Spanning nearly two and a half centuries of English literature about India, Under Western Eyes traces the development of an imperial discourse that governed the English view of India well into the twentieth century. Narrating this history from its Reformation beginnings to its Victorian consolidation, Balachandra Rajan tracks this imperial presence through a wide range of literary and ideological sites. In so doing, he explores from a postcolonial vantage point collusions of gender, commerce, and empire—while revealing the tensions, self-deceptions, and conflicts at work within the English imperial design.
Rajan begins with the Portuguese poet Camões, whose poem celebrating Vasco da Gama’s passage to India becomes, according to its eighteenth-century English translator, the epic of those who would possess India. He closely examines Milton’s treatment of the Orient and Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe, the first English literary work on an Indian subject. Texts by Shelley, Southey, Mill, and Macaulay, among others, come under careful scrutiny, as does Hegel’s significant impact on English imperial discourse. Comparing the initial English representation of its actions in India (as a matter of commerce, not conquest) and its contemporaneous treatment of Ireland, Rajan exposes contradictions that shed new light on the English construction of a subaltern India.
About the Author
Balachandra Rajan is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Western Ontario. He has written numerous scholarly books, including The Form of the Unfinished: English Poetics from Spenser to Pound and two novels.
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Under Western Eyes
India from Milton to Macaulay
By Balachandra Rajan
Duke University PressCopyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Lusiads and the Asian Reader
* * *
In March 1553, four ships set sail from Lisbon along the route that Vasco da Gama had pioneered for Western commerce. Three were lost on the way. The fourth ship, the Sao Bento, dropped anchor in Goa only to be lost on the way back. Among those disembarking from the Sao Bento was a common soldier, Luís Vaz de Camões, the author-to-be of The Lusiads.
Goa had been seized by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510, an event foretold by Jupiter in The Lusiads, who assures the importunate Venus that Goa will in time be the queen of all the East. Camões had not arrived to savor the truth of this prophecy, regarding a city he described elsewhere as a modern Babylon, to enjoy the fruits of the paradise da Gama had hailed, or even to conduct preliminary research for The Lusiads. He came because he may have had no alternative. In a street brawl on Corpus Christi Day in 1552, the quarrelsome Camões had wounded a court official, Garcalo Borges. He was cast into prison for eight months. Borges did not press charges and in fact forgave the poet after receiving an apology. The king's pardon followed on March 7, 1553, presumably with a condition attached to it. A fortnight later, Camões embarked for Goa. "I set out," he wrote dejectedly, "as one leaving this world for the next."
He continued on his colorful course, taking part in an expedition against the king of Chembe on the Malabar coast within six weeks of his arrival in Goa and perhaps in an expedition to Ormuz in 1554. In February 1555, he could "be located with some precision" in Somalia. In the following year, he appeared a third of the way across the world in Macao as trustee for the dead and absent. Opinion differs as to whether this was a promotion or a further degree of exile. In Macao, Camões once again displayed his customary talent for not getting along with authority. Relieved of his post, he was in some danger of providing his successor with an additional dossier by joining the ranks of the dead and absent. The hospitable Vietnamese rescued him from a shipwreck in the Mekong estuary. Clutched to his heart was the waterlogged manuscript of The Lusiads. This incident is a story that seems designed to belong to literature rather than fact. Camões endows it with a double legitimacy by incorporating it into his epic poem (10.124). He also anticipates Milton here and elsewhere in The Lusiads in his infiltration of the epic voice by the personal.
From Macao, Camões returned to Goa and was in and out of prison, once for not paying his debts and once, it is conjectured, because of the enemies he had made at Macao. He decided to return to Portugal but languished for two years at Mozambique, unable to pay for further passage. It was not until 1570 that he reached Lisbon. The Lusiads was published two years later. The king awarded Camões a pension of 15,000 reis, which is described as not magnificent but not a pittance. It compares well with the payment of £10 that Milton received for writing Paradise Lost.
A life that reads like a tale out of Conrad is reflected in a poem that is more robust than thoughtful. Innumerable and boastful accounts of Portuguese victories past and future remind one of the "tedious havoc" that Milton castigates (PL 9.30), although only after indulging in a fair measure of it himself. Camões assiduously courts comparison with Virgil by making more than eighty allusions to the Aeneid and claims superiority over past epics because his hero is actual rather than legendary. The machinery of the poem, complete with Greek gods and Olympian squabbling, is also lavishly emulative of the ancients. It becomes something of an embarrassment in a poem written under Christian auspices, so that at one point (10.82), Tethys is obliged to warn da Gama that she and the mythological apparatus she represents are to be regarded as no more than figures of poetry. It is advice that the reader is expected to apply with discrimination. The future Portuguese empire that Tethys thereupon proceeds to display to da Gama is clearly not intended to be figural.
The view of The Lusiads that these remarks introduce runs against the grain of current interpretation. It is put forward to suggest that current interpretations may rest on reading habits that need to be scrutinized. Commentary on The Lusiads is almost nostalgically Eurocentric. Negligible attention is given to the poem's representation of Asia, even though Camões's epic displays the heroic quest as the discovery of a new route to Asia's riches. This reticence is symptomatic, but it ought to be slightly surprising in an era in which Western revisionism seems prepared to admit that it needs to listen to others as well as to learn from itself. Circumstances make it necessary to declare the relevance of an Asian viewpoint in the reading of the poem and to do so perhaps with an assertiveness that would not have been called for in a world of evaluation with more generous boundaries.
Historicizing The Lusiads restricts itself at present to considering the poem as an event in the epic genre or as an event in the orchestration of a Portuguese-European identity. The first tactic enables us to separate epic dreams of heroic achievement and glory that are both upper class and in the high style from more prosaic commercial visions that are middle class and in the mean style. The inexorable collusion between commerce and empire is mystified by a disengagement that enables us to read The Lusiads as an impure poem or as a poem forced out of the decorum of its genre by the glittering possibilities of a breaking open of commercial horizons to which it was unable to remain oblivious.
The second tactic of considering the poem as an event in a nationalcum-European formation of identity can attach considerable weight to the questionings of itself that The Lusiads occasionally places at its margin. These questions are treated as part of an internal debate through which Portugal proceeds to write out its meaning and destiny in a manner that can be read as emblematic of Europe, but they also have been treated as troubling the poem or even placing it in jeopardy to a sufficient extent to do away with some of the embarrassments of its imperial stridency in a postcolonial era.
Lacking in this historicizing is any sustained consideration of the poem as an event in imperial history, as an important and strong articulating voice in the coming to power of a discourse of dominance. This protocol of avoidance is not surprising. Placing a poem within a genre or within a history of identity formation is an activity that can seek to remain descriptive; placing it within imperial history makes evaluation difficult to escape. It also means that the evaluation may put in doubt the status of any poem that contributes powerfully and with sufficient single-mindedness to discourses and practices now generally disowned. The protective barriers erected against this way of approaching The Lusiads are entirely understandable; they make it helpful (and perhaps essential) to import into the poem's Eurocentric containment a reading from a different space that is formed by a different experience. For the sake of clarity, I propose to pursue and to endeavor to shape this reading before putting it into engagement with other readings that have so far prevailed.
Camões's insistent claim to be measured against Virgil only reminds us that Lisbon was not a second Rome and that The Lusiads is not a second Aeneid. The difference between the two poems verges on the profound. There is in The Lusiads no Dido to abandon, no Turnus to contend against, no devastated Troy to remember, and no lost homeland to reinstate in the pursuit of an imperial destiny. More important, the poem's freight of feeling carries within it none of Virgil's war weariness, his sense of a heroic and world-ordering imperative weighed down by the sacrifices the imperative exacts. Camões's epic seems behind Virgil in imperial time and almost a return to imperial innocence.
Epic poems are exercises in purposefulness and therefore cannot place themselves in jeopardy, but to write poetry at all is to submit to a hazard from which even epics cannot be immune. One possible hazard is Tethys's warning to da Gama that the vision of Portugal's future that she shows him from a hilltop is figural. The imperial dream could be in question here, but Tethys's caution is quite rightly treated as addressed to a suspicious church rather than to a subversive reader.
The most telling and celebrated jeopardizing of the poem is the old man's harangue at the end of canto 4, as da Gama's expedition sets off on its journey. The diatribe expresses the objections of the conservative opposition to the king's overseas policy as well as the potentially Satanic vanity of the quest for glory and fame. For Western critics, the old man's speech is crucial in the recuperative remapping of The Lusiads. An Asian reader would be more struck by the manner in which the speech is placed on a horizon that seems to recede into history. The old man is never heard from again, and once aired, his views receive no further attention. We could argue that they needed no further attention, that they were underlined sufficiently by events, that the old man's prophecy rang all too true in the shrinking Portuguese empire of the 1580s. But da Gama's voyage is not presented in that disillusioning aftermath as an enterprise that might need to be rethought. It is presented as a climactic and heroic achievement from which a once noble nation has declined.
The imperial enterprise can be both glorified and doubted. We can be surprised by sin, and Milton surprises us by a resplendent display of classical heroism against which the ninth book makes its tragic turn. But Milton is unique in his capacity to enact pride — and more persuasively poetic pride — not simply as a prelude to but as a basis for poetic repentance. Camões does not seek the poem's self-repentance or even its sustained interrogation. Attempts to find in the old man's speech an enduring site for this interrogation are commendable in their intentions but dubious in their success. It might be more fruitful to see in the futility of the old man's protest some of the poem's authenticity as an imperial document. Da Gama's fleet is sailing away not only from Lisbon but also from a worldview now out of date.
Glory and fame in The Lusiads are not, as with Milton, the noble mind's last infirmities. They are epic pursuits, manifest in Portugal's history as it proceeds to the crowning exploit that is both the poem's prize and the history's climax. An Asian reader, understandably resistant to the imperial theme, cannot easily forget that Asia was the soil on which glory and fame displayed their banners.
It is not surprising that heroic statements, however noble as poetry, remain unpersuasive to the victims of those statements. Camões's poem must accept this impoverishment in a postcolonial world. It may not be alone in this deprivation, but it may be alone in its enthusiastic subscription to the commercial rewards that go with honor, dominion, and the discomfiture of the infidel.
To the Asian reader, Camões's world presents itself as a world not of meaning but of riches. The mountaintop from which da Gama is shown the Portuguese future is reached through an impenetrable thicket that reminds one of the approach to Milton's Paradise. Characteristically, it is strewn with emeralds and rubies (10.77). William Mickle responds to such invitations by describing The Lusiads in the preface to his 1776 translation as "the epic poem of the birth of commerce, and, in a particular manner, the epic poem of whatever country has the control and possession of the commerce of India." His view has been strongly contested, but the reductionist characterization may reflect some of the poem's difficulties in claiming more for itself. In the exhortation that opens canto 7, for instance, religious divisions are first deplored and unity is called for in contending against the infidel. It is then blatantly argued that those unmoved by religion should at least be moved by the prospect of vast riches (7.11). The exhortation takes place on the threshold of the discovery of India, making it once again clear that the wealth of Ind that Milton infernalizes is, in Camões's poem, the fitting recompense for epic valor.
The purpose of da Gama's voyage was to open a passage to the Orient that would destroy both the Venetian monopoly of the spice trade and the Arab monopoly of the trade routes between the East and Europe. Lisbon would become Europe's richest city, and the blow dealt to the Moslem infidel would felicitously serve both commerce and religion. "I hold it as very certain," Albuquerque opined, "that, if we take this trade of Malacca away out of their hands, Cairo and Mecca will be entirely ruined, and to Venice will no spices be conveyed, except what her merchants go and buy in Portugal," For a brief period, this strategy seemed triumphant. Although one-third to one-half of da Gama's men never saw Portugal again, the cargo he brought home sold in Lisbon for sixty times the price paid for it in India. By the early sixteenth century, Venetian trade with the East was sufficiently disrupted for Portugal to take over 75 percent of Europe's spice imports, reaping profits of 90 percent in the process. "For a time," G. V. Scammell comments, Portugal's "remarkable ambitions came near to success, an astonishing achievement for a tiny country short of ships and men, and with such forces as it possessed thinly scattered through dozens of forts and posts in East and West alike."
Portugal's moment of commercial glory was brief. Despite the capture of Goa (1510), Malacca (1511), and Ormuz (1515), Eastern traffic through the Arab world recovered and, indeed, began to surpass its previous dimensions. The failure to capture Aden resulted in the spice traffic being rerouted rather than cut off, and the porousness of Portugal's blockade was attested to by clandestine Portuguese participation in the very trade it was seeking to intercept. By 1600, only 20 percent of the pepper and less than 50 percent of the other spices reaching Europe were arriving in Portuguese ships. Indeed, as the sixteenth century wore on, the spice trade lost its preeminence for Portugal, and cargoes were increasingly made up of cotton textiles. The Portuguese also developed a carrier trade, conveying the produce of South and Southeast Asia to the markets of China and Japan. Japan had been fortuitously "discovered" by a Portuguese ship blown off course by a typhoon, and for a time, trade between China and Japan was exclusively in Portuguese vessels. These secondary trade gains were scarcely compensation for the shrinking commerce of a waning empire. Seventy years after da Gama's voyage, Camões was writing of a moment already past and prophesying a future that the present seemed insistent on undermining.
Portugal's declining fortunes became catastrophically evident when King Sebastiao in June 1578 led an expedition to Alcacer-Kebir to verify Camões's assurance that the Moslem everywhere would quail in terror before the weight of Portugal's armies and the fame of its exploits (1.6–8). The king had reasons for confidence apart from Camões's poetry. Fifty years earlier, in celebration of a triumph by the Portuguese over the Moors, a subservient Moor had ridden a lavishly caparisoned white elephant, curtseying thrice before the pope and sprinkling the assembled spectators with water. On this occasion, the outcome would be different, even with an invading force of 1,500 horsemen and 15,000 foot soldiers, transported by 500 vessels. Nine thousand camp followers accompanied the expedition, including large numbers of women, to celebrate the victory in the manner of canto 9 ofThe Lusiads. In four hours of battle under a searing African sun, the flower of Portugal's manhood was destroyed. Eight thousand were killed, and 15,000 taken prisoner and sold into slavery. No more than 100 found their way to safety. In the following year, as the plague descended on Lisbon, Camões contracted his final illness, commenting that he was glad to die not merely in but also with his country.
It is not difficult to consider The Lusiads as a poem of bombast that history ironically falsifies. The grandiose conception of the state of India (which, in the period's expansively vague geography, included not only India but also Southeast Asia) can be mockingly set against Portugal's limited manpower and its increasingly straitened finances. Yet the defining Portuguese experience may be the extraordinarily swift expansion of nationhood into empire, an empire that, although precariously maintained, was more far-flung than any hitherto in history. The dizzying opening of horizons that sea power suddenly made possible accounts for many of the excesses in the Portuguese imperial vision, and the overreaching becomes more endurable as we remember how events inflated the dream.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Introduction: Preliminary Navigations
1. The Lusiads and the Asian Reader
2. Banyan Trees and Fig Leaves: Some thoughts on Milton's India
3. Appropriating India: Dryden's Great Mogul
4. James Mill and the Caes of the Hottentot Venus
5. Hegel's India and the Surprise of Sin
6. Feminizing the Feminine: Early Women Writers on India
7. Monstrous Mythologies: Southey and the Curse of Kehama
8. Understanding Asia: Shelley's Prometheus Unbound
9. Macaulay: The Moment and the Minute
Afterword: From Center to Circumference