travel writing

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.

From the Archive: Passage and Place: Loci in Humanist Travel Writing

by Madeline McMahon (November 2015)

12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia

12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia)

After midday on August 14, 1483, the Dominican friar Felix Fabri and his fellow pilgrims to Jerusalem began to prepare for their celebration of the feast of the assumption of Mary. They constructed a small kind of tent around the altar in the very “place from whence the blessed Virgin was carried off” to heaven after her death and created “a beauteous holy grove,” adorned with “leafy boughs of olive and palm trees, strewed with grass and flowers.” In the evening, incense intermingled with the scent of the branches, and the pilgrims sang “Et ibo mihi ad montem myrrhae.” After the service, a group of Eastern Christians used the same space, although Fabri was unimpressed with their hymns: “they seem to wail rather than to sing.” Nevertheless, the liturgical calendar dictated when both Fabri’s Western Christian companions and their Eastern Christian neighbors celebrated this particular feast. But because they were in Jerusalem, the actual place associated with the Virgin’s death also played a central role in their liturgical celebrations: they circled her sepulchre in a procession and sat vigil around it throughout the eve of her feast (Fabri, Evagatorium, trans. Stewart, 7.193-4).

Later in his journey, Fabri returned to where “Mary departed from this world,” but described it very differently. On a walking tour, Fabri’s group “came at no great distance to another place enclosed with a higher dry stone wall, wherein tradition says that the house of the blessed Virgin stood, wherein she lived a domestic life for fourteen years” (8.328). Rather than singing solemnly and adorning the place with branches, Fabri elaborated on the tradition surrounding the Virgin’s life after the death of Jesus. In fact, his understanding of that tradition is perhaps surprisingly inclusive (although mediated and confirmed by a Christian source, Nicholas de Cusa): “We are told in the Alcoran of Mohamet that she only survived five years [‘after our Lord’s ascension’], and that her years in all were fifty-three, as is said also by Nicholas de Cusa, Book II, chapter xv” (ibid.). The physical location (or locus) of Mary’s house led Fabri to cite two passages (loci) in order to solve—or at least state possible answers to—a chronological conundrum. Two meanings of the Latin word locus, textual passage and physical place, overlapped.

As the center of the liturgical celebration, Mary’s grave might be seen as a lieu de mémoire, a site for formally memorializing a long-ago and otherwise inaccessible event (Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26 (1989), 7-24). But in Fabri’s walking tour, Mary’s house functioned as a kind of commonplace heading on the topic of her life after Christ and death. By analogy, the landscape could become a commonplace book, with each new holy site a potential topical heading to organize various related texts and relevant oral knowledge. Text could be inscribed on the terrain.

A book inflecting the way space was approached was nothing new, of course—that was the essential premise for pilgrimage itself. Petrarch populated his 1358 Itinerarium to the holy land with famous literary figures. He celebrated the cities on route to Jerusalem for being where Vergil wrote the Georgics, or Pliny the Elder died in volcanic ash (trans. Cachey, 10.3). And he assumed that his reader was comparing his itinerary with the words of famous authors ringing in their ears: “It should not surprise you that Virgil in the third book of the divine poem [the Aeneid] apparently placed [Scylla and Charybdis] otherwise. He was describing in fact the voyage of one who was arriving while I the voyage of one who is departing” (12.1). He also expected them to see “everything through the Gospel, which is fixed in your mind as you look” (16.4). But the reader’s familiarity with scripture often meant Petrarch felt he could pass over enumerations of minor holy sites and instead recount classical texts and histories. In contrast to Fabri’s later narrative, Petrarch’s imagined itinerary did not elicit the same references to specific texts, though he referred readers to Josephus for further information on a historical point (16.6). His guide to the holy land was meant to help his reader appreciate the landscape. The itinerary itself only loosely organized the texts that Petrarch alluded to reference to it.

Cyriac of Ancona's drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r,

Cyriac of Ancona’s drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r,

Sometimes, though, the landscape could provide textual loci of its own. Cyriac of Ancona (1391 – 1452) traveled for mercantile business from a young age in the Mediterranean and was struck by the remains of classical and (to a lesser extent) Christian antiquity. He wrote six travel diaries, describing how his friends and hosts in Frankish towns and Venetian colonies guided him through fields to inspect “remnants” (reliquiae or monumenta) of antiquity, including ancient temples, floor mosaics, and hundreds of inscriptions (Diary V, trans. Bodnar, II.307 – 9). He believed, as his lifelong friend Francesco Scalamonti wrote, that “the stones themselves afforded to modern spectators much more trustworthy information about their splendid history than was to be found in books” (Scalamonti, Life, trans. Mitchell, Bodnar, and Foss, I.48 – 9).

Nonetheless, Cyriac frequently made use of texts to make sense of objects in the landscape. He identified the iconography of the Parthenon—then dedicated to the Virgin Mary— “from the testimony of Aristotle’s words to King Alexander” (quoted in Brown, Venice and Antiquity, 84). The landscape induced both Fabri and Cyriac to turn to texts, but Cyriac was more concerned with the material buildings and remains than Fabri, who used pilgrimage sites in his account to recount memories or textual loci. Texts made the landscape interesting to Petrarch, but both fifteenth-century travellers toggled back and forth between physical and textual loci to make them speak to each other. Cyriac even replicated the loci in the landscape for his friends, sending drawings and transcriptions of monuments across the Mediterranean. Most of his own manuscripts are now lost—as are many of the inscriptions he copied. But his writings circulated widely through scribal copies in his circle, preserving the landscape that so fascinated him in text.

Madeline McMahon is a 4th-year PhD candidate in history at Princeton University (and a former editor of JHI Blog). She studies the intellectual, religious, and cultural history of early modern Europe. Her dissertation examines episcopacy and scholarship in the Church of England and the Catholic Church in Italy after the Elizabethan Settlement and the Council of Trent, when the ancient institution of episcopacy was reimagined for a changed present.