Education About Asia: Online Archives

Asian Travelers’ Visions of Britain and Ireland in the Early Modern Period

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Much of world history, and even Asian history, often appears centered on Europe and on distinctions between Europeans and others. In particular, many prominent scholars have shown how European travelers’ accounts contributed to the post-Enlightenment development of early “modernity” that valued the “discovery” of other peoples and places and that also led to European colonial rule over much of the globe. (note 1) Undoubtedly, European imperialist incursions into Asia linked parts of the world asymmetrically into our contemporary world-system. But we should also consider the ways Asians traveled globally, crossing geographical, cultural, and social boundaries, forming part of the “connected history” of humankind we know today. (note 2) In addition to those Asians who had long traveled throughout Asia, a growing number ventured to Europe, especially from the sixteenth century onward. By the mid-nineteenth century, the most numerous group among these were the tens of thousands of South Asian men and women of all social classes who journeyed to Britain—the focus of this article.

The vast bulk of travel accounts about Europe by these Asians remained oral and therefore difficult for historians to access. From the late eighteenth century, however, a modest but rising number of Indian travelers began to write in their own words about themselves and Asia, as well as about their direct experiences of Europeans and Europe. Some wrote for European readers, others for Asian ones. Some settled in Europe, where their distinctive Asian identity separated but also distinguished them to varying degrees from Europeans, including European competitors. Yet, over time, their descendants merged into European society, largely losing the Asian identity that had marked their ancestors. Those Asian travelers who returned to Asia were often perforce subordinated by European colonialism there, losing the sometimes valued rarity that they enjoyed in Europe. Let us consider two Indian travelers, Sake Dean Mahomed (1759–1851) and Mirza Abu Talib Khan Isfahani (1752–1806), very similar in background but quite different in experiences—one a settler in Europe, the other a visitor there—placing them in the context of other South Asians in Europe during the early modern period.


1. Among others see: Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, eds., Bodies in Contact (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Joan-Pau Rubiés, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Martin Daunton and Rick Halpern, eds., Empire and Others (London: UCL Press, 1999); Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes (London: Routledge, 1992); Lisa Lowe, Critical Terrains (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); and Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993) and Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978).

2. See Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Explorations in Connected History, 2 vols. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005).