Preferred Citation: Howse, Derek, editor. Background to Discovery: Pacific Exploration from Dampier to Cook. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

IV Literary Responses to the Eighteenth-Century Voyages

The Scientific Approach to Human Nature

Investigations by eighteenth-century travel writers into the science of human nature are clearly more typical, far-reaching, and influential than those into geology. Their research into human nature marks the beginnings of modern social sciences. As Peter Gay has pointed out, "Whether realistic, embroidered, or imaginary, whether on ship or in the libraries, travel was the school of comparison, and travellers' reports were the ancestors of treatises on cultural anthropology and political sociology. It led to the attempt on the part of Western man to discover the position of his own civilization and the nature of humanity by pitting his own against other cultures."[40] The eighteenth-century travel account thus served as a "museum, in which specimens of every variety of human nature" were studied.[41] This museum, however, could always be misused. Dr. Johnson, for example, attacks Montesquieu for supporting his strange opinions by describing practices "of Japan or of some other distant country, of which he knows nothing."[42]

Some travelers spent their efforts attempting to define national characteristics. This was especially true for travelers on the Grand Tour, from whom we typically learn that Englishmen are serious and morose, Scotsmen proud and overbearing, Irishmen fortune-hunters, Frenchmen fops, Spaniards grave, Russians bearish, Italians effeminate, and the like.[43] And it is in this tradition that Smollett


encapsulates his experiments with French human nature in the following splenetic passage from his Travels Through France and Italy :

If a Frenchman is admitted into your family, and distinguished by repeated marks of your friendship and regard, the first return he makes for your civilities is to make love to your wife, if she is handsome; if not, to your sister, or daughter, or niece. If he suffers a repulse from your wife, or attempts in vain to debauch your sister, or your daughter, or your niece, he will, rather than not play the traitor to his gallantry, make his addresses to your grandmother, and ten to one, but in one shape or another, he will find means to ruin the peace of a family, in which he has been so kindly entertained.[44]

Travelers to places farther away than Italy and Spain tended to focus their scientific attention on more generalized questions concerning human nature. As Pope said, "The proper study of Mankind is Man." In so doing, they often tried to confirm, or in some cases reject, two of the century's more common myths: the Noble Savage and the Chinese Sage.

Omai was one of the eighteenth century's most noble savages. He came to England on board Captain Furneaux's ship after Cook's second voyage. London fell in love with Omai: He was genteel, polite, likable, and could even beat Giuseppe Baretti at chess. To top it all off, he came from the South Seas where summer was perpetual, sex spontaneous, and hard work unnecessary.

Here is the stuff of romance, but here too is the stuff of scientific argument. What is man? Is he essentially good, as suggested by popular views of Omai? Or is he essentially bad, as suggested by orthodox Christian thought? The argument between Shaftesburians and Hobbesians entered the pages of virtually every travel account dealing with the South Seas. If Western man is evil, why is that so? Denis Diderot's Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage suggested that Western society, and especially Christian sexual morality, was to blame. Dr. Johnson, of course, said poppycock.[45]


The Chinese Sage posed similar problems. While the Noble Savage was uneducated and simple, the Chinese Sage was enlightened and sophisticated. Moreover, his enlightenment came from Confucius, who in many respects sounded suspiciously like Jesus. As a myth, the Chinese Sage certainly dates back to the Jesuit missionaries who tried to convert China using what the eighteenth-century Englishman saw as a clever brand of natural religion. Jesuit failures dated from the intervention of the pope in such free thought. In any event, by the time Johnson translated Father Jerome Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia in 1735, the concept of the Chinese Sage had become so standard that Johnson could show his orthodox credentials by claiming that his readers would find on his pages no "romantic absurdities" such as "Chinese perfectly polite and completely skilled in all sciences."[46]

The discovery of this well-organized, advanced culture that knew nothing of the Christian message proved a trauma to the orthodox, a delight to the liberal. Leibniz, for example, could claim that the Chinese should send missionaries to instruct Europe in natural philosophy just as Europe had sent missionaries to instruct China in revealed religion.[47] And Hume could claim that the Chinese literati were "the only regular body of deists in the universe."[48] Some travelers and some philosophers using their accounts even went so far as to claim that the Chinese wrote a universal language, having escaped the curse of Babel.[49] For a century interested in all things universal, this was heady stuff indeed.

But in his investigations of the Noble Savage and the Chinese Sage, the Englishman ultimately was not concerned primarily with people who lived either in the South Pacific or the Orient. Rather, his main scientific interest lay in discovering something about himself—his own religion, society, sciences. Actual travelers who voyaged to the South Pacific and the fireside travelers who studied their accounts made comparisons between themselves and the people they either saw or read about. This was essential to


the scientific method. Dr. Johnson indeed sees this kind of comparison as a psychological justification for the popularity of travel literature. Our pleasure in reading about foreign countries, he says, "arises from a Comparison which every Reader naturally makes . . . between the Countries with which he is acquainted, and that which the author displays to his Imagination." As a consequence, this pleasure "varies according to the Likeness or Dissimilitude of the Manners of the two Nations. Any Custom or law unheard or unthought of before, strikes us with that surprise which is the effect of Novelty." By contrast, a custom or law similar to our own "pleases us, because it flatters our Self-love, by showing us that our Opinions are approved by the General Concurrence of Mankind."[50]

Such comparisons became the basis not merely for travel accounts but also for many of the century's satiric attacks on its own society. Non fictional travel accounts find Occidentals observing Orientals; fictional accounts often find Orientals observing Occidentals. In William Hogarth's Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism , which probably dates from 1759, we see an English church infected with religious frenzy. The clergyman thunders so loud he breaks the sounding board. His dislodged wig reveals a Jesuit in disguise; his opened gown reveals a harlequin in disguise. He is surrounded by fanatics like Mrs. Toft—who convinced the king's physician she had given birth to rabbits—and he is inspired by Wesley's sermons. The enthusiast at the far left shows that Jews are not immune to such frenzy. But outside the window we see the Turk calmly smoking his pipe. Nothing needs to be said; the comparison tells it all. Hogarth is not praising Islam; rather, he is attacking the excesses of Christianity.

A number of influences undoubtedly stand behind this picture. Hogarth may have been thinking of his friend Henry Fielding's latitudinarian sentiments. In Joseph Andrews , Parson Adams says that "a virtuous and good Turk " is "more acceptable in the sight of their Creator, than a


vicious and wicked Christian, tho' his Faith was as perfectly Orthodox as St. Paul's himself."[51] Hogarth may have been thinking of travel accounts like Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1668) and Lancelot Addison's West Barbary (1671), both of which attempt to dispel European views of Muslims as "Barbarous, Rude, and Savage."[52] Hogarth may have been thinking of satires like Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy or Persian Letters , both of which use a foreign traveler to dissect the follies of Parisian society. In any event, the inquisitive and irreverent attitude Hogarth expresses here is firmly in the tradition of the eighteenth-century scientific traveler.

IV Literary Responses to the Eighteenth-Century Voyages

Preferred Citation: Howse, Derek, editor. Background to Discovery: Pacific Exploration from Dampier to Cook. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.