 1809: 139)

In the next sermon, Fordyce emphasises that voyage literature, unlike ‘bad books’ which inflame and corrupt the imagination, can help correct the passions and govern female practice: ‘To instance but in one subject more; she must be wholly given up to trifles that can pursue them with the same fondness, after having her imagination raised, and all her faculties expanded by those wonderful representations of the works of God, which are contained in many books of Philosophy and History, Voyages and Travels’ (p. 143). Fordyce's Sermons, like Mrs Chapone's, are directed not at women in general but most specifically at ‘young creatures of your sex’, whom he describes as ‘the most distinguishing glory of Britain; the fairest flowers … in all the garland of British humanity’ (p. 159). Disavowing any missionary interests in ‘infidel’ women, Fordyce represents such females as hopelessly debauched: ‘To attempt the conviction of female infidels falls not within my present design. Indeed, I fear it would be a hopeless undertaking. The preposterous vanity, together with the hopeless profligacy, by which they have been warped into scepticism, would in all likeliehood baffle any endeavours of mine’ (p. 65).

Fordyce is as eager as Kames and Millar to emphasise the superiority of British women over the virtuous pagans of the Roman republic:

The virtues of a Roman Matron, in the better times of that republic, appear on some accounts to have been greatly respectable. They were such as might be looked for, from her education amongst a people whose ideas of prowess, patriotism and glory, ran high … But not to insist on national pride, and ungenerous prepossessions, on which those ideas were founded; it is manifest to me, that whatever force or grandeur of the female mind might in other views derive from them, such advantage was overbalanced by the loss and diminution of that gentleness and softness, which ever were, and ever will be, the sovereign charm of the female character. Nor do I wish the women of Great Britain, who profess a system so much more just, amiable and happy, to adopt for the regulation of their temper any standard different from that in my text.

(Fordyce 1809: 118)

Fordyce's text is itself an instrument in what Millar called (following French usage), the ‘internal police’ of the British nation, as it divides British women from their pagan predecessors and infidel contemporaries in order to emphasise the patriotic as well as private nature of their duty to modesty and maternity.

In her own Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773), Hester Chapone also emphasises the special virtues of history and geography, both in warding off the charms of ‘fictitious stories that so inflame the mind’ (pp. 114-15) and in educating women in an understanding of their position as participants in imperial culture. Study of ancient history is advised so that the ‘parallel’ between ‘the character of your own countrymen’ and that of the Romans may be observed (p. 129); the British conquests in both the Eastern and Western Indies are compared, and the recent voyages to the Pacific are invoked with enthusiasm. The reading lists, as well as the actual narrative embodied in the text, recapitulate the story of the progress of civil society towards its triumphant apotheosis in contemporary Britain. Lacking Fordyce's gallant flourishes, Chapone is equally emphatic that women's cultivation is a duty owed to ‘that empire of which you are a subject’ (p. 138). And her enthusism for the records of ‘the amazing progress of navigation and commerce’ (p. 132) helps explain the virulence of the public response to Hawkesworth's Account. His tales of Tahitian abandon were precisely the kind of corrupting texts, stimulating to the imagination and the passions, against which Voyages and Travels were favourably compared by the writers of conduct books.

The late eighteenth-century discourses of speculative history, ephemeral satire and conduct literature are not often connected, despite their common concern, even obsession, with the condition of contemporary women. In addition to this theme, however, these texts shared a common archive: the huge and expanding literature of voyages and travels on which they all drew in their attempts to explain, deplore and regulate female nature and conduct. Reading across these disparate philosophical, didactic and obscene texts, and the ‘unreliable’ accounts of foreign and exotic peoples which they recirculate, a certain cultural consensus emerges. Even in the increasingly materialist accounts of human history provided by the Scots, for women, biology is becoming Providence. Against the various perversions and degradations inflicted on women by ancient, infidel oriental and savage societies, Britain's liberal treatment of ‘the Sex’ has produced the nation's ‘fairest flowers’, women who enjoy unparalleled dignity, ease and respect as softer, sensible incarnations of Roman matronage. According to this logic, attempts to avoid maternity, whether through the voluntary celibacy of the metropolitan bluestocking, the employment of wet-nurses by the monied, or the infanticide of shamed servants and arioi, all stand as violations of the universal law of female nature.


1. Primary

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de Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc (1812) Buffon's Natural History (trans. William Smellie), 20 vols, London: T. Cadell and W. Davies.

de Charlevois, Pierre François Xavier (1769) A History of Paraguay …, 2 vols, Dublin: D. and W. Saunders, B. Grierson, J. Potts, D. Chamberlaine and J. Williams.

Ferguson, Adam (1767) An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Edinburgh and London: A. Kincaid, J. Bell, A. Millar, T. Cadell.

Fordyce, James (1809) Sermons to Young Women, 3rd US from 12th London edn, Philadelphia and New York: M. Carey and I. Biley.

Gildon, Charles (1698) Phaeton: or, the Fatal Divorce, London: Abel Roper.

Hawkesworth, John (1773) An Account of the Voyages undertaken by Order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, 3 vols, London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell.

Home, Henry, Lord Kames (1776) Sketches of the History of Man, 2 vols, Edinburgh: W. Creech.

Hume, David (1784) Essays, Moral, Political and Literary 2 vols (1753), London: T. Cadell.

Millar, John (1779) The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, 3rd edn, London: John Murray.

New General Collection of Voyages and Travels, A (1743-47), 4 vols, London: Thos. Astley.

Otaheite (1774), London: C. Bathurst.

Seward, Anna (1780) An Elegy on the Death of Captain Cook, London: J. Dodsley.

Thesiger, Wilfred The Travels of the Jesuits into Various Parts of the World (1743), 2 vols (trans. John Lockman), London: John Noon.

2. Secondary

Adams, Percy G. (1983) Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel, Lexington: Kentucky University Press.

Armstrong, Nancy (1987) Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel, New York: OUP.

Belsey, Catherine (1985) The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama, London and New York: Methuen.

Brown, Laura (1982) English Dramatic Form, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Gallagher, Catherine (1992) Nobody's Story: Women's Vanishing Acts in the Market-Place, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hoffer, Peter and N. E. N. Hull (1981) Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England, New York: New York University Press.

Nussbaum, Felicity (1995) Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality and Empire in Eighteenth-Century Narrative, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perry, Ruth (1992) ‘“Colonizing the Breast”: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England’, Eighteenth-Century Life 16: 185-213.

Rennie, Neil (1995) Far-Fetched Facts: The Literature of Travel and the Idea of the South Seas, Oxford: OUP.

Tomaselli, Sylvana (1985) ‘The Enlightenment Debate on Women’, History Workshop 20: 101-24.

Whitford, Margaret (1989) ‘Rereading Irigaray’, in Teresa Brennan (ed.), Between Psychoanalysis and Feminism, London and New York: Routledge, 106-26.

Sven-Erik Rose (essay date 1999-2000)

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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 refreshment in literary games?”1 During an eighteen-month voyage from Gothenburg, Sweden to Canton and back (1769-71), Jacob Wallenberg, chaplain aboard the Swedish East India Company ship Finland, entertained himself and his shipmates by composing Min son på galejan [My Son on the Galley].2 First published in 1781, two and a half years after its author's death at the age of thirty-two, Wallenberg's comic and episodic travelogue is considered a classic eighteenth-century Swedish prose text and stands out among contemporary Swedish works for its enduring readability. In all, it has seen twenty-five editions and has appeared in a vast number of anthologies. My Son has also been translated into Danish (1944), German (1975), Italian (1971), and English (1993).

The reception of Wallenberg's text has largely remained within the scope of conventional literary criteria and, despite the historical nature of the narrative, no critic to my knowledge has attempted to negotiate between Wallenberg's comic text and the context of mercantile expansion in which it is so intimately implicated. Wallenberg's “literary games” such as placing a “Preface to the Gentle Reader” at the end of the first book prompted the important Enlightenment author Christoph Martin Wieland, in his presentation of a 1782 translation to a German reading public, to assign My Son a place in the Sternian tradition of comic travel narratives.3 Subsequent critical treatment has followed Wieland's lead in assessing Wallenberg's travelogue according to traditional literary paradigms. While in the 1920s Niels Afzelius, in what remains the most thorough discussion of My Son, argues against reading Wallenberg in the tradition of Sterne4 and identifies the Linnean tradition as the “solid trunk” [fasta stam] around which Wallenberg's text winds, his primary concerns remain the text's generic affiliations and questions of influence.5 Even more recent treatments of My Son—whether formal analyses of the techniques of Wallenberg's jokes (Ebel), for example, or arguments concerning the extent to which the text is fact or fiction (Sjöberg)—fail to deal with it as imperial discourse.6 Indeed, I would argue that the near-total critical disregard of any but the most incidental connections between Wallenberg's narrative and the mercantile exploitation of the East Indies, which is the occasion of his journey, attests to the effectiveness of Wallenberg's humor in making a mere joke of the serious business of exploitation.

Yet while Wallenberg's innovative narrative draws, generically, on traditions as diverse as the French voyage comique, the novels of Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding, the moral weekly (such as, in Sweden, Olof von Dalin's Then Swänska Argus), and the Swedish Bacchanalian tradition of which Carl Michael Bellmann is the most esteemed representative, it is a comic account of a real voyage. Its most important intertexts remain the meticulous naturalist travel accounts of Wallenberg's Linnean compatriots. In his highly entertaining text, Wallenberg self-consciously parodies the humorless facticity of the narratives published by, among others, Olof Torén, who described his journey to the East Indies in letters to Linnaeus, and the Linnean disciple Pehr Osbeck. As Mary Pratt and others have noted, the Linnean disciples' increasingly global enterprise, over the second half of the century, of travel and travel writing was made possible by arrangements with overseas trading companies, above all the Swedish East India Company.7 Wallenberg, who somewhat reluctantly took the cloth in order to sail with the company, was thus very much in the position to spoof the writings of his more sincere counterparts. But while Wallenberg adopts a parodic stance vis-à-vis naturalist discourse, his comic endeavors are made possible by the same project of mercantile expansion as their scientific research. Indeed, the Swedish East India Company could support the joking cleric and the scientists with ease, as it enjoyed, in its peak period from which Wallenberg's account stems, returns of threehundred percent.8

In this essay, I wish to explore the crucial question that the various formalist approaches (broadly defined) to Wallenberg's text have not been equipped to ask—namely, how the dynamic intersection of comedy and colonialism we encounter in Wallenberg's text functions as an ideological intervention. My concern will not be with formal aspects of Wallenberg's comic narrative per se but rather with how the author deploys comic narration in his very specific scene of writing—a Swedish East India Company boat sailing to China in the interests of economic exploitation. For, as Freud argues in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, humor cannot be grasped fully through analysis of its techniques alone, but must also be understood as social process.9 James English articulates the social dynamics of the joke-work nicely when he writes that “what the joke does is to intervene in a particular system of social relationships, putting into circulation a ‘mutilated and altered transcript’ of certain of the system's elements, a ‘most strange revision’ of the problems or contradictions that bind those elements within the system (JRU 160, 162).”10 I shall thus be attending to the work that Wallenberg's jokes perform—that of distracting from colonial violence through humor—and to their complex workings, the witty condensations and displacements by which they perform this task.

In reading Wallenberg's humor seriously, I wish to demonstrate the necessary convergence and interchange of sexual and colonial objects in the economy of his imperial joke-work, or socialized dream-work. Thus my project engages, in a specific context, a central problem of colonial studies—the difficulty of articulating coloniality and sexuality in such a way as to recognize the mutual constitution of the sexual and colonial other. The work of Christopher Lane and Anne McClintock represents two approaches to the problematic of gender and colonialism. In his subtle psychoanalytic study, The Ruling Passion, Lane unravels, in a body of colonial British literature, underlying ambivalences legible primarily along the axes of masculine identification and same-sex desire. While Lane's project aims to help “shatter Britain's colonial legacy, once and for all,” his “interest lies predominantly in the violent effect of sexual desire on ontology.”11 Thus Lane proceeds on the assumption that the political function of ambivalence is essentially disruptive, an assumption he shares with Homi Bhabha. In Bhabha's suggestive and challenging work, we likewise frequently encounter the implicit equation of textual ambivalence and the fracturing of the political subject with a disruption of colonial politics per se.12

In its psychoanalytic dimensions and interest in ambivalence and paradox, my analysis is in dialogue with Lane and Bhabha; the specific context I examine, however, challenges the assumption that paradox is inherently subversive. I am thus in agreement with McClintock's insightful critique, in Imperial Leather (1995), of critical slippage between formal structures and their assumed political effects.13 Also employing psychoanalytic strategies, McClintock usefully calls for layered and historically nuanced analysis of localized colonial dynamics. Indeed in my analysis of the elusive ways in which Wallenberg's witty discourse rewrites relations of power in the colonial exchange, I attempt to demonstrate how paradox, in Wallenberg, does not function as a negative limit at which power unravels, but rather as a driving force propelling the imperial project.

This conspicuous aspect of Wallenberg's discourse pushes us to expand the parameters of the ongoing discussion of the interrelationships of paradox, gender, and colonialism exemplified, for example, in connection with the eighteenth-century English context, by Laura Brown's Ends of Empire, to which the present analysis is indebted. Brown, albeit in a manner more in keeping with traditional critique of ideology, also tends to read the contradictions and paradoxes of ideology as inherently noxious to its workings. Thus she perceives in the trope of the commodified female agent in which, she argues, such contradictions and paradoxes become concentrated, not only a powerful mechanism of empire but also a site of its potential subversion. “[W]omen,” Brown asserts, “can disturb the coherence of mercantile capitalist ideology … in part because they are so essential to its self-representation.”14 As I will try to demonstrate, the productivity of the paradox that accrues in Wallenberg's figures of commodified women puts pressure on the assumption that ideology necessarily functions according to principles of coherence. This is not to say that we should abandon the critical project of hastening the end of empire for which Brown forth-rightly calls. It does require, however, that we move in our theorization of colonial discourses beyond the prevalent view that ideological contradiction and paradox—including the contradictions and paradoxes of gender—disturb ideology, and that we begin to consider more fully their ideological functions.


I share with Mary Pratt the guiding assumption that narratives such as Wallenberg's which are intimately caught up in conquest—whether mercantile or colonial—will employ strategies for disavowing what Pratt (perhaps all-too-liberally) calls “guilt.”15 In his parodic treatment of the naturalists' posture, Wallenberg eschews the strategies for narrating the “anti-conquest” which Pratt identifies in naturalist accounts such as that by the Linnean disciple Anders Sparrman.16 An excursion into traditional Linnean travel accounts will therefore establish a useful backdrop to Wallenberg's comic upstagings. Pratt sees in the naturalist-collector the “utopian image of a European bourgeois subject simultaneously innocent and imperial, asserting a harmless hegemonic vision that installs no apparatus of domination. At most naturalists were seen as handmaidens to Europe's expansive commercial aspirations.”17 Even as science and commerce serve each other's interests, the two are “carefully held distinct.”18 The “innocent” naturalist's guiding trope is self-effacement, a tendency to subsume cultural domination into natural order or, put differently, a tendency for the “guilty” subject of (exploitative) knowledge to vanish innocently into his (overwhelmingly his) presumedly value-neutral object of study.

Pehr Osbeck's speech on the purpose of travel, delivered in 1758 on the occasion of his induction into the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, provides a remarkable example of the kind of oscillation Pratt describes between acknowledgment and disavowal of the economic interests of science:

Attention has always its use, which in part appears immediately, and in part avails posterity … Each of our senses expects its peculiar gratification, and this sometimes from the most distant parts of the world. That other nations may not run away with all the advantages arising from carrying merchandize from place to place, we are obliged to fetch foreign goods ourselves by long voyages. It is advantageous to trade to take time, and to have a free uninterrupted course; and therefore we prefer going by sea: to this the compass is not only useful, but absolutely requisite; yet it is probable that at first the effects of the load-stone were looked upon as trivial, and it is doubtful whether the inventor got a proportionable reward for its discovery: but time has shewn, that the first attention to this object has been of great and almost inestimable use. Our attention must therefore not merely extend to those things of which we already see the use, but likewise to those from which we still may expect it.19

The vacillation between a more or less “innocent” rhetoric of objective science and a frankness concerning the economic stakes in the imperial scramble for the East, in which science is implicated, continues throughout Osbeck's speech. Most important in terms of the current discussion is to note that the scientist remains a humble servant of science and nation, even as he makes discoveries for which (economically advantageous) uses eventually will be discovered. He has no vested interest in, no personal desire for, what he observes and records; indeed, it is this supposed blindness with respect to the possible economic and utilitarian ramifications of his professional activity which requires ever more meticulous observation on his part. As the ultimate usefulness of the scientist's observations will not necessarily be apparent to him, he must take diligent note of simply everything. Not the scientist himself, but rather Science—in its own good time, in the sanguine spirit of progress, and at a comfortable remove from the contact zone—will capitalize on these observations.20 In fact, the more “innocent” the scientist is, the keener his eye becomes and must become. Paradoxically, the more perfectly apolitical he becomes in his practice of science, the more perfectly he serves the national political agenda of economic exploitation of the Far East. His involvement in a process of exploitation is occulted in the figure of the noble scientist whose only desire, to cite the closing words of Osbeck's speech, is “a desire of knowing more.”21

It is plainly Osbeck's vanishing act, his ability to become completely transparent so as not to obscure the light of science, which prompts Linnaeus to hold up Osbeck's account of his 1750 voyage to China as a shining example of how travel narratives should be written. In his letter in praise of Osbeck's book, Linnaeus writes:

You, Sir, have every where traveled with the light of science: you have named every thing so precisely, that it may be comprehended by the learned world; and have discovered and settled both the genera and species. For this reason, I seem myself to have traveled with you, and to have examined every object you saw with my own eyes.

If voyages were thus written, science might truly reap advantage from them. I congratulate you, Sir, for having traced out a way in which the world will follow your steps hereafter; and, pursuing this career, will remember the man who first pointed it out.22

It is the transparency of Osbeck's text, capable of bringing learned readers face to face with the objects it catalogues, that is exemplary. Any marking of the subjective perspective of the travel account, or any textual opacity in the account, would be, scientifically speaking, a blemish.

In a letter to his friend Jakob Lindblom dated 11 February 1769, shortly before embarking upon a grand tour across Europe, Wallenberg describes his motives for travel, motives which contrast markedly with the naturalists':

Neither hunger for bread nor thirst for water, but rather hunger for beautiful white womanflesh, as well as thirst for those drops which bedded down blessed Old Noah when he discovered his shame. God forgive me my sins, I have examined myself and found no other motives for my desire to travel than these … And still I want to become a minister. Yes, brother, I have already accepted the Company's call for next Christmas: and this, too, is a motif for first satisfying my lust-hungry soul, before I enter into an estate [stånd] which forbids me this. Terrible fasting! I see already what war a minister wages with his flesh. Enough. Do not show this to those who might disapprove.23

The purpose of Wallenberg's European journey (1769) is sexual conquest of “white womanflesh,” and, Wallenberg anticipates, this desire will not easily be sublimated after taking the cloth in order to sail with the Swedish East India Company. In contrast to the self-effacement of the Linnean narrators, Wallenberg is everywhere present in My Son. Instead of vanishing into the natural order of what he narrates, he tends to assimilate, in one way or another, all that he encounters into the decidedly social category of humor:

There have been others before me who have pressed similar East Indian fosterlings into your arms but each and every one of them seems to have inherited too much of his father's earnestness. Brelin stands on Ascension Island and brings tears to your eyes with his lies; Osbeck, useful but glum, stuffs your hands full of natural curiosities; and Torén, more good-humored than the others, might possibly have been able to amuse you with his pretty little acquaintances in Suratte and China but you watched as the life flowed out of him along with the last drop in his ink-pot … Permit me, then, to eradicate them with my prattling progeny. I am an enemy of furrowed brows and desire only to be able to bring youth to every face.

(MS, 57-58)

If the model naturalist text can be termed “transparent,” Wallenberg's text would have to be called “opaque” or “saturated.” In one particularly striking example of Wallenberg's tendency to emphasize the materiality of his text, the author goes so far as to make a word-image (the technique is familiar to contemporary readers from concrete poetry) of the object of his interest (a porpoise's horn), thus literally absorbing the referential world into his emphatically textual “literary games” (see [below]).

                                                                                                    Man. You.
                                                                                          Who. Go. Court-
                                                                                ing. Do. Not
                                                                      Choose. With. Your.
                                                            Eyes. Closed. For. The.
                                                  Waters. Of. Marriage. Are.
                                        Perilous. One. In. Twenty.
                              Avoids. Shipwreck. Therefore
                    Take. Soundings. Keep. A. Log.
          Take. Bearings. Bend. Your. Back.
In. The. Door. Where. Others. Have.
Bumped. Their. Heads. Test. The. Shallows.
Before. You. Venture. Into. The. Storm. Or.
          Else. Consider. Your. Fate. In. This. Horn. That.
                    I. Have. Had. Erected. As. A. Warning. To. You.

Likewise, the author's singularly whimsical drawings and “moral taxonomies” of animals openly parody the methods of documentation underpinning Linnean science:

I intend to describe the souls of my small animals whereas others have restricted themselves to the bodies … Let others stick to the fins and tails as long as they want to. I shall thus be opening up a new field of learning and I hope to attract more attention to myself as a result.

(MS, 69)

Whereas the naturalist text aspires to transparency, Wallenberg raises in a joking way the enterprise of mimetic representation only to undermine it with textual games. If the naturalist is wont to remove himself from the scene of narration, Wallenberg upstages the ostensible subject at hand in the comedy of his narrational performance.


While the kind of foregrounding of self and text we encounter in Wallenberg would be, according to Pratt's argument, a dangerous game for scientists by the 1770s, Wallenberg evades implication in the exploitative project through a strategy of joke-work. As gender plays a key role in the dynamics of Wallenberg's joke-work, I must explain that Wallenberg's original readers were his companions on ship, among whom he would circulate his material sheet by sheet as he composed it. It is evident from Wallenberg's correspondence, moreover, that he was aware that My Son was too risqué for a clergyman to publish and that it was hence destined to be read only by a small circle of friends and acquaintances associated with the Swedish East India Company.24 In contradistinction to the gender of readers of the joke-texts, however, Wallenberg's jokes themselves are conspicuously preoccupied with women. As we shall see, Wallenberg's figures of women serve as the chief means of dissembling the desire for imperial conquest.

In his comic renderings of the journey, Wallenberg consistently associates Swedish women with notions of home and domesticity. Furthermore, he casts women as the ultimate telos of, and driving force behind, the mercantile journey. “In short,” he writes, “a pretty girl is the spring that really drives the works, whatever the ends may be” (MS, 44). Thus Wallenberg's deployment of female figures participates in a “geographical notation” which, according to Edward Said, is legible by the end of the eighteenth century in fiction as well as historical and philosophical writing. Said argues that such notation comes to manifest itself in a pervasive “hierarchy of spaces by which the metropolitan center and, gradually, the metropolitan economy are seen as dependent upon an overseas system of territorial control, economic exploitation, and a sociocultural vision; without these, stability and prosperity at home—’home’ being a word with extremely potent resonances—would not be possible.”25

Indeed, in Wallenberg's account, the journey abroad is resolutely oriented toward home, embodied in Swedish womanhood. “So why are we traveling to the Indies?” Wallenberg reflects. “The answer is there to be read in the eyes of Swedish womanhood. We would run around the whole earth for one meaningful look from a beautiful girl. We would sail far away from them so as to get that much closer to them at the same time” (MS, 44-45). Wallenberg adds that “Thinking of pretty girls and becoming a poet is one and the same thing,” and continues in verse:

That you may sweetly lap at tea and gossip,
We brave the waves aboard a storm-tossed ship;
To bring home porcelain for your trifling pleasure,
                              We face the winds and stormy weather.
                              We run the risk of drowning
That you may grace the ball, clad in China's all, unfrowning.
Oh, girls, for shame! Fall not a victim of these idlers [sic] deceit,
A seaman may not bow and scrape but he picks up the receipt.
Your dandy does his courting with sycophantic verses
While we support our pleadings with overflowing purses.
Your officer may offer you a withered family tree,
But with a pocket full of doubloons we can woo financially.
Then come and join us as we prance
To the clinking music of the doubloon dance,
To the clinking music of the doubloon dance.

(MS, 45-46)

Wallenberg's poetry jokingly acknowledges the economic incentives underwriting the paradoxically homeward orientation of the traveler's desire. This tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment and the homeward orientation of the narration converge to displace attention from the location and process of the exploitative extraction of wealth onto Swedish bourgeois femininity and a farcical domestic rivalry between the well-paid East India sailors and the increasingly impoverished Swedish aristocrats.

The final line of the above poem (“Piasterns klang är vār musik”) is rendered literally as “The piaster's clink is our music.” Wallenberg thus imagines an exchangeability between luxury products (ivory, tea, porcelain, silk) and Swedish women, while also making claims that his poem is in certain respects synonymous both with Swedish women, who inspire the poem, and with the music of piasters, which is also the poem's music. The Marxian theory of the commodity can help us understand the links Wallenberg makes here (and elsewhere).

I understand the Marxian Commodity as the fetishized and exchangeable form of products of labor which veils the real labor or social relations (here the asymmetrical relations of imperial mercantilism) that produced them. In Ends of Empire, Laura Brown has argued, in the English context, that the shift that occurs in literary portrayals of women during the course of the long eighteenth century, whereby depictions of women as desired objects yield to portrayals of women as desiring subjects, participates in a broader ideological scapegoating of bourgeois women as the ultimate agents behind the colonial project.26 In other words, Commodified Woman is held responsible for the traffic in the very accessories that constitute her.27 Woman as the scapegoat or legitimating trope of colonialism serves the ends of empire so well because her desire for luxury products is by definition unfulfillable: the greater the quantities of exchanged luxury goods becomes, the greater, too, becomes Woman's imagined desire for them.

As Brown repeatedly points out, however, the scapegoating of women cannot suppress the contradictions of mercantile expansion with absolute success. Brown's analysis proceeds through a reading of the trope of the naked and the dressed woman in Pope; she asserts that female figures provide a means by which “mercantile capitalism is naturalized, rationalized, and ambiguously affirmed. Indeed, the ambiguities and anxieties of this transitional period seem to be concentrated in the figure of the woman, who stands for the whole complex and unresolvable problem posed by the early history of capitalism.”28 The problem with the commodified female agent, to state this differently, is that she has no presence, is always displaced into her accoutrements. Thus she will always stand in more or less problematically for the diffuse traffic in colonial commodities; she is not, as she is held to be, the agent behind and prior to this traffic, but rather its effect. The ostensible agent of mercantile expansion, she is never manifestly there.

If the bourgeois woman can be seen, generally, as effect and legitimizing trope of the money economy so implicated in imperial conquest, in Wallenberg she figures as effect of and legitimizing trope in the joke economy in which the relations of colonial domination are rewritten, and by means of which recognition of individual culpability can be deferred or “passed on.” Wallenberg's jokes function as textual commodities of sorts; like commodities, they absorb (exploitative) social relations and circulate them in veiled form in an economy of socially symbolic (joke) exchange. In a chapter addressed to hypothetical critics, Wallenberg makes the following apologia for his preoccupation with women:

You might, of course, reproach me with better reason for including so much about women in my worthless jottings—as if I were some effeminate petticoat pup. But everyone must know that these are the wares that sell best. You are never going to be left in the lurch with pretty wares of that sort even if you have shiploads of them; learned literature, on the other hand, will lie unasked for on the bookshelves like great piles of planks. So allow me to continue retailing my works undisturbed. Apart from which, I have a duty to please those of my friends present on the ship. Their usual question is: ‘Have you got anything about girls?’ When I answer no—as I did with this chapter—they go off with long faces and don't want to read what I've written.

(MS, 100)

Wallenberg here acknowledges both the commodified status of his feminized texts and the homosocial distribution of desire achieved in their circulation. The imaginary women traded in the homosocial joke economy replace, indeed consume, the colonial spoils. Euphemized objects, they serve to orient the male travelers' desire away from the sites of conquest—to dis-Orient, if you will, imperial desire.


Thus far I have been treating broad trends, techniques, and strategies evident in Wallenberg's text. It will therefore be helpful now to analyze in more detail the cultural work being performed—especially in and through the categories of gender, nationality, and race—in two complex instances of Wallenberg's imperial joke-work.

In a chapter entitled “Oddments Concerning Capetown,” Wallenberg comments on the slaves there:

The slave race is smallish and weak-limbed. I have seen four of them gathered around a load that a single one of our lads from Dalarna would have thrown onto his shoulder—the slaves included. I think this can be traced to their improper intercourse, for both sexes are thrown together in a camp and they couple randomly like mindless animals, often at as young an age as twelve or thirteen. The way their masters leave them to their worthless heathendom is indefensible. There's the Dutch conscience for you! If there is to be any healthy breeding, then a European has to be involved. It is for this reason that a host considers it a great courtesy to his humble house if a guest happens to become enamored of a black-eyed maiden, for anyone who enlarges his slave girls is also enlarging his wealth. An Englishman will occasionally take a dear black sweetheart, and an urbane Frenchman does not miss the chance of throwing himself aux pieds de sa belle brune. My own innocent countrymen, however, generally consider this to be bestiality.

Which do you think is blacker: her skin or their deeds?”

(MS, 111).

The passage contains several jokes of varying complexity. There is first a fairly straightforward racial joke (“the slaves included”), underscoring the physical superiority of strapping Dalarna lads over the sickly slaves. The next joke, regarding the Dutch (“There's the Dutch conscience for you!”), does not upbraid the Dutch for the brutality with which they regulate sexual practices among the people they enslave but rather, at the expense of the slaves, chastises them for not intervening in what are supposed to be the slaves' “naturally animal” sexual practices. How the European intervention into the “breeding” process of slaves manifests itself becomes clear as the passage continues. The fact that the systematic rape of black women represents good business sense and yields economic growth is not the focal point of critical or satirical humor; rather, this brutal reality is displaced into the rather harmless stereotype of the penurious Dutchman and a rivalry between other male national stereotypes (English, French, Swedish). The joke, which Wallenberg frames as a grotesquely inappropriate juxtaposition of the rhetoric of courtly love and the presumed subhuman status of the women to whom it refers, is now on the Englishman and the “urbane” Frenchman. Peter Graves, the English translator of My Son, is, in my view, misleading when, referring to this scene in his introduction, he writes that Wallenberg “has no sympathy with the rapacious aspects of European colonialism … [and] deplores the sexual exploitation of black women by white colonists” (MS, 12). I would argue that the subhuman treatment of enslaved black women is not the object of critical humor; rather, the assumed subhuman status of the enslaved women is the unreflected presupposition of Wallenberg's diffusing humor. The joke is clearly on the Frenchman and the Englishman for showing themselves to be so uncultivated as to commit bestiality. The precondition of Swedish “innocence” is the presumed subhumanity of the enslaved black women, the implicit site of innocence of course being the Swedish woman back home, for whom the morally superior Swede waits. His desire is not implicated in literal and figurative rape for profit.

Since Wallenberg consistently deflects attention away from the colonial encounter, his extended depiction of the Javanese companion of a Swedish corporal is of special interest. The corporal has settled on Java in the employ of the Dutch colonists because of what he perceives to be Sweden's lack of freedom. Wallenberg finds in him “the same thing as is to be found in all deserters from Sweden: they confuse the concepts of freedom and licence … There are hundreds of them running around London and Amsterdam praising their foreign freedom, which in actual fact consists of nothing but the chance, as patrons of some licentious whorehouse on Sundays, to dispose of everything they have earned in the week” (MS, 160-61). Those who seek fortune abroad in Europe rather than investing in home are doomed to squander their earnings in whorehouses instead of taking their wages home to establish themselves and marry. In this staged argument about the virtues of Sweden, Wallenberg articulates national pride by contrasting competing models of—purchasable—femininity. This strategy culminates in his excruciatingly detailed description of the Javanese woman, a pointed contrast to his habitual light tone. Transfixed by the “ghostly apparition” suckling a “white” child, Wallenberg asks the corporal “whether it was the custom in this country to employ wet-nurses from the underworld” (MS, 61). Notwithstanding his professed unwillingness to detail the “witch-like appearance” of the semiclad woman for fear of “causing pregnant women to abort in terror,” Wallenberg proceeds:

Had she been as black as a Moor or an even yellowish-brown like a Hottentot I would have called her bearable, but there were green diamond-shaped marks, yellow crescents and streaky black clubs scattered at random on her ashen skin. It looked to me as if all the Cupids on the island had come together to paint her but had been unable to agree on the primary colours and had started arguing just like the builders of Babel; in the confusion they had spilt red lead, white lead, umber and gutta-percha together and then taken to their heels. Projecting of jaw and grinning like a monkey, she showed two rows of teeth the colour of blood and with long strands of the betel she was chewing sticking out of them. Her eyes were dark-brown, bleary and dripping, and they appeared to be edged with red frieze. When she walked I could count all the muscles and veins in her shrunken calves since they twisted and turned between her flesh and her skin in numerous blue meanderings as if representing a map full of rivers, streams and brooks. When I add to this that her breasts, or udders to be more accurate, hung down round her waist like two pendulous bagpipes, you will all understand that our corporal had every reason to decamp from an oppressive Sweden for the sake of such a sweetheart.

(MS, 161-62)29

I would propose that the reason why Wallenberg's portrayal of the woman's grotesquerie escalates to this extraordinary extent is that his caricature of her physical incongruities is the strategy by which he attempts to resolve the genuine problem she poses for his guiding ideology. The Javanese woman has, as it were, sidetracked a Swede from what Wallenberg idealizes as a homeward journey to a Swedish wife. Both symptom of ideological tension and a strategy for overcoming it, Wallenberg's depiction oscillates between horrified fascination with the woman's corporeality and flights into simile, culminating in his hallucination of the woman's body as a grotesque map. Indeed, the incongruity, in Wallenberg's rendering, of her physical apperance signals the disorienting function she has with respect to an ideology that avails itself of idealized Swedish women precisely in order to disclaim implication in the always local and material practice of asymmetrical exchange with the colonial Other: an Other whom Wallenberg seems momentarily as unable to look away from as to look at. Wallenberg's comic build-up of ideological fault lines in his grotesque description of the woman's body sets the stage for his eventual punchline-like apostrophe in which he winks to his readers that she certainly was worth leaving Sweden for.30 The deflating trope redirects the narrative gaze toward “home” and the ideologically sanctioned models of femininity, domesticity, and maternity redeemable there.31


As we have seen, Wallenberg's narrative of voyage proceeds largely through jokes whereby Swedish women are presented as the true and final orientation of the traveler's desire, as the ultimate reason for his traveling abroad. Swedish women are inscribed, in both senses of the word, as the journey's “end.” As Wallenberg writes, comparing Swedish women to Dutch women at the Cape, “Were I allowed to choose a whole harem as the Turks do, I would do my choosing here but, compelled to be satisfied with one, I demand more durable wares” (MS, 117). The Swedish wife is cast as the end of the journey, as the quintessential good investment, as the final cashing in of one's chips.

In this episode, as throughout the text, we must, however, recognize that the Swedish women idealized in Wallenberg's jokes are simultaneously presented as degraded commodities: they are “durable wares;” they make for highly marketable texts; they can be wooed financially. Thus ultimately more crucial than the analogical relation between the woman created in joke exchange and in commodity exchange is the ideological contingency of the former on the latter. The Swedish woman is the exalted end of the journey and end of commodity exchange only, paradoxically, to the extent that she can be bought. She enters the comic transactions through which she becomes idealized in already degraded form. Wallenberg's jokes thus not only idealize Swedish women but also acknowledge the joke involved in their very idealization. Swedish women ultimately remain the butts of the very jokes which compliment them only backhandedly, indeed only as a joke.

Just as, in Brown's analysis, the figure of the commodified woman provides but ambiguous affirmation for the project of mercantile expansion, so, too, does Wallenberg's figure of the Swedish woman become the locus of ambiguity. Indeed, alongside the dominant tendency to cast Swedish women as the superior, faithful women to whom the Swedish East India sailors shall return, there are also a conspicuous number of jokes that turn on the theme of the cuckolded Swedish sailor. I can only allude to the cuckoldry jokes, but the porpoise's horn to which I referred above (see fig. 1) is in fact a good example; its mock inscription cautions sailors to be careful in choosing a wife or they will run the risk of being cuckolded.32 The status of women represented in the humor of cuckoldry stands in the way of completion of the (matrimonial) journey and underscores the ambiguity which Swedish womanhood embodies. Freud's theory of the psycho-social dynamics of “dirty” joke-work can illuminate Wallenberg's oscillating figurations of Swedish women alternately as ideal and debased, as faithful and cuckolding wives.

The precondition, according to Freud, for the pleasurable swapping of smut between men is the absence or unavailability of the desired woman. The “ideal case” of the desired woman's unavailability occurs when a third person, another man, is present, thus precluding the possibility of the woman's “immediate surrender.” Whereas in private (when a man and woman are alone together) talking dirty can serve as a means of seduction, in social situations (when a woman is in the presence of more than one man), the exchange of smut between the men can substitute for the aggressive desire for the woman.33 The problem, of course, is that the homosocial pleasure achieved in the joke-exchange can only be achieved intersubjectively: the joke teller can never be immanent as a sexual subject, as he is always dependent on a third person, the other man, “in whom the joke's aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled.”34

Thus if the radically bifurcated nature of the commodity precludes Woman (as exchange value) from ever being manifested in actual women, then the ambiguity underlying the humor of cuckoldry essentially reiterates this paradox.35 Where Woman is an ideological product of material and symbolic exchanges between men, cuckoldry is not merely a threat to marriage but in a sense its very precondition: the ideal Swedish wife on whom Wallenberg's narrational strategies so frequently pivot exists only as a shared male fantasy inextricably tied to the shared male practice of mercantile expansion.

We would be wrong to assume that the paradox that becomes concentrated in Wallenberg's text in the figure of the Swedish woman/wife poses a problem to the workings of colonialism. It appears rather as a structuring principle of the imperial ideology, a driving force propelling the mercantilist project. That the slippery logic of Wallenberg's imperial Witz succeeds by means of the very contradictions on which ideology is traditionally thought to stumble might encourage a move away from approaching ideology as problematic, toward a more functional mode of criticism that seeks less to identify where ideological “problems” lie than what they in fact do. I would thus like to conclude by underscoring how in Wallenberg's account the tensions which accrue in the figure of the Swedish woman/wife are consistent with, and even perpetuating forces in, the colonial project. A final anecdote from the author's life can serve to illustrate my point.

After bragging at some length about how lucrative his chaplaincy with the Swedish East India Company has proven, Wallenberg writes in a letter to Paul Juringius dated 21 June 1771 that his financial situation is now such that, “if I didn't fear horns, I could modestly manage to marry.”36 And in a letter to Jacob Lindblom dated 30 November of the same year, Wallenberg writes: “From the newspapers you will have already heard that I am going a second time to the East Indies. If it were an occupation on land, I would not desire anything better. If I might take a wife with me, I would get married: but now I am spooked by the shadow of presumable horns.”37

The cuckold's horns, with which Wallenberg seems preoccupied, aptly pose his dilemma, one which throws into relief the structuring paradox of the joke-work with which we have been concerned. While the point of imperial travel is a wife, the point of a wife, in the final analysis, is further travel, travel which both presupposes and perpetuates the homosocial or “cuckolding” economy of which the figure of the ideal wife is a mere effect. Thus Wallenberg's dilemma should not be understood as an ideological snag or moment of crisis. Instead of a wrinkle in the smooth surface of the imperial ideology, the paradox of Swedish womanhood would appear to be one of its most productive mechanisms. If, as I have argued, the joke-work which I have attempted to elucidate makes possible an evasion of, for lack of a better phrase, “colonial guilt,” it would seem to do so not despite, but rather by virtue of, the impossibility, the implicit contradiction, of its logic. Thus it is fitting that we take leave of Wallenberg as he prepares to embark on his second of three journeys oriented toward an imagined, and imaginary, wife who stays perpetually at home.


  1. Jacob Wallenberg, My Son on the Galley, trans. Peter Graves (Norwich: Norvik Press, 1994), 59 (hereafter MS and cited parenthetically in text). Citations in English of MS are from this edition.

  2. The odd title refers to a line from Molière's Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671) which had become a set phase in eighteenth-century Sweden.

  3. See Der teutsche Merkur 4 (November 1782): 192.

  4. See Nils Afzelius, “Min son på galejan och den komiska resebeskrivning,” Samlaren (1924): 203-10.

  5. Afzelius, “Min son på galejan och den komiska resebeskrivning,” 227.

  6. Uwe Ebel, Studien zur skandinavischen Reisebeschreibung von Linné bis Andersen (Frankfurt: Haag and Herchen Verlag, 1981), 62-88; and Sven G. Sjöberg, “Jacob Wallenberg in Sydafrika—ett sanningsvittne?,” Svenska Linnésällskapets årsskrift (1982/83): 57-75. See also Sjöberg's annotated bibliography of Wallenberg scholarship, “Jacob Wallenberg: Bibliografisk förteckning 1942-1982,” Linköpings biblioteks handlingar 11 (1986): 73-86.

  7. See Mary Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992), 25.

  8. See Svensk uppslagsbok, ed. Gunnar Carlquist and Josef Carlsson, 32 vols. (Malmö: Förlagshuset Norden AB, 1947-55), 30:917.

  9. See Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey (1905; New York: Norton, 1960), chap. 3 and esp. chap. 5.

  10. I am indebted to English's discussions of literary humor as a socially symbolic event. I also follow English in being unconcerned about whether or not the moments I refer to as jokes adhere to a “knock-knock” formula. See James F. English, Comic Transactions: Literature, Humor, and the Politics of Community in Twentieth-Century Britain (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1994), 16.

  11. See Christopher Lane, The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1995), 13 and 9.

  12. See Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994). For instance, in “Sly Civility,” Bhabha is concerned to point out how, in the colonizer's “paranoid” (projecting aggression) discourse, the “litigious, lying native” (100) effects a “crisis of authority” (101) by refusing to deliver the “confession” that is demanded of him—refusing, as it were, to reflect the colonizer in his own image. “It is this ambivalence that ensues within paranoia as a play between eternal vigilance and blindness, and estranges the image of authority in its strategy of justification” (101). Bhabha appreciates this “estrange[ment of] the image of authority in its strategy of justification” as a problem for the paranoid colonizer's self-representation but remains relatively unconcerned with the effects of this estrangement, effects which likely include increased violence against the “slyly civil” natives.

  13. For her critique of “colonial mimicry and ambivalence,” see Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995), 62-65.

  14. See Laura Brown, Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century Literature (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993), 21.

  15. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 57.

  16. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 49-57.

  17. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 33-34.

  18. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 34.

  19. Pehr Osbeck, A Voyage to China and the East Indies, by Peter Osbeck … Together with A voyage to Suratte, by Olof Toreen … and an account of the Chinese husbandry, by Captain Charles Gustavus Eckeberg, trans. John Reinhold from Godlieb Georg's German translation of the original Swedish (London: B. White, 1771), 130-31. What is lost in the double translation is compensated for by the inclusion in the German edition (upon which Reinhold's English translation is based) of supplementary texts such as Osbeck's speech and Linnaeus's letter cited below.

  20. I borrow the term “contact zone” from Pratt's Imperial Eyes.

  21. Osbeck, A Voyage to China and the East Indies, 147.

  22. Osbeck, A Voyage to China and the East Indies, 127-28.

  23. Jacob Wallenberg, Samlade Skrifter, ed. Nils Afzelius (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1941), 2:126. All references to Wallenberg's letters are to this edition. Translations from Wallenberg's letters are my own.

  24. After returning to Gothenburg, Wallenberg writes in a letter of 30 November 1771 to his friend Jacob Lindblom: “I have amused myself with a travel narrative, singulier and ridicule, which is admired by all, save for the established old and wise. The tour is new, and it would be complete if the author were not a clergyman” (Samlade Skrifter II, 141). He further comments in a letter of 21 June 1771 to Paul Juringius: “I have written a madcap East Indian travel narrative, which is now being passed from man to man, although the mates [deck officers of a merchant ship ranking below the captain] are cross over it” (Samlade Skrifter II, 138).

  25. Edward Said, “Secular Interpretation, the Geographical Element, and the Methodology of Imperialism,” in After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements, ed. Gyan Prakash (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1995), 36.

  26. Felicity Nussbaum makes a similar argument regarding the shift in women's status from object to agent. See Nussbaum, Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives (London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995).

  27. Commenting on Addison's poetry, Brown writes: “It is as if navigation, trade, and expansion are all arranged solely for the delectation and profit of womankind. Women wear the products of accumulation, and thus by metonymy they are made to bear responsibility for the system by which they are adorned. The activities and motives of male mercantilists and the systematic, bureaucratic, piratical, or mercenary dimensions of imperial expansion disappear behind the figure of the woman, who is herself subsumed by the products she wears.” See Brown, Ends of Empire, 118.

  28. Brown, Ends of Empire, 133-34.

  29. In calling the Javanese woman a “wet-nurse from the underworld” and referring to her “pendulous” breasts as “udders, to be more accurate,” Wallenberg privileges the breast in his depiction of non-European femininity as grotesque. For an engaging discussion of the cultural significance of the breast in the eighteenth century, see Londa Schiebinger, Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), chap. 2.

  30. The Swedish Marxist critic Victor Svanberg rightly stresses Wallenberg's bourgeois sensibilities and optic; he does not, however, interrogate this optic as a technique and symptom of imperial narration. It is surely his blindness to this current in Wallenberg's narrative that allows Svanberg to refer to the Javanese woman without reflection as a “long-breasted hag”: “On visits in the harbors we get to follow an observer who is curious and at the same time reserved … Wallenberg does not wish to get really close. One sole attempt is made at individual psychology in conversation with a Swede who had taken up residence on Java with a long-breasted hag, but the interviewer remains uncomprehending and disapproving. ‘Was this anything to abandon home for?’ he asks. The wonders of the wide world tempt him, but he never loses his balance” (my translation of Svanberg's Swedish). See Victor Svanberg, Medelklassrealism (Södertälje: Gidlunds, 1980), 63, 61-65.

  31. The suckling child is the Javanese woman's own by the Swedish corporal. That Wallenberg sees the racially mixed couple's two children as “white” and insists that “they were the very image of their father” (MS, 62) would seem to suggest a desire on his part to believe that the “Swede's” children were able to pass through their mother's body without being touched by it.

  32. The porpoise's horn inaugurates a series of chapters consisting in monologues by various sailors on how best to choose and discipline a wife so as not to be cuckolded. See MS, 135-46. These pages, however, are by no means the only references to cuckoldry.

  33. A social situation constituted in a plurality of women, even the possibility of a joking woman, seems not to have occurred to Freud. Indeed, Freud's reasoning here is a poignant example of his general inability to theorize female desire: “[S]mut is directed to a particular person, by whom one is sexually excited … Smut is thus originally directed towards women and may be equated with attempts at seduction (my emphasis)” (Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 97).

  34. Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 100.

  35. Luce Irigaray's discussion of the dynamics of the “hom(m)osexual” exchange of commodified women has been suggestive for my reading of Wallenberg's deployment of the figure of the Swedish woman. See “Women on the Market” in Irigaray's This Sex Which is not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), 170-91.

  36. Wallenberg, Samlade Skrifter II, 137.

  37. Wallenberg, Samlade Skrifter II, 140.

I wish to thank Jim English for his helpful comments on a draft of this paper. A version of this essay was read at the 1997 International Association of Philosophy and Literature conference.


Criticism: Overviews And General Studies


Criticism: Non-European Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives