Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Lecture on English Travel Writing and India, 1600-1820

On February 1, 2006, I attended a lecture by Professor Pramod K. Nayar. Professor Nayar is a Senior Fulbright Fellow currently affiliated with Cornell University and the University of Hyderabad. He has published essays on English travel writing in Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies, Prose Studies, Studies in Travel Writing, and Journal of British Studies. I like taking advantage of events like this whenever I can; somehow I managed to find some time in my busy schedule to go, even if it took a me while to put the notes up.


Professor Nayar began by defining British travel writing as including memoirs (what we usually think of travel writing) as well as reports, documents, missionary narratives, tourist guides, handbooks, military campaign narratives, military reports, etc. These sources are studied for their rhetorical value. For instance, tourist guides would tell travelers what clothes to wear and even what books to read for the trip to India. Between 1600 and 1720, the narrative mode can be seen as marvelous. We have at this stage documents like those of the East India Company. At this point in time, colonization was not intended. From 1750 to 1830, there was an imperial sublime mode of narrative.

One of the sources for these materials is the Transactions of the Royal Philosophical Society of London. Another is John Locke's private library because he collected a lot of these materials. In addition, there are other private libraries and societies. Many of these societies collected information by actually sending inquiries to travellers.

Travellers often formed an impression of India before they even got there from reading accounts. The travel literature was a colonializing element itself, according to Professor Nayar. The narratives served to homogenize the diverse cities of India. The narratives then gave a way for the English to have some control over what was initially a frightening place. Additionally, admiring a new place, and India certainly has a lot to admire, could be seen as treacherous. Yet, the marvelous mode is a way of control. These narratives often open with a sense of awe. The "awe factor" was controlled in narratives of the marvelous mode by use of explanation. The explanation tools of the marvelous mode of narrative were enumeration and accumulation of detail upon detail; this is, in other words, cataloguing.
  • A side note. The narratives of India present often a trope of fertility, where the women and the land are seen as fertile. However, the beautifully profuse land gives way to a sense of excess. For instance, the excess took the form of a land full of predators. Animals become wilder as the narrative progresses.
  • Another side note: Descriptions of the Moghul Empire. The emperor was described as an "overgrown pike in a pond." Descriptions like this lead to a rhetoric of inflation (superlatives are heavily used). On the other hand, the jewelry of women is often seen as fetters and manacles. Overall, the rhetoric of the narratives moves to a narrative of native decadence and laziness. We see in the accounts descriptions of great agricultural produce giving way to lack of natives laboring.
Most of the discourse is seen in the 19th century, but it was taking shape in the 16th and 17th centuries in the travel literature. By 1750, the East India Company was gaining political power. What happens in the narratives then is an assertion of land control. This is seen in the mapping accounts and in the archeological narratives. The land is seen as empty, even though it is lush and fertile, and there is a need to build over the emptiness. The British feel a need to give meaning to the emptiness, so they give it meaning: they interpret the emptiness and build. The emptiness sublime enables a narrative of construction and improvement.

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When I was taking coursework in postcolonial studies during graduate school, this was the type of scholarship that simply fascinated me. I loved reading those exotic accounts and discovering what they revealed about the people who wrote them at the time. Going to events like this allows me to indulge my literary studies side. Overall, an interesting talk.

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