Orientalism in the British Literary Annuals
This is a postcolonial analysis of a pre-empire literature of Orientalism that influenced Britain’s imperialist attitudes for the management, operation, and defense of its worldwide colonies. Edward Said has identified the Victorian novel as a shaping force in European ideas of the non-European “Other” that he termed “Orientalism.” This study discusses a number of short stories that appeared in British literary annuals during the 1831 to 1836 Victorian period that accomplish the same purpose. The example stories were selected from 272 short stories and poems that were identified by a computer search for colonial subjects in the annuals. These stories served to attract and educate potential British empire-builders by instilling a set of attitudes towards the inhabitants of colonies in India, Africa, the Middle and Far East and the Caribbean. Contrary to expectations, there were also stories that clearly demonstrate the negative effects and opinions of colonialization. My conclusion is that Said used only damning examples in his “oppositional criticism” of European hegemony. A Kantian critique of his position demonstrates that although he is correct in suspecting any epistemological, moral, and aesthetic aspect of what he defines as Orientalism, his “oppositional” stance is too polarizing, and it gives his work very little remedial or recuperative dimension for present day application.
Edward Said proposed that the Orient is an idea whose history, tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary have given Europeans a “false” world-view of non-Europeans. In his book, Orientalism, Said discusses how nineteenth-century Europeans orientalized the Orient by a combination of knowledge and power. The perception of European superiority to non-European peoples and cultures was polarized into an “us” European mentality as against all of “them” non-Europeans. This attitude became entrenched during the period of European imperialistic expansion, resulting in political and economic domination over the Orient, with various degrees of hegemony surviving up to the present day.
To say that orientalism was simply a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by orientalism. The absolute demarcation between East and West had been centuries in the making. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo brought back from the Orient the technologies of making paper and gunpowder. Paper became much more important than gunpowder in the fifteenth century after Gutenberg invented printing with movable type. The widespread availability of books and atlases spurred European general education and exploration. There was a growing systematic knowledge in Europe about the Orient, and Europe sought to maintain a dominant position in Oriental-European relations. Moreover, the Orient studied was also a textual universe, the impact of which was made through books and manuscripts.
Said applies Foucault’s methods to British valorization of its culture over Orientals using the following two examples: First, Macaulay’s famous statement of 1835 on Indian education:
I have no knowledge of Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have... read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works.... I have never found an orientalist who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia (Curtin 182).