Orientalism in Early Modern France: Eurasian Trade, Exoticism, and the Ancien Régime

Orientalism in Early Modern France: Eurasian Trade, Exoticism, and the Ancien Régime

Orientalism in Early Modern France: Eurasian Trade, Exoticism, and the Ancien Régime

Orientalism in Early Modern France: Eurasian Trade, Exoticism, and the Ancien Régime

Excerpt

Furs, silks and fine cottons, stimulants—tea, coffee, sugar, rum, gin, tobacco and spices
of all kinds—scrimshaw and curios for cabinets, travel books and atlases, topazes, feath
ers, orientalizing and Americanizing changes in clothing and ornament: these things did
not simply “improve the quality of life” in the metropole, they altered it, and altered the
people who wore, ate, owned, contemplated, and changed their moods with them. “You
are what you eat,” and Europe was cannibalizing the places and peoples that eventually
made up its empires.

Mary Baine Campbell, Wonder and Science

One moment marks the inception of French imperial presence in Asia. In great secrecy on April 12, 1798, the French Directory ordered the creation of the “Army of the Orient,” naming Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) its commander in chief. On May 19 the French forces left Toulon, comprising 400 vessels, 50,000 men, over 1,000 pieces of artillery, 567 vehicles, 700 horses, and a slew of French scientists and artists, who were not apprised of their secret destination. The aims of the Egyptian invasion were not only to defeat the English and to establish a French empire in the Mediterranean, but also to conduct a scientific survey of Egypt. Edward Saïd's famous book Orientalism begins with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. He argued thirty years ago that empire and orientalist science went hand in hand. The mission of the Armée d'Orient's orientalists and scientists was to study Egypt to advance French knowledge of the world. Most of the orientalists who accompanied the French expedition were the students of one man, Sylvestre de Sacy (1758–1838), a man closely studied by Edward Saïd in Orientalism.

In October 1798, as French cannons were shelling the Al Ahzar mosque, Joseph Marcel risked the flames to rescue some invaluable Quranic texts. After the end of the expedition, he was appointed director of the Imprimerie nationale in Paris where he assisted with the publishing of the multivolume Description of Egypt. Silvestre de Sacy and his many students were of great service to France's imperial project and were rewarded with peerages and government posts. This well-known Napoleonic expedition to Egypt, and its resulting scientific survey, were the products of very long-held French imperial hopes. The earlier history of French Orientalism is less well known. This book is as much about the orientalizing of France and the French accumulation and consumption of oriental goods as it is about Orientalism in France. It ends with . . .

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