Preferred Citation: Mahomet, Dean. The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth-Century Journey through India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.


The Significance of Dean Mahomet's Work

Dean Mahomet's act of writing Travels, including his selections of content and genre, have powerful implications for the ongoing scholarly debate about the relationship between literature and colonialism. Edward Said, in his highly influential work, Orientalism (1978), asserted that Westerners enforced—and largely still enforce—exclusively unilateral cultural representations of Asia: “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging,…constitutes one of the main connections between…culture and imperialism.…From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself.”[6] As Pratt demonstrates, European travel writers consistently objectified colonized peoples and localities through the “imperial gaze,” constructing them for the West.[7]

Despite the unquestionable fact of Dean Mahomet's authorship of his Travels, many Westerners of his day believed Asians incapable of authoring such a polished work of English literature. Even today, some readers may cling to similar doubts and look for a British hand behind Dean Mahomet's pen. While he clearly borrowed—in today's terms, plagiarized—brief sections of his descriptions from European authors (as I analyze in Chapter Three), he nonetheless clearly retained his own voice throughout. Further, unlike some of his British contemporaries, Dean Mahomet's book presented Indians as human beings worthy of respect in their own terms. They had virtues, superior in some ways to—albeit different from—those of Europeans. Few European works of his day took his position. Thus, Dean Mahomet's book stands as an important counterexample to any one-sided view of English literature during the age of imperialism as the sole preserve of Europeans.

Homi Bhabha, Henry Louis Gates, Edward Said, and other scholars have shown that Asians and Africans regarded their power to narrate and represent their own experiences in their own terms as powerful modes of resistance to European cultural domination.[8] For example, former slave Olaudah Equiano (and other antislavery activists of Dean Mahomet's day) explicitly argued that his autobiographical book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano…The African, Written by Himself (1789), proved the humanity of Africans and hence the immorality in trafficking in such humans as if they were mere property. Indeed, Equiano toured Ireland, including Cork, publicizing his autobiography in 1791, just three years before Dean Mahomet published his Travels.[9] The existence of such non-European perspectives on, and participation in, the imperial process exposes the multilaterality of that process. Nevertheless, while Dean Mahomet's book demonstrates the existence of long-neglected Indian voices in the colonial process, the limited impact of his book on British attitudes toward India suggests European lack of openness to his narrative.

Some modern readers may expect that, because Dean Mahomet was ethnically Indian, he would have produced an account radically—instead of subtly—different from his contemporary European writers. Such an anachronistic expectation of an Indian nationalist stance misinterprets his position and circumstances. We must move beyond the stark dichotomies of identity between colonized and colonizer, Orientals and Westerners, “us” and “them” that have become the hallmark of both imperialist and nationalist/anti-imperialist discourse.[10] Rather, each person embodied a range of positions, as Dean Mahomet and Equiano demonstrated in their writing and their lives.[11] Dean Mahomet wrote for the British elite, on whom he depended and among whom he married and lived as an immigrant, about his years of service as an Indian camp follower and then subaltern officer in the English Company's army as it conquered India. In his Travels, he assessed the virtues and flaws of both British and Indian cultures, each of which did much to shape his identity. He stood between them, rather than as wholly part of either.

Dean Mahomet chose the fashionable English genre of the epistolary travel narrative for his presentation of his life in India. Constructed letters, addressed to a fictive European friend, enabled him to establish a personal relationship with his British readers. He further identified with his intended audience by publishing at the head of his book the list of his three hundred and twenty prominent British patrons. He dedicated his book to a colonel in the English Company's Bengal Army, W. A. Bailie. The sophisticated genre he chose also allowed him scope for allusions to high English literature and Latin quotations (which he did not translate into English, thus presupposing the erudition of both his readers and himself). Since this literary genre held great popularity in Britain at the time, but was unknown in his natal culture, his choice recapitulated his self-location as an intermediary, drawing upon an English form to represent his Indian background for an elite anglophone audience. Pratt uses “transculturation” to describe how subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture. While subjugated peoples cannot readily control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what they absorb into their own, and the uses to which they put it.[12]

Dean Mahomet's deliberate use of an autobiographical voice in Travels, especially in his early chapters, bears on the current debate over differences between conceptions of the self in Asia as opposed to Europe.[13] Some scholars argue that the concept of the individual as a historically minded being, and hence autobiography as a literary genre, emerged only in post-Enlightenment Europe; more recent scholarship has questioned this assertion as ethnocentric.[14] Although the term “autobiography” would first appear in English print only years later in 1809, Dean Mahomet clearly presented himself as an individual, with passages (particularly in his first chapter) which show his self-awareness—imagining how others perceived him. Each of the engravings which he published in Travels represented an aspect of his identity: an European-dressed Indian Gentleman, an Indian army officer, and an Indian courtier in an Indian ruler's procession (figures 1–3 of this book).[15] His decade living in Ireland prior to writing Travels distinguished his account from those of Muslims and Asians who visited Europe but did not remain as immigrants.[16] Indeed, Dean Mahomet lived continuously in Europe for the last sixty-six years of his life.

Dean Mahomet's marriage to an elite European woman, as well as his use of literary (and later medical) accomplishments to enhance his honored place in British society, suggest the diversity of experiences among Indian immigrants to Britain. British society relegated the vast bulk of Asians in Britain at this time to the lowest social classes.[17] Nevertheless, many of the elite in Ireland subscribed to Dean Mahomet's book and accorded respect to his marriage with a woman of their class. Later, large numbers of the English elite submitted their bodies and health to his hands as a medical surgeon and masseur. These attitudes remind us that British society during his lifetime did not demand racial segregation or condemn (what would later be called) interracial sexuality, including sexuality involving White women and Black men. Indeed, a number of other Asian and African men married or moved freely through society with European women during this period.[18] Thus, Dean Mahomet's marriage and his degree of success as a professional medical man stand as warnings against simple projections backward of later English racial categories or attitudes.

Overall, Dean Mahomet's life and his writings reveal much about cultural interactions within the imperial process, a process which created what Pratt terms “contact zones”: “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.”[19] Dean Mahomet lived for decades in colonial India and Ireland, where the dominant English used force of arms to try to impose their rule and culture on the indigenous peoples. Yet these English impositions proved far from hegemonic, as his own self-expressions indicate. Throughout his life in these colonies, he made himself a man transculturated: neither assimilated into the dominant English colonizing culture nor integrated with the subordinated, colonized one. By examining his life and writings, and those of other such intermediaries, we can move toward an understanding of the hybridity of the imperial process.

The neglect his Travels has endured for two centuries among literary critics and historians indicates the marginality of its position and his. Like other books published in Cork, Travels received little attention in the metropolis. As an Indian author, Dean Mahomet did not fit European conceptions of India. Thus while elite journals in London knew of his book, they did not accord it a review (although they did review many travel narratives about India by Europeans, even ones they considered inferior).[20] Further, when Irish nationalism ended the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, few of the more than four hundred and fifty copies of Dean Mahomet's book survived. Thus, this republication of Travels brings his book and role in the imperial process to our attention.


Preferred Citation: Mahomet, Dean. The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth-Century Journey through India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.