Samuel Johnson goes abroad

Claude Rawson

  • A Voyage to Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson, edited by Joel Gold
    Yale, 350 pp, £39.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 300 03003 7
  • Rasselas, and Other Tales by Samuel Johnson, edited by Gwin Kolb
    Yale, 290 pp, £24.50, March 1991, ISBN 0 300 04451 8
  • A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) by Samuel Johnson
    Longman, 1160 pp, £195.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 582 07380 4
  • The Making of Johnson’s Dictionary, 1746-1773 by Allen Reddick
    Cambridge, 249 pp, £30.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 521 36160 5
  • Samuel Johnson’s Attitude to the Arts by Morris Brownell
    Oxford, 195 pp, £30.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 19 812956 4
  • Johnson’s Shakespeare by G.F. Parker
    Oxford, 204 pp, £25.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 19 812974 2

‘In all my dealings with the Moors, I have always discover’d in them an ill-natur’d cowardise, which makes them insupportably insolent, if you shew them the least respect, and easily reduced to reasonable terms, when you treat them with a high hand.’ The words read like something from Said’s Orientalism, the sentiments of a Balfour or Cromer, as parroted by a barrackroom sage or vainglorious subaltern, without the bland solvent of self-righteous statesmanship. In fact, they’re from Samuel Johnson’s first book, A Voyage to Abyssinia (1735), an excellent and little-noticed edition of which, by Joel Gold, appeared in 1985. They come at the conclusion of a distressing episode in which an ‘old Mahometan troublemaker, ‘the master of our camels’, is caught stealing some tent cords. When the travellers seek to retrieve them, he and the other drivers offer resistance and are subdued by ‘our soldiers’. ‘None receiv’d any hurt,’ except the original culprit: ‘He was knock’d down by one of our soldiers, who had cut his throat, but that the fathers prevented it, he then restor’d the cords, and was more tractable ever after.’

The Voyage is not, of course, Johnson’s work, but a translation of a French translation of a 17th-century manuscript by the Portuguese Jesuit Jeronimo Lobo. But the English is Johnson’s, and it has a curtness absent from his French source. It omits an account of the Moor’s ‘prior attack on a Portuguese soldier’, and subsequent efforts to appease him from both sides. Joel Gold thinks this heightens the ‘impression of Portuguese cruelty and disdain’, and expresses ‘an anti-Portuguese bias’ on Johnson’s part. I’m not so sure. Johnson tells us plainly that the drivers threatened the Portuguese with their daggers, and he had a good opinion of Lobo, whom he thought ‘contrary to the general vein of his countrymen’ not only in his narrative credibility but in his freedom from Portuguese or Jesuit partiality, and from the tendency to ‘aggravate the vices of the Abyssins’ (who are Christian and to be distinguished from ‘Moors’, a word which in the Voyage usually applies to Muslims, though Johnson’s Dictionary definition in 1755 was merely ‘A negro; a black-a-moor’). He also praises the French intermediary, Le Grand. Johnson was abridging as well as translating Lobo’s narrative, but I don’t think that entirely accounts for the omissions either, and in any case he exercised a freedom to amplify or to make other changes to his original. In the reflection on the general insolence of Moors, the phrase ‘ill-natur’ d cowardise’ translates mauvais naturel, which merely means ‘bad disposition’. This change, like the curtness, might even suggest animus against ‘Moors’, not Portuguese.

The Voyage is an early work. Johnson later, as Boswell reports, ‘seemed to think it beneath him’. It’s apparently the style and not the opinions that he would have wished to disavow, though he may also have wanted to forget the poverty-driven hack work of his early years. What we know of his views on racial or imperial matters is not consistent with such a show of racial animus. Even his unillusioned anti-Rousseauist notions about savages or the savage state were concerned with men’s radical depravity and misery in a non-civilised or pre-civilised state, not with any specific racial make-up: ‘Children are always cruel. Savages are always cruel.’ It followed that any group he thought of as primitive, whether Arab tribesmen or Otaheitians, belonged to the class of ‘savage’, to whom he denied ‘superior happiness ... bodily advantages ... better health; and as to care or mental uneasiness, they are not above it, but below it, like bears.’ But it followed equally that anyone, of any race, might shed civilised qualities (“Gross men prefer animal pleasure. So there are men who have preferred living among savages’) or acquire them. The South Sea islander Omai, having been exposed to the ‘best company’, was so ‘genteel’ and had ‘so little of the savage’ that when he and Lord Mulgrave ‘sat with their backs to the light’ Johnson ‘was afraid to speak to either, lest I should mistake one for the other’. Omai was a fashionable object of wonder, a kind of Pygmalion’s freak, but Johnson’s response to him was in exact and literal conformity with his principled views on these matters.

Such attitudes, we’ve been taught to recognise, weren’t proof against the old imperial Adam, who lurks in all occidentals, and is culturally and intellectually, as well as politically and commercially, predatory. Johnson’s occasional interest in visiting India may have included some idea of making his fortune, though he mainly expressed intellectual curiosity about distant places. He detested Clive, ‘a man who had acquired his fortune by such crimes, that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat’. When Johnson said, à propos of Warren Hastings, ‘that the best plan for the government of India is a despotick governour,’ he meant not that orientals should be treated ‘with a high hand’ but that despotism would reduce colonial plunder: a good despot would check it, a bad one would minimise it in others to get more for himself. He knew and admired Hastings, and was a friend of the great orientalist Sir William Jones, scholar of Persian and Sanskrit, and, as Mr Jones, a member of the Club, present at Boswell’s election. When Johnson first wrote to Hastings on 30 March 1774, recommending to him the future Sir Robert Chambers, one of his Majesty’s Judges in India, and enclosing a copy of Jones’s Persian Grammar (1771), he pressed Hastings to ‘examine nicely the Traditions and Histories of the East’, and use his ‘attention and patronage’ to add to knowledge about the ‘arts of manufacture’ in India, still ‘imperfectly known here either to artificers or philosophers’.

This can doubtless be variously interpreted as a creditable desire for knowledge, an openness to foreign experience, a predatory design on Eastern technologies, or the sort of appropriative curiosity about the Orient which is depicted in Said’s book as the scholarly or intellectual arm of the imperial enterprise: a prelude to the vast acquisitive labours of French and English orientalists of the 19th century, which established a pattern of domination through exhaustive knowledge, laboriously charted. Then again Johnson hopes that Hastings’s information will enlighten us ‘about things which an Indian Peasant knows by his senses’, which seems to show him to be sensitive, in a way Said praises Burton for being, to the lived inwardness of what it was ‘to be an Oriental or a Muslim’, knowing ‘certain things in a certain way’. But Johnson sounds as much concerned with practical native know-how as with cultural sharing, and Burton’s standard, in Said’s terms, is an imperfect one anyway: more heroic, more finely appropriative than his analogues, but still appropriative. Who shall scape whipping?

The nuances and uncertainties are important. That they cannot be ironed out is perhaps essential to the case. The usefulness of Orientalism is that it puts forward the co-ordinates by which we detect them, though the book has its own tendency to create approximate or self-validating closed systems. It is sometimes necessary to remember that it hasn’t been read by any of the people it’s about. Also, Johnson isn’t one of these in any specific sense, though he is named as broadly representative on two of its pages. When he made the 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit sound like a boastful subaltern from an imperial culture later than the Jesuit’s or Johnson’s own, he had no idea that he was doing this. In one sense, he was doing it all the more in the terms of the closed system. In other terms, the implications are so out of line with the evidence of his later thinking that we have to suppose either that his attitudes changed radically or that we, schooled in post imperial guilt, are misreading the implications. I don’t know any evidence to suggest that Johnson’s views on race changed in any particular direction after 1735, or that would corroborate as autobiographical the coarse ‘racism’ we might feel disposed to see in the passage from the Voyage – if we exclude (as I think we have to) Joel Gold’s view that Johnson was trying to show that his Portuguese author was more racist than he was, a scenario as much conditioned by late 20th-century sensitivities as is its more obvious alternative. Both presuppose a degree of awareness of nuances of racial insult which would be alien to Johnson’s cast of mind.

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[*] Thomas Percy: A Scholar-Cleric in the Age of Johnson. University of Pennsylvania Press. 361 pp., £31.95, 1989, 0 8122 8161 6.

[†] New Light on Boswell, edited by Greg Clingham. Cambridge, 235 pp., £30, 27 June, 0 521 38047 2.