[Click on image to enlarge] The international man of mystery who styled himself George Psalmanazar is perhaps the eighteenth century's most notorious impostor. Psalmanzar (c. 1680–1763), who was likely born in the south of France, successfully posed as a native of the island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan) in British society for three years. His public displays of "Formosan" behavior and discourses on fictional "Formosan" religious practices eventually culminated in a popular but spurious travelogue entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan (1704; expanded second edition, 1705). In this entertaining book, Psalmanazar "explains" to the reader such aspects of Formosan life as wedding and funeral ceremonies and the Formosan language, based on an elaborate alphabet which he had designed himself, and which he was invited to teach to Oxford students. Amidst growing scepticism regarding the authenticity of his narrative, Psalmanazar was forced to reveal his deception in 1706.

[Click on image to enlarge] Why should we consider the history of George Psalmanazar to be the substance of anything more than an amusing footnote? As Jack Lynch and other scholars have noted, Psalmanazar's forgeries are not unique in the eighteenth century. One could easily point to his fellow fakers: James Macpherson (1736–1796), who concocted the Ossian poems (supposedly crafted by an ancient Scottish bard), or Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770), who "discovered" a fifteenth-century English poet, Rowley. While Macpherson's and Chatterton's projects may point to anxieties about British national identity, Psalmanazar's travelogue interests precisely because Britons' initial acceptance of it is symbolic of their hunger for stories of exotic encounters beyond Britain's borders. George Psalmanazar's self-representation as a learned foreign traveller is one of many indicators of Britons' increased "planetary consciousness," to borrow Mary Louise Pratt's term for the "construction of global-scale meaning through the descriptive apparatuses of natural history" (Imperial Eyes, 15). The exposure of the fictional nature of Psalmanazar's travels draws our attention to the way in which all travel narratives may be said to construct meaning.

The selected readings in "Trade, Travel, and the Expansion of Empire" offer one mapping of the ways in which the English language fashioned and was itself fashioned by various categories of travel and trade. One could also discuss, for instance, the talismanic objects on Arabella Fermor's dressing table (see Alexander Pope, "The Rape of the Lock," NAEL 8, 1.2514) and trace a material history of common items of trade; or conduct a journey organized along political borders, or one based on chronology, religion, literary genre, gender definition, emotion, aesthetic theory, or some other equally intriguing rubric.

The tour begins with an examination of contemporary meanings of English words relating to travel and trade, as defined in Samuel Johnson's landmark work, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Johnson's words are both the products of earlier travel narratives and the means to define new cross-cultural encounters. A second selection from Johnson's works, the essay published as Idler No. 97 (1760), or "Narratives of Travellers considered," takes a critical look at travel writing as a genre, and suggests the ways in which it might be improved.

Travelling for the benefit of one's health was a popular eighteenth-century diversion, and the practice is represented in this collection by an account taken from The Journeys of Celia Fiennes (1697), which describes Celia Fiennes's excursions to take the water cure. Although international diplomacy, not health, was the primary reason for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's travels, her observations of health practices in Turkey had significant import for Britons. Two selections from Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters (the 1717 letters concerning the Turkish method of inoculation for the small pox and the Turkish baths) appear here.

Eighteenth-century tourists also realized the educative benefits of travel, and acknowledged the necessity of receiving a sound education at home to achieving a rich travel experience abroad. As Joseph Addison writes in his poem, "A Letter from Italy, to the Right Honourable Charles Lord Halifax in the Year MDCCI," a person's response to foreign peoples and landscapes is conditioned by education and literature at least as much as by the primary senses:

      For wheresoe'er I turn my ravish'd eyes,
Gay gilded scenes and shining prospects rise,
Poetic fields encompass me around,
And still I seem to tread on classic ground;
For here the Muse so oft her harp has strung
That not a mountain rears its head unsung,
Renown'd in verse each shady thicket grows,
And ev'ry stream in heavenly numbers flows. (Lines 9–16)

Nowhere was the imaginative collusion of landscape and literature rendered more visible than on the Grand Tour, as Bruce Redford has observed. The first of three contemporary views of the Grand Tour is a prescriptive parental letter from Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, to his son Philip Stanhope (1749), then in Turin. Next, William Beckford rapturously charts the correspondence of Roman history and Roman landscape in a letter from his work, Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, in a Series of Letters, from Various Parts of Europe (1783). Third, a dialogue from The Gentleman's Pocket Companion, for Travelling into Foreign Parts (1723) offers a practical perspective on the borders of language.

Voyages for the purpose of scientific and geographic discovery — popular reading amongst merchants and aristocrats alike — demonstrate the material and cultural importance of trade and exploration to Britons. Here the reader may contrast extracts from James Cook's private journals from the voyage of the Endeavour (1768–1771) with the polished-for-publication work of Cook's protégé George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World 1791–1795 (1798). Piracy's threat to British naval traffic is represented too in the figure of Blackbeard, as depicted in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724) by "Captain Charles Johnson." Similarly, English readers' growing sense of the importance of individual liberty produced a fearful fascination in captivity narratives, such as that written by Joseph Pitts: A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohammetans (1704).

As international companies such as the East India and the Hudson Bay Company expanded globally throughout the eighteenth century, there was opportunity for increased contact with cultural groups who possessed systems of writing — the form of literature recognized and privileged by Europeans. Curiosity, admiration, and the exigencies of trade produced a marked interest in translating, understanding, and sometimes exploiting "other" extant literatures. Sir William "Oriental" Jones's translation of "A Persian Song of Hafiz" and the four ashlogues translated by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed in A Code of Gentoo Laws, or Ordinations of the Pundits (1776) illustrate some of these impulses at work. The final act of translation apparent in eighteenth-century writing about travel and trade is that of imagining, and in some cases appropriating, the position of the "other." Oliver Goldsmith, in a letter from The Citizen of the World (1760–1761), strategically occupies the stance of "foreigner" in order to satirize Britain's domestic political problems.

Ultimately, the expansion of empire that occurred during the eighteenth century cannot be mapped only by meridians crossed, acres gained, or flags planted; it exists, too, in records of the imaginative commerce that passed between place and the written word.

© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page