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Writing, Travel and Empire

Review by: M. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo Universidad de Alcala

Writing, Travel and Empire: In the Margins of Anthropology, Peter Hulme and Russell McDougall, eds. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 256 pages

Mexican philosopher José de Vasconcelos wrote that both books and travels begin with anxiety and finish with melancholy. This reflects what the writers analyzed in Writing, Travel, and Empire must have felt in their being sent to the faraway British imperial colonies they would later describe in their works. As the subtitle of the volume already “warns,” in the introduction Hulme and Russell caution that this is not a conventional book on professional anthropologists but, rather, on literary scholars. The variety of authors analyzed in the book makes readers realize that the stereotypical vision of the nineteenth century globetrotter, invariably a man in the popular imagination, could be a woman too, as was often the case. Women also had a say, though their fathers’ or husbands’ contributions may have obscured their contribution to the field. The men and women who populate these pages went to the overseas British colonies for a number of reasons. One of the most frequently quoted justifications for going overseas was to escape “disgrace or responsibility,” but these varied men and women cannot be easily reduced to this stereotype.

Because they were the first in describing places and peoples previously unknown, their credibility was often questioned. George Grey, British colonial governor in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa was either “perhaps the greatest liar the British Empire ever spawned,” in the words of Rutherford, or “one of the more perceptive ethnographers of his day.” The differing visions offered by Grey’s biographers illustrate the way in which the writers in this book were regarded by their contemporaries.

Though Grey drew on his first-hand experience with indigenous peoples, not all authors based their studies on actual observation. Henry Ling Roth’s landmark description of the aboriginals in Tasmania is remarkable because his subject of analysis was an extinct race. A representative of those armchair anthropologists who wrote of people they had never seen, his writings were incredibly influential and remained the reference work on the Tasmanian aboriginals for almost seventy years, after which they were ignored or bluntly rejected. Only now are they experiencing a renaissance in importance and Ling Roth’s pivotal contribution to anthropology is being recognized.

Far from basing her writings on hearsay or second-hand information, Flora Annie Steel, different from most memsahibs, learned the vernacular languages and got deeply involved with the indigenous women of the subcontinent. Committed to improving their lives, she organized the schooling system in the Punjab while questioning the way Britain ruled India. With her fictional writings, intended to bring the Indian reality closer to the British audience, she became as popular as Rudyard Kipling.

Pedagogy was also central to Gertrude Lowthian Bell’s theories but with a goal altogether different from Steel’s. British Middle Eastern policies, even well after the First World War, owed much to her theories that “the Oriental is like a very old child.” Seeing the indigenous peoples of Mesopotamia as children needing discipline, she proposed applying the pedagogical methods used with British children to deal with colonial subjects. For her, nomadic societies were primitive and infantile forms of government and used these claims to justify British rule on these child-like nations.

Hugh Clifford, who held posts in several places, like Steel, used his writings to advance his ideas. A versatile and prolific author, his writings include, among others, journals and reports, private diaries, novels, and a Malay dictionary. Clifford wanted to go beyond a superficial description of the natives and like his colleague Frank Swettenham he looked for “the real Malay.” For him, his novels were just as powerful as his scientific reports for the spread of knowledge among the British.

If Hugh Clifford peopled his fictional writings with characters strongly resembling himself, the life of Everard im Thurn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s very popular novel, The Lost World. In real life, Thurn combined the various posts he held in the Atlantic islands with his ethnographical, anthropologic, botanic, and photographic interests.

Certainly, places like the Pacific or Malaya appeared very exotic to nineteenth century British readers but the borders of the British Empire went far beyond its Asian, Pacific, and Middle Eastern possessions. Ireland was still a British colony and Irishman Roger Casement saw the problems of the empire in the Amazon and Congo as well as in his homeland. Joseph Conrad called him a new Las Casas for his denunciation of the inhuman treatment of the Amazonian Putumayo Indians. Influenced by the Irish literary revival, Casement determined that Ireland, when it came to colonial exploitation, was not too different from the Congo or the Amazon.

Tom Harrisson shared with Casement the view that events taking place closer to the metropolis deserved the same kind of attention as exotic colonies. A media phenomenon in the first days of television because of his ethnographical work on the natives of the New Hebrides, Harrisson next moved to Bolton, England. Using the same mass-observation methods he had employed while living among the Big Nambas, he discovered that the variation between being an anthropologist at home or abroad was not all that different.

Vast was the extension of the British Empire and this volume’s scope reflects it accurately. This book shows that being an anthropologist was not a question of studying remote tribes, for one could be an anthropologist in New Zealand or England, Malaya or Ireland. Imperial concerns, literary aspirations, and a thirst for knowledge come together in these writers’ accounts. The collection is attractive and well-rounded and offers an accurate portrayal of the lives, research interests, and works of those whose hearts remained forever in the places they described.

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