Nineteenth-Century Orientalism(s)

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the British asserted with excessive pride that they had the largest European empire in the world.  Although this rhetoric was not a new phenomenon, it took on a new air and importance in a period when, as A. G. Hopkins notes, “expansion was converted into imperialism (and then into empire)”.[1]   Yet, despite the rapidly changing geopolitical and ideological climate, European descriptions of the non-European world and the language they employed to legitimate colonial rule resembled by and large those of their intellectual predecessors.  This essay is concerned with unraveling this incongruity.  Using the introduction and the last chapter of Alfred Lyall’s Rise and Expansion of the British Dominion in India (1894), I will attempt to show how, even though the Orientalist tropes used by Britishers to describe India and its people remained largely unchanged from the early-nineteenth century, late-nineteenth century Orientalism was unique.  In order to set up my analysis, I will first discuss Orientalism as defined by Edward Said in his seminal work of the same title.  Then, I will compare Lyall’s use of Oriental tropes to that of James Mill.  Last, I will explain the differences between late-nineteenth-century Orientalism and its early-nineteenth-century counterpart.

At its most basic level, “Orientalism is a style of thought based on an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’”[2]  In the eighteenth century, with expansion of European imperialism, Orientalism acquires an entire intellectual apparatus “for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views about it, describing it, by teaching it, selling it, ruling over it.”[3]  In other words, Orientalism becomes “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” under the aegis of colonialism.[4]  Thus, Said asserts that “the relationship between the Orient and the Occident is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of complex hegemony.”[5]

If, as Said claims, we are to “understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period,”[6] then Orientalism must be understood as a discourse used by Europeans to describe and interpret the Orient.  Furthermore, because “[Orientalism] is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world,”[7] it tells us more about the Occident than it does the Orient.  In other words, Orientalism is the Occident’s will to differentiate itself from the Orient.  Instead of revealing truths about the ‘real’ Orient (so much as a real Orient exists), it reveals how the Occident thinks about the Orient.

Now that I have briefly discussed Orientalism, I will move on to an analysis of Orientalist tropes.  In the introduction to his text, Lyall claims that the main reason Britishers find Indian history “tedious and confusing” is because of its “essential character.”  That is, “The history, like the annals of almost all Oriental States, is mainly concerned, up to very recent times, with military operations, which in India seldom rise above the level of desultory fighting, and with that class of politics that consists largely of revolts, conspiracies, dynastic contests, and the ordinary incidents of a struggle for existence among rival despots.”[8]  In this passage, Lyall gives us most of the Orientalist tropes that have been used to describe India for at least seventy-five years:[9] aimless Indians, conniving Indians, fanatic Indians, unchanging India and, of course, Oriental despotism.  Rather than just using these terms to describe India and Indians, however, Lyall uses them to describe an “essential character.”  This idea about the Indian character mirrors James Mill’s conjecture that “In dangerous and disorderly times, when every thing which the nation values depends upon the sword, the military commander exercises unlimited authority by universal consent; and so frequently is this the situation of a rude and uncivilized people, surrounded on all sides by rapacious and turbulent neighbours, that it becomes, in a great measure, the habitual order of things.”[10]  Regardless of the seventy-year difference, Lyall’s passage and Mill’s passage are almost identical.  Both men believe India is prone to Oriental despotism because of the chaotic nature of Indian society.  In other words, Oriental despotism is an essential characteristic of Indian history because chaos is an essential characteristic of Indian society.  In their eyes, by bringing law and order, the British alone can civilize Indians.

Likewise, both Lyall and Mill subscribe to the idea that India is unchanging.  For example, immediately following his description of the essential character of Indian history, Lyall asserts that Indian “civilization is uniform and stationary…”[11]  Compare this to James Mill’s comment’s on how closely Indians from the time of Alexander the Great resemble Indians in the time of the British: “From this resemblance, from the state of improvement in which the Indians remain, and from the stationary condition in which their institutions first, and then their manners and character, have a tendency to fix them, it is no unreasonable supposition, that they have presented a very uniform appearance during the long interval from the visit of the Greeks to that of the English” (emphasis added).[12]  The ideas Lyall and Mill have about unchanging India are rather identical.  Both men see Indian civilization as uniform and stationary and, by extension, outside of history.  But we need not worry, advises Lyall, because “although civilization has hitherto gone forward very slowly in Asia, the spread of European power is now clearing the ground for rapid movement upon a very extensive line of advance.”[13]  I do not think it is too much to suggest that Mill would enthusiastically agree with this statement.

Finally, I want to address a possible difference between early-nineteenth-century Orientalism and late-nineteenth-century Orientalism.  As we have seen, the general assumptions of early-nineteenth-century Orientalism are indeed discernible in late-nineteenth-century Orientalism.  Still, the ‘new imperialism’ introduced a new Orientalist rhetoric that was a byproduct of changes in Britain, Europe, and the world at large.  Writes A. G. Hopkins, “the new imperialism…was bound up with decisive changes in technology, with the enlargement of the political arena, with the spread of literacy, with the burgeoning ideology of dominance, and, in the case of Britain, associated growth of the tertiary sector of the economy.  These features help account for British ‘exceptionalism’ and for the extraordinary extent to which its domestic history was bound up with its empire.”[14]  In other words, the British empire of the late-nineteenth century made British Orientalism inseparable from British exceptionalism.  Thus, although Lyall makes traditional Orientalist statements about India, such as, “the exceedingly slow advance of new ideas and social changes among the Oriental races proves the strength of resistance possessed by barbarism entrenched behind the unchanging conditions of Asiatic existence,” he balances them out with the exceptionalist rhetoric of the new imperialism: “That one of the foremost nations of Western Europe—foremost as harbinger of light and liberty—should have established a vast empire in Asia, is an accomplished fact that which must necessarily give an enormous impulse and a totally new direction to the civilization of that continent.”[15] Even if Mill and other early-nineteenth-century authors wrote about (either explicitly or implicitly) British exceptionalism, it could not have meant the same thing as it did in the late-nineteenth century.  Lyall was writing at a time of ethnic nationalism, imperial competition (on a scale never before seen and never again matched), and an ever-expanding public sphere.  Of course, this is not to argue that late-nineteenth-century Orientalism was completely different from early-nineteenth-century Orientalism, but rather to suggest that the Orientalism of the ‘new imperialism’ was the culmination of post-Enlightenment Orientalism.

Given the nature of colonialist rhetoric, it might seem ironic that Lyall used the same Orientalist tropes Mill did seventy-seven years earlier.  Given the reality of colonialism, however, it should not surprise us at all.  As this essay has tried to argue, Orientalism remained essentially the same throughout the nineteenth century.  What changed by the end of the century was Europe’s vision of itself, and thus, its expression of the Orientalist discourse.

[1] A. G. Hopkins, “Overseas expansion, imperialism, and empire, 1815-1914,” in The Nineteenth Century: Europe 1789-1914, ed. T. C. W. Blanning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 233.

[2] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 2.  Said gives three definitions of Orientalism in his book.  I begin my discussion with the second.  Refer to page 2 of Orientalism for the first definition.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 12

[8] Alfred Lyall, The Rise and Expansion of the British Dominion in Asia (London: John Murray, 1894), 2.

[9] James Mill’s History of British India was first published in 1817.

[10] James Mill, The History of British India in 6 vols., 3rd ed., vol. 1 (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1826), book 2, chap. 3, accessed November 20, 2013,

[11] Lyall, British Dominion in Asia, 2.

[12] James Mill, The History of British India in 6 vols., book 2, chap. 2.

[13] Lyall, British Dominion in Asia, 346.

[14] A. G. Hopkins, “Overseas expansion,” 238.

[15] Lyall, British Dominion in Asia, 345.


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