Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

"The Key to Their Hearts": Scottish Orientalism

Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

"The Key to Their Hearts": Scottish Orientalism

Article excerpt

Alongside British imperial interventions in the "East", in India, China and the Arabian Peninsula, Scottish orientalists propelled in the first instance by the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment sought to make sense of "oriental" culture in its stages of developmental study with recourse to language and anthropological study in the first instance. These enquiries also traversed the fields of religion and science as Scottish orientalists sought to find proving grounds in the East for their theories of universalism. Although not entirely successful in their endeavours, Scottish orientalists ought not to be seen simply as naked imperialists. Their story is only glimpsed in imaginative Scottish literature of the period and features more strongly elsewhere in memoirs, texts of what today we would call social science, and the periodical press.

Keywords: Orientalism; Oriental Languages; Scottish Enlightenment; Gilbert Elliot (Lord Minto); India; Walter Scott; The Surgeon's Daughter, Charles Grant; James Mill; Alexander Duff; John Wilson; Missionary orientalism; John Muir; China; James Legge; Arabian peninsula; William Robertson Smith.

The twenty-first century has opened with clashes between East and West so brutal that it is easy to forget past times when for both sides dialogue proved not just possible, but fruitful. Even intellectual rationalisations of what is going on today tend to take a short and sombre view. Many are indebted to Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). Said himself condemned an earlier phase of violence, while showing it had deep origins not only in politics but also in culture - for example, in the traditional literary representations of the East by the West. A major reason for the disjunction in the late twentieth century was, in Said's view, too much uncritical application of western categories to eastern civilisation. He showed how concepts of the orient had become habitually distorted.

Today, when western discourse dominates global culture and looks set if anything to grow yet more dominant, the East finds it can scarcely speak for itself, not at least with any hope of being understood. Nor will it accept that the West might speak for it: hence the resort to more direct and drastic means of making its mind known. Still the West sees no problem, or only one of international law and order. Yet, in previous phases of the relationship between East and West, mutual sympathy and comprehension was not beyond the reach of either side. To this exchange the Scottish Enlightenment and its sequels in the nineteenth century made a contribution. The Scots had been among the small European nations following, or trying to follow, the great powers eastwards in the age of discoveries. One aim of the notorious Darien Company, set up in 1698, was to foster trade with the East; it did send a couple of ships there before meeting its doom in the West. After the Union of 1707, needy but mobile Scots filled up an English East India Company now open to them through common British citizenship. By the late eighteenth century, half its employees came from Scotland. Some were just Scotsmen on the make, but others took the intellectual interests of their homeland with them to the orient (McGilvary 1989; Fry 1992). Those interests would already have been stimulated by the range of disciplines from history to philosophy routinely taught to students at the Scottish universities. A central tenet of higher education in Scotland was that history could be regarded as a philosophical subject because it was the product of general laws, analogous to the laws of natural science. Once understood, they might reveal the interplay of diverse causes in gradual change. The sort of history written from this point of view, supplying a framework of speculation and interpretation even where direct evidence was lacking, went by the name of conjectural history.

One prime text of the Enlightenment offered that sort of history in an oriental context. …

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