Week 1

ENGL6080 Travel Writing
Notes, Topics and Further Reading for Week 11
Postcolonial Travel Writing – Amitav Ghosh, In An Antique Land
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the genre of travel writing was dominated by
Europeans writing about the rest of the world. Much of the output was the European
representation of colonial possessions. The travel writing by the indigenous people of
the colonies was largely ignored or suppressed, and very little was translated into
English. The effective silencing of the colonial 'other' in Western travel writing bears
similarities with the silencing of women's voices in the genre. Both women and
colonized were restricted in the journeys they could make, and if they did travel, their
travel experiences would be considered secondary to the primary experience of
(white) masculine exploration and discovery. There was a considerable amount of
travel writing in Arabic and Asian languages dating back to before this period, but it
seems to be have been of little interest to a Western audience. In European travel
writing up to the 1970’s, women and native peoples tend to be the objects of travel
writing, rarely the subjects.
Narratives of women's journeys are now being published, some for the first time, but
postcolonial travel writing is more problematic due to the suppression of travel and
travel writing in the colonies. It therefore consists mainly of attempts by
contemporary writers originating from the former colonies to somehow intercede in
the history of travel writing, and to claim the authority of black experience.
Postcolonial travel writing in English is narrowly defined as travel narratives by
writers from the former British colonies especially India, Pakistan, Africa, and the
West Indies. Many such writers have moved to Britain or been educated there. People
in Australia and Canada of European origin are in some sense postcolonial writers, as
are Irish writers, but the term 'postcolonial' suggests writers with non-European
ancestry, and postcolonial writing is usually concerned with matters of racial and
ethnic identity. Post-colonial travel writing might include (to use terms from
colonialist discourse) journeys from the periphery (i.e. the colonies) to the European
centre (e.g. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival and Caryl Phillips, The European Tribe).
It might also include travel from the centre to periphery (e.g. Naipaul, An Area of
Darkness), or it might (less often) be set in the periphery itself, or involve travel from
one periphery to another (e.g. Ghosh, In an Antique Land).
We have discussed travel writing as essentially a 'masculine' form, written by men
and describing male experience. The same dominants could be put for travel writing,
at least European travel writing, as a colonialist form. In other words, European travel
writing is essentially a colonialist form, written by the colonizers to describe the
experience of colonization, and primarily for an audience supporting colonization at
home. Only recently have writers emerging from former colonies had the opportunity
to travel, let alone the leisure to write about their experiences, or an audience
interested in hearing from them.
Barbara Korte refers to the fascinating example of the two Ugandan officials who
visited Britain for the coronation of Edward VIII in 1902. Sir Apolo Kagwa Discovers
Britain is Ham Mukasa's report of the visit, but this appears to have been greatly
modified by the English translators to suit imperialist ideology, by, for example,
presenting the two Ugandans as naive and childlike in their observations and
responses and in awe of British civilisation.
Post-colonial travel writing is usually at pains to 'correct' false, colonialist, (mis)representations, to criticise colonialist and imperialist ideologies and, if possible, to
disrupt, invert and deconstruct the patterns of European travel writing. The complex
and polemical nature of postcolonial travel writing is partly the result of its main
proponents being intellectuals rather than explorers or tourists. Many have been
educated in the West, such as Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh and
Caryl Phillips.
V.S. Naipaul is one of the most well known post-colonial travel writers, but he is
sometimes criticised for seeing the world too much through Western eyes and
Western ideology. Post-colonial writers are under pressure to voice the experiences of
non-Western people, but how feasible is it for them to find a voice that is
recognisably non-Western? The 'imperialist' form of Western travelogues with their
imperialist gaze and narrative authority based on a combination of historical evidence
and eye-witness accounts, is difficult to displace. Korte refers to Dissanayake's and
Wickramagage's call for "pastiche, collage, juxtapositions, irony, playfulness, and so
forth", through which, post-colonial writers such as Naipaul might have "subverted
the authority of the travel writing genre from within". But this assumes a rather more
homogenous genre than actually exists. We have seen all of this before, (irony,
playfulness etc.), especially in women's travel writing, and the travel writing genre as
a whole is remarkably heterogeneous. The travel writing is not so easily fitted to any
mould - it has a long history and many variations, even within the period of British
Caryl Phillips, The European Tribe (1987) Caryl Phillips is an Afro-Caribbean
novelist, born in the tiny island of St. Kitts in the West Indies and brought to Britain
as an infant. In 1987, he published The European Tribe, a book of essays recording
his experiences of travelling across Europe as a man brought up in European culture
(he graduated from Oxford university) and yet a man who feels that he cannot fully
participate in its culture. Phillips has a profound sense of the confusions of
postcolonial identity and, unlike Naipaul, he makes these and the history of racism his
major themes.
In these essays, Phillips explores 'tribalism' in Europe, the racism, ethnic cleansing,
nationalisms which seem to divide Europeans into tribes and also create an 'outsider'
class who are 'not Europeans'. In this book, he begins to recognise (and experience
first-hand) the divisions in Europe which have discriminated against Jews, Blacks,
Arabs and non-Europeans. And it is perhaps here that we can see the idea of 'shared
outsider status' bestowed on Black and Jew alike. The rise of racism in Europe,
particularly in Germany and France is a particular concern.
Unlike Naipaul, this example of postcolonial travel writing is designed as a critique of
European-centred history and the form of travel writing associated with this history.
Attacking the form of travel writing is an interesting innovation in postcolonial travel
writing, and Phillips manages this in two ways. Firstly, he writes back against those
European travel writers who recorded their encounters with the tribes of Africa,
deconstructing the modern/primitive opposition that white travel writers assumed here
- i.e. the white man (individual) travels to see the black peoples (tribes) and observes
them. Here, the black man is the traveller, and the white 'tribes' of Europe are the
observed. Secondly, Phillips parodies the Grand Tour narrative, in which the white
gentlemen would gain their knowledge of (superior) European civilisation. In this
version, of the Tour, Phillips' education is completed by gaining an understanding of
the enduring racism inherent in European culture.
In Venice, one of the highlights of the Grand Tour, Phillips is reminded of Othello,
the black Moor, in Shakespeare's play of the same name. And in the same city, the old
Jewish ghetto reminds him of Shylock, the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, and the
history of discrimination and segregation inflicted on Jews since medieval times.
Amitav Ghosh, In An Antique Land (1992) Ghosh was born in India and studied
at Oxford where he won a scholarship to carry out research on historical archives in
Cairo. He trained as an anthropologist and is author of several novels and books of
travel writing. In this text he describes his fieldwork in the Nile delta region of Egypt,
which involves historical investigation prompted by letters, discovered by chance,
between Jewish traders operating between the Middle East and India in the 12th
His particular interest is in the mention of an Indian slave in the correspondence, but
Ghosh becomes increasingly interested in the history of cultural relations between the
Middle East and India. In An Antique Land describes Ghosh’s historical research, but
much of the book contains lively narrative of his travels between Egypt and India.
The significance of these two countries here is that both can be considered
postcolonial, and they are both 'antique lands', both producing advanced civilisations
long before Western modernity and colonization. In this journey, Ghosh retraces
ancient trade routes between India and the Middle East, and calls to mind travels that
occurred outside the European history of travel.
Unlike much of the English travel writing we have studied, this is not an account of
the world through European eyes. Ghosh does not occupy a privileged position. As an
Indian, both Egyptians and Indians respond to him as one who might share a similar
cultural background, and whose countries have forged historical allegiances.
Ghosh is introduced by his Egyptian host as a “student from India…a guest who had
come to Egypt to do research. It was their duty to welcome me into their midst and
make me feel at home because of the long traditions of friendship between India and
Egypt. Our countries were very similar, for India like Egypt, was largely an
agricultural nation and the majority of its people lived in villages, like the Egyptian
fellaheen, and ploughed their land with cattle. Our countries were poor, for they had
been ransacked by imperialists, and now they were both trying in very similar ways to
cope with poverty and all the other problems that had been bequeathed to them by
their troubled histories”. (p.135)
A further example of Ghosh not occupying the privileged position of the Western
traveller is in his defensive responses to the Imam's (Muslim priest or chief) charges
of backwardness in Ghosh's Hindu culture. The Imam attacks Ghosh for being one of
those people who burn their dead and worship cows. Ghosh and the Imam end up
arguing about whether India or Egypt is more advanced using the measure of what
destructive power each side's military could muster. Here are these two postcolonial
characters caught in an old colonialist vying for power through violence - "... the
Imam and I: delegates from two superseded civilizations, vying with each other to
establish a prior claim to the technology of modern violence." (p. 236) Here we were
then, Ghosh goes on, in the East and of the East, and yet both still travelling in the
West. Furthermore, Ghosh then pulls the 'Westerner' card on the Imam. He (Ghosh)
had actually been to the West and knew more about it than the Imam - like the
colonial writer, in the end, he claims prior knowledge of the West and, by implication,
of the world. Discussion topics
1. Consider examples of a postcolonial viewpoint in Ghosh, such as the
experience of the postcolonial subject, and representations of Egypt and
India as postcolonial countries.
2. Find examples of postcolonial rewriting or writing back (i.e. 'correcting'
white peoples' version of history, and making black experience central).
Further Reading
Graham Huggan, The postcolonial exotic : marketing the margins
Subramanian Shankar, Textual traffic : colonialism, modernity, and the economy of
the text
Barbara Korte, English travel writing from pilgrimages to postcolonial explorations;
translated by Catherine Matthias.
Kuehn and Smethurst (eds.) Travel Writing, Form and Empire
Steve Clark (ed.) Travel writing and empire : postcolonial theory in transit,
James Clifford, Routes : travel and translation in the late twentieth century
Jonathan White (ed.). Recasting the world: writing after colonialism
Justin Edwards (ed) Postcolonial Travel Writing