Global Borders: Power, Fragility, and ‘a kind of fiction’ (Editorial Introduction)

Editorial Introduction by Samara Cahill (Blinn College)
Global Borders: Power, Fragility, and ‘a kind of fiction’
DOI: 10.32655/srej.2020.2.1.1
Cite: Cahill, Samara. 2020. “Global Borders: Power, Fragility, and ‘a kind of fiction’,” Studies in Religion and the Enlightenment 2 (1): i- ix.

Borders. To what extent do they determine identity? Borders may be as solid and politicized as a wall between two neighboring nations, or as enchanting as the demarcation between a cultivated garden and a wild or commons, or as permeable as the barricade of a cell membrane to a virus. Borders signal sovereignty, territory, and property. But any attempt to use borders to shape the world into an orderly, comprehensible grid of identities and affiliations is premised on a fiction of containment. With the gentlest wafting of pollen from a summer breeze or a bee’s wing, the fixed categories borders inscribe can blossom into hybridities.

Yet the existence of borders does not suggest that all who encounter them are equally powerful or equally vulnerable. As Joanne Sharp observes, the creative possibilities enabled by the limits and obstacles that a border imposes are marked by an “asymmetrical hybridity.”1 A border is a site of both creation and oppression, power and vulnerability. While this “Global Borders” special issue of Studies in Religion and the Enlightenment (SRE) will celebrate the creative possibilities of hybridity at various borders, the editorial staff are mindful that these hybridities are not “free combinations.” Border hybridity is often the product of asymmetrical geopolitical relations.2

Nevertheless, what the last few months have brought home to the global community is just how vulnerable all states and their populations are to something as seemingly insignificant as a breath or a droplet. In 2020, face masks have become the most important border.  A microscopic virus has, on the one hand, reinforced global inequalities (including differential access to healthcare, economic safety nets, childcare, employment, and safe and hygienic work and living conditions) and, on the other, turned the tables on one of the most powerful and exclusionary entities in the world—the federal government of the United States of America during the years 2016-2020. Over the course of 2019-2020, the US government leadership has traversed the full gamut from imprisoning refugees at the US-Mexico border, excluding international students, and describing COVID 19 in Sinophobic racist terms to finding its agents forced to release migrant children at the border and its own citizens denied entry to Canada and European nations on the grounds that US tourists pose a health risk to the rest of the world.

Envisioning power as a global infection, Walter Mignolo, one of the foremost critics of the imbrications of colonialism and modernity, argued that borders are “places of dwelling” and identified the nation-state as a “virus” that has “invaded the planet over the past two hundred years.”3 Crucially, Mignolo described “modern Western epistemology” as “territorial” and argued that “territorial epistemology presupposes ‘the frontier’ rather than the border. On the other side of the frontier exists the void, namely space to be conquered or civilized. Territorial epistemology (modern and postmodern) cannot be decolonial; it is an imperial epistemology.” In short, a frontier separates place from space, the home—to be valued and protected—from territory to be acquired or resources to be extracted. Borders, even those located more in the mind than in material reality, can do violence to those who strive to acknowledge the fundamental interconnectedness of the peoples, creatures, and ecosystems that borders are intended to keep separate. The erection of borders would seem to deny what Jane Bennett has called the “vibrant matter” of things—the network of relations between the animate and the inanimate world.4

Borders are imagined between humans and other species and between humans of different cultures. A striking instance of the violence of borders occurs in Romesh Gunesekera’s 2012 novel The Prisoner of Paradise, set on the island of Mauritius in 1825. The narrative centers on Lucy Gladwell, an orphaned English expatriate, as she navigates colonial society and falls in love with Dom Lambodar, a dashing Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) translator.  Lucy is a young woman of her time, with all the yearnings and frustrations of one who reads Lalla Rookh as much as she reads Mary Wollstonecraft. Circumscribed by the borders of her aunt’s beautiful tropical garden, she is even a little like the Abyssinian prince Rasselas about whom she also reads. For both Lucy and Rasselas, the borders of the beauty in which they live are an enclosure. The garden and estate promise safety and pleasure while concealing a prison.

Lucy confronts this realization almost at the same moment as the ecstatic revelation that she and Dom Lambodar love each other. As they drift together in a small boat on a vast ocean, Lucy tacitly realizes that her own country—the seat of the British Empire and a nation still in the process of abolishing the slave trade—would never recognize who she and Dom Lambodar are as individuals or accept their love. Lucy is starkly confronted by her desire for freedom (from guilt, from social strictures) and the prospect of moral and emotional imprisonment if she remains in colonial society. For Lucy the sea represents purity, possibility, freedom, communion and an escape into the realms of poetry from the corrupt colonial society of which she is an unwilling member. As Lucy and Dom Lambodar gently drift, she realizes “We can’t go anywhere better, really, can we? To be free? Not your island, not mine. There is nowhere we can go, is there, that is untainted.”5 Lucy soon drowns after attempting to immerse herself in the purity of the borderless ocean. Dom Lambodar survives, though his boat  crashes along the “black barrier reef” of the “half-submerged line of rocks and stony coral.”6  In the world of The Prisoner of Paradise, the coral reef is a symbolic border between the human and the nonhuman, the land and the sea, a postcolonial future of love and unity and the colonial present of subjection and division.

Indeed, in situating Lucy’s epiphany on the ocean, Gunesekera contributes to a historical tradition of representing the ocean as a place beyond borders. As Steven Mentz has argued, “Oceanic freedom functioned in the early modern period as a compelling cultural fantasy, in which the ceaseless change and instability of the sea countered human existence on land.”7 But as the contemporary disputes in the South China Sea demonstrate, oceans can also be divided or traversed by borders.  Territorial borders may be imposed upon oceanic space; oceans may function as borders between land territories; oceans may be seen as networked spaces (or routes) of diasporic experience, the consequence of the transatlantic slave trade, as Paul Gilroy explored in The Black Atlantic (1993); or oceans may be the medium that accounts for the cyclical nature of immigrant history, articulated by Kamau Brathwaite using his concept of tidalectics. Oceans divide and connect; they facilitate both imperial violence and postcolonial solidarity.

The Prisoner of Paradise could be seen as both a continuation and a complication of the symbolic importance of coral in Gunesekera’s earlier novel Reef (1994), also an exploration of colonial networks, power, and fragility. In his 2013 introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of Reef, Gunesekera explains

The real beauty of a coral reef is in the way it renews itself and creates the strongest of structures with the most delicate of life forms. If the fragile polyps are damaged, the reef crumbles, It is a lesson we have been slow to learn.
A novel is like a reef. A structure of words nourished by the imagination of readers who renew it and keep it alive—and whose imaginations, in turn, are nourished and renewed by the book.9

Coral reefs can be destroyed, reduced to markers for a “municipal parking lot” (118), as they are in the novel, or they can be protected, like coastal mangroves: a vibrant, life-giving and life-protecting ecosystem. Frontiers are violent; borders do not have to be—they may be interfaces of mutual care, respect, and creation.

Increased scholarly attention to the ocean signals one of the more exciting recent developments in the interdisciplinary humanities. More of the world’s surface is covered by water than by land, and yet the ocean depths and the ecosystems they support remain shrouded in mystery. From a disciplinary perspective, the “turn” toward spatiality in the humanities has resulted in a cascade of oceanic, transoceanic, and hemispheric perspectives in literary studies, visual art, the sciences, and the environmental and “blue” humanities.10

Even the conventional division between water and land becomes more symbolic than actual when rivers are considered.  Riverine systems are the arteries of world and connect land interiors to the oceans beyond coasts.  In North America, for instance, inland water sources complicate the relationships between US state borders, indigenous rights, and environmental concerns. In the last few years, the controversy over the Dakota Access pipeline (NDPL) and the protests of the Standing Rock Sioux tribes, among others, highlighted the conflict between petroleum corporations and the right of indigenous communities to protect themselves from the contamination of drinking water and the violation of sacred land. Indeed, millions of gallons of crude oil spilled from the NDPL in December 2016. Pipeline protests have spread recently, with the Wet’suwet’en nation protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in British Columbia, Canada, charging that the pipeline violates the terms of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). However, one great victory for indigenous rights was achieved this year. On July 9, 2020, the US Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma recognized the jurisdictional borders between individual states in the USA and indigenous nations, specifically the Muscogee and other nations of eastern Oklahoma.

There are borders within imagined geographies of religion, too, such as the border between the Christian “West” and the “Muslim world” that Samuel P. Huntington influentially but controversially outlined in The Clash of Civilizations (1996). Huntington claimed that “Islam has bloody borders.”11 This assertion is particularly pointed since Huntington considered religion the bedrock of civilization and decried the “secular myopia” of anyone who would deny that “religion is … possibly the most profound difference that can exist between people.”12 Indeed, Huntington saw religion as “the principal defining characteristic of civilizations.”13 Huntington very specifically described civilizational identities as they manifested after the end of the Cold War. Taking a longer view of historical borders, scholars such as Ian Almond have countered this “clash of civilizations” narrative by arguing that, in fact, there were many instances of collaborations between Christians and Muslims from the medieval period to the nineteenth century.14 This perspective does not deny the many outbreaks of physical violence between Christians and Muslims, but rather recognizes that the portrayal of that violence in Western media often extends from the realm of imagined geography—from the description of a border as if it is really a frontier. I have increasingly thought about the violence of religious frontiers since the US presidential election of 2016 and, particularly, after a visit to the Missions of San Antonio, Texas in December of that year. That visit to the Missions painfully impressed upon me the continuing power of religious borders when those borders are really frontiers of the historical imagination.

The San Antonio Missions—Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan, Mission Espada, and what we today call “the Alamo”—were founded by Franciscan friars in the eighteenth century. It was a poignant experience to wander through these beautiful sites of communion, community, and solace at Christmastime while reflecting on the divisiveness of current political rhetoric toward Muslims, Mexicans, and indigenous peoples.

The buildings of Mission Concepción, founded by friars from the College of Santa Cruz de Querétaro, Mexico, are examples of Spanish Baroque architecture and show signs of Moorish influence. At the time of my visit, a gallery displayed installations informing the visitor of the often productive, often fraught relationships among the missionaries and the indigenous peoples, particularly the Coahuiltecans, who settled around the missions, but also the Apaches, Kiowas, and Comanches who remained nomadic. Further, a local newspaper clipping pinned to an indoor message board noted that “Migrants [are] a reminder of [the] Holy Family’s Story.” But amidst the beautiful eighteenth-century architecture, art, and sacred space of each of these missions was one jarring juxtaposition that has remained with me ever since as a symbol of the longterm violence of religious borders.

In one chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano, an ornate image of La Virgen de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) was displayed. Surrounding the central image were insets narrating the story of La Virgen’s appearance to Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin near the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico in 1531. La Virgen de Guadalupe is one of the most beautiful, beloved, and recognizable images of Christian hybridity for Catholics in Latin America and all over the world. So it was particularly painful to see an image of La Virgen only a few steps away from a plaque commemorating the 540th anniversary of San Juan Capistrano’s defeat of the Ottoman army of Mehmed II at the Siege of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) in 1456. Worse, the message of that plaque was reinforced by the violent imagery of an adjacent statue of San Juan Capistrano. San Juan was depicted clad in armor, serenely gazing heavenward, arms upraised in a gesture of gratitude for a providential victory. Yet the saint’s foot rested on the depiction of a severed head of what, given the conventional moustache, was clearly intended to be a Turkish soldier. I have never seen such a stark juxtaposition of sacred hybrid beauty and violent religious triumphalism. If, as Huntington claimed, “Islam has bloody borders,” it is difficult—in front of such an Islamophobic statue—to claim that Christianity’s borders are any different.15

The articles in this special issue on “Global Borders” survey a range of border types—the physical borders of gardens, the intellectual borders between religions and cultures, and even the borders between disciplines and literary genres. While the focus throughout rests on the creative possibilities of borders and on the pleasures of intellectual and material cross-pollination, we nevertheless remember the “asymmetries” of hybridity that Mignolo and Sharp describe, particularly in light of recent border conflicts.

Perhaps the most highly publicized border dispute of 2020 has been an economic one—the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union. “Brexit,” as it has been called, was finalized on January 31, 2020 after complicated negotiations regarding whether the customs border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the European Union, should be a “hard” or “open” or “smart” border. Continuing complications threaten to derail the Brexit agreement of January. And in a further complication of oceanic borderlessness, an Irish Sea “border” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK appears now—or, at least, as of the writing of this introduction—to be the new trade reality of the UK.

Beyond economic problems, militarized violence is also erupting at multiple borders around the world. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea has destabilized the border of eastern Ukraine. Violence continues at the border between Israel and Palestine; disputes have continued to escalate in 2020 between China and India along their shared border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC); India also shares a Line of Control with Pakistan and the violence directed against Muslim-majority Indian-administered Kashmir by the Hindu-majority Indian government has escalated tensions between the neighboring nations. Finally, the treatment of immigrants at the US-Mexico border continues to attract public outcry, particularly in the wake of the physical and infrastructural pressures of the COVID 19 pandemic.

Even before 2016 the US-Mexico border was a controversial symbol of American imperialism and cross-cultural creativity in response to nationalist exclusivity. Perhaps the most famous literary response to this complexity is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). More recently, Cristina García has explained

The border that separates Mexico from the United States is more than a geographic divide. It is a charged wire that attracts and repels, an invitation, a threat, a political imposition, a lively ongoing dialogue, a series of perforations. At the border, languages and cultures collide, mingle, explode, redefine themselves. New lexicons are continually born there, identities negotiated, alternate realities built. There is no shortage of misery either, or exploitation, or trip wires of misunderstanding. Yet the border remains, as always, a fertile place for dreaming.

  There isn’t just one border but many borders on both sides of the Rio Grande. To be Mexican, Mexican-American, or Chicano/a is to be part of grandly diverse and complex communities with multiple allegiances and multiply hyphenated identities.16

A “fertile place for dreaming” encapsulates the power and fragility that borders represent: power can sometimes only be countered by dreaming, yet few things are more fragile than a dream. Dreams are counterfactual, but they may envision a future that ultimately materializes. In this sense, literature rather than politics may furnish global citizens with the most productive ways of countering and encountering borders. For instance, since going viral, Myriam Gurba’s trenchant critique of the novel American Dirt (2019)—a lopsided fictionalization of the immigrant experience of crossing the US-Mexico border—has inspired changes in the publishing industry, including greater awareness of the prevalence and dangers of white saviors and of those who irresponsibly ventriloquize and appropriate the experience of others.17 This issue of SRE is mindful of the pain caused by borders even as it celebrates the generative possibilities of using borders to produce richly hybrid communities, identities, and natural and artistic creations.

Indeed, the articles in this special issue all emphasize the permeability of borders. While Thomas Bullington and Nicolle Jordan show the power of literal cross-pollinations and transplants across the borders of the plantations of South Carolina and the gardens of Rio de Janeiro, Chandrava Chakravarty charts Dean Mahomet’s syncretic evolution as a writer who traversed national and cultural borders, and Kathryn Duncan challenges disciplinary and cultural borders by reading Fanny Price, Jane Austen’s most maligned heroine, in terms of a Buddhist understanding of suffering and happiness. Taken together, these four articles indicate the power of borders both to subtend the “slow violence” of colonialism and to furnish spaces of creativity, collaboration, hybridity, and postcolonial and anti-imperial response.18

Bullington argues that “stories … leave a physical mark” on the landscapes we inhabit.  Pushing against the border between literature and garden history, he argues that imperialistic narratives of the “botanical hero” link literature and landscape. His article focuses on the literary lenses—such as cultural fantasies, narratives, tales, myths, tropes, and Beth Fowkes Tobin’s concept of the “imperial georgic”—that can account for a “consumerism that assumes the form of a narrative of ‘the East.’” Tales of “Chinese abundance” inscribed a fantasy of Eastern wealth onto the South Carolina landscape for both the planter Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-93) and Louis XVI’s royal gardener, André Michaux (1746-1802).  Intriguingly, Bullington extends Pinckney’s self-fashioning as an entrepreneurial cultivator of indigo into the present day, analyzing how a contemporary author may still portray Pinckney in terms of a “Confederate nostalgia” that upholds heroic white womanhood while marginalizing the experience of slaves and appropriating indigenous knowledge.

If Pinckney’s life demonstrates the use of personae and “storytelling rhythms” to construct the female botanical hero, Michaux’s bioprospecting and circulation of botanical specimens left a mark on the North American landscape in many ways, not least in the presence of invasive species. The landscape of the Southeastern US is a hybrid patchwork.

While Bullington focuses on transplants from Asia to North America, Nicolle Jordan attends to the imperial botanical exchange between South America and the East Indies to chart the geopolitics informing the exchange of specie (metal coins) and botanical specimens and resources (including tea, sugar, and opium). King João VI of Portugal practiced an “imperial botany” that instantiated the network of botanical, diplomatic, and commercial ties that turned botanical resources into the “hinges” of empire. Botanical gardens were sites of imperial power. Ingeniously, Jordan uses the experiences of travel writer and naval wife Maria Graham as a thought experiment: How might the fates of the Portuguese and British empires have evolved differently had tea plantations flourished in colonial Brazil as they did in Britain’s South Asian colonies? Further, building on Lucile Brockway’s work on botany and imperial expansion and on David Mackay’s work on “commercial espionage,” Jordan shows how “transnational plant exchange” served as an agent and index of geopolitical power. European wealth and imperial power increased as botanical specimens of crops such as tea, sugar, and spices were transferred between Latin American colonies and colonies in Asia.  Further, the participation of elite women like Graham in a domestic tea service characterized by resources extracted from Asia and elsewhere—resources such as tea, sugar, silver, and porcelain china—rendered Graham (and elite women like her) an “agent of empire.”

Chandrava Chakravarty continues the botanical theme with her attention to Dean Mahomet’s oscillation between rootlessness and putting down roots. Similarly to Pinckney, borders provided Dean Mahomet, an Indian Muslim with ties to the East India Company (EIC) with the motivation and opportunity to self-fashion himself as a hybrid observer. Drawing on Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the “contact zone” and the suspect portrayal of lands in imperial travel writing, particularly when informed by an Orientalist or Eurocentric historiography, Chakravarty argues that border crossing enabled Dean Mahomet to construct a syncretic identity at the “colonial interface.” Indeed, Chakravarty argues, “multiple border crossings … liberated Mahomet from the constraints of colonial subalternity” while his “status as a colonized subject … narrates a different reality of diasporic life.” Using the concepts of planetary consciousness and imagined geography, Chakravarty coincides with Edward Said in seeing distance being mapped onto difference in the colonial imaginary. The fixedness of orientalist conventions functions like Mignolo’s fronter: meaning is conferred on the other—the other is not recognized as equal, dynamic, or capable of evaluating difference from a position of unique perspective and authority.

For Chakravarty, Dean Mahomet is an example of what Michael Fisher has called the “counterflows” of colonialism. Despite his “deep attachment” to the EIC, Dean Mahomet ultimately crafted a “counter-hegemonic” perspective on the Occident. He drew upon a number of literary techniques to attract his Western audience while also resisting the “politics of colonial representation.” Dean Mahomet supported certain aggressions against his own people; yet in his writing he also described Muslim and Hindu customs in order to counter Western stereotypes of non-Christian religions. Ultimately, his many border crossings converted Dean Mahomet into a “fluid, slippery ‘self’” who nevertheless opened up “spaces for reciprocal relation.”

Kathryn Duncan uses a Buddhist lens to read Fanny Price’s responsiveness to suffering in Mansfield Park in order to explore the reciprocal relations between the disciplines of literature and religion and between the literariness of characters and how characters might function as practical models of mindfulness. Duncan also complicates the conventional border between the British Enlightenment and non-European forms of enlightenment. Though Fanny has often been seen as the least dynamic and therefore least compelling of Austen’s heroines, Duncan argues that Fanny’s suffering is far from being merely passively endured. Indeed, within a Buddhist interpretive framework, Fanny is the only character in the novel to practice boddhicita (“mind of love” or compassion) in helping others to navigate the suffering and desire of human existence. Fanny is not characterized by the “Western” mindset that privileges “action and individualism.” Rather, her behavior is in line with the mindfulness promoted by thinkers such as Shantideva, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Pema Chodron in that Fanny is en route to escaping the trap of her own perspective—she has committed to “helping others” and this selfless compassion is the characteristic of the truly enlightened.

From this perspective, Fanny is not a passive, priggish anti-feminist heroine, but rather someone who strives to bring true happiness to others. Duncan observes that the Buddha privileged experience—assessing the rightness of conduct in relation to each unique context—long before John Locke did. As Duncan argues, rightness is contextual, not doctrinal, and an enlightened person uses the freshness of their personal experience rather than received stories to determine rightness. In this way, Austen’s insights into the relationship between suffering and self-fulfilling, but distorted, narratives dovetail with those of Buddhism. Suffering can lead to healing, understanding, and kindness.

Tellingly, Fanny embodies the flexibility of the border crosser by embodying the paramitas—the virtues that enable the seeker of enlightenment to undertake a “going to the other shore.” Like Dean Mahomet, Fanny’s “outsider” status gives her a unique perspective that can help others.  Happiness and pleasure are separated when the self is not seen rightly because—to return to Mignolo’s point—the distance between self and other is perceived more as a frontier for self-assertion rather than a border of mutual regard and cooperation. As Duncan concludes, “Fanny’s freedom comes from her liminal status,” the “hallmark of the bodhisattva.” By standing apart, Fanny is paradoxically better situated to help others. A border between the self and chaos can be a generative place of recovery.

If, as Candide opined, tending our gardens is the philosophical course of action in a chaotic world, then the proliferation of backyard gardens during the COVID pandemic attests to the intimate relationship between airborne disease, the human body, and the importance of protected, bounded space for the cultivation of nature, the self, family, and community. If there is one good thing that has arisen in the wake of the pandemic—and we must, as a human community, search for something hopeful in this long dark night of 2020—it is the renewed acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of humans and the environment, the value of humble but crucial natural resources such as fresh vegetables, and the essential contribution of emergency, health, sanitation, and agricultural professionals. The human body is not separate from its surrounding environment—there is no impermeable border between the human and the non-human.

Penelope Lively speaks to the relationship between the human body, memory, and the changing physical environment when she describes the Egyptian garden in which she spent much of her childhood. Lively remembers the garden as “a kind of intimate paradise, intensely personal, with private hiding places.” Though that garden has now been destroyed by “Cairo’s urban sprawl,” Lively believes that a memory “must lurk … the ghost of my own alter ego. ”19 The borders of a garden may exclude, but they may also protect a secret realm of childlike delight that can be shared and enjoyed with others who are not so much different from us than we are from our own alter egos. Ultimately, the symbol and practice of the garden resembles the kind of border thinking Mignolo describes and I can think of no better way to conclude such a meditation than to quote the late environmental poet W. S. Merwin’s description of his family’s garden in Hawaii:

It was here on a tropical island, on ground impoverished by human use and ravaged by a destructive history, that I found a garden that raised questions of a different kind—including what a garden really was, after all, and what I thought I was doing in it.

  Obviously a garden is not the wilderness but an assembly of shapes, most of them living, that owes some share of its composition, its appearance, to human design and effort, human conventions and convenience, and the human pursuit of that elusive, indefinable harmony that we call beauty. It has a life of its own, an intricate, willful, secret life, as any gardener knows. It is only the humans in it who think of it as a garden. But a garden is a relation, which is one of the countless reasons why it is never finished.

  I have admired, and have loved gardens of many kinds, but what I aspire to, and want to have around our lives now, is a sense of the forest. It must be an illusion of the forest, clearly, for this is a garden and so a kind of fiction.20

Any border is a kind of fiction. But what the articles in issue 2.1 explore is not the idea of the border as a frontier of violence and oppression, but rather the border as a potential place for reflection, creation, relationality, and communion—like Merwin’s garden.


[1] Joanne P. Sharp, Geographies of Postcolonialism: Spaces of Power and Representation (Sage Publications, 2009), 3.

[2] Sharp, 3.

[3] E-International Relations, “Interview – Walter D. Mignolo,” June 1, 2017,

[4]  Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2010).

[5] Romesh Gunesekera, The Prisoner of Paradise (Bloomsbury, 2012), 371.

[6] Gunesekera, Prisoner of Paradise, 373-4.

[7] Steven Mentz, “Toward a Blue Cultural Studies: The Sea, Maritime Culture, and Early Modern English Literature, Literature Compass 6/5 (2009), 997-1013, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2009.00655.x; 998.

[8] Nathaniel Mackey, “An Interview with Kamau Brathwaite,” in The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, edited by Stewart Brown (Mid Glamorgan, 1995), 13-32.

[9] Romesh Gunesekera, “Introduction,” Reef, 20th Anniversary edition with a new introduction by the author (Granta Publication, 2014), n.p.

[10] See particularly Robert Tally’s Palgrave Macmillan series Geocritism and Spatial Literary Studies; Mentz, “Toward a Blue Cultural Studies”; Hester Blum, “The Prospect of Oceanic Studies,” PMLA 125, no. 3 (May 2010), 770-779; Prasannan Parthasarathi and Giorgio Riello, “The Indian Ocean in the Long Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 48, no. 1 (Fall 2014), 1-19; the volume Turns of Event: Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies in Motion, ed. Hester Blum (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 151-172; Stefanie Hessler, ed., Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science (MIT Press, 2018); and Elizabeth DeLoughery and Tatania Flores, “Submerged Bodies: The Tidalectics of Representability and the Sea in Caribbean Art,” Environmental Humanities 12, no. 1 (May 2020), 132-166.

[11] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, with a new Forward by Zbigniew Brzezinski (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011), 254-8. Huntington in fact insisted on his continuing use of the phrase “Islam has blood borders,” which he originally used in his (in)famous Foreign Affairs article of 1993 (see note on 258).

[12] Huntington, 254.

[13] Huntington, 253.

[14] Ian Almond, Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians across Europe’s Battlegrounds (Harvard University Press, 2009). Almond’s contribution is a crucial intervention in Western representations of the Ottoman Empire. That the eighteenth century is elided in his thoughtful historical account—Chapter 4 ends with the Siege of Vienna (1683) while Chapter 5 resumes the account with the Crimean War (1853-6)—underscores the importance of the post-2010 wave of scholarship on the complex relationship between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire during the Enlightenment. For an overview of this scholarship, see Samara Anne Cahill, “Anglo-Muslim Relations in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture,” Literature Compass (2020), doi: 10.1111/lic3.12601 (forthcoming).

[15] Despite my criticism of the divisiveness of this and other representations of San Juan Capistrano throughout the world, I join with those who deplore the thefts of several works of sacred art from Mission San Juan Capistrano. See Sue Calberg, “Vandals and thieves strike at Mission San Juan Capistrano,”, February 18, 2017,

[16] Cristina García, “Introduction,” Bordering Fires: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Mexican and Chicano/a Literature, edited by García (Vintage Books, 2006), xv-xxvii ; xv.

[17] Myriam Gurba, “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,” Tropics of Meta, December 12, 2019,

[18] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard UP, 2011).

[19] Penelope Lively, Life in the Garden (Fig Tree, 2017), 2-3.

[20] W. S. Merwin, “A Shape of Water,” The Writer in the Garden, edited by Jane Garmey (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1999), 14.

“The China of Santa Cruz”: The Culture of Tea in Maria Graham’s Journal of a Voyage to Brazil

Article by Nicolle Jordan
“The China of Santa Cruz”: The Culture of Tea in Maria Graham’s Journal of a Voyage to Brazil
DOI: 10.32655/srej.2020.2.1.4
Cite: Jordan, Nicolle. 2020. “”The China of Santa Cruz”: The Culture of Tea in Maria Graham’s Journal of a Voyage to Brazil,” Studies in Religion and the Enlightenment 2 (1): 42- 52.

The notion of Brazilian tea may sound like something of an anomaly—or impossibility—given the predominance of Brazilian coffee in our cultural imagination. We may be surprised, then, to learn that King João VI of Portugal and Brazil (1767–1826) pursued a project for the importation, acclimatization, and planting of tea from China in his royal botanic garden in Rio de Janeiro. A curious episode in the annals of colonial botany, the cultivation of a tea plantation in Rio has a short but significant history, especially when read through the lens of Maria Graham’s Journal of a Voyage to Brazil (1824). Graham’s descriptions of the tea garden in this text are brief, but they amplify her thorough-going enthusiasm for the biodiversity and botanical innovation she encountered—and contributed to—in South America. Such enthusiasm for the imperial tea garden echoes Graham’s support for Brazilian independence, and indeed, bolsters it. In 1821 Graham came to Brazil aboard HMS Doris, captained by her husband Thomas, who was charged with protecting Britain’s considerable mercantile interests in the region. As a British naval captain’s wife, she was obliged to uphold Britain’s official policy of strict neutrality. Despite these circumstances, her Journal conveys a pro-independence stance that is legible in her frequent rhapsodies over Brazil’s stunning flora and fauna. By situating Rio’s tea plantation within the global context of imperial botany, we may appreciate Graham’s testimony to a practice of transnational plant exchange that effectively makes her an agent of empire even in a locale where Britain had no territorial aspirations.

Having left Bahia in northern Brazil, the Doris arrived in Rio’s spectacular Guanabara Bay on December 15, 1821. Graham’s Journal entry for this day foregrounds the harbor’s exceptional beauty: “Rio de Janeiro, Saturday, December 15th, 1821.—Nothing that I have ever seen is comparable in beauty to this bay. Naples, the Firth of Forth, Bombay harbour, and Trincomalee, each of which I thought perfect in their beauty, all must yield to this, which surpasses each in its different way.”1

Graham’s allusions to ports previously visited in Italy, Scotland (her homeland), India, and Ceylon serve to emphasize her wonder before this new scene. Indeed, by the time the Journal saw publication—the same year as her other South American text, Journal of a Residence in Chile (1824)—readers would recognize her as the author of several other travelogues, including Journal of a Residence in India (1812), Letters on India, with Etchings and a Map (1814), and Three Months Passed in the Mountains East of Rome (1820). Her use of hyperbole to describe Rio’s superior bay typifies travel literature and echoes her own previous hyperbolic statements (of a town near the capital of Pernambuco, in northern Brazil, she writes on August 24, “Nothing can be prettier of its kind than the fresh green landscape” [37].) The Brazil Journal abounds with similar meditations on its natural beauty, both in close-up (botanical) and distanced (landscape) imagery.

Graham first mentions the tea plantation in the account of her first visit to the Rio botanical garden, six days after her arrival in the capital. Her botanical expertise stands out in the description, as does her understanding of global plants transfers:

We were to breakfast at the [botanic] gardens, but as the weather is now hot, we resolved first to walk round them. They are laid out in convenient squares, the alleys being planted on either side with a very quick-growing nut tree, brought from Bencoolen originally, now naturalised here. [. . .] This garden was destined by the King for the cultivation of the oriental spices and fruits, and above all, of the tea plant, which he obtained, together with several families accustomed to its culture, from China. Nothing can be more thriving than the whole of the plants. The cinnamon, camphor, nutmeg, and clove, grow as well as in their native soil. The bread-fruit produces its fruit in perfection, and such of the oriental fruits as have been brought here ripen as well as in India. I particularly remarked the jumbo malacca, from India, and the longona (Euphoria longona), a dark kind of lechee from China. (96)

By noting the provenance of the Bencoolen nut, naming other plants and trees, and including the Linnaean binomial nomenclature for the longona, Graham establishes that she is more than a lay visitor. Her commentary normalizes—indeed, naturalizes—global plant exchange; the transfer of the Bencoolen nut from Sumatra to Brazil, like the transfer of more famous East Indian spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, occurs without further comment.2 Her matter-of-fact observation of these transfers suggests that she understands and appreciates the global circulation of plants. A prior encounter in Bahia’s botanical garden has already established her credentials as a sharp observer of colonial botany in Brazil: “Every hedge is at this season gay with coffee blossom, but it is too early in the year for the pepper or the cotton to be in beauty. It is not many years since Francisco da Cunha and Menezes sent the pepper plant from Goa for these gardens, which were afterwards enlarged by him, when he became governor of Bahia. Plants were sent from hence to Pernambuco, which have succeeded in the botanical garden” (78).

The reference to pepper plants transferred from Goa echoes a similar passage in Robert Southey’s three-part History of Brazil (1819), upon which Graham relied when writing the lengthy “Sketch of the History of Brazil,” which opens her Brazil volume.3 Passages such as these reaffirm her grasp of the global circulation of plants; more importantly, they also participate in the dissemination of botanical knowledge. She further bolsters her effort to inform readers of Brazil’s agriculture and economy by appending multiple tables about the northeastern state of Maranhão, which she introduces thus: “It will appear from the following Tables of the Imports and Exports of the Province of Maranham, from 1812 to 1821, of how much importance the acquisition of that Province is to the Empire of Brazil.”4 The inclusion of both qualitative and quantitative data about Brazil demonstrates that Graham intends for her work to contribute to a growing body of knowledge about a region whose importance to Britain goes unquestioned.

The Luso-British alliance has roots going back (for present purposes) to the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza in 1662.5 A diplomatic alliance, this union earned Britain access to trade in both Brazil and the East Indies, in return for British naval support should Portugal need protection from Spain or France (as it did during the War of Spanish Succession [1701–14] and then the Iberian Peninsular War of 1807–1814). In 1807–08, Britain decisively secured its access to South American trade by providing naval protection for Dom João’s court as it fled Napoleon’s advancing forces. The reversal of power between metropole (i.e., Portugal) and colony had long-lasting consequences, making Brazilian independence more likely even after the monarch returned to Portugal in 1821, leaving his son Dom Pedro as his regent in Brazil.6 Graham provides witness to the subtle ways in which botanical knowledge accompanies commercial and diplomatic access, lending credence to Lucile Brockway’s portrayal of botanic gardens as a key source of European imperial power:

In the case of both cinchona and rubber, a plant indigenous to Latin America was surreptitiously transferred—in plain English, smuggled—to Asia for development by Europeans in their colonial possessions. The newly independent Latin American states, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, each lost a native industry as a result of these [plant] transfers, but Asia acquired them only in a geographic sense; the real benefits went to Europe. In this plant smuggling we see relations of power and powerlessness that contradict and subvert nominal political authority and independence. In its broadest aspects, our unit of analysis is not any one society or empire, but the network of relations emanating from the West that penetrated all societies, binding weak to strong, colonized to colonizers, and colonizers to each other.7

By using botanical gardens as her “unit of analysis,” Brockway suggests that the circulation and strategic implementation of botanical knowledge decisively impacted global power relations.

The Brazilian effort to grow tea may seem peripheral to a process whereby botanical exchange effects the ascendance of a global power, as Brockway argues the rubber and cinchona plants did for Britain. But looked at another way, the effort indicates how participation in colonial botany signals Dom João’s shrewd recognition that Portugal’s empire had unique botanical resources around the globe that behooved him to develop them for the empire’s benefit. Anyda Marchant affirms this claim in her description of European efforts to acquire the tea plant, having noted that a “living tea plant reached Europe only in 1763” because of the transportation difficulties and because

the Emperor of China jealously excluded Europeans from his domains and sought by every means to prevent them from learning anything of the cultivation and preparation of tea. The Portuguese had perhaps the best chance to obtain tea plants and to learn about their culture, since Macao, off the coast of south China, on the west side of the entrance to the Canton river, was the oldest European outpost in the trade with the Chinese. However, so strictly did the Chinese control trade at Macao and Canton, that no attempt to smuggle out tea plants was successful.8

Marchant goes on to describe the decisive influence of a minister close to Dom João, Dom Rodrigo de Sousa Countinho, later Count de Linhares. A well-traveled and educated man who followed advances in the sciences, he spearheaded the efforts to bring useful plants to Brazil. He advised Dom João in the establishment of a garden that was to be “the focal point for the acclimatization and dissemination of plants useful in the Portuguese domains” (266). As we saw previously in Graham’s description of the Rio gardens, Brazil succeeded in transplanting cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, camphor, and breadfruit. Indeed, two of Brazil’s largest crops—coffee and sugar—are the result of plant transfers. It is fair to say, then, that with the foresight of the monarch and his advisors, the Portuguese empire managed to leverage its geographical and botanical advantages with lasting results, although as we will see, tea did not contribute to these successes.

With Dom Rodrigo’s guidance, Dom João established a reward system whereby anyone bringing plants beneficial to the Portuguese domains would receive “favors,” such as exemption from customs duties for crops resulting from such cultivation.9 Eventually, in 1812, Dom Rodrigo succeeded in having one of his botanical suppliers send him seeds for the tea plant; and, according to Marchant, “when these seeds germinated, the planting of tea on a large scale was undertaken” (271). And again, the location of Macau gave Dom João an advantage in tea cultivation—this time by enabling him to bring a colony of two hundred Chinese to Rio, who were to provide instruction for tea cultivation. By 1817, this colony was able to set out six thousand tea plants. But soon thereafter the authorities abandoned the tea plantation. John Luccock, a British merchant traveling in Brazil, attributed the failure to the high cost of labor and noted that “the Chinese, though diligent, are too precise and slow in their modes of culture.”10 Graham’s enthusiastic description of the thriving tea plantation suggests that she encountered it in the early stages, when authorities still expected it to supply the Rio market, as it initially did. Multiple sources affirm that the tea plantation eventually failed; more mysterious is the fate of the Chinese laborers brought over to tend it.11

When considered alongside parallel narratives of European efforts to grow tea, the Brazilian tea episode exposes the historical (and climatic) contingency of such a lucrative crop. As David Mackay, Lisbet Koerner, and others have demonstrated, other Europeans—among them Linnaeus himself—made concerted efforts to acquire tea plants and seeds; he began his search in 1745 and had fleeting success, but by 1765 all the plants were dead.12 The famous Swedish botanist’s attempt adds another dimension to the global history of tea cultivation, for he designated tea as one of several key crops that would, if adapted for local cultivation, free Sweden from dependence on foreign markets. It could, moreover, slow the hemorrhaging of European wealth in the form of specie to China, India, and the East Indies; in this respect the Linnaean quest for tea issues from his cameralist political agenda. Though the effort was doomed due to Linnaeus’s ignorance of climatic factors affecting the growth of tea, it is significant that a Swedish nationalist cause had the unintended consequence of provoking other European nations’ imperialist efforts. Koerner notes the decisive impact of European attempts to acquire tea: “In the eighteenth century, tea would change the Eurasian sea trade [. . .] which hastened a long-term trend: for almost 2,000 years Europe had collected specie, ‘only to lose it to India, China, and the East Indies.’”13 This eighteenth-century “pre-history” of Dom João’s tea plantation situates Brazilian botanical experimentation within a broader effort to integrate botany into various European strategies for participating in global commerce. It is worth pointing out that the Brazilian attempt to grow tea recapitulates the Linnaean effort insofar as both parties resorted to what David Mackay calls “commercial espionage” in their attempts to acquire botanical specimens that were closely guarded by the Chinese government.14 Yet the apparent advantages provided by uncommon access to Chinese ports (in Macau) and a potentially suitable climate were not enough to enable the Brazilian experiment to overcome the challenges of growing a crop that demanded highly skilled cultivation.

The story in Britain is more familiar, given tea’s status as the English national beverage and Britain’s singular success in transplanting and acclimatizing tea to its Southeast Asian colonies. In this respect, the national appetite for tea, which began during the Restoration (when Catherine of Braganza brought tea to England) and continued apace through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, operated as an engine of empire with fortuitous results for Britain. Like Dom João, King George III also had an experienced and well-connected botanist who served as a key advisor in his imperial botanical endeavors. Sir Joseph Banks, Britain’s preeminent botanist and president of the Royal Society, had sailed on Captain Cook’s first voyage and presided over a vast network of botanical collectors throughout the British dominions. Accordingly, Banks served as advisor to the British East India Company in London when it was considering a proposal to establish a botanic garden in Calcutta. The terms of this proposal, written by Colonel Robert Kyd, make explicit the commercial and political—in this case, imperial—purposes the garden would serve, as he makes his case to the Governor-General of Bengal: “I doubt not, under your Lordship’s influence and direction, we shall in a few years be enabled not only to afford all the articles now required from India, China and Arabia but to effect plantations of them to the aggrandisement of the power and commerce of Great Britain, and to the increase of the wealth and happiness of the nations subjected to your Lordship’s government.”15

Kyd’s emphasis on the strategic commercial advantage to be gained over China proved prescient, for it was in fact tea that drove Britain to break the Chinese monopoly. As was the case for Linnaeus, so too did Banks see tea acclimatization in India as a way to staunch the flow of silver to China. As Adrian Thomas explains, “When tea consumption in Britain boomed in the 1780s and 1790s there was a good deal of concern about the consequent drain of silver to China. One possible solution to the problem was to introduce tea cultivation to Bengal, which was directly controlled by the East India Company. Banks suggested ways in which the tea shrubs could be obtained and conveyed to Bengal, ‘where they will find the Botanic Garden ready to receive them, 20 acres of which might at least be allotted to their immediate reception.’”16

Because full institutional support for tea cultivation in the Calcutta Botanic Garden was initially lacking, commercial tea growth did not thrive there until the late 1830s. As Brockway explains in her analysis of botanic gardens as sources of imperial power, opium was ultimately the weapon that enabled the British to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. Because the opium trade was dangerous (given that it was contraband in China), Britain faced a more urgent need to cease its dependence on Chinese tea (for which it traded opium grown in Bengal). According to Brockway,

The defeat of China in the Opium Wars (1839–42) gave the [British East India Company] the opportunity it sought in regard to tea. In 1848–51 it brought off a great plant transfer, whose success guaranteed that it would be repeated: under the auspices of the British East India Company a plant collector named Robert Fortune brought 2000 tea plants and 17,000 tea seeds [. . .] out of China. [. . .]. Tea, one of the hottest commodities in international trade and already the British national beverage, would no longer have to be bought from China, but could be grown on British soil.17

The foregoing may be a circuitous way to advance to my initial claim that Graham’s Journal makes for a compelling window into Brazilian tea cultivation. In light of the geopolitical circumstances surrounding the tea trade, and the decisive advantages Britain gained by acquiring a means to grow its own supply, we may begin to appreciate how colonial botany could in some ways serve as a hinge upon which the fate of an empire swings. How might the relative positions of Portugal and Britain in global politics have differed if Rio’s tea plantation had succeeded, or if Calcutta’s had failed? Speculation of this sort may ultimately be fruitless; yet, it helps to illuminate the role that botanical knowledge and access to specimens could play in the distribution of imperial power.

The rich scholarship on Britain’s culture of tea offers another intriguing perspective on the cross-cultural encounters in which Graham participated in Brazil. Tea serves as a measure of the culture’s sophistication in Graham’s eyes, as seen in a visit to a baronesa’s home in Rio in August 1823. By this time Graham had traveled to Chile and back, during which time she lost her husband to illness. After spending about eight months alone there, she returned for a seven-month stay in Rio before embarking for England. She describes the tea service in a way that reveals her assumption that one’s conduct in this ritual speaks volumes about one’s breeding, and about the very culture’s degree of civilization:

[Aug.] 3d. [1823]—I drank tea at the Baronesa de Campos’; and met a large family party, which always assembles on Sundays to pay their respects to the old lady. The tea was made by one of the young ladies, with the assistance of her sister, just as it would be in England. A large silver urn, silver tea-pots, milk-jugs, and sugar-dishes, with elegant china, were placed on a large table; round which several of the young people assembled, and sent round the tea to us, who sat at a distance. All sorts of bread, cakes, buttered toast, and rusks were handed with the tea; and after it was removed, sweetmeats of every description were presented, after which every body took a glass of water. (193)

Noting with approval that the occasion proceeds “just as it would [. . .] in England,” Graham rejoices that polite Brazilian society meets her manifestly English standard. Itemizing the accoutrements of the tea service, she implies that her hostesses display the conduct, and the taste, to qualify them for membership among the elite. The scene uncannily stages the convergence of imperial botany, material culture, and female British subjectivity. Tea and sugar, two of Britain’s most important cash crops, and the latter no less important to Brazil, perform a kind of alchemy when displayed on the table alongside other precious commodities such as silver—a prized raw material extracted from South American mines—and china, whose very name is a synecdoche for the exotic Far East, now domesticated for polite consumption. And considering Graham’s prior encounter with the tea garden, in addition to several visits to ingenhos (sugar plantations) both in Bahia and near Rio, the passage conjures the produce of the horticultural, chemical, and commercial processes that are embodied in the porcelain and metal receptacles before her. Moreover, her reception in a private home—the baronesa’s—affirms the feminine quality of the tea service. For, as Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins, and Piya Chatterjee have variously argued, the tea table represents the essence of cultured femininity. Jenkins asserts, “The tea table was the site of semiotic transactions and aesthetic transformations, where woman and chinaware fused in a display of modern taste.”18 Similarly, Chatterjee claims, “Women’s tea tables and parlors suggested not only a feminized fetishism of the commodity, it was a feminization intimately connected to ideologies of leisure. The parlor and the tea table are positioned in stillness and plenitude. The women are ever present in this tranquil picture because they are not compelled to leave their interiors.”19 By communing over tea and sharing a convivial and leisurely meal, Graham and her hostesses enact a ritual of privilege that affirms their common gentility, determined in part by their access to the spoils of empire. And while Jenkins and Kowaleski-Wallace analyze tea as a signifier of female aristocratic taste, David Porter traces a class-specific pattern in literary representations linking women and tea.

Referring to the “commercially active, outspoken, vigorous, defiant, and lusty women who inhabit” early eighteenth-century depictions of tea and chinaware, Porter notes a subsequent shift toward a more restrained female sensibility: “While the breathless escapades of earlier heroines leave them little time for leisure, Jane Austen’s women are forever drinking tea. [. . .] Indeed, by the Regency period the afternoon consumption of tea seems to have become so natural and indispensable a part of the daily household routine in England that we tend to overlook the historicity of the ritual and its role in the consolidation of the modern ideology of maternal domesticity.”20

While in many ways Graham defies the ideology of domesticity by insisting on traveling alone in South America and protesting her exclusion from the proceedings of the government assembly, in other ways—in her careful and consistent attention to female manners and conduct—she enacts the ethos of domesticity even outside the confines of the household.21 She expects women to uphold the virtue of the nation and sees herself as doing so for Britain. In fact, Graham has earned a reputation as a snob among some scholars because of her tendency to contemn those people—whether Portuguese, Brazilian, or British—who did not meet her standards of refinement. Her supercilious tendencies prompt one critic, M. Soledad Caballero, to interpret Graham’s presumed superiority as effecting an ephemeral kind of imperialism that enlists the foreigners she meets to share her view of Britons as arbiters of culture: “Her texts structure British economic contact as an infusion of British civilization and progress whose primary agents are gentility and manners rather than as the conquest of land and the extraction of raw resources.”22 The assessment of Graham’s hostesses according to the quality of their tea service exemplifies this presumption of British cultural superiority; tea serves as the material object—and botanical product—around which she organizes her judgment and further instantiates tea as the consummate marker of Britishness.

Near the end of her sojourn in Brazil, Graham undertakes a journey to a royal estate at Santa Cruz, a region at some distance from Rio where cattle graze and several ingenhos process sugar cane. Here she encounters another tea plantation, which prompts her to repeat the information she has previously given regarding Dom João’s project of importing Chinese tea plants and cultivators:

 Sunday [Aug.] 24th [1823]—I walked up to the tea-gardens, which occupy many acres of a rocky hill, such as I suppose may be the favourite habitat of the plant in China. The introduction of the culture of tea into Brazil was a favourite project of the King Joam VI., who brought the plants and cultivators at great expense from China. The tea produced both here and at the botanic gardens is said to be of superior quality; but the quantity is so small, as never yet to have afforded the slightest promise of paying the expense of culture. Yet the plants are so thriving, that I have no doubt they will soon spread of themselves, and probably become as natives. His Majesty built Chinese gates and summer-houses to correspond with the destination of these gardens; and, placed where they are, among the beautiful tea-shrubs, whose dark shining leaves and myrtle-like flowers fit them for a parterre, they have no unpleasing effect. The walks are bordered on either hand with orange trees and roses, and the garden hedge is of a beautiful kind of mimosa; so that the China of Santa Cruz forms really a delightful walk. The Emperor, however, who perceives that it is more advantageous to sell coffee and buy tea, than to grow it at such expense, has discontinued the cultivation. (212)

The passage displays Graham’s signature combination of economic and aesthetic sensibilities; she gives readers the historical background for the tea and laments its failure to turn a profit but then meditates on the overall aesthetic effect of the garden in a way that dismisses the notion of crop failure, since the beautiful landscape continues to dazzle. By noting that the tea both here and at the botanic garden is “of superior quality,” she maintains an optimistic outlook, such that the news of its discontinued cultivation barely registers since her description renders the tea more as an aesthetic object than a botanical commodity. By composing a visual scene featuring “Chinese gates and summer-houses” alongside the tea plants, and adding detail about the orange trees, roses, and garden hedges, she invests the garden with an aesthetic value that surpasses the use and exchange value that motivated Dom João to undertake the tea plantation in the first place.

We find further testimony of the Rio tea garden’s lasting impression on Graham in a document she dictated some ten years after her final journey there in 1824–26. Near the end of her seven-month stay in Rio, their Imperial Highnesses invited her to serve as governess to their daughter, Princess Maria da Glória (the future queen of Portugal). After traveling to England to gather teaching materials, Graham returned in the fall of 1824 to assume her duties; however, the emperor soon dismissed her under mysterious circumstances. The most we may infer from her account of this episode is that palace hangers-on objected to her close friendship with Empress Leopoldina, and they succeeded in turning Dom Pedro against her. Upon Dom Pedro’s death in 1834, Graham (now Lady Callcott, having remarried) decided to dictate her memoirs of the imperial couple, whom she had come to know well while in their employ. The resulting document is a typescript held at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, cataloged as “Lady Callcott’s account of her life in Brazil during 1824–1826—dictated to the Hon. Caroline Fox in 1834–35.” An attempt to capture her detailed knowledge of Brazil’s first independent ruler, this document contains rich material about palace life and Graham’s personal impressions of the early stages of Brazilian independence. The tea garden appears in the course of Graham’s description of the imperial couple’s day-to-day routine. She informs readers that, in the mornings, “their favorite ride was to the Botanic Gardens, where the Padre always had a cold fowl or stewed rice, or at least, coffee and cheese for his Imperial Guests.” She continues:

The Emperor’s object in going so often to that establishment was the hope, now happily about to be realized, of the cultivation of the tea plant, introduced in his father’s reign during the minority of Count Sousa, would extend so as to become of consequence to Brazil and he never failed to inspect the Plantation, and the lodgings of the Chinese, who had been settled there for its cultivation. Besides the Tea, the Emperor was anxious about the Bread Fruit which appears to suit with the climate, admirably. Every year, a certain number of plants is reared and distributed, gratis, to whoever will apply either the Bread Fruit, or any of the Spice Plants or other Fruits, imported from China or the West Indies for the improvement of the Brazilian gardens. I scarcely knew a piece of flattery more acceptable to the Emperor than the application for plants from the Botanical Gardens.23

It is remarkable that nearly ten years after her last days in Brazil, Graham continues to remember Dom Pedro’s investment in his tea plantation. Indeed, from greater distance than the journal she kept while living in Brazil, this oral history elides the discontinuation of the tea cultivation. In this retrospective account, the tea instead joins the breadfruit and other “Spice Plants or other Fruits” as evidence of the emperor’s (and his father’s) botanical projects. Given the brusque manner in which Dom Pedro dismissed her from the imperial palace (and refused her the courtesy of a palace carriage, no less), she displays considerable magnanimity, for she faced financial and logistical hardships while shifting for herself in Rio after her expulsion.

Graham finds solace after this humiliation by immersing herself in Brazil’s cultural and botanical splendor. After settling into her cottage in Rio, she occupies herself with gathering specimens for drawing and drying:

I had always been fond of flowers and the splendour of the untouched forest behind my cottage, naturally attracted me. I borrowed Aublet of the Minister of Marine and was disappointed to find that his figures were, in many instances, imperfect and that in some cases he had been obliged to give leaves, fruits, and even dry calixes of many of the forest trees having missed the flowering season in their native places. I determined to make drawings of as many of these as I could, attempting at the same time to dry specimens for Dr. Hooker of Glasgow, although I had little convenience, my cottage being very damp. In pursuit of this scheme, it was my custom to leave Black Anna to play her part as laundress and the Mulatto to buy and cook my dinner while I went off to the woods to procure specimens of flowering shrubs and trees for my botanical undertaking.

Referring here to French explorer and botanist Jean Baptiste Christophore Fusée Aublet, Graham reveals her eye for precision in her botanical studies. Finding the Frenchman’s drawings inaccurate, she sets out to correct his errors and plans to share her knowledge with William Hooker, a professor of botany at the University of Glasgow, who went on to serve as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. As her detailed letters to Hooker illustrate, she eagerly collected seeds and specimens. Indeed, as Betty Hagglund has argued, Graham demonstrates scientific expertise that was unusual for women of her time, such that Hooker listed her among plant collectors in his publications, as did other botanists who drew on her work. Hagglund also distinguishes Graham for her pursuit of folk knowledge from local sources—at the time an uncommon practice for botanical collectors.24

We find detailed evidence of Graham’s intrepid pursuit of botanical knowledge in one of multiple letters she wrote to Hooker while in Brazil. One letter reaches almost two thousand words in length and mentions at least fifteen species, from moss and ferns to Jungia, Heliconia, and Bromelius. The depth of detail testifies to Graham’s curiosity and persistence:

I am not quite strong enough to seek for plants as I would, & every body here has other business—but the Number & variety of palms would be interesting to you. I am also very ignorant—but I will not be negligent & I think I may be of use in exciting other people to be busy.—I am very very fond of plants and sensible neither muddy feet nor torn clothes for their sake—& I will watch[?] seeds—those one buys here are often old & sometimes fictitious—what I gather myself I can answer for.25

Her commitment to accuracy—determining to gather seeds for herself rather than purchasing any that might be misidentified—justifies Hooker’s reliance on her as a trustworthy source for botanical specimens and drawings. Her Portfolio Rio de Janeiro, held in the Herbarium at Kew, contains roughly one hundred drawings, many with notes and supporting illustrations of seed pods, close-ups of leaves and flowers, and so forth.

Graham’s botanical record of Brazil’s biodiversity stands out insofar as it captures her role in an ongoing effort to maximize the tremendous variety of plants that could adapt to cultivation there. But the fact of the tea plantation’s failure is all the more curious, suggesting how she participates in a dynamic process whereby the colony, and then the young nation, experiments with botanical transfers and determines which crops will best thrive there. Her encounters with tea both in the Royal Botanic Garden in Rio and at the Crown’s Santa Cruz estate feature her characteristic optimism about the fertility and botanical diversity of this place. Her failure to comment further on the Chinese laborers who were brought over to tend the tea is on one hand surprising, given the in-depth attention she pays elsewhere to the natives and African slaves whose condition she deplores. On the other hand, as seen previously in references to her servants, “Black Anna [. . .] and the Mulatto,” she condones their subservience and at times resorts to apologist claims about the slaves’ good treatment and contentment with their servitude.26 From our twenty-first-century vantage, Graham offers sobering insight into the entrenched inequality that sustained imperial powers—inequality that she was obliged to participate in while living there. From another vantage, though, Graham offers an inspiring example of women’s contributions to the acquisition and dissemination of botanical knowledge and a corrective to the assumption of women’s wholesale exclusion from exploration and scientific discovery.


[1] Maria Graham’s Journal of a Voyage to Brazil, ed. Jennifer Hayward and M. Soledad Caballero (Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2010), 91. Subsequent citations will appear in the text.

[2] Graham’s reference to Bencoolen, in Sumatra, suggests the nut’s origin there. However, a later botanist locates its origin in India; see Thomas Augustus Charles Firminger, A Manual of Gardening for Bengal and Upper India (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co., 1874), 272.

[3] Robert Southey, History of Brazil, Part 3 (London: Longman et al., 1819), 797.

[4] Journal of a Voyage to Brazil (London: Longman et al. and John Murray, 1824), 329­­–35. Hayward and Caballero do not include this appendix in their edition.

[5] In fact, this alliance goes back even farther, to the fourteenth century, but here the union of the Houses of Stuart and Braganza provides the most relevant context.

[6] Leslie Bethel, “The Independence of Brazil,” in The Cambridge History of Latin American, Volume III, ed. Leslie Bethel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 167–75.

[7] Lucile H. Brockway, “Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Garden,” American Ethnologist 6, no. 3 (1979): 449­–65 (52).

[8] Anyda Marchant, “Dom João’s Botanic Garden,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 41 (1961): 259–74 (270–1). Subsequent citations occur in the text.

[9] Marchant, “Dom João’s Botanic Garden,” 266–67.

[10] Qtd. in Marchant, “Dom João’s Botanic Garden,”  272.

[11] Marchant attributes the curtailed tea effort to Dom Rodrigo’s death in 1812: “With Dom Rodrigo went the planning and organizing power behind the tea scheme.” Marchant, “Dom João’s Botanic Garden,” 272. Neill Macaulay alludes cryptically to a rumor that Dom Pedro’s younger brother Miguel hunted the Chinese for sport: “The tea plantation failed and the Chinese disappeared; Dom Miguel is supposed to have hunted them down with horses and hounds.” Macauley, Dom Pedro: The Struggle for Liberty in Brazil and Portugal, 1798–1834 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986), 68. Jeff Lesser corroborates Macauley’s claims and also finds evidence that the Chinese were frustrated by their inability to bring women from home. See Lesser, Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil (Durham. NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 16–17.

[12] Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 136–68, 150–51.

[13] Lisbet Koerner, “Purposes of Linnaean Travel: A Preliminary Research Report,” in Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature, ed. David Philip Miller and Peter Hans Reill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 117–52 (132–33). She quotes Ferdinand Braudel in her final phrase.

[14] David Mackay, “Agents of Empire: The Banksian Collectors and Evaluation of New Lands,” in Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature, ed. David Philip Miller and Peter Hans Reill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 38–57 (47).

[15] Quoted in Adrian P. Thomas, “The Establishment of Calcutta Botanic Garden: Plant Transfer, Science and the East India Company, 1786–1806,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Third Series 16, no. 2 (2006): 165–77 (168).

[16] Thomas, “Establishment of Calcutta Botanic Garden,” 173.

[17] Brockway, “Science and Colonial Expansion,” 455.

[18] Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins, A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 136. See also Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping, and Business in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 19–36.

[19] Piya Chatterjee, A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 40.

[20] David Porter, The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 148.

[21] Regarding women’s exclusion from politics, she complains, “I take it very ill that ladies may not attend the sittings of the assembly, not that I know there is any formal prohibition; but the thing is considered as so impossible, that I cannot go.” Graham, Journal of a Voyage, 193.

[22] M. Soledad Caballero, “‘For the Honour of Our Country:’ Maria Dundas Graham and the Romance of Benign Domination,” Studies in Travel Writing 9, no. 2 (2005): 111–31 (112). Caballero refers to both Graham’s Brazilian Journal and her Journal of a Residence in Chile during the Year 1822.

[23] Bodleian MS. Eng. c. 2730, 36–7. Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts.

[24] Betty Hagglund, “The Botanical Writings of Maria Graham,” Journal of Literature and Science 4 (2011): 44–58.

[25] Maria Graham to William Hooker, 30 June 1825. MS. Directors’ Correspondence, vol. 43, folio 49, Royal Botanic Gardens, London.

[26] For a detailed account of British abolitionist efforts in regard to Brazil, and an evaluation of Graham’s abolitionist rhetoric in comparison to the absence thereof in her fellow Britons’ accounts of Brazil, see Jennifer Hayward and M. Soledad Caballero, “Introduction,” in Maria Graham’s Journal of a Voyage to Brazil (Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2010), xxviii–lii. While noting Graham’s relative progressiveness compared to these others, the editors also scrutinize her own implication in the attitudes undergirding slavery.

Dean Mahomet’s Travels: Multiple Borders, Cross-Cultural Spaces, and Syncretic Identity

Article by Chandrava Chakravarty 
Dean Mahomet’s Travels: Multiple Borders, Cross-Cultural Spaces, and Syncretic Identity
DOI: 10.32655/srej.2020.2.1.3
Cite: Chakravarty, Chandrava. 2020. “Dean Mahomet’s Travels: Multiple Borders, Cross-Cultural Spaces, and Syncretic Identity,” Studies in Religion and the Enlightenment 2 (1): 16-27.

My study of Dean Mahomet’s Travels, written in 1793–94, highlights the syncretic nature of experiences unleashed by European colonialism. Travels offers a fascinating account of the life, experience, and perspective of an Indian Muslim under the East India Company. Mahomet (also known as Sake Dean Mahomed) traveled extensively through Northern India and wrote about his experiences for a fictitious European friend. This essay studies the text as an example of resistance and self-fashioning through the assimilation and subsequent subversion of Orientalist ethnography. Mahomet’s work is a suitable rejoinder to the historically pertinent question framed by Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Who speaks of the Indian past?” We hear, perhaps for the first time, the voice of a “subaltern” writer, who manipulates the Eurocentric historiography of the colonial times to challenge the “center” and “margins” of the Western imperial discourse.1


Mahomet’s Travels offers a unique response to geographical space as he traversed various national, racial, linguistic, religious, and cultural borders and upheld a non-Western perception of the process of colonial interface. As a man who served the East India Company in various capacities, Mahomet recounted his experience with large portions of Northern India and also with Europeans as the East India Company conquered considerable parts of North India. After leaving the Indian shore with his master, Mahomet traveled through Europe between 1781 and 1854, emigrated to Ireland, and married a Protestant Anglo-Irish woman named Jane Daly. His Indian-Irish family again emigrated to London in 1807 in search of livelihood, where he experienced severe hardships as a new settler. Multiple border crossings, on the one hand, liberated Mahomet from the constraints of colonial subalternity; on the other hand, his status as a colonized subject in Ireland and England, struggling to gain a foothold, narrates a different reality of diasporic life.

Dean Mahomet’s Travels, therefore, serves multiple purposes: it is a work written about colonial encounters in India from the perspective of a non-Westerner; India in Mahomet’s letters is narrated by an “insider” who does not exoticize India but explains the country’s multicultural and religious life with authenticity. Again, the idea of authenticity or veracity, so fraught and problematic in the context of travel writing, acquires a new twist with Mahomet’s work. It is written by an expatriate Indian who had been trying to establish himself as a member of the British society. He is thus both an insider and an outsider with regard to both India and Britain. Even after acculturating himself in Western life, Mahomet never hesitated to “sell” his Indian identity for his various business enterprises in Ireland and Britain. Therefore, for Mahomet, the criteria of “difference” and “otherness” acquired a complex function in the context of India and Europe: as an expatriate writer, he is an “outsider” to his colonized countrymen, while for his Western readers, he is an “insider” to the country he describes. However, to his target readers, he is strangely positioned both as an “insider” to their world and an immigrant “outsider.” This dynamic works throughout his travels, resulting in a subject position that sways curiously between “we” and “they” and makes the travel account an apt paradigm of unsettled borders. Mahomet’s emigration to Europe was, perhaps, illegal and explains why he never returned to India. And yet as a visitor, his status in Europe was much elevated compared to other Indians. Indeed, although “thousands of Indians made the trip to Europe over these years, apparently no one else had exactly Dean Mahomet’s status. Most were sailors, servants, wives, or mistresses of Europeans. A few were travelers or visiting dignitaries. Dean Mahomet clearly fits into none of these categories.”2 In fact, during those early phases of British-India cultural interface, Mahomet impresses as a truly transcultural individual, neither assimilated fully into the European culture nor completely relegated to the subaltern status of the colonized. Michael Fisher further explicates Mahomet’s unique position in Cork society after he arrived in 1784: “Whatever relationships Dean Mahomet may have had with . . . other Indians, his situation remained quite different from any of theirs. . . .His literary achievement, Travels, received the endorsement of hundreds of Ireland’s leading citizens,  …. [and this proves] that they regarded him as a man of culture. Yet he remained someone quite apart from Irish society at the time.”3

For Dean Mahomet, diaspora was both an emergent space and an interpretative frame that enabled him to debunk the claims made for racially purified and homogeneous identities. Mahomet had willingly left India and his “home” for the center of power. Hence desire for homeland does not surface in the pages of Travels. The image of a journey dwells in the heart of diaspora, but it is also a journey about settling down and putting roots elsewhere. Mahomet’s travels through Ireland and England were essentially about his struggle over the social process of “belonging” to another country.4 India, his country of origin, was no longer the “home” to which he wished to return; yet he cherished a deep understanding of life there and deploys this special knowledge to strengthen his social and cultural roots in Ireland. Mahomet’s diasporic condition appropriately echoes Avtar Brah’s concept of diaspora as multi-locationality within and across cultural, territorial, and psychic boundaries.5 The identity of the writer in such a work, where boundaries of home, nation, and culture are fuzzy, cannot be characterized by the simplistic notion of diasporic “rootlessness.” In fact, Brah succinctly observes that the multi-placedness of home in the diasporic imagination does not necessarily mean that diasporic subjectivity is rootless. While he was writing his Travels, Mahomet psychologically belonged to Ireland more than he belonged to India. As we look at such an example of an eighteenth-century voluntary emigration, Dean Mahomet’s travel writing reveals new transnational spaces of experience that interact complexly with the experiential framework represented by the country of origin and the countries of settlement.6


Mary Louise Pratt has influentially formulated the complex relationship between the metropolis and the periphery in travel writing. According to Pratt, “While the imperial metropolis tends to understand itself as determining the periphery (in the emanating glow of the civilizing mission or the cash flow of development, for example), it habitually blinds itself to the ways in which the periphery determines the metropolis—beginning, perhaps, with the latter’s obsessive need to present and re-present its peripheries and its others continually to itself. Travel writing, among other institutions, is heavily organized in the service of that imperative.”7

The connection between the emergence of European imperialism and travel writing is undeniable and intimate as it became an important medium for the circulation of ideas around the world. It was a vital medium of cross-cultural contact and exchange—a form that profoundly influenced global perceptions about diverse places, cultures, manners, and people. Despite the fact that travel writing has a history of its own, Pratt pertinently argues that it is intrinsically linked to the process of colonization. As she talks about the emergence of Europe’s “planetary consciousness,” she describes it as “a basic element constructing modern Eurocentrism, that hegemonic reflex that troubles westerners even as it continues to be second nature to them.”8 Foucault also reminds us that the Enlightenment culture of reason sustained itself by exploring what lay beyond the periphery of its knowledge system—madness, sexuality, and the Orient. With the establishment of European imperialism across the globe, representation of “otherness” became a predominant characteristic of travel literature. Travel was no longer about the journey of an individual and his or her growth in the course of that journey but was saturated with colonial motives and ideology. Consequently, search for the “other” from a subjective, personalized perspective was inflected with colonial points of view. To use the words of Michael Frank, this is the realm of “imaginative geography,” by which he means “a strategy of identity construction which equates (spatial) distance with (cultural, ethnic, social) difference, associating the non-spatial characteristics of ‘self’ and ‘other’ with particular places.”9 According to Edward Said, this is what Orientalist historiography achieved through the circulation of racial and cultural stereotypes. Nevertheless, one positive offshoot of the emergence of “planetary consciousness” was a growing interest in other peoples and cultures, a trend that made the publication of Mahomet’s Travels, written consciously for the Western audience, possible. As Susan Bassnett writes, “The old boundaries have no validity in a changed social environment, and out of this sense of uncertainty comes an interest in books that provide accounts of other cultures, books that focus upon difference.”10 Yet, for Bassnett and others, travel writing is never an innocent account of what one sees; it is a construction of other cultures and people.

The “Oriental” as subject of Orientalist writing is predicated upon the contract between the civilized Western traveler and the barbaric denizens of the colonized land. I turn to Said’s exact framing of the concepts: “The Oriental is given as fixed, stable, in need of investigation. No dialectic is either desired or allowed. There is a source of information (the Oriental) and a source of knowledge (the Orientalist).”11 Europe’s responses to India or a homogenized Eastern world had been consecrated to the reproduction of the non-West as the stereotypical “other” to Europe. As John Keay writes in India Discovered, “Two hundred years ago India was the land of the fabulous and fantastic, the ‘Exotic East.’ Travellers returned with tales of marble palaces with gilded domes, of kings who weighed themselves in gold, and of dusky maidens dripping with pearls and rubies. . . . It was like some glorious and glittering circus—spectacular, exciting but a little unreal.”12

In my analysis of Mahomet’s work I shall attempt to show how such a neat binary is presented with ambivalence. Travel implies a departure and a return to the point of departure. The course of the journey, which involves both spatial and temporal lapses, considerably transforms the traveler’s point of view and his relationship to his own culture.13 Pratt’s idea of the “contact zone” becomes highly relevant here as, with the crossing of multiple geographical and cultural borders, Mahomet acquired a “contact” perspective that enabled him to constitute his subjects “in terms of co-presence, interaction, [and] interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power.”14 His changed identity in Europe, his relationship to the European imperial culture vis-à-vis his original status as a colonized servant of the East India Company, is worth mapping and analyzing. I turn to the history of the publication of Travels to highlight how the colonial enterprise produced intercultural spaces with no rigid hierarchy of power and how India remained for the colonizers not just a terra incognita for extraction or exploitation but also a pleasant memory to which the colonial masters felt a deep attachment. Indeed, according to Fisher, a “number of Protestant Irishmen who had served in India and held estates in southern Ireland” were his patrons; many of them named their estates “after places in India,” including William Popham (Patna).15

Saidian historiography, being prescriptive in nature, ignores the reality of what can be described as “counterflows” to colonialism.16 In the context of the British-India colonial interface, Fisher notes, “Indian men and women have been traveling to England and settling there since about 1600, roughly as long as Englishmen have been sailing to India. Most historians of England, India and colonialism, however, tend to neglect accounts of and by Indian travelers” (153). Although several Indian travelers to Europe were not settlers, their accounts of Europe reversed the Orientalist gaze and provided a counter-hegemonic construction of the Occident. While a large number of travel writings by Indians were written in the nineteenth century, two eighteenth-century travelogues by Indians deserve special mention. These were written by officials of the Mughal court traveling to Europe on business: Mirza Sheikh I’tesamuddin’s (1730–1800) The Wonders of Vilayet: Being the Memoir, Originally in Persian of a Visit to France and Britainin in 1765 and Mirza Abu Taleb Khan’s (1752–1896) Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan in Asia, Africa and Europe, written in  the Persian language in two volumes.17  Both the volumes were translated into English by Charles Stewart (1814). Mahomet’s Travels is markedly different because it was the first travelogue written in English by an Indian. Moreover, the writer was an expatriate in Ireland and Britain, had intimate knowledge of Western culture, and, as an Indian settler in England, considered it his duty to cater to the Western world’s curiosity about India and dispel certain false notions about his own country.

Soon after his arrival in Cork, Mahomet began learning the English language and literature to acculturate himself with the elite polite society of Ireland. As Fisher’s biographical sketch tells us, “He mastered the classically polished literary forms of the day, complete with poetic interjections, erudite allusions, and classical quotations in Latin”18 His use of the epistolary form, a popular literary mode in eighteenth-century England, bespeaks Mahomet’s commitment to attracting a Western audience. The language, literary form, and appeal to the elite society of Ireland as an Indian writer in the West granted him authenticity and power to narrate India for his European readers. Unlike Abu Taleb Khan, who lacked prior knowledge of British culture, Dean Mahomet’s intimate knowledge about English life and manners empowered him to address facts of Indian life that were largely misunderstood or misrepresented by foreigners. Travels is, therefore, not simply an example of colonial mimicry but also an example of resistance to the politics of colonial representation. The location of his intervention is particularly relevant since the British East India Company was dominant in India from 1757—that is, even before the official beginning of colonial rule in 1858. As Krishna Sen observes, the Company’s Governors-General “directly or indirectly controlled large swathes of upper India through a colonial-type administration, until the formal inception of the ‘British Raj’ in 1858. This is no mere historical quibble. The greater attraction of England over other European destinations for Indians was directly linked to the British East India Company’s ascendancy over the French, Dutch, Portuguese and Danish East India Companies.”19

So Mahomet, who left his own community to be in the company of Mr. Baker of the East India Company, left no stone unturned to accommodate himself in British-Irish society. His marriage to Jane Daly, an Irish-Protestant woman, was a significant step toward assimilating with the Irish-Protestant elite. Indeed, according to Fisher, the “newly married couple seem[ed] to have been accepted by Cork society, suggesting that Dean Mahomet’s marriage to Jane may have enhanced his social status”.20 Mahomet must have seen his diasporic status as a position of greater power over his colonized fellow countrymen. However, in recounting Indian life, customs, people, and manners, he exercised the autonomy of his unique gaze to counter Orientalist knowledge of India.


The empire and imperial conquests, as physical and ideological contact zones, engendered a complex identity in Mahomet as he saw himself positioned midway between his Indian countrymen and his European patrons. In the pages of his celebrated travelogue, Mahomet would occasionally identify with the members of the East India Company as he displayed unstinted allegiance to his patron, Mr. Baker, and other officers of the Company. Mahomet and several members of his class entered into a new relationship with the British administration as sipahi, or sepoy, in the Company’s army. These were Indian infantry men dressed as semi-Europeans and trained in European military disciplines. He describes how the sepoys “serve as a strong reinforcement to a much less number of Europeans, and, on many occasions display great firmness and resolution” (Letter XVI). As Mahomet traversed large tracts of Northern India, his pride as a sepoy of the company is unmistakable. He frequently mentions “our camp” (Letter V) and describes how “we were advancing on our march” (Letter VIII). This, for Mahomet, was certainly a position of prominence and power. In Letter IX he describes the dignity and power of the Company’s army as it marches on with him as a sepoy, subjugating huge terrains of North India. Having reached Dumdum, he describes how “we were all on the plain in military array” while the “natives . . . flocked from all quarters,. . . astonished at the sight.” He then describes the sight in Eurocentric verse:

Of martial men in glitt’ring arms display’d,
And all the shining pomp of war array’d;
Determin’d soldiers, and a gallant host,
As e’er Britannia in her pride cou’d boast.

Mahomet identifies himself with this “gallant host” rather than with the local people. It is worth noting that as a young boy Mahomet left his mother to be in the company of Mr. Baker, an officer of the East India Company, and refused to go back to her. In Letter III he justifies his decision by paying an effusive tribute to the generosity of his patron: “In gratitude . . . I am obliged to acknowledge that I never found myself so happy as with Mr. Baker: insensible of the authority of a superior, I experience the indulgence of a friend; and the want of a tender parent was entirely forgotten in the humanity and affection of a benevolent stranger”. While describing an Indian famine in the same letter, the idea of the “self’” dramatically slips toward an undefined “other” as India becomes “their country” rather than his. “Little did the treasures of their country avail them on this occasion,” he says. “A small portion of rice, timely administered to their wants, would have been of more real importance than their mines of gold and diamonds”. Again the parallel between “their” (Indian) palanquin and “our” (Irish) sedan chairs also depicts a fluid, slippery “self.”In Letter XXVIII the desperation to identify with the white dominant culture assumes a curious ambivalence. Mahomet talks about the white men’s attitude toward snake charming: “Their incantation of snakes, in particular, has been attributed by many of your countrymen, to magic and the power of the devil”. The pronouns their and your acquire an interesting play in Mahomet’s narration. He seems to distance himself from the Indians (they) as well as the European readers (you), and then the narration veers toward an interesting confusion. Mahomet now describes a special species of hooded serpent with a big head and a “beautiful face resembling the human” and states, “It has been remarked by several, that this kind is supposed to be the same as that which tempted our first mamma, Eve.” The people described collectively as “several” are likely to be the Europeans in India, who had witnessed this magical scene, and Mahomet is now certainly one of them, partaking of the culture that produced the story of Genesis.

Another passage in the Travels is worth our attention for its slipperiness between Mahomet’s allegiance to the East India Company and his sympathy for the plight of an Indian ruler deprived of his ancestral land by Governor Hastings. After several failed attempts to subjugate Raja Cheytsingh of Ramnagar, the Company’s forces, under the leadership of Captain Baker, Major Popham, and Captain Blair, approached the fortress of Cheytsingh. For Mahomet, he sees himself as part of the “we” who “now began the siege with the most lively ardor, and continued it for three days without intermission” until they “threw the enemy into the utmost confusion” before “three companies of determined Seapoy grenadiers, stormed the fort and rushed on the disordered enemy with manly resolution” (Letter XXXII).

Mahomet’s pride in being a part of this great victory is clearly manifest in the descriptions that follow highlighting the prowess and superior military tactics of the Company’s army. He then sings a paean to the glory and courage of Captain Baker: “Whilst memory dwells on virtues only thine, / Fame o’er thy relics breathes a strain divine” . With the nonchalance of an objective observer, Mahomet provides a detailed account of the suffering and humiliation borne by the Raja, who wrote several letters to the British Governor Hastings, begging mercy. He imputed his predicament to the whims of Providence: “Such was the happy situation of the Prince, and the philanthropy of the man, who shortly after became the sport of fortune, amidst the vicissitudes of life, and the trials of adversity” (Letter XXXIII). He also narrates how great discontent began to brew among the subjects of Raja Cheytsingh after his humiliation at the hands of the British: “The people dissatisfied with the fate of their late Raja, could, by no means, be reconciled to the sovereignty of the English” (Letter XXXIV). They are described as the “unruly natives” who put up a strong defense but were eventually dissipated and  killed by the British musketeers. Mahomet’s tone assumes the indifference of a philosopher reflecting on the futility of human resistance as he ponders over the merciless massacre of his fellow countrymen:

Alas! destructive war, with ruthless hand,
Unbinds each fond connection, tender tie,
And tears from friendship’s bosom all that’s dear,
Spreading dire carnage thro’ the peopled globe;
Whilst fearless innocence, and trembling guilt,
In one wide waste, are suddenly involv’d. (Letter XXXIV)

There is no indictment of foreign aggression, greed, and exploitation. The “innocent” and the “guilty” are not identified. The poetry acquires tragic intensity as Mahomet ponders the waste of war. The objective tone of philosophical speculation on warfare perfectly camouflages every feeling of guilt (if any) on the part of the narrator, who is also a perpetrator of the suffering of his own people. Perhaps Mahomet felt that he was different from his countrymen because he was constantly engaged in several strategic operations of the East India Company against the Indian rulers. Yet in Mahomet’s travel writing, the shifting location of the “self” does not follow a linear trajectory. Mahomet inhabited a complex dialogic world of “self” and “other,” marking a distinct move away from the binarism of colonial knowledge structure and entering a fluidity of identity.


If repeated confusion of identity emerges as a defining trait of Mahomet’s travelogue, resistance to European ethnography is no less dominant. Of particular interest here is how Said sees resistance as a task of reclaiming, renaming, and reinhabiting the land in order to create an “alternative way of conceiving human history.”21 Mahomet works within the structure of Orientalist knowledge, but while deriving information from English travel writers, he recontextualizes it and places it within an Indian perspective.

The most interesting feature of Mahomet’s Travels is the manner in which the writer begins his travelogue. Although each of the thirty-eight letters is addressed to an anonymous “Dear Sir,” suggesting intimacy, it seems that Mahomet did not write for any specific reader. The tone of cordiality and the mode of a personal epistle, addressed to a European friend eager for authentic information about India, was an effective strategy for making the narrator acceptable to a foreign readership. It created an intimate space for readers and writer to engage and allowed the author to move between private and public boundaries. The detailed descriptions of cities, landscapes, flora, fauna, customs, rituals, manners, and morals testify to the popularity of India as a place of tourism, business, and settlement for several Europeans to whom Mahomet seems to provide some sort of a travel guide. “Dear Reader,” he begins,

since my arrival in this country, I find you have been very anxious to be made acquainted with the early part of my Life, and the History of my Travels: I shall be happy to gratify you; and must ingenuously confess, when I first came to Ireland, I found the face of everything about me so contrasted to those striking scenes in India,  which we are wont to survey with a kind of sublime delight, that I felt some timid inclination, even in the consciousness of incapacity, to describe the manners of my countrymen, who, I am proud to think, have still more of the innocence of our ancestors, than some of the boasting philosophers of Europe. (Letter I)

Despite Mahomet’s loyalty to his European patrons, the first letter makes some significant assertions. Apart from the eagerness of Colonel William Baillie of the East India Company, Mahomet was also compelled by the strangeness of Ireland to write about the “striking scenes” of India that produced not wonder but “sublime delight” in revisiting the world left behind. The Orientalist gaze is reversed as Ireland is presented as a land of “difference” or “otherness” to the writer, who took immense pride in recounting the “innocence” of his ancestors in India. As opposed to the established colonial binaries of East/West, primitive/civilized, unscrupulous/honest, Mahomet begins his travelogue with a new binary: innocence of India/artfulness of the West. The contrast between nature and art is further explored as Mahomet firmly positions his gaze between the simple values of Indian life and the contrived rationality of the Western world. In recounting the ignorance of a European official who, having relegated the simple faith of the Indians to superstition, urinated on the sacred shrine of a saint in Pirpahar, Mahomet expresses his contempt for the boastful Englishman, duly punished by Providence for undermining people’s faith. Soon after the sacrilege, the Englishman is thrown from his horse and dies. Mahomet notes that his death presents “an awful lesson to those who, through a narrowness of judgment and confined speculation, are too apt to profane the piety of their fellow-creatures, merely for a difference in their modes of worship” (Letter VIII).

Interestingly, Mahomet does not describe India as much as he evokes India with sweeping generalizations about its fecundity and beauty, feeding the hunger of his European readers for the magical, exotic India of their imagination. However, the strategy does not appear to “otherize” India; rather, Mahomet asserts an intimate relationship with the country. What the evocation of India sustains is the contrast between nature and culture, spontaneity and contrivance: “The people of India, in general, are peculiarly favoured by Providence in the possession of all that can cheer the mind and allure the eye, and tho’ the situation of Eden is only traced in the Poet’s creative fancy, the traveller beholds with admiration the face of this delightful country, on which he discovers tracts that resemble those so finely drawn by the animated pencil of Milton” (Letter I).

The description of the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost clearly echoes in the detailing of these scenes where Mahomet strikes a fine balance between the particular and the general. While Milton resolved the problem of describing a prelapsarian landscape with the help of postlapsarian language, Mahomet uses a similar artistic technique to create a bridge between the real and the exoticized. By reinscribing India as modern Eden, Mahomet very tactfully countered the colonizing gaze, which homogeneously presented the non-European colonies as barbaric and wild.

The tradition of Western ethnographic writing is also challenged in the descriptions of the people of India. India is described as a land of conviviality, benevolence, modesty, and chastity. From a kind of phantasmagoria inexplicable to the Western onlooker, Mahomet translates India, renders it comprehensible, because he partakes of both Indian and European cultures. He focuses, in terms that would have appealed to an eighteenth-century British audience, on the sociability and virtue of his countrymen and women:

Possessed of all that is enviable in life, we are still more happy in the exercise of  benevolence and good-will to each other, devoid of every species of fraud or low cunning. In our convivial enjoyments, we are never without our neighbours; as it is usual for an individual, when he gives an entertainment, to invite all those of his own   profession to partake of it. That profligacy of manners too conspicuous in other parts of the world, meets here with public indignation, and our women, though not so accomplished as those of Europe, are still very engaging for many virtues that exalt the sex. (Letter I)

Mahomet’s descriptions of Muslim and Hindu customs and religion are offered with an unprejudiced openness. While Letters XII and XIII detail the ceremonies of circumcision and Muslim marriage, a highly idealistic portrait of the “Mahometan” is drawn to counter the Western perception of the people of Islamic countries as libidinous, violent, immoral, and debauched: “The Mahometans are, in general, a very healthful people: refraining from the use of strong liquors, and accustomed to a temperate diet, they have but few diseases, for which their own experience commonly finds some simple yet effectual remedy. . . . The Mahometans meet death with uncommon resignation and fortitude, considering it only as the means of enlarging them from a state of mortal captivity, and opening to them a free and glorious passage to the mansions of bliss” (Letter XIV).

Letters XVII and XVIII recount Hindu customs and antiquity with deep reverence. The city of Benaras is described as the “Paradise of India” notable for its “salubrious air, fascinating landscapes, and the innocence of its inhabitants” (Letter XVII). But Mahomet’s idea of Indian innocence does not estrange it from knowledge or wisdom. He copiously acknowledges the importance of the Brahmins as repositories of ancient knowledge and as unwearied practitioners of the discipline of astronomy. It is their heritage that has turned Benaras into a seat of learning, culture, piety, and pilgrimage. The most effusive appreciation of the Hindus is framed by a Muslim writer in these words:

While wasteful war spread her horrors over other parts of India, this blissful country often escaped her ravages, perhaps secured by its distance from the ocean, or more probably by the sacred character ascribed to the scene, which had, through many ages, been considered as the repository of the religion and learning of the Brahmins, and the prevailing idea of the simplicity of the native Hindoos, a people unaccustomed to the sanguinary measures of, what they term, civilized nations. (ibid.)

The dig in the last two lines at the Orientalist construction of the civilized/uncivilized binary is obvious. As against the rapacious greed and war-mongering of the colonizing nations, Mahomet upholds the simple life and philosophy of a religious sect who had valued learning and the wisdom of the Vedic scriptures more than material prosperity. The word they, which refers to the native Hindus, is rather ambiguously used. While it apparently points to the naturalization of the idea that colonizing nations are civilized and superior, it also opens to question whether the North Indian Brahmins, known for their orthodoxy, had actually accepted the cultural superiority of the European people. In fact, deep distrust toward “firingee” (European/infidel) ways persisted among different classes of Hindus, who were scared of defiling their religion by coming into contact with the foreigners.

The contrast between Western and Indian people continues as Mahomet memorizes the performances of the Indian dancing girls in the courts of the Nawabs (Letter XV). Both Indians and Europeans were drawn to their charms: “At a very youthful time of life, they are regularly trained in all the arts of pleasing, by a hackneyed matron, worn in the campaigns of Venus. . . .[She] also procures them every article of dress that can set them off to advantage.” Mahomet offers ample information about the nautch girls of India—the dresses, ornaments, cosmetics, makeup, and gestures that made them irresistible to their clients, although their lascivious gestures and movements never expose “any nudity” or “offend delicacy” (ibid.). The detailed description of the life and arts of these nautch girls leads to a comparison with European prostitutes. The nautch girls “have nothing of that gross impudence which characterises the European prostitutes,” he says, for “their style of seduction is all softness and gentleness” (ibid.).

The elevated construction of the Indian prostitute matches Mahomet’s glorification of Indian womanhood in Letter I. He endorses the nobility of Indian culture by positing women as the repository of Indian culture and social values. His characterization starkly contrasts with seventeenth-century European accounts of India, in which the women appeared to be both enticing and menacing. Racial and cultural distance made them enigmatic to the European gaze. Yet this was complicated by the practice of sati, which disturbs the “fantasy land” aspect of India. According to Kate Teltscher, “The presence of the sati—the widow who burns herself on her husband’s funeral pyre”—was “a troubling and ambiguous figure who becomes a central topos in the European literature of India.”22 The practice of sati was fixated upon by the colonial authorities, and thus Indian women’s bodies became complexly identified with Indian identity.

I shall borrow Pratt’s idea of “autoethnography” to describe the significance of Mahomet’s Travels. Pratt distinguishes between ethnographic and autoethnographic texts because ethnographic texts are the “means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others,” while autoethnographic texts are “those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations” (7). Mahomet’s travelogue fits largely into the mold of an autoethnographic work: although addressed to an English friend, it must have been read by the literate Indians living in Ireland and England and therefore must have had a heterogeneous reception. It helped Mahomet to enter the metropolitan literary culture of Ireland. It is thus important in “unraveling the histories of imperial subjugation and resistance” (9). It is interesting to note that to vindicate the greatness of Indian civilization, Mahomet internalized the European categories of progress, civilization, science, and knowledge, which enabled him to develop a sense of his Indian identity and debunk the Western prejudices against India. Mahomet focuses on the virtues, philosophy, genius, science, and antiquity of Indian learning, noting that

however strange their doctrine may appear to Europeans, yet . . . [the] native Indians, or Hindoos, are men of strong natural genius, and are, by no means, unacquainted with literature and science, as the translation of the Ayeen Akberry [Ain-i-Akbari] into English, has fully evinced. We may trace the origin of most of the sciences, in their ancient manuscripts. Even before the age of Pythagoras, the Greeks travelled to India for instruction: the trade carried on by them with the oldest commercial nations, in exchange for their cloth, is a proof of their great progress in the arts of industry. (Letter XVIII)

Mahomet’s appreciation of the Hindu way of life, the caste system, and rituals brings out a combination of European and Indian knowledge systems as he reinforces his argument by locating the philosophical bases of Indian beliefs and practices. The descriptions and self-expressions acquire a transcultural character, derived from a “dialogic engagement with western modes of representation.”23

Mahomet’s descriptions of India and its people, thus, stand in sharp contrast to the popular European representations of Indians. James Mill, an officer of the East India Company, offered an elaborate argument about the superiority of Europeans over Indians and justified the right of Europeans to rule the world in The History of British India (1817). Mill, who had never visited India, was proud to have based his arguments on objective facts that had a theoretical context. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson had discussed various levels of civilization that placed Europeans at the highest level. To explain the superiority of Europe, their progress of civilization was linked to colonialism, worldwide travels, and scientific advancement. The torrid climate of the tropical regions was also held responsible for the supposedly unscrupulous and lazy nature of the Indians. F.M. Coleman, in his booklet Typical Pictures of Indian Natives, writes that the “Bengali, or as he is more often termed, the Bengali Baboo, belongs to a class who are as little distinguished for courage as any race in the world.”24 The Bania, Coleman added, draped a small cloth around his loin in privacy and ate rice in a small room (17–18). The tone of disdain and dismissal abounds in several comments by Europeans. We cannot but recall Macaulay’s famous assertion of the superiority of the West in the Minute on Education.25 The obvious corollary to Macaulay’s assertion of the poor state of learning in India and Arabia, as compared to the vast store of knowledge mastered by the Western nations, is that the Indians were fit for specific roles—either to be the native servants of the Europeans26 or to act as intermediaries between the British administrators and the colonized indigenous mass, a category described as “mimic men” by Homi Bhabha.27 Mahomet’s sympathetic understanding of Indian life and reverence for Indian culture certainly counters the attitude of dismissal and condescension expressed by several European narratives about India.


Mahomet’s Travels performs a complex function because of the historical conditions of its production. Mahomet had seen an India where the East India Company gradually expanded its dominion over the native states and attracted people who saw a lucrative future in serving the Company. The colonial binaries had not yet become ossified, and there were spaces for reciprocal relation between the Company and the Indian people. Highly enamoured of European culture, Mahomet had never hesitated to express his unswerving allegiance to his English masters as a sepoy in the Company’s army. Later, as an expatriate entrepreneur in Ireland and England, Mahomet performed a conscious mimicry of the West by striving to become a member of the European society. In fact, the frontispiece of Travels displays an Indian of color in the attire of an Englishman. The portrait acquires its value as an instance of colonial mimicry. Mahomet’s compromised position in England, the hybrid status of his Anglo-Irish-Indian family—and his reliance on “Indianness” for selling himself to his Western clientele—all bespeak a “betweenness” of status that posits Mahomet as an exemplar of “partial presence,” that is, a metonymic representation of the colonial authority that he imitates and also undermines through “the repetitious slippage of difference and desire.”28 Mahomet’s self-representation acts as a paradigmatic case for arguing that the “contact zone” perspective goes beyond the Self/Other oppositions charted by Said in Orientalism and moves toward a more complex sense of the anxieties bred by the colonial rule—of belonging and un-belonging, of conformity and  resistance. Mahomet’s travelogue flouts the borders and boundaries of nation, geography, culture, and identity, and unsettles the very logic of the binary thinking that sustained European imperialism.


[1] Dean Mahomet, The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth-Century Journey through India, edited with an introduction and biographical essay by Michael H. Fisher (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) <> The text obtained from UC Press E-Book Collection has no pagination. Hence all quotations will be cited by sections/letter numbers.

[2] Michael Fisher, Section “Dean Mahomet in Ireland and England (1784–1851),” in Travels of Dean Mahomet.

[3] Michael H. Fisher, Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travelers and Settlers in Britain, 1600–1857 (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), 88.

[4] See Avtar Brah, The Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities (London: Routledge, 1996), 179–89.

[5] Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora, 194.

[6] See David Morley, Media, Mobility, Identity (London: Routledge, 2000).

[7] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992), 6.

[8] Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 15.

[9] Michael C.Frank, “Imaginative Geography as a Travelling Concept: Foucault, Said and the Spatial Turn,” European Journal of English Studies 13, no. 1 (2009): 61–77, 71.

[10] Susan Bassnett, “The Empire, Travel Writing and British Studies,” in Travel Writing and the Empire, ed. Sachidananda Mohanty (New Delhi: Katha, 2003), 8.

[11] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 308.

[12] John Keay, India Discovered: The Recovery of a Lost Civilization (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 13.

[13] Stephen Bann, “Travelling to Collect: The Booty of John Bargrave and Charles Waterton,” in Travellers’ Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement, ed. George Robertson et al. (London: Routledge, 1994), 155–64; also see Tabish Khair et al., eds., Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 4.

[14] Pratt, Imperial Eyes,7.

[15] Fisher, Section to Travels “Dean Mahomet in Ireland and England (1784–1851)”.

[16] I have used the term from Fisher’s book Counterflows to Colonialism.

[17] Mirza Sheikh I’tesamuddin’s The Wonders of Vilayet was never published in the original. A flawed English translation appeared in 1827. I have consulted a translation of Kaiser Haq’s The Wonders of Vilayet (UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2002); Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan in Asia, Africa and Europe During the Years 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, and 1803. Written by Himself in the Persian Language. Trans by Charles Stewart (London: R. Watts, Broxbourne, Herts, 1814). <>

[18] Fisher, note to Travels, Section “Dean Mahomet in Ireland and England (1784-1851)”.

[19] Krishna Sen, “Provincializing England: Victorian Domesticity and the Colonial Gaze,” Postcolonial Interventions 2, no. 2 (2017): 5–6.

[20] Fisher, note to Travels, Section “Dean Mahomet in Ireland and England (1784-1851)”.

[21] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), 216, 226.

[22] Kate Teltscher, India Inscribed: European and British Writing on India, 1600–1800 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), 8.

[23] Pratt, Imperial Eyes,100.

[24] F. M. Coleman, Typical pictures of Indian natives : being reproductions from specially prepared hand-coloured photographs with descriptive letterpress, Seventh Ed (Bombay & London: The “Times of India” Office, 1902), 32. <>

[25] T. B. Macaulay, Minute on Education (1835): “We are not without experience to guide us. History furnishes several analogous cases, and they all teach the same lesson. There are in modern times . . . two memorable instances of a great impulse given to the mind of a whole society, of prejudices overthrown, of knowledge diffused, of taste purified, of arts and sciences planted in countries which had recently been ignorant and barbarous,” <>

[26] See pictures of Indian servants of European gentlemen in The Costume and Customs of Modern India: From a Collection of Drawings by Charles D’Oyly, Esq., engraved by J.H. Clark and C. Dubourg with a preface and copious descriptions, by Captain Thomas Williamson (London: Edward Orme, 1813) Coleman also stated that the Indian natives made excellent servants.

[27] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994; repr. 2005), 121—31.

[28] Bhabha, Location of Culture, 129.

Powerful not Poor: Reading Fanny Price from a Buddhist Perspective

Article by Kathryn Duncan
Powerful not Poor: Reading Fanny Price from a Buddhist Perspective
DOI: 10.32655/srej.2020.2.1.5
Cite: Duncan, Kathryn. 2020. “Powerful not Poor: Reading Fanny Price from a Buddhist Perspective,” Studies in Religion and the Enlightenment 2 (1): 28- 41.

Mansfield Park is a novel about selfishness with characters who care more about the comfort of their own worldview than about anyone else.1 The characters are trapped by their chosen perspectives: Mrs. Norris by self-importance; Lady Bertram by indolence; Julia, Maria, and Mary by the desire to attract male attention; Tom by privilege; Sir Thomas by status; and Henry by seductive power. Even Edmund loses his way in his lust for Mary Crawford. Caught by these perspectives, the characters lack the freedom to live full, happy lives. Choosing worldviews intended to fend off suffering, the characters of Mansfield Park bring more suffering to themselves and others. Only Fanny, who materially suffers from the start and outwardly lacks freedom compared to the rest, lives mindfully and uses her powers to alleviate the suffering of others.

Fanny Price’s reputation has suffered greatly among readers who have called her variously “poor Fanny,” “prig,” “monster,” and more.2 While the name-calling may differ in criticisms of Fanny, complaints against her character generally refer to her dullness and her passivity. Lionel Trilling attributes to all detractors of Austen “the fear of imposed constraint,” that is, the idea that society can or even should place limits upon the individual. Mansfield Park, according to Trilling, is the novel most guilty in Austen’s canon of creating a sense of constraint and dullness: “No other great novel has so anxiously asserted the need to find security, to establish, in fixity and enclosure, a refuge from the dangers of openness and chance. There is scarcely one of our modern pieties that it does not offend.”3 These disparaging attitudes and offended “modern pieties” come from a Western mindset that values action and individualism. As Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield note, a “cultural move toward active and outspoken women did not help the reputation of the physically weakest and quietest of Austen’s heroines.”4 In other words, like the characters of the novel, contemporary critics are trapped by a Western perspective that leads to the devaluing of one of Jane Austen’s most enlightened characters.

Seeing Fanny from a different perspective, specifically an Eastern one, readers can appreciate that she has the traits of a bodhisattva, a figure devoted to enlightenment for the purpose of helping others.5 A bodhisattva is someone who consciously aspires to awaken bodhicitta, the “mind of love,” defined by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh as the “deep wish to cultivate understanding in ourselves in order to bring happiness to many beings.”6 Doing so “means surrendering completely, with an attitude of letting whatever happens happen; if it’s better for me to have pleasure, let me have pleasure; if it’s better to have pain, let me have pain.”7 While there are bodhisattvas that can be invoked to support enlightenment, anyone can aspire to be one, even poor Fanny.8

The Buddhist text elucidating what it means to be a bodhisattva was written by an eighth-century Indian prince-turned-monk named Shantideva, a name that translates to “God of Peace.” The Way of the Bodhisattva is based upon a speech delivered by Shantideva at Nalanda University, the largest and most powerful Indian monastery at the time. The story goes that Shantideva was lazy, quite a terrible monk, and in order to either shame or motivate him to do better, the monks invited him to give a talk to the entire university—an honor usually only conferred on the best students, who sat on a throne while speaking. Ostensibly, the monks made the throne even higher than typical and provided no stairs, but Shantideva had no trouble mounting the throne and then delivered the entire text of The Way of the Bodhisattva. His speech is not remarkable for groundbreaking new ideas as much as for being poetic, personal, and, therefore, moving. As he concluded his talk with a discussion on the idea of emptiness, he began to float, eventually rising so high above the monks that they could not see him but could only hear his voice; he then disappeared. He spent the rest of his life as a wandering yogi.

I am not arguing that Austen knew anything about Buddhism, but there is overlap between Buddhist ideas about enlightenment and the British Enlightenment. As Peter Knox-Shaw’s work Jane Austen and the Enlightenment argues, Austen’s novels embody the important ideas of the Enlightenment: science, reason, and social reform, as well as “an emphasis on the limits of individual heroism” and distrust of doctrine.9 The last two British Enlightenment qualities overlap with those from Buddhist enlightenment. Well before John Locke, the Buddha similarly privileged experience, explicitly acknowledging that his wisdom came from personal experience.

We need to remember that the Buddha was not a god but an individual. He began life as Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince whose father protected him from all suffering. Eventually, though, Siddhartha witnessed human suffering firsthand. He consequently renounced wealth and went in search of enlightenment, leaving the palace to join ascetics on his quest. After many years of difficult practice, the Buddha failed to achieve enlightenment. He left his fellow ascetics, eventually meditating under the Bodhi Tree, where he came to understand the origin and cure for suffering: the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha prefaced his first teaching by saying, “I tell you that if I have not experienced directly all that I have told you, I would not proclaim to you that I am a free person.”10 Because each person has the Buddha within, that is, has the potential to achieve Buddhahood or enlightenment, Thich Nhat Hanh notes the importance of the primacy of personal experience in the creation of ideas: “When our beliefs are based on our own direct experience of reality and not on notions offered by others, no one can remove these beliefs from us.”11 Or as Fanny puts it in Mansfield Park, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”12 So Austen and Buddhism share an emphasis on a distrust of doctrine not tested by reason and experience.

The truth the Buddha discovered under the Bodhi Tree revolves around suffering. The Four Noble Truths state that suffering is inevitable, that we can and should discover the cause of our suffering, that we can end our suffering, and that the key to ending suffering is the Middle Way, or eightfold path: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Diligence, Right Concentration, and Right Livelihood. When the Buddha stated that suffering could be ended, he did not mean we could rid ourselves of all physical pain or prevent painful events, such as a family member’s death. Rather, while difficulties are inevitable in life, the way we approach challenges can produce suffering or not. Alas, humans have a strong, mindless tendency to produce more suffering. As the translators of The Way of the Bodhisattva state, “If suffering is the fruit of thought and action, it can be avoided.”13 Avoiding it means seeing the world correctly (Right View), not being trapped by concepts and not creating stories that produce harm to ourselves and others.

The key is stories—or narrative. As Zen teacher David Loy writes in The World Is Made of Stories, “Like the proverbial fish that cannot see the water they swim in, we do not notice the medium we dwell in. Unaware that our stories are stories, we experience them as the world.”14 Humans constantly and consistently interpret phenomena and create narrative. For example, consider the physiological symptoms of anxiety and their relationship to story-making and suffering. Alison Wood Brooks argues that telling ourselves to be calm when anxious about a performance does not work, but her experiments demonstrate that the physiological symptoms of anxiety are very similar to those of excitement. If, therefore, we choose to label the physical symptoms as excitement, we shift the narrative, making ourselves excited and ready to perform, freeing up working memory and allowing for a potentially better performance. Nothing has changed except for the explanation we offer ourselves—that is, the story.15 The problem is, as Pema Chodron puts it, that humans tend to get caught by and suffer from their own “very important stories.”16 In other words, we have a tendency to go with the story that will cause more suffering because we usually are unaware that we are engaged in narrative at all.

Our blindness to narrative and our construction of harmful stories often comes from being trapped by concepts and reacting habitually rather than seeing the present moment with freshness. All of the steps of the eightfold path begin with the word right, but right is defined contextually, not doctrinally. Connecting back to the primacy of experience, Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “Right and wrong are neither moral judgments nor arbitrary standards imposed from the outside. Through our own awareness, we discover what is beneficial (‘right’).”17 This is why Buddhism is based in practice and requires presence and flexibility, which cannot happen when we are blocked by concepts—ideas about how things are or must be. Pema Chodron, in her commentary on Shantideva’s text, compares being trapped by concepts to a full pot with no room to add new ideas or opinions, a pot filled with poison where negativity prevents openness, or a pot with a hole in the bottom in which distraction with our own preconceptions prevents engagement with the present moment. A closed mind “that fixates, conceptualizes, and compartmentalizes; a mind incapable of seeing things without bias,” leading to “false views,” will create false narratives that lead to suffering rather than approaching each moment with a fresh perspective.18

To further complicate things, our narratives interact with the narratives of others; all choices are dynamic, with mine being affected by all those around me. As Douglas Kenrick et al. argue, “Not only does it take two to tango, but two rarely tango alone in a dark basement; instead, their carefully coordinated maneuvers are typically executed within a larger ballroom crowd who often change partners as they move in time to the same rhythms.”19 This is why the role of the bodhisattva is so crucial. She has vowed to reach enlightenment in order to heal others to achieve freedom from damaging narratives, thereby eliminating suffering not only from her own life but from those around her.

No writer seems to have understood the connection of narrative to suffering so well as Austen. Her culture had a tightly woven but unraveling narrative about proper behavior for ladies and gentlemen, a code that could, for example, create great pride or prejudice. Her novels deal explicitly with the themes of false narratives driven by concepts and self-interest.20

Certainly, this is the case in the Bertram household, in which, to give one example, Sir Thomas asks Maria if she really wishes to marry Mr. Rushworth after he discovers for himself that Rushworth is an “inferior young man, as ignorant in business as in books, with opinions in general unfixed, and without seeming much aware of it himself.”21 Maria hesitates but responds with an immediate assertion of her willingness to continue the engagement, though the reader, unlike her father, understands that her motivation arises from the pain of rejection and her desire to leave her father’s restrictive house. The narrator says of Maria, “In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete; being prepared for matrimony by an (sic) hatred of home, restraint, and tranquility; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry.”22 Sir Thomas, trapped by his perspective that privileges his estate and reputation, “was satisfied; too glad to be satisfied perhaps to urge the matter quite so far as his judgment might have dictated to others . . . [,] happy to secure a marriage which would bring him an addition of respectability and influence.”23 Because of his own worldview and his selfishness, Sir Thomas only increases the suffering to come as Maria will eventually marry Rushworth only to commit adultery in a public manner that brings consequences to the entire family. The narrator foreshadowed it for the reader, who, alas, knows Maria better than her father. Sir Thomas admits as much to himself after the deed when he realizes that he “had been governed by motives of selfishness and worldly wisdom.”24

The Bertrams and Crawfords, like most of us, according to Buddhism, continually wish to avoid suffering and pain, unlike the bodhisattva, who is open to any experience. Avoidance, though, only magnifies suffering. To use the same example of Maria marrying Rushworth, she has trapped herself by agreeing to the engagement, which is exemplified in the scene at Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton, by the locked gate on the grounds. In that scene, Maria refuses to be shut in and temporarily escapes with her future lover, Henry Crawford. However, when Henry later leaves and no longer serves as the rescuer from the engagement she now regrets, Maria decides, “Henry Crawford had destroyed her happiness, but he should not know that he had done it; he should not destroy her credit, her appearance, her prosperity too.”25

Maria escapes through the gate but is still trapped by the mindset that marriage is her rescue and refuses to see how she must create her own happiness. Rather than face potential humiliation and prove to Henry that he has broken her heart, Maria avoids that suffering but makes her situation worse by marrying a man she dislikes. Ultimately, she in fact allows Henry Crawford to “destroy her credit, her appearance, her prosperity too.” Maria must face some pain either before she marries Rushworth or after to truly escape her previous bad choice, but she creates greater suffering for herself and all around her. According to the Dalai Lama, Maria would be suffering from the “pervasive suffering of conditioning”: unexamined thoughts and emotions that guide words and deeds.26 She lacks awareness due to the blindness of her perspective and her refusal to face how she has created her own suffering.27

Bodhisattvas do not create suffering or avoid it but rather let “the suffering of adversity soften them and make them kinder.”28 Rather than running from life’s suffering, a bodhisattva sits with it, looks deeply at it, and feels it fully. A bodhisattva is not a masochist who courts pain, but through not spending all energy avoiding pain, the bodhisattva can be fully present to the moment, to herself, and to those around her.29 Suffering can produce empathy, a powerful emotion capable of bringing great healing. According to Chodron, in “bodhicitta training, we learn to use whatever pain or fear we experience to open our hearts to other people’s distress.”30 A bodhisattva moves beyond concepts by cultivating the paramitas, which, literally translated, means “going to the other shore.” The six paramitas are generosity, discipline, patience, enthusiasm, meditation, and wisdom.

Wisdom refers to understanding impermanence and emptiness. While the eighteenth century saw the rise of the individual and the associated rise of the novel, Buddhism argues that the individual conceived as a separate entity does not exist: it is a convenient fiction we tell ourselves to sustain our daily lives. Henry Aronson explains, “Our separate and independent existences are merely figures of speech: easy to recognize, identify, and name, but no more than temporary formations, composed of the same stuff.”31 To cling to an inflexible narrative of the self—a form of attachment—creates more suffering. However, we are very prone to doing so.

A Harvard study found that people generally acknowledged how much they had changed in the past but tended to grossly underestimate how much they will change in the future. The participants saw their current identity, no matter what their age, as a stable one, a sort of endgame that previous change had brought them to permanently. However, the evidence—their own reading of their own lives as filled with change—predicts that they will continue to change.32 The participants created a narrative of stable identity destined to create suffering because it will make them resistant to change as they cling to their rooted ideas of themselves. The Dalai Lama similarly states that our degree of anger or attachment is tied to “grasping onto a sense of self or the thought, ‘I am.’ At a gross level we tend to conceive the self as an entity independent of our body and mind, in the manner of a controller, possessing some kind of self-sufficient, autonomous reality. Grasping at this sense of self is quite instinctual.”33 In other words, instinct leads humans to create the identity of a stable self, which is why suffering is inevitable, for clinging to that idea leads to suffering.

Fanny, of course, shares Shantideva’s outsider status, and her ability to endure and end suffering owes much to how her difficult life circumstances teach her how to handle suffering. Austen establishes the sources of Fanny’s suffering before readers even meet her. Upon inviting her to live at Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas explicitly draws boundaries between Fanny and her cousins: “I should wish to see them very good friends, and would on no account, authorize in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations, will always be different.”34 He thus undercuts the very premise of Buddhist enlightenment—the equality and interconnectedness of all—and gives license to Mrs. Norris to treat Fanny very differently from her other nieces. With mean spirit, Mrs. Norris does this from the moment Fanny arrives, lecturing her on ingratitude when she sees her understandable sadness at being separated from her immediate family, and assigning her to an attic room. We also learn that ten-year-old Fanny is “somewhat delicate and puny” and that Fanny’s less-than-optimal health is a recurring issue throughout the novel.35 All of this makes her poor Fanny indeed compared to the Bertram sisters, raised in wealth and privilege.

However, Fanny’s poor life circumstances create the conditions that awaken her bodhisattva nature as compared to her cozened cousins. The right relationship to suffering drives out pride, offering humility and making us less self-centered; it creates empathy, enabling us to relate to our fellow sufferers and feel connected with our human condition; it positions us to gain a greater understanding of cause and effect; and it creates the will to do good, inculcating the virtues rather than causing pain.36 In his instructions on how to awaken bodhicitta, Shantideva writes:

There’s nothing that does not grow light
Through habit and familiarity.
Putting up with little cares
I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity! (6:14)

Fanny’s lifelong challenges that come from her outsider status and frail health teach her how to endure “ little cares” so that she is better able “to bear with great adversity.” The deprivations created by Mrs. Norris, such as no fire in the East room or the long walks to fetch things for her that tax Fanny’s strength, make it possible for Fanny to sit comfortably with her suffering, unlike her cousins. Pema Chodron notes that there “is no practice more important than relating honestly and sanely with the irritations that plague us in everyday life.”37

The relative isolation due to her social status also teaches Fanny to be comfortable with being alone and undistracted from what is happening in the present moment, good or bad. When on the road to Sotherton, she “was not often invited to join in the conversation of the others, nor did she desire it. Her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions.”38 Fanny wastes no energy on forcing her way into a conversation or on bitterness about not being included; rather, she uses this opportunity to cultivate the self-reflection that leads to self-understanding and which is not available to any other characters in the novel.39

We see the contrast repeatedly and early. For example, when Fanny sits abandoned in the ha-ha at Sotherton, Julia, who has also been left behind by the young people, finds her and takes out her bad temper on Fanny, saying, “Such a penance as I have been enduring, while you were sitting here so composed and so happy! It might have been as well, perhaps, if you had been in my place, but you always contrive to keep out of these scrapes.” Fanny, of course, rarely gets her own way and almost always is at the beck and call of her aunts, so the charge is completely unfair. But it is precisely being unable to get her way that benefits Fanny here. With a lifetime of living at others’ whims, Fanny knows better than to overreact to Julia’s rude comment. She refuses to increase suffering through a story that increases her victimhood. In addition, Fanny at this moment is far from happy, which Julia fails to notice entirely. Fanny bears the attack with patience: “This was a most unjust reflection, but Fanny could allow for it, and let it pass; Julia was vexed, and her temper was hasty, but she felt that it would not last.”40 Unlike her cousin, Fanny reads Julia correctly and also makes allowances for her, as she has observed already that Julia is unsuccessfully competing with her sister for status and male attention. She recognizes Julia’s mood as impermanent and thus not something to fixate on.

Austen directly links Maria’s and Julia’s bad choices to the endless flattery and favoritism given to them by their Aunt Norris, noting that Julia’s less-harmful choices come from being “less the darling of that very aunt” causing her “to think herself a little inferior to Maria” so that “her education had not given her so very hurtful a degree of self-consequence.” Maria, the cousin who suffers least growing up, consequently, causes the most suffering for everyone. Austen even lays some of the blame on Maria for Julia’s elopement, telling the reader, “She had not eloped with any worse feelings than those of selfish alarm. It had appeared to her the only thing to be done. Maria’s guilt had induced Julia’s folly.”41 Constant praise has made them selfish. Shantideva addresses the problems with praise:

Veneration, praise, and fame
Serve not to increase merit or my span of life
Bestowing neither health nor strength
And nothing for the body’s ease. (6:90)

Praise brings no benefit. Yet praise has been the mainstay of the Bertram girls’ education, and it has left them vulnerable to envy and to the flattery of Henry Crawford. In this way, Mrs. Norris has done more harm to her favorite nieces than to Fanny in spite of her unkind treatment, for “troublemakers” require an “exercise of patience” that purifies the tormented; the tormenter creates a personal hell for herself.42 This is certainly true of Fanny and Mrs. Norris by the novel’s end, with Fanny’s patience producing happiness and Mrs. Norris in a hell of her own making with Maria. Perhaps this explains Fanny’s seeming “almost as fearful of notice and praise as other women were of neglect.”43

In addition to differences in how they are treated within the family, the Bertram sisters and Mary Crawford experience strong health compared to Fanny. Buddhism does not vilify the body. Importantly, the Buddha rejected the extreme asceticism he had undergone as part of his quest for enlightenment, recognizing its failure and advocating instead for a more balanced approach—the Middle Way. The problem is not the body per se but our attachment to the body since the “body has its place and value, but the mind must be freed from an obsessive and enslaving preoccupation with it.”44 Such preoccupation can lead to not distinguishing between happiness and pleasure. Shantideva writes:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself. (8:12)

Happiness can be achieved without sensual pleasure, and sensual pleasure can come at the cost of happiness, for the temporarily pleasant bodily sensation may come at an emotional cost or at the expense of integrity. The problem is attachment or, in Tibetan, shenpa. Dzigar Kongtrul describes attachment as “the ‘charge’ behind emotions: the charge behind ‘I like and don’t like,’ the charge behind self-importance itself.”45 The focus on one’s own comfort and pleasure undercuts the ability to care for others and empathize with them. It leads to egocentrism as we seek to avoid those things we don’t like and to cling to those we do.

Mansfield Park’s best example of pleasure-seeking egocentrism is Mary Crawford, particularly in the scene in which she keeps Fanny’s horse well into Fanny’s scheduled riding time. “Active and fearless . . . [and] strongly made,” Mary finds “pure genuine pleasure” in the exercise.46 She assures Edmund that the long ride has not tired her in the least. “I am very strong,” she tells him. “Nothing ever fatigues me, but doing what I do not like,” she says and then wishes Fanny a “pleasant ride.” Edmund, when asking Fanny when he might next offer the horse to Mary, notes, “She rides only for pleasure, you for health.”47 Mary later claims that “resting fatigues me.”48

Mary’s constant desire for pleasure and activity leads directly to her selfishness, both keeping the horse from Fanny, whose health consequently suffers, and in leaving Fanny behind at Sotherton when she ventures off with Edmund. Though sounding ironic, Miss Crawford admits as much in her apology to Fanny when returning her horse: “I have nothing to say for myself—I knew it was very late, and that I was behaving extremely ill; and, therefore, if you please, you must forgive me. Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.”49 But, of course, the practice of a bodhisattva is exactly the cure for selfishness. Seduced by her pleasurable company, Edmund also becomes short-sighted and selfish, for in his efforts to please Mary, he forgets Fanny. Again, there is nothing wrong with activity—with riding or walking—other than it leading to egocentric pleasure in one’s own bodily activity and thereby to lack of empathy for others.

This becomes yet more exaggerated with the one completely unlikeable character of the novel: Mrs. Norris. While Mary’s active, witty nature that veers into occasional indiscretion may be excused and even admired by some, Mrs. Norris is so universally disliked that J. K. Rowling named Argus Filch’s spying cat after her. As with Mary Crawford, Austen immediately describes Mrs. Norris as having “a spirit of activity” that stems from ego.50 She exemplifies “the three main bases of self-importance: attachment to possessions, body, and merit” with her obsessive parsimoniousness, her pride in her physical endurance, and her need to call attention to all of her acts of merit.51 Examples abound, but one that will do is her response to Sir Thomas’s return from the West Indies:

She was vexed by the manner of his return. It had left her nothing to do. Instead of being sent for out of the room, and seeing him first, and having to spread the happy news through the house, Sir Thomas, with a very reasonable dependence perhaps on the nerves of his wife and children, had sought no confidant but the butler, and had been following him almost instantaneously into the drawing-room. Mrs. Norris felt herself defrauded of an office on which she had always depended, whether his arrival or his death were to be the thing unfolded; and was now trying to be in a bustle without having any thing to bustle about, and labouring to be important where nothing was wanted but tranquility and silence.52

Austen’s narrator makes clear that Sir Thomas’s safe arrival home or death makes no difference to Mrs. Norris. What matters is her own active importance in the event. She is active and lacks all empathy. She is purely selfish, interested only in the appearance of doing good. When Sir Thomas gently confronts Mrs. Norris with the impropriety of the playacting in his absence, she defends herself by praising her “general attention to the interest and comfort of his family, much exertion and many sacrifices to glance at in the form of hurried walks and sudden removals from her own fireside” and, most importantly, her “active” matchmaking that brought about the engagement of Maria to Mr. Rushworth (an activity that results in disaster).53 Tanner is right in saying that “all the characters who go wrong share a distaste for ‘tranquility’” and that the novel prefers rest over motion.54

Certainly, Austen is not rejecting activity completely, nor is she endorsing indolence, for Lady Bertram is no model. Rather, Buddha-like, we have an endorsement of a middle way of “thoughtful rest” while rejecting “the dangers of thoughtless restlessness.”55 Fanny’s isolation and lack of endurance create opportunities for her to live comfortably with her own thoughts and company, so she has learned the art of the pause. Rather than responding immediately to what is happening around her, she has developed powers of observation and the ability to refrain from merely responding or reacting impulsively. When she begins to feel envy after Edmund agrees to act in Lovers’ Vows, “reflection brought better feelings.”56 When she becomes anxious about the rehearsal where Mary Crawford and Edmund will perform their parts together, she honors “her wish to retreat, and she worked and meditated in the East room.”57 When speaking to Edmund about how Mary can’t understand why she won’t accept Henry’s proposal, she responds only “after a pause of recollection and exertion.”58 While readers and critics have complained of Fanny’s passivity and seen her quiet acceptance in such examples as defeatism, her ability to withdraw and respond with calm detachment indicates an aspirant moving toward enlightenment.

The contrast between Fanny’s “thoughtful rest” and Mary’s “thoughtless restlessness” appears when the two sit together in Mrs. Grant’s shrubbery. Austen guides the reader in how to interpret the interaction by explaining that it as “an intimacy resulting principally from Miss Crawford’s desire of something new.”59 Even an attempt at friendship comes from Mary’s restlessness. As the women sit together, Fanny, struck by the beauty of her natural surroundings, verbalizes her admiration and philosophizes, while Miss Crawford, “untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say.”60 Fanny, after a pause, once again admires the scene, explaining, “When I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain.” Mary responds, “I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it.”61 She then quickly follows up with snide, materialistic comments about the Rushworths. Whereas Fanny demonstrates a sense of connection, Mary concentrates on herself as an individual, and her comments about the Rushworths show her solipsism and lack of empathy. The conversation demonstrates Fanny’s ability to be in the moment and value it, whereas Mary relapses “into thoughtfulness,” unable to appreciate her surroundings, preferring her own thoughts, her own narrative of a possible future with Edmund—if he changes as she directs.

To reinforce the value of being still in a thoughtful manner, Austen gives her readers Tom Bertram. Tom spends most of the novel as the disappointing, profligate older son whose expenses cost Edmund the living that must now go to Dr. Grant. When Sir Thomas confronts him with this, “Tom listened with some shame and some sorrow; but escaping as quickly as possible, could soon with cheerful selfishness reflect” on a list of excuses.62 We see Tom escaping his father, his responsibility, and his appropriate feelings of shame and sorrow in order to immediately revert to his selfish nature. The verb reflect is truly ironic. Through costing the living for Edmund, Tom is indirectly responsible for introducing the catalyst to the Bertrams’ woes in the form of the Crawfords. In addition, he directly introduces theatricals to Mansfield Park during Sir Thomas’s absence, which leads to further chaos and opportunities for Henry to seduce Maria. But Tom’s illness changes him; he regains his health “without regaining the thoughtlessness and selfishness of his previous habits. He was the better for ever for his illness. He had suffered, and he had learnt to think, two advantages he had never known before.”63 Like Shantideva, Austen here links suffering to the ability to pause and think and labels suffering itself as an advantage. Shantideva concurs:

The cause of happiness is rare,
And many are the seeds of suffering!
But if I have no pain, I’ll never long for freedom. (6:12)

Pain, suffering, and illness have value as motivation to achieve spiritual freedom.

Fanny’s freedom comes from her liminal status, which prevents her from being caught by concepts, unlike the other characters who are pigeonholed into their various roles. Mary Crawford expresses confusion over Fanny’s status, asking “Is she out, or is she not? I am puzzled.—She dined at the parsonage, with the rest of you, which seemed like being out; and yet she says so little, that I can hardly suppose she is.”64 A discussion follows between Mary and Tom about the usually clear distinctions between “in” and “out” and how awful it is when such decorum is violated. Fanny, however, is neither in nor out. The distinction that Sir Thomas draws so early, and that is so carefully reinforced by Mrs. Norris, remains firm until Sir Thomas returns from the West Indies. Even then, Fanny is not recognized as a rightful, full member of the family until after Maria’s adultery, so she is never forced to deal with the trials of being in or out. She escapes the kind of damage inflicted upon the Bertram sisters by their education as proper ladies, one that traps them by a society that carves out narrow limits for their lives. Fanny lives a life without expectations and is surprised, for example, when she realizes she is to lead the ball as Sir Thomas’s niece. Rather than seeing the ball as part of the machinations of matchmaking that it is, Fanny is free to see it as a dance, and while she feels self-conscious as a young woman not used to public appearances, she does not see herself as being on display as a possible mate. This liminality is a hallmark of the bodhisattva. The Dalai Lama describes the bodhisattva as being in an in-between state as she does not enter nirvana or “solitary peace” but chooses cyclical existence out of a sense of altruism.65 She is enlightened without opting for the award of enlightenment, which is an escape from this world’s suffering.

Unlike Fanny, for the other residents of Mansfield Park, ideas about a stable self are burdened with expectations and definitions of what is expected of a lady or a gentleman. This is in contrast with the Buddhist path to happiness, which involves dropping “our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be.”66 All of the Bertram children attempt escape: Maria and Julia via men; Tom via his profligate lifestyle; and even Edmund, temporarily, via acting in the play (even though he does so for “noble” reasons). Because they cannot escape the roles thrust upon them by their social positions, the ladies and gentleman take on different roles via Lovers’ Vows.

However, adopting a role is a pleasurable escape, not a true path to happiness, and the playacting exemplifies each character at his or her most selfish, which we can see from the moment the idea is proposed. Mr. Yates, in introducing the idea, is filled with self-pity that playacting had been canceled due to a death in the family. Mr. Yates expresses his desire that the death could have been ignored a few days so that the play could proceed, it “being only a grandmother, and all that happening two hundred miles off.”67 From this ignominious start, the play produces only problems. Those who act in it (or wished to in Julia’s case) are unkind, unobservant, angry, and/or jealous. Fanny, who avoids prescribed, predetermined roles in life, refuses to act and, thereby, escapes the dangers of the play’s narrative.

We can see this most clearly in comparing Julia and Fanny as “two solitary sufferers,” each feeling jealousy but experiencing it in such a different manner. Julia loses her preferred role to her sister and must watch her act intimate scenes with the man they both desire, Henry Crawford. Julia responds by refusing to participate, which might be a good solution, but she finds no peace, for “her heart was sore and angry, and she was capable only of angry consolations.”68 She makes “no endeavour at rational tranquility for herself.”69 While Julia removes herself physically from the play, she stays mired in the scene of suffering, nurturing anger rather than seeking peace. Only Fanny sees this. Those around Julia are, to return to the metaphor from Pema Chodron’s commentary on The Way of the Bodhisattva, full pots: “The inattention of the two brothers and the aunt to Julia’s discomposure, and their blindness to its true cause, must be imputed to the fulness of their own minds. They were totally pre-occupied.”70 In other words, other than Fanny, Julia is surrounded by self-centered and selfish people.

Fanny, on the other hand, is a witness to all and perceives everyone correctly because she is not caught by jealousy or any given role. She realizes that “far from being all satisfied and all enjoying, she found every body requiring something they had not, and giving occasion of discontent to the others.” Her conclusions come not just from observation, however, but because everyone turns to her with their problems. Fanny enacts in the Lovers’ Vows rehearsals the eightfold path. Deep listening is the foundation for Right Speech, and “Fanny, being always a very courteous listener, and often the only listener at hand, came in for the complaints and distresses of most of them.”71 Thanks to her liminal status, she engages in Right View and Right Thinking—correct perception not marred by concepts—throughout the novel. As explored previously, Fanny continues to use Right Mindfulness, looking within to understand the cause of her suffering. When Edmund accepts a role in the play after protesting about how wrong it is to act, she finds that “her indifference to the danger was beginning to fail her,” that she “was at first in some danger of” envy, and that she is “agitated” and “anxious.”72 Unlike Julia, Fanny sits with her suffering, examines it, and is then free from it, finding peace, which she achieves via Right Diligence—that is, applying herself earnestly to the endeavor with good intent. Lastly, she shows Right Concentration, not escaping as everyone else is but staying present, which allows her to see the suffering of all, and engages in Right Livelihood, offering her time and service with compassion, for example, memorizing Mr. Rushworth’s lines in an effort to help him “in her pity and kind-heartedness.”73 In this way, while the others seek pleasure, Fanny continues to offer happiness, defined by Thich Nhat Hanh as benefiting and nourishing everyone.74

Those characters who do enjoy the play perform as directors and actors in their everyday lives. Mrs. Norris happily participates behind the scenes, oblivious to any impropriety and certainly unworried about Sir Thomas’s wishes. Long before the play, Austen describes Mrs. Norris in rather theatrical terms, referring to “her love of directing.”75 Henry Crawford is by far the best actor, which gives insight into someone who lives a part rather than reflecting on his own character. Fanny is “the only one of the party who found any thing to dislike” in Henry.76 But the narrator assures us that she is quite correct, telling the reader that Henry lacks “the habit of examining his own motives, and reflecting to what the indulgence of his idle vanity was tending; but, thoughtless and selfish from prosperity and bad example,” Henry knowingly plays games with Maria and Julia, just as he will attempt to do later with Fanny.77 He does so via the overt acting of scenes but also through staging them, for example, reading the Shakespeare play aloud, performing conversations for Fanny’s benefit, insisting on helping during the card game at the Grants’, and having Mary offer Fanny a chain for her pendant to trick her into accepting a gift and thereby be in his debt. Penny Gay points to the necklace scene as support that “Mary is adept at improvising scenes which utilise her seductive powers.”78 Gay sees this as just one example of how Mary acts and directs scenes in order to manipulate those around her. These characters who are acting scripts are caught by narrative, unlike Fanny, the constant observer who sees “all that was passing before her.”79

Because Fanny operates in the moment, responding to her circumstances with flexibility, and engaging in self-reflection, the charge that she is a self-righteous prig is wrong. And rather than being a sadomasochistic victim, as some charge, Fanny exhibits humility and, in a quiet way, self-confidence by the end of the novel. Faced with the bullying and intimidating Sir Thomas calling her ungrateful and selfish in her refusal of Henry Crawford, Fanny stands her ground, knowing that she and Henry could not make each other happy. Certainly, the argument exists that it is her love for Edmund that prevents her acquiescence to the engagement rather than internal conviction, but Fanny is also clear in knowing that Edmund wants Mary, not her. Her refusal comes at great cost to herself and to her family, whom Henry could help with his funds. It comes from a sense of what is right, not hope for a future with Edmund. It is also true that Fanny begins to see Henry in a more positive light when in Portsmouth, which serves only as a refutation of those critics who argue that Fanny is boorish in being always and only right. Rather, Fanny struggles throughout the novel, as any aspirant would, in facing difficult emotions. And she does continue to resist the seductive Crawfords, refusing their offer to return her to Mansfield and choosing to remain with her family even as it harms her health. Instead, she turns her bodhisattva nature to good use, resolving disputes and helping Susan.

None of this makes Fanny unique. Buddhists believe that everyone has Buddha nature within, and anyone who chooses to awaken bodhicitta and achieve enlightenment out of altruism can become a bodhisattva. Fanny is fortunate in the life circumstances that offer her freedom not available to the other characters. Julia, Maria, and Mary are educated in how to be proper young ladies, an education that ultimately traps them not just socially but also conceptually; they psychologically limit themselves. Mrs. Norris addresses Sir Thomas’s concerns about bringing Fanny to Mansfield Park by saying, “Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well.”80 Education for proper ladies, as Mary Wollstonecraft argued in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman only twenty-two years earlier, did more harm than good, training them only to catch husbands. Sir Thomas echoes these thoughts in lamenting the education of his daughters, deciding “they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers,” for he “had meant them to be good,” but “that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education,” his daughters had learned ladies’ manners only.81

Similarly, though Edmund is guilty of looking for ways to excuse Mary’s behavior when smitten with her, he is not wrong in blaming her thoughtlessness on a poor education and poor role models. While some critics see Fanny as Edmund’s mere cipher—he takes charge of her education—she benefits greatly from her deep reading and his guidance. Shantideva argues for the importance of teachers, and while Edmund’s infatuation with Mary blinds him for a while, he is still an excellent model of many attributes of enlightenment. For example, he is the only member of the Bertram family to see Fanny’s distress upon moving to Mansfield Park, offering deep listening and compassion.82 Most importantly, Fanny as student clearly surpasses Edmund as teacher with her clarity of vision and self-discipline.

In their article “A History of the Fanny Wars,” Troost and Greenfield reference an August 2014 Los Angeles Review of Books piece by Anna Keesey, who describes her movement from dislike of Fanny as “Anglican doormat” to an appreciation of her as “a hero on a winged horse,” offering with her “stillness” an antidote for our times in which “rough beasts are aslouch on the road to many Bethlehems.”83 Perhaps our modern pieties have changed so that Fanny and Mansfield Park no longer offend. Within the last few years Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True was ranked No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list and Time’s 2017 special issue was devoted to mindfulness. We may now be at a cultural moment in which our own perspectives have shifted in such a way that we can see Fanny Price anew and appreciate her bodhisattva nature. We might even have something to learn from her about cultivating a bit of bodhicitta ourselves.


[1] Amy J. Pawl argues that the “cardinal Austen sin [is] selfishness” (315) in “Fanny Price and the Sentimental Genealogy of Mansfield Park,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 16, no. 2 (2004), 287–315. Tony Tanner says of Mansfield Park that “it is a book about the difficulty of preserving true moral consciousness amid the selfish manoeuvring and jostling of society” (171) in Jane Austen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).

[2] Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield’s “A History of the Fanny Wars,” Persuasions 36 (2014), 15–33, best captures the many negative opinions of Fanny through careful documentation of reactions to her throughout the centuries.

[3] Lionel Trilling, “Mansfield Park,” in Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 124–40, 127.

[4] Troost and Greenfield write that “admiring her was tantamount to endorsing behavior and sentiments seen as old fashioned and ‘Victorian’” (History of the Fanny Wars, 29).

[5] In Jane Austen and the Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), Penny Gay calls her a “true Christian heroine” (118).

[6] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), 62.

[7] Pema Chodron, No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to The Way of the Bodhisattva (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2017), 248.

[8] An aspiring bodhisattva can invoke the “four great bodhisattvas—Avalokiteshvara (Regarder of the Cries of the World), Manjushri (Great Understanding), Samantabhadra (Universal Goodness), and Kshitigarbha (Earth Store).” Thich Nhat Hanh, “Dharma Talk: Cultivating our Bodhisattva Qualities,” The Mindfulness Bell 22 (1998),

[9] Peter Knox-Shaw, Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 5.

[10] Thich Nhat Hanh, Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, 7.

[11] Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007), 220.

[12] Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2003), 342.

[13] Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, ed. and trans. Padmakara Translation Group (Boston: Shambhala, 2006), 8.

[14] David Loy, The World Is Made of Stories (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2010), 19.

[15] Alison Wood Brooks, “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 143, no. 3 (2014), 1144–158.

[16] Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston: Shambhala, 2011), 114.

[17] Thich Nhat Hanh, Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, 11.

[18] Chodron, No Time to Lose, 866.

[19] Douglas R. Kenrick, Norman P. Li, and Jonathan Butner, “Dynamical Evolutionary Psychology: Individual Decision Rules and Emergent Social Norms,” Psychological Review 110, no. 1 (2003): 3–28, 17.

[20] Brian Boyd claims, “No one before Austen needed free indirect style as a ready technical resource, because no one before Austen paid such minute attention to the way we monitor ourselves and each other so finely” (22). Brian Boyd, “Jane Meet Charles: Literature, Evolution, and Human Nature,” Philosophy and Literature 22 (1998): 1–30.

[21] Austen, Mansfield Park, 156.

[22] Austen, 158.

[23] Austen, 157.

[24] Austen, 362.

[25] Austen, 158.

[26] Dalai Lama, How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, ed. and trans. Jeffrey Hopkins (New York, Atria Books, 2002), 9.

[27] In No Time to Lose, Pema Chodron states, “Expecting lasting happiness from a shift in outer circumstances will always disappoint us” (735).

[28] Chodron, No Time to Lose, 127.

[29] Anne K. Mellor and Alex L. Wilson accuse Fanny of “intense masochism” (228). As an aspiring bodhisattva, Fanny does not court or enjoy pain; rather, she understands how to manage it and does not flee from the inevitable suffering in life. “Austen’s Fanny Price, Grateful Negroes, and Stockholm Syndrome,” Persuasions 34 (2012): 222–35.

[30] Chodron, No Time to Lose, 200.

[31] Harvey Aronson, Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology (Boston: Shambhala, 2004), 71.

[32] Aronson, Buddhist Practice, 69–70.

[33] Dalai Lama, Practicing Wisdom: The Perfection of Shantideva’s Bodhisattva Way, ed. Thupten Jinpa (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2004), 55.

[34] Austen, 9.

[35] Austen, 9.

[36] Chodron, No Time to Lose, 627–29.

[37] Chodron, No Time to Lose, 725.

[38] Austen, 64.

[39] Dawn Potter believes that “among all the major characters in Mansfield Park, [Fanny] is the only one who studies her own personality.” Dawn Potter, “In Defense of Dullness or Why Fanny Price Is My Favorite Austen Heroine,” Sewanee Review 116, no. 4 (2008): 611–18, 612. Pema Chodron notes that such powers of self-reflection are essential for enlightenment: “In all kinds of situations, we can find out what is true simply by studying ourselves in every nook and cranny” (When Things Fall Apart, 149).

[40] Austen, 80.

[41] Austen, 366.

[42] Chodron, No Time to Lose, 751.

[43] Austen, 155.

[44] “Introduction,” The Way of the Bodhisattva, 12.

[45] Qtd. in Chodron, No Time to Lose, 257–58.

[46] Austen, 53.

[47] Austen, 55.

[48] Austen, 76.

[49] Austen, 54.

[50] Austen, 4.

[51] Chodron, No Time to Lose, 257.

[52] Austen, 141.

[53] Austen, 148.

[54] Tanner, Jane Austen, 153.

[55] Tanner, Jane Austen, 173.

[56] Austen, 125.

[57] Austen, 132.

[58] Austen, 277.

[59] Austen, 162.

[60] Austen, 163.

[61] Austen, 164.

[62] Austen, 19.

[63] Austen, 363.

[64] Austen, 39.

[65] Dalai Lama, Practicing Wisdom, 83.

[66] Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, 120.

[67] Austen, 97.

[68] Austen, 127.

[69] Austen, 125.

[70] Austen, 128.

[71] Austen, 129.

[72] Austen, 124, 125, 131.

[73] Austen, 130.

[74] Thich Nhat Hanh, Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, 78.

[75] Austen, 7.

[76] Austen, 92.

[77] Austen, 91.

[78] Gay, Jane Austen and the Theatre, 114.

[79] Austen, 145.

[80] Austen, 5.

[81] Austen, 364.

[82] Jane McDonnell notes that Edmund is the only character in Mansfield Park to foster Fanny’s intellectual growth and to esteem her sensitivity and “spirituality.” Jane McDonnell, “‘A Little Spirit of Independence:’ Sexual Politics and the Bildungsroman in Mansfield Park,” Novel 17, no. 3 (1984): 197–214. For another defense of Edmund’s education of Fanny, see Marija Reiff, “The ‘Fanny Price Wars’: Jane Austen’s Enlightenment Feminist and Mary Wollstonecraft,” Women’s Studies 45 (2016): 275–90.

[83] Qtd. in Troost and Greenfield, History of the Fanny Wars, 29.