Tracing the perceived merits of Robert Orme’s History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan (1763)

By guest contributor Laura Tarkka-Robinson

In the eighteenth century, the sundry genre of early-modern travel writing – or ‘travels’ – was not only popular but also notorious for leading gullible readers astray. In this regard, it is hardly remarkable that the improved second edition of John Henry Grose’s fairly inconsequential Voyage to the East Indies (1766) plagiarized a passage concerning judicial practice in India from another recent publication. Furthermore, given that this passage was added to increase the appeal of the Voyage as a source of knowledge, it might seem equally unremarkable that the text from which it was appropriated was still praised as better ‘than almost any of the more recent productions on that subject’ in 1805 (xxix).

Yet, Indian customs were not the express subject of the plagiarized book, the highly successful History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan (1763), which earned its author Robert Orme the title of ‘the first official historiographer of the East India Company’. Thus, the hierarchic relationship between Grose’s eye-witness travel account and Orme’s military history becomes very interesting in light of the affinities which these works actually display. For in fact, both drew on the author’s personal experience in the service of the English East India Company while describing Indian customs and manners in the language of Oriental despotism, in accordance with Montesquieu’s notions on the influence of climate (10).

Hence, it is surprising that despite other Orientalists’ critique of subjective observations (34-35) Orme’s work gained and sustained a high status of authority on Hindu customs. I argue that this puzzle can, however, be solved by considering the opinions expressed by contemporary reviewers in conjunction with the structure of Orme’s History and its epigone, the new edition of Grose’s Voyage.

The trajectory of Grose’s Voyage helps us to recover the perceived merits of Orme’s History, for besides the plagiarized passages, the improved edition of the Voyage also boasted an additional volume describing the military affairs of the British in India, thus setting the two publications into a competitive relationship with each other. The addition of the second volume suggests that the anonymous editor of the Voyage was reacting to the rising taste for historical narratives, especially since some reviews had expressed impatience (318) with Grose’s miscellaneous observations. Indeed, although the Voyage had been swiftly translated into French and recommended for an abundance of reliable detail (viii) on Indian customs and manners, its sense of immediacy never attained as much appreciation (96) as the more literary performance of Orme.

However, while Orme’s manner of writing set him apart from first-person eyewitness accounts, the reception of the History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan in the press indicates that the success of this work was owing to the symbiotic relationship (p. 305) of Orme’s ‘classical’ military history and the well-digested chorographical dissertation which he prefixed to it. Some reviewers were more interested in the actual History and some in the accompanying dissertation, but in both cases, Orme was commended for the character which he made as a historiographer.

Upon the first appearance of Orme’s History, The Critical Review found it ‘pleasing and perspicuous’ (249), ‘truly historical’, and ‘classical’ (258). Fifteen years later, The Monthly Review also praised the second volume as an example of ‘the true simplicity of historical narrative’, providing just enough detail ‘to fix the stamp of authenticity to the narrative, and to entitle the Author to the character of a faithful historian’ (431).

Orme’s favorable reception was perhaps partly based on tacit knowledge about his scholarly pursuits since, after establishing himself in Harley Street in 1760, Orme befriended numerous literary gentlemen of the day. Moreover, despite having left India on account of extortion charges, Orme still presented the East India Company in a favorable light. In contrast, though introducing himself (1) as an East India Company servant, Grose used his experience to criticize ‘the inexperience and aim at independence (38) in the appointed members of the several Courts’ in India, arguing that their authority was so dangerous that the Company’s royal charter had better not been obtained.

Moreover, Orme’s allegiance to the English company was no inhibition to becoming widely acclaimed abroad, as French and German reviewers praised his ‘liberal’ attitude and devotion to public rather than private interest. Thus, even though Orme’s History was about an Anglo-French conflict, Le journal des sçavans (677-679) found it devoid of national bias. Similarly, the preface to its ensuing French translation stressed that while misapprehended patriotism could entice historians to wrap their facts up in fables, this was not the case with Orme.

Another highly illuminating review in Allgemeine historische Bibliothek also commended the skillful, modest, and truthful manner in which Orme’s History described the characters of nations and individuals. Nevertheless, this review directed special attention to his dissertation of Indian customs, reading it as a summary of the current knowledge on this topic in Europe. The reviewer regretted that the English had not contributed more to such inquiries although they were not lacking capacity. This suggests that service in the EIC was perceived as an opportunity to communicate information that was both valuable and authentic. Indeed, the reviewer pointed out that no sources were listed for the military narrative itself, but the dissertation mentioned not only the well-known works of Herbelot and Bernier but also a lieutenant called Frazer, whose eye-witness character supported the authority of Orme’s words (222-234).

The perceived value (78) of Orme’s dissertation thus explains why some of its third section (24-27) ended up in the second edition of Grose’s Voyage – hidden away in the fifth book (336-338) to avoid the detection of plagiarism. While nothing suggests that this improved the status of the book in the literary market, it is striking how the recycled passages navigated around the question of sources, providing no assistance to critical readers. However, in all its ambiguity, especially the following excerpt (see also 162 here) was clearly relevant to on-going debates about the age and character of the Indian civilization:

Intelligent enquirers assert that there are no written laws amongst the Indians, but that a few maxims transmitted by tradition supply the place of such a code in the discussion of civil causes; and that the ancient practice, corrected on particular occasions by the good sense of the judge, decides absolutely in criminal ones.

Strikingly, Orme’s original dissertation was no more specific about the ‘intelligent enquirers’ whose assertions it invoked than Grose’s Voyage, because the strength Orme’s authorial voice was based on avoiding the interference of external references as well as refraining from the first-person statements. In so doing, it proved pleasant enough to stand the test of national rivalry in France and compelling enough to be favorably received in German translation as late as 23 years after its first appearance.

As Grose’s Voyage likewise appeared only belatedly in German, the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek complained that the observations it contained had already lost their novelty value. At this point, the translator’s copious references to further reading – including 18 works on Indian religion – only served to underline the outdated appearance of Grose’s Voyage, which the reviewer also perceived as dubiously unpatriotic (234-236). In a striking contrast, the adapted translation of Orme’s History, entitled Die Engländer in Indien (1786), was much more successful. Echoing to the translator Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz’s views (v-vi), the Historisch-politisches Magazin (13-14) noted that especially those Germans who practiced trade could easily sympathize with the English, and stressed the importance of becoming familiar with the ancient and cultivated Indian nation. This review fixed its attention to Orme’s dissertation, while that of the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (202) celebrated Orme’s character as a military historian who, though English, could appreciate a great Frenchman.

Accordingly, the trajectory of Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan provides a further caveat to the notion of a sudden and sweeping turn to linguistics in eighteenth-century Orientalist scholarship. For according to his nineteenth-century biographer, Orme’s authority remained intact even though he had ‘little or no acquaintance with learned languages in Asia’, and therefore ‘appears’ to have relied on ‘his own actual observations’ (xxix). In addition, however, a comparison with the fate of Grose’s Voyage also suggests that much remains to be said about the concept of private interest in eighteenth-century travel writing, especially as regards its relation to the political nation.

Dr Laura Tarkka-Robinson studied history and comparative literature at the Universities of Helsinki, Hannover and Edinburgh, earning her PhD at the University of Helsinki in 2017. Currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Intellectual History, University of Sussex, she is revising her doctoral thesis “Rudolf Erich Raspe and the Anglo-Hanoverian Enlightenment” to be published as a monograph while also working on a post-doctoral project concerning the transformative impact of eighteenth-century notions of ‘national character’ on the early-modern Republic of Letters. More generally, her research interests revolve around the transfer, translation and exchange of ideas, the construction of national literatures and cultures, as well as the scholarly use of travel literature and the conceptualisation of historical progress in the long eighteenth century.

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