August 8, 2012 By Ayoob Rahman

Words that Traced Footprints: Survey of Travel Writings

GulliverTravel narratives have become one of the most popular and acclaimed literary genres in the recent times with many notable writers giving their travel accounts about diverse lands. These narratives included descriptive accounts of geography, monuments, and customs of foreign lands each visited. A sheer number of books were published about foreign travels and adventurous journeys made by different people from different backgrounds. Many of these narratives were distinguished for blending factual information with artistic literary content. Before the introduction of great travelogues, people made up their mind about the unknown lands on the basis of fictions and other literary accounts. Travel narratives were used as the source for history writing, too, though they were not transparent or fully reliable. There were fierce cultural debates on whether these fictitious accounts of various lands and people are inaccurate, fabricated and dishonest. Critics of Orientalist epistemology like Edward Said have talked about it in detail.

There are a number of writers and historians who have brilliantly contributed to the genre. Soon after the invention of writing, travel accounts have been recorded in fragmentary writings as we read about great civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about his travels in Egypt and Anatolia that he made in research of the Persian wars. The Chinese envoy Zhang Qian described much of central Asia as far west as Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan) on the basis of his travels in the first century BCE while searching for allies for the Han dynasty. Hellenistic and Roman geographers such as Ptolemy, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder relied on their own travels through much of the Mediterranean world as well as reports of other travelers to compile vast compendia of geographical knowledge.

It was Muslim merchants who sought trading opportunities throughout much of the eastern hemisphere. They described lands, peoples, and commercial products of the Indian Ocean basin from east Africa to Indonesia, and they supplied the first written accounts of societies in sub-Saharan West Africa. While merchants set out in search of trade and profit, devout Muslims traveled as pilgrims to Mecca to perform their hajj and visit the holy sites of Islam. Since the prophet Muhammad’s original pilgrimage to Mecca, untold millions of Muslims have followed his example, and thousands of hajj accounts have related their experiences. One of the best known Muslim travelers, Ibn Battuta, began his travels with the aim of performing the hajj but then went on to visit central Asia, India, China, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Mediterranean Europe before returning finally to his home in Morocco.(World History Sources). East Asian Travelers and Chinese navigators visited Southeast Asia and parts of India. Many East Asian Buddhists led their pilgrimage to this lands too. The written records of their experience are seen in books of Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing. And many of them travelled to Europe and America,. Most prominent writers among them are Fukuzawa Yukichi, a Japanese reformer and Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary. Marco Polo, Al-Biruni, Ibn-Khaldun and many more gave accounts on their travels and voyages to different lands and cultures.

After the post classical era, Europeans came to the idea of travelling to diverse territories following the Muslims and Chinese. Many conquerors and missionaries travelled to Africa and Asia to colonize the lands, capture natural resources by spoiling their indigenous culture.   European people ventured to the distant corners of the globe, and European printing presses churned out thousands of travel accounts that described foreign lands and peoples for a reading public with an apparently insatiable appetite for news about the larger world. The volume of travel literature was so great that several editors, including Giambattista Ramusio, Richard Hakluyt, Theodore de Bry, and Samuel Purchas, assembled numerous travel accounts and made them available in enormous published collections. The most acclaimed travel narratives were like those of Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705), Daniel Defoe’s A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727), and Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). These narratives entertained the reader with a combination of descriptive analysis of what was distinct or remarkable about a foreign land and people along with philosophical or moral reflections about what those differences might imply.

More often than not, eighteenth-century travel narratives titillated their readers with descriptions of the strange customs of foreigners. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Embassy Letters, written between 1716 and 1718 and published in 1763, offered her readers views of Turkey which few European men would have been allowed to witness, namely Turkish baths and harems. Although Montagu’s impressions of Turkey were generally favorable, most accounts of foreign lands and customs emphasized central European cultural superiority. Elizabeth Craven’s A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople (1789), for example, depicted Turkey as a depraved and crumbling empire. Jacob Wallenberg’s My Son on the Galley (1781) masked the exploitation of the Swedish East India Company with grotesque descriptions of the customs and people of China and the East Indies. Many critics today argue that eighteenth-century travel narratives often served to justify European imperialism through these types of pejorative accounts.

Not all the eighteenth-century travel narratives were written by Europeans; nor did all the works express the European cultural superiority. In 1789, Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian who had been brought to Europe as a slave, published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.   Equiano described how he gained his freedom before traveling back to Africa where he encountered customs and manners which compared favorably with those in Europe. Painting Africans as “noble savages,” Equiano’s travel narratives can be viewed as a corrective to European accounts of Africa as the “dark continent,” though they did not question the mainstream narratives. Another travel narrative written by a non-European (and the first published work by an Indian in English) was The Travels of Dean Mahomet (1794), which described the author’s journeys through India as a soldier in the British East India Company from 1769 to 1784. Although neither Equiano’s, Mahomet’s, nor the handful of published Indian Muslim travel narratives gained wide circulation in their own day, they are read today as a counterbalance to the dominant European voices of the age. (Some Notes on the Travel Narrative, with Special Emphasis on Tony Hurwitz’s one for the Road: Hitchhiking through the Australian Outback by Martin Kich) Edward Said has attacked this tendency of travel writing that distort Muslims and other cultural groups in Asia and Africa as irrational beings. Said’s most acclaimed book Orientalism critically analysis this objective observation of European writers and he exposes the way Muslim people are misinterpreted in these accounts.

In contrast to many of the nineteenth-century travelogues and other travel accounts, contemporary travel literature focuses more on the writer’s experience and personal point of view, leading critics such as Stephan Kohl to draw a parallel between aspects of travel writing and autobiography. Kohl writes about the distinctly personal nature of many contemporary travel texts, which, he says help define the author’s identity as much as they do the places visited in the book. As examples, he includes texts such as Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express (1979), Jonathan Raban’sCoasting (1986), and Philip Glazebrook’s Journey to Kars (1984).(Contemporary Literary Criticism, ©2005 Gale Cengage) Wiliam Darimple, V.S Neipual etc are the major travel writers of the contemporary times, who have furnished their narratives with the style and treatment of fictions. But they have drawn flaks for bearing the white man’s burden: carrying the age-old stereotypes on their shoulders and imposing on communities they see.

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