Curiosity and travel books: Oceania, and Switzerland

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I recently acquired two old travel books – one called The Book of Other Lands, by Dorothy Margaret Stuart, G Harrap & Co, 1926; and the other A Little Journey to Switzerland, by … (unknown, although the watercolour illustrations are by E W Haslehust), Cassell & Co, 1910. I don’t collect old or new travel books; in fact, I’m a bit wary of it as a genre (for a critique see Debbie Lisle’s The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing, Cambridge UP, 2006).

However, I was tempted to buy the first one mainly because of its cover! (I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes they are the main reason for buying a book). I bought the second because of my recent post on The view from the summit is unsatisfactory. In light of this post about the view from Mont Blanc being unsatisfactory (to Karl Baedeker, at least) I thought I would see what these two had to say about it.

But first I want to set them in some context so let’s have a look at the travel genre and the notions of curiosity and the exotic. The books from the late 18th century that I studied for my MA were travel books of a kind. They usually presented peoples of the world with descriptions of the countries, costumes and habits – I preferred to call them encyclopaedias. Debbie Lisle’s critique of some recent travel writing makes me wonder if it has changed very much. She believes there are now two strands of writing – one is still infected by colonialism (or the ‘superior westerner’ viewpoint) and the other she calls a ‘cosmopolitanism’ – where diversity may be celebrated, but the author is still often looking for the ‘quaint’ and exotic. So what I say below relates to the late 18th century, but readers can decide how much has changed.

Travel books were very popular (I discuss this more in my thesis and may do a separate post on it sometime), but despite this popularity, I believe that European interest in others was fairly superficial; it was mainly a way of escaping into the ‘exotic’ and comparing other societies with one’s own – and usually benefiting from the comparison. The ‘curious enquirer’ or ‘curiosity’ is widespread in the travel literature of the later eighteenth century. Curiosity played a crucial role in shaping knowledge. It was, nevertheless, a term with moral overtones. Other countries, or the ‘exotic’, were among the typical objects of that curiosity. Notions of curiosity, used so often at this time in these books, encapsulate this desire for restless novelty through appealing to the senses.

An engraved frontispiece to a 1713 book made in Augsburg shows a Pilgrim accompanied by Devotion and Curiosity – Devotion is a veiled and barefoot woman, eyes downcast, carrying a cross and bible, following behind the Pilgrim. Curiosity is a well-dressed, attractive, woman who looks directly at the Pilgrim and points the way.[1] Curiosity is clearly a temptation that may lead a man astray.


In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) characterised “vain curiosity” as a vice, while Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) could declare it to be “one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind” (1751).[2] Edmund Burke (1729–1797), writing in On the Sublime (1757), said:

“By curiosity, I mean whatever desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in novelty … But as those things which engage us merely by their novelty, cannot attach us for any length of time, curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections … it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness and anxiety.” [3]

While some educated gentlemen and scientists might claim that curiosity was a disinterested pursuit of knowledge, Johann Reinhold Forster (1729–1798), for example, on James Cook’s (1728–1779) second world voyage also makes clear that the sailors were collecting great quantities of ‘curiosities’ to sell.[4] Forster characterised his curiosity as for the benefit of the government and the public, while the sailors thought only of private benefit, but commerce (whether Government-supported or private) was never far behind curiosity. It was an ambiguous term in another way too – reactions in England to revelations of sexual contact between the crew and Tahitian women in the official account of Cook’s first voyage included satirical poems and caricatures – thus calling into question the ostensibly scientific purpose of the voyage. Even if curiosity did become more acceptable, the acquisition of knowledge was not without moral connotations.

As might be expected, curiosity was used very differently when attributed to men or women – mostly it was male curiosity that became more acceptable in the eighteenth century. The contradictory uses of female curiosity are shown in the popular Rev. James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1775) – on one occasion a distinction is drawn between “a laudable inquisitiveness and an improper curiosity” (vol. 1, p. 165), in another “female curiosity” is said to have been “justly a topic of satire” (vol. 2, p. 62); yet he recommends young women read books of voyages and travels as “How amusing to curiosity! How enlarging to our prospects of mankind!”.[5] An illustration of the allegory of Curiosity from one of the few English eighteenth-century costume books shows a pretty young woman with motifs of eyes and ears decorating her skirt.[6] Notably, a similar motif was used in the so-called ‘Rainbow Portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth I (c.1600–03) which, as Roy Strong shows, was based on a Regione di Stato figure in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia and implies a head of state who hears and sees many things through her servants.[7]

curiosityjefferys  Eliz 1 Rainbow portrait Elizabeth 1 ‘Rainbow portrait’ from Wikipedia.

The notion of curiosity used in later eighteenth-century exploration accounts tends to separate the apparent disinterested pursuit of knowledge from the implications of discovery for the ‘interested’ processes of commerce and colonialism.[8] Each of Cook’s voyages had an important scientific mission, yet commerce was also an important consideration, especially for the second and third voyages (respectively, finding – or disproving the existence of – the Southern Continent; and searching for a Northwest passage that, if it existed, would greatly reduce the sailing time from Europe to the Pacific Ocean and the East). Margaret Hunt sees in English travel narratives a close link with commercial objectives. In discussing some of the advice books written over the course of the eighteenth century on things travellers should look for, she says: “travel writing merged seamlessly at a very early stage in Britain’s imperial history with a discourse of profitability, labor efficiency, and national prosperity”.[9]

Curiosity was seen by some writers as one marker of civilisation and therefore lacking in ‘savages’. The philosopher Adam Smith believed the ‘savage’ had no use for human curiosity and therefore did not experience wonder which is the source of philosophical inquiry.[10] Captain Cook noted the apparent lack of curiosity (or a lack of interest in European goods!) in some Oceanic peoples as a factor that in his view put them on a lower level in terms of their ‘progress’ towards civilisation than those peoples who are interested in trading. Similarly, by 1777 he could detect no inclinations in the Queen Charlotte Sound New Zealanders towards ‘progress’ because they did not attempt to improve their knowledge, “nor are they remarkably curious either in their observations or enquiries”.[11] On the other hand, although curiosity was aroused by the visits of Mai (‘Omai’) to England and Ahutoru (‘Aotourou’) to Paris, as Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729–1811) put it, this was a ‘sterile curiosity’ – the interest was not so much in their countries, societies or even their point of view, but in their reactions to the host country. The novelist Frances Burney (1752–1840) wrote of one of her meetings with Mai: “as we are totally unacquainted with his country, connections, and affairs, our conversation … consisted wholly in questions of what he had seen here”. [12] This is despite the fact that her brother James Burney (1750–1821) was a lieutenant on the ship that brought Mai to England, recorded information he learnt from Mai in his journal and sometimes acted as his interpreter in England.

In the eighteenth century it was fashionable to display exotic objects, although often these were adapted to suit European taste by combining them with European decorative elements. As well as markers of the owner’s wealth and status, they declared a person to be of ‘good’ taste. In this context, the exotic usually contained only pleasing or amusing scenes. There was also, however, a fascination with reading about ‘savage’ practices, such as cannibalism; therefore the exotic could encompass both desire and threat. Yet there did not seem to be a real desire to know these ‘others’ in depth – once some ‘new’ peoples were ‘discovered’, interest in the old waned quickly – and so, the South Seas replaced America in the European imagination in the late eighteenth century. While voyage literature was popular, the rewriting of it to suit particular European interests was even more popular.[13] As noted above, limited interest is also demonstrated in the reception shown in ‘exotic’ visitors to London and Paris over the course of the eighteenth century. As Katharine Fullagar argues: “If Omai represented the apex of British interest in New World visitors, the decline after his visit was surprisingly steep”.[14] Fullagar links this interest (or lack of) to key debates and social changes going on in England at the time, and whether ‘savages’ could be useful as models of “alternate ways of being”.[15]

Someone or some object in its natural environment is not necessarily exotic – it is the outside viewer with different standards who interprets them as exotic. Taking or seeing other peoples and objects out of their natural context turned them into exotic ‘curiosities’. The exotic as an aesthetic category originates in Europe, or the European mind, when perceiving and seeking to understand the foreign; and although it is present in the initial viewer (“the unknown being viewed naturally enough in terms of the known”), more importantly, it is a way of transforming these first-hand records to serve the diverse needs of a European audience.[16] So the exotic is not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered; it is produced by taking objects or people from their ‘other’ setting and transposing them to a different setting.[17] Objects from different parts of the world could be combined in one image to enhance its exotic appeal; geographical specificity is not important, what matters is the contrast with home or the familiar. Mason says that remoteness rather than specificity is important;[18] yet, the ‘exotic’ could also be quite close to home (e.g. Spanish scenes could be seen as exotic in England and France). Even the Bordeaux-area shepherds who used stilts to see their sheep in the landscape are shown in three or four images (such a number was unusual, except for large cities) in the French books of Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, as if this was also exotic.[19]

bordeauxstilt3 bordeauxstilt2 bordeauxstilt1

This is probably a good time to finish by looking at what the two books I began with say about Switzerland – actually I’m not very interested in what they say, but in what images they used! The ‘Book of Other Lands’ shows mainly images of people in their ‘traditional’ costumes (no change there from the books of the 18th century!), ‘quaint’ customs and some scenery. For Switzerland, “peasant women” are particularly favoured, as well as a few mountain scenes.

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The ‘Little Journey to Switzerland’ reproduces watercolour images of mountain and valley scenes – all include a town or village, but very few people are depicted. Our unknown author makes no mention of unsatisfactory views, but he does dwell on Mont Blanc’s ferocious winds, avalanches and the “something malign and terrible about the glaciers”. (p. 55)

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[1] Conrad Hietling, Peregrinus affectuose per terram sanctam et Jerusalem a Devotione et Curiositate conductus, Augsburg, 1713. Illustrated as the frontispiece in Neil Kenny, The uses of curiosity in early modern France and Germany, Oxford & NY: Oxford University Press, 2004; sourced from British Library.

[2] Rousseau quote from Neil Kenny 2004 p. 334; and Johnson quote from Peter Harrison, ‘Curiosity, forbidden knowledge, and the reformation of natural philosophy in early modern England’, Isis, (92)(2) June 2001, p. 288.

[3] Edmund Burke, A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful [1757] 2nd ed 1759; VUW library Eighteenth Century Collections Online, accessed 12 October 2009, pp. 41–42.

[4] Nicholas Thomas, ‘Licensed curiosity: Cook’s Pacific voyages’, in John Elsner & Roger Cardinal (eds) The cultures of collecting, Melbourne & London: Melbourne University Press, 1994, p135. Curiosity developed this meaning, i.e. as an object of interest, from the mid-seventeenth century in English (OED).

[5] Rev. James Fordyce, Sermons to young women, A new edition 1775, 2 vols, vol. 2, p. 11; VUW library. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online database; accessed 21 August 2008. Their popularity can be gauged by noting that the 12th edition was published in 1800 (and also in America).

[6] In A collection of the dresses of different nations, antient and modern…, London: Thomas Jefferys, 1757–72. 4 vols. VUW Library, Eighteenth century collections online, accessed 4 September 2008.

[7] Roy Strong, Gloriana: The portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, London: Pimlico, 2003; pp. 157–161.

[8] Noel Elizabeth Currie, 2005, Constructing colonial discourse: Captain Cook at Nootka Sound, 1778, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, p. 49.

[9] Margaret Hunt, ‘Racism, imperialism, and the traveler’s gaze in eighteenth-century England’, The Journal of British Studies, 32(4), October 1993, p. 351.

[10] Anthony Pagden, European encounters with the new world – from Renaissance to Romanticism, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1993, p. 151.

[11] Harriet Guest, Empire, barbarism, and civilisation; James Cook, William Hodges, and the return to the Pacific, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 137.

[12] Harriet Guest, 2007, pp. 152–155 – English reaction to Mai; and Pagden, 1993, p. 32 for French reaction to Ahutoru. Bougainville brought Ahutoru to Paris from Tahiti.

[13] Jane Elliott, ‘The choosers or the dispossessed? Aspects of the work of some French eighteenth century Pacific explorers’, in The French and the Pacific world, 17th–19th centuries, Annick Foucrier (ed) Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate, 2005, pp. 284 & 285.

[14] Katharine Fullagar, ‘Savages and moderns: The New World in Britain, 1710–c1800’, PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley; 2004, p. 6. VUW Library, partial access from online database (ProQuest Dissertations and Theses); accessed 24 May 2008.

[15] Ibid: abstract (summary).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Peter Mason, Infelicities: Representations of the exotic. Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press, 1998, p. 3.

[18] Ibid, p. 159.

[19] Graham Robb’s fascinating book The Discovery of France, Picador, 2007, explains: “The shepherds of the Landes spent whole days on stilts, using a stick to form a tripod when they wanted to rest. Perched 10 feet in the air they knitted woollen garments and scanned the horizon for stray sheep…they could cover up to 75 miles a day at 8 mph… it was such an efficient mode of transport that letters in the Landes were still being delivered by postmen on stilts in the 1930s.” (p. 243)


One thought on “Curiosity and travel books: Oceania, and Switzerland

  1. I am very taken with the idea of shepherds on stilts as an efficient means of transport and flock surveillance. Brilliant! Puts the mediaeval ‘fairy-tale’ notion of seven-league-boots into perspective as just a slightly magical extrapolation of existing technology.

    Also the depiction on dress fabric of eyes and ears symbolising alertness and/or an efficient spy network … what is particularly interesting here is the association with a peculiarly feminine (dress-related) mode of power deployment …


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