Romantic Orientalism


In 1992, Disney released its blockbuster animated film Aladdin. Thanks in part to the popularity of the movie, the story is well-known: a poor Arabian boy finds a magical lamp containing a genie, who helps the boy win over the Sultan’s daughter against the wishes of the Grand Vizier and rise to a position of wealth and power. The film achieved great critical and commercial success, but it also generated a good deal of controversy. Much of the controversy had to do with the way Aladdin relied on a set of time-worn stereotypes about the Middle East, depicting many of the Arab figures as violent, overly sexualized, comically dull-witted, or otherwise exotic. The film’s opening song, “Arabian Nights,” exemplified these stereotypes, referring to the story’s setting as one where “they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home.” The line was later modified, but it contributed to a lingering antipathy to Disney’s movie in some communities. When the film company produced a live action remake of Aladdin in 2019, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a statement informing viewers that the “Aladdin myth is rooted by racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia.”

CAIR’s accusations of racism and Islamophobia are clear enough, but what did the organization mean by “Orientalism”? In this context, CAIR used the term to refer to a set of Western stereotypes about people from parts of the world to the east of Europe, mainly from the Middle East (e.g., Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia) and Asia (e.g., India, Iran, and China). (The word “Orient” was used for hundreds of years to refer to “the East.”) At the core of Orientalism is the belief that the peoples and cultures of “the Orient” and “the West” are not only fundamentally different but essentially opposed: whereas Westerners are rational, disciplined, moderate, and level-headed, the peoples of the East are emotional, self-indulgent, extremist, mystical, and so on. In accusing Aladdin of Orientalism, CAIR suggested that Disney had drawn on just these stereotypes.

This way of conceiving of “the East” and its peoples—indeed, of seeing “West” and “East” as distinct and opposed places—has a long and complicated history. Writers have depicted the East in what we would now call Orientalist terms since the time of the Ancient Greeks. However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Europeans began exploring and colonizing the rest of the globe, what had been vaguely defined beliefs, stereotypes, and assumptions began to coalesce into a coherent discourse focused on the Orient. According to scholar Edward Said, whose landmark book Orientalism (1978) examined the history of European and American conceptions and depictions of the East, Orientalism emerged around this time as a “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it; in short, Orientalism [became] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said 3). In Said’s analysis, Orientalism took many different forms. It was institutionalized, for example, as an academic discipline aiming to develop and organize knowledge about the Orient. Across Europe, works of Orientalist scholarship were produced by scholars who sought to systematize knowledge about the peoples and cultures of those Eastern regions being colonized by European powers. At the same time, according to Said, “to this systematic knowledge was added a sizable body of literature produced by novelists, poets, translators” and others (Said 39), who fashioned an Orientalist literary genre distinguished by a particular set of conventions, tropes, stock characters, and settings exemplified in stories like Aladdin. Whether academic or literary, what unified the various expressions of Orientalism was a belief in the basic opposition between West and East, an opposition that allowed Europeans to imagine the Orient as a cultural space defined by everything they thought Europe was not.

Orientalist literature became especially fashionable during the Romantic era in Britain. This period—usually seen as starting with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending with the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837—saw the transformation of Britain into the world’s preeminent colonial power and the emergence in the country of a new literary style we now call Romanticism. Most of the period’s major poets and prose writers—including William Wordsworth, Mary Robinson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, Thomas De Quincey, and Thomas Moore—engaged with and reacted to Orientalist conventions of the time. The body of work these writers produced through this engagement is part of what literary scholars refer to as Romantic Orientalism. Over the last two hundred years, Romantic Orientalist literature has exerted a profound impact on European and American cultures and continues to this day to influence conceptions of Middle Eastern and Asian countries and peoples. This collection explores Romantic Orientalism by examining the historical contexts of its emergence and a selection of its scholarly and literary expressions.

Questions to Consider:

  • To what area does the term “the Orient” refer? What are some stereotypes about “the Orient”?
  • Orientalism developed within the context of European colonialism in Asia. How might Orientalist stereotypes have enabled European colonists and imperialists to exert power in colonial situations?
  • Orientalism continues to shape public discourse in contemporary culture. Can you think of any instances—in film, on TV, or in the media—of Orientalist depictions of Middle Eastern or Asian countries, cultures, or peoples?
  • What kinds of opportunities—and challenges—do writers have when depicting a faraway place that they have never seen? What kinds of representations do you expect to see from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors and poets? Do you predict that these representations will be positive or negative?

British Colonialism and Orientalist Scholarship

Understanding the origins of Romantic Orientalism requires some familiarity with the history of European colonialism in Asia. In the wake of Vasco da Gama’s voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to India in the last years of the fifteenth century, Portuguese and Dutch merchants and trading companies began to establish trading bases on the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, India, and the East Indies. Trade from these settlements brought these traders into increasingly close contact with the cultures and peoples of these regions. During the 1600s, English traders—especially those of the East India Company—followed suit, establishing trading colonies across these areas and in India. The East India Company soon had large bases at the Indian locales of Surat and Madras, where it traded in pepper and textiles, commodities that became the backbone of its business. In 1690, the company established a trading station at Kolkata (which they called “Calcutta”). This city was further inland and in proximity to an important cotton-weaving district in the region of Bengal. Over the next hundred years, Kolkata became the center of the East India Company’s export trade, which was expanded to include other commodities, like silk, porcelain, opium, and tea.

When the English had first arrived in India, the Islamic Mughal Empire dominated the region. Mughal power waned in the eighteenth century, creating a power vacuum that members of the East India Company exploited. Using superior military technology and manipulating rivalries among the many smaller kingdoms of the region, the company acquired more territory and greater political control. In 1756, a new nawab (ruler), Siraj-ud-Daula, challenged the English in Bengal and succeeded in taking Kolkata. Before peace was agreed upon, an incident took place that shaped Orientalist views of India for centuries. Siraj-ud-Daula’s soldiers imprisoned over a hundred Europeans and others in a small dungeon meant for only a few people. Many of the prisoners died. In the United Kingdom, the event became infamous and the dungeon was known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” Even though English company members committed comparable acts against Indians, the incident worked its way into British legend and impacted public perceptions of India in the following centuries.

The next year, the company, led by a young clerk named Robert Clive, joined a conspiracy against Siraj-ud-Daula and defeated his army at the Battle of Plassey. The victory was a watershed moment, as it assured the East India Company’s position in India. In the years following Plassey, the company expanded at breakneck speed, swallowing up territory and making its members rich. The ready access to massive wealth encouraged corruption, and in no time the company’s finances were in disarray. Soon, the British government stepped in to regulate, transferring control to a council comprised of five government-appointed members and a single Governor-General, Warren Hastings, who served from 1774 to 1785.

Throughout this time, the leaders of the company sought to strengthen their position by learning more about the territories they controlled. Thus, the company threw its weight behind an impressive effort by James Rennell to map Bengal and its surroundings. In 1764, Rennell began surveying the area, and between 1767 and 1777, he mapped an area about the size of Texas. He published his Bengal Atlas in 1779. Recognized as one of the most accurate maps available for years afterwards, the Atlas contributed to the company’s commercial and administrative dominance in Bengal.

In 1785, the East India Company also sponsored the first English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, an important Hindu religious text. Like Rennell’s Atlas, company leaders understood this effort as a contribution to general knowledge and an important way to support the colonial administration. As Hastings wrote in the translation’s dedication, “Every accumulation of knowledge, and especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise dominion founded by the right of conquest, is useful to the state.”

Likewise, Hastings and the East India Company supported the work of Sir William Jones, a company judge in Kolkata and a self-identifying “Orientalist.” His scholarship added much to the growing knowledge about the East. Having learned Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian, Jones turned his attention to compiling knowledge about the cultures of India and other areas of Asia. He founded the Asiatick Society of Calcutta in 1784 and published a journal entitled Asiatick Researches beginning in 1788. The journal brought together a wealth of scholarship dealing with the Orient, covering everything from religion, language, and literature to architecture, climate, and geography. Along with Rennell’s Atlas and the East India Company’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, the issues of Asiatick Researches contributed to an emerging academic field of study about “the Orient.”

Questions to Consider:

  • Examine the documents from Rennell’s Bengal Atlas. How might the information included—like distances, locations, and landscapes—have supported the East India Company’s activities in India?
  • One of the most famous Indian scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita likely originated in north India between 300 BCE and 600 CE as part of a much longer poem called the Mahabharata. It takes the form of a battle-field dialogue between the divine figure Krishna and the warrior Arjuna. In his dedication to the work, Hastings focuses on the scholarly and colonial value of the translation. Read this excerpt of Hastings’s dedication from the English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. What does this dedication show us about Hastings’s understanding of the value of Orientalist knowledge? How does he represent Britain’s relationship to India? How does he represent the Indians? What does he seem to suggest about the aims (and future) of British rule in India?
  • Consult the “Table Containing Examples” included in Asiatick Researches. Do you notice any patterns in the examples of words or phrases chosen? Why might the author have chosen these examples?

18th-Century Orientalist Literature: Arabian Nights

As the texts featured in the previous section suggest, writers intended to create and circulate knowledge about Oriental geography and cultures in part to support colonization. But simultaneously, there emerged in eighteenth-century Europe a comparable body of imaginative literature focused on the Orient. The origins of this tradition are complicated and diffuse, but one work above all helped ignite an interest in Orientalist literature in Western Europe: Antoine Galland’s Les Miles et Une Nuits, or One Thousand and One Nights.

Galland (1646-1715) was a French archaeologist, Orientalist, and translator. During the first years of the eighteenth century, he published Les Miles et Une Nuits, a loose French translation of an Arabic manuscript version of a centuries-old collection of Arabic, Indian, and Persian folktales. Galland’s translation saw almost immediate success, and an English translation of Galland’s work—entitled Arabian Nights Entertainment—was published in London from 1706-1708. Publishers reprinted this text (and variants of it) repeatedly over the next hundred years, and its wide circulation stoked British fascination with the Orient and reinforced Orientalist stereotypes. (Many of the Arabian Nights stories have remained popular. For example, European readers first encountered the story of “Aladdin and the Magical Lamp” in Galland’s work, though the story is not considered part of the core story collection from the Arabic source.)

Part of the appeal of Arabian Nights was that it gave readers a chance to imagine vividly the Orient’s supposed eroticism, exoticism, and violence. The work’s frame narrative exemplifies these qualities. Arabian Nights opens with the story of two brothers, Shahriyar and Shahzaman, who are sultans in India and China. After ruling different kingdoms for many years, Shahriyar invites Shahzaman to visit his kingdom. Shahzaman sets off but wants to see his wife, the Sultaness, once more before he leaves. He returns to his palace unexpectedly and finds his wife sleeping with another man. In a fit of rage, he kills them both before departing for his brother’s kingdom.

When Shahzaman arrives, he witnesses an even more extreme act of infidelity, this time involving his brother Shahriyar’s Sultaness and twenty of her courtiers. Shahzaman relates what he has seen to his brother, and Shahriyar murders all those involved, including the Sultaness. Still enraged, he decides he will marry a new woman every day only to execute her the next morning, before she can be unfaithful to him. Soon, Shahriyar has killed almost every woman in his kingdom. Finally, Scheherazade, the daughter of Shahriyar’s vizier, offers herself as a wife to protect the remaining women. On their wedding night, Scheherazade convinces Shahriyar to let her tell him a story, which she leaves unfinished. Shahriyar agrees to let her live so that she can finish her story the next night, and Scheherazade continues telling and leaving unfinished stories for 1,001 nights. (Together, these stories form the story collection of Arabian Nights Entertainments.) Over this time, she has three children with Shahriyar and convinces him to trust her and let her live.

By featuring a lustful, wantonly cruel despot and foregrounding the theme of sexual violence, the frame narrative—like the collection as a whole—provided the British reading public with a conception of the East as a place of startling brutality, rampant eroticism, and political backwardness. While these themes were certainly present in the original text translated by Galland, British editions of the Arabian Nights often highlighted them with frontispieces and illustrations that drew readers’ attention to the Orientalist stereotypes in the stories. This is apparent in the Romantic period copy shown here.

Questions to consider:

  • Examine the title page of the English edition of Galland’s Arabian Nights Entertainments. What Orientalist stereotypes does the page present? How does it reinforce these stereotypes?
  • In what way does the title page of Galland’s work also situate Arabian Nights within the tradition of Orientalism as a field of scholarly study?
  • Note that similar illustrations are included on the title page and in the text of the 1827 edition of Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. What do these illustrations depict? How do you think the illustrations could inform a reader’s experience of the stories?

Byron, Oriental Travel Writing, and the Oriental Tale

The popularity of Arabian Nights created a craze for Oriental literature that lasted throughout the eighteenth century and in some ways continues to this day. As early as 1711, London publications like the Spectator published Orientalist pieces. In 1722, an English translation of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters increased interest in the emerging genre and led to the publication of collections like Anne Claude Phillips Caylus’s Oriental Tales. In 1759, Samuel Johnson published Rasselas, which narrated the travels of the prince of Abyssinia (current-day Ethiopia) through Egypt, helping prompt another wave of Oriental prose writing, including Frances Sheridan’s The History of Nourjahad (1767), William Beckford’s Gothic-Oriental hybrid Vathek (1786), and Walter Savage Landor’s Gebir (1798). Works like these had established the Oriental tale as a major genre by the advent of the Romantic period.

At the same time, there was a surge of travel writing about the Orient, including books like Richard Chandler’s Travels in Asia Minor (1775), Eyles Irwin’s A Series of Adventures in the Course of a Voyage up the Red Sea (1780), Edward Scott Waring’s A Tour to Sheeraz (1807), and Lord Valentia’s Voyages and Travels to India (1811).

John Cam Hobhouse’s A Journey Through Albania and other Provinces of Turkey (1813) exemplifies the Romantic-era Oriental travel book. Along with lengthy descriptions of the author’s travels through Ottoman-controlled Southeastern Europe, the book contained a wealth of ethnographic material. This included calligraphic samples, prints of Turkish figures, and even a depiction of a harem. Such materials were meant to increase the appeal of Hobhouse’s book to a reading public inclined towards Orientalist themes. Yet his work’s success was eclipsed by another work by the author’s friend and traveling partner, Lord Byron.

Upon his return to England from his travels with Hobhouse, Byron (1788-1824) published his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812). This poem narrates the travels of Childe Harold, a young and disillusioned protagonist—modeled on Byron himself—through the Turkish-controlled Eastern Mediterranean. Arriving in Ioannina (now northern Greece, but then controlled by the Ottomans), Harold visits the seat of Ali Pasha, the Ottoman ruler of the region:

He pass’d the sacred Haram’s silent tower,
And underneath the wide o’erarching gate
Survey’d the dwelling of this chief of power,
Where all around proclaim’d his high estate.
Amidst no common pomp the despot sate,
While busy preparation shook the court,
Slaves, eunuchs, soldiers, guests, and santons wait…

(Canto II, Stanza LV, page 88)

In passages like this one, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage deployed Orientalist conventions to frame its subject matter. Harold’s entrance into Ioannina is marked by a succession of Orientalist sights: a haram, slaves and eunuchs, and finally the Oriental despot himself, Ali Pasha, who sits (as we later read) amid “soft voluptuous couches” (Canto II, Stanzas LXI, page 91) in a palace exuding “Wealth and Wantonness” (Canto II, Stanza LXIII, page 92 ). Like Hobhouse’s book, Byron’s poem enticed its readers in these ways with pictures of Oriental luxury. And like Hobhouse, Byron also included ethnographic material (including a supposed facsimile of a handwritten note by Ali Pasha) meant to appeal to the public’s interest in Oriental ethnography.

At the same time, Byron challenged Orientalist stereotypes explicitly in the notes attached to the poem, and nowhere more clearly than in the “Additional Note, on the Turks.” A complicated document in many ways, the “Note” is not so much a scholarly addendum as a conversational reflection on Turkish customs—meandering, often contradictory, and (apparently) evincing many of the biases of an English lord of the period. Yet the text seems designed to counteract many of the dominant stereotypes about the Ottomans. “If it be difficult to pronounce what they are,” Byron writes, referring to the Ottomans, “we can at least say what they are not; they are not treacherous, they are not cowardly, they do not burn heretics, they are not assassins…” (160). After rejecting this series of well-known Orientalist tropes, he challenges the assumption of Oriental despotism by noting that “[t]hey are faithful to their sultan till he becomes unfit to govern” (160). And he devotes special effort to dispelling the belief in Ottoman backwardness and ignorance by comparing education in Turkey and Europe:

I remember Mahmout, the grandson of Ali Pacha, asking whether my fellow-traveller and myself were in the upper or lower house of parliament? Now this question from a boy of ten years old proved that his education had not [been] neglected. It may be doubted if an English boy at that age knows the difference of the Divan from a College of Dervises, but I am very sure a Spaniard does not. How little Mahmout, surrounded, as he had been, entirely by his Turkish tutors, had learned that there was such a thing as a parliament it were useless to conjecture, unless we suppose that his instructors did not confine his studies to the Koran. (160-1)

Even so, Byron’s skeptical treatment of Orientalist stereotypes in the “Additional Note” didn’t stop him from exploiting these stereotypes fully in subsequent work. Following the extraordinary success of Childe Harold, Byron published a series of “Turkish Tales” that solidified his position as the period’s best-selling author and transformed him into a celebrity. Recognizing the similarities of these poems, readers often bound different tales together in single books, producing their own anthologies of Oriental tales. In the case of the collection shown here, the book’s owner added a thematically-relevant painting to the book’s fore-edge: a view of Constantinople (now Istanbul).

By deftly manipulating Orientalist conventions, Byron transformed himself into the best-selling poet of the Romantic age in Britain. But Byron’s time as a darling of the literary world did not last. In 1816, he was forced to leave England amid rumors of sodomy and incest. He moved to Italy, where he attacked the British reading public for its hypocrisy, conservatism, and bad taste in literature—a bad taste he had deliberately cultivated with his own work. Mocking his former fans in the poem Beppo (1817), he reminisced about those “pretty poems never known to fail” that had made his reputation, recalling how easily he would “print (the world delighting) / A Grecian, Syrian, or Assyrian tale; / And sell you, mixed with western Sentimentalism, / Some samples of the finest Orientalism” (Stanza LI; emphasis in original).

Questions to consider:

  • Study the images included by Hobhouse in his book. What does their inclusion suggest about the stereotypical position of women in Ottoman Turkey? What kinds of colonial and Orientalist frameworks are at play in these images?
  • Read the “Additional Note, On the Turks” from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. How does Byron depict the Turks? Would Said consider Byron’s depiction to be Orientalist? If so, how are Byron’s depictions Orientalist? On the other hand, how, if at all, do Byron’s depictions complicate Said’s definitions of Orientalism?
  • Read the “Advertisement” for Byron’s “The Giaour.” How does the advertisement establish the Orientalist pairing of “East” and “West”? Does Byron complicate this binary view? If so, how?

Romantic Orientalism

Romantic Orientalist literature reached its greatest popularity with Byron’s early poetry. But many other prominent poets and writers of the Romantic period also drew on Orientalist conventions in their work.

In 1816, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) published his poem “Kubla Khan,” a fragmentary “vision” inspired by a description of the thirteenth-century Mongol emperor Kublai. Coleridge explained the peculiar story of its creation in an extended note attached to the piece:

[I]n consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed [to the author, Coleridge], from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas’s Pilgrimage: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.”

By identifying an Orientalist scholarly work—Samuel Purchas’s Purchas His Pilgrimage, first published in 1613—as the inspiration of his poem, Coleridge situates “Kubla Khan” within the Orientalist scholarly tradition. Yet at the same time, Coleridge emphasizes the role of the Orient in generating “Kubla Khan” through his reference to the “anodyne” literally stimulating the poem. (Readers would have understood the “anodyne” to be opium, an import from the East to which the poet had become addicted.)

Like Coleridge, the writer Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) also struggled with an opium addiction. In his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), he told the story of his illness, devoting different sections of the book to the “pleasures” as well as the “pains of opium.” In a famous section of the narrative, the author describes “a Malay” (a person from Malaysia) who appeared, seemingly at random, at his door. This passage demonstrates, once again, the racism at the heart of Orientalism by contrasting the Malay with a servant girl who opens the door for him:

In a cottage kitchen…stood the Malay—his turban and loose trousers of dingy white relieved by the dark panelling. He had placed himself nearer to the girl than she seemed to relish, though her native spirit of mountain intrepidity contended with the feeling of simple awe which her countenance expressed as she gazed upon the tiger-cat before her. And a more striking pictures there could not be imagined than the beautiful English face of the girl, and its exquisite fairness together with her erect and independent attitude, contrasted with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay, enameled or veneered with mahogany by marine air, his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations (131-132).

The passage exemplifies the racial hierarchies embedded in much of the Orientalist literature of the Romantic period. These racial hierarchies are described through a series of racialized oppositions between the girl and the Malay. On one level, the Malay is described as an animal, a “tiger-cat” with “fierce, restless eyes” who threatens his human prey by positioning himself too close for comfort. His “mahogany” face and “sallow and bilious skin” are set against the “beautiful English face of the girl, and its exquisite fairness…” And his manner, characterized by “slavish gestures and adorations,” is contrasted with her “erect and independent attitude.”

After attempting to communicate with the visitor, De Quincey describes how he presents the Malay with “a piece of opium” as a parting gift. He is horrified to see the man “raise his hand to his mouth, and, to use the schoolboy phrase, bolt [quickly swallow] the whole…The quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses” (133). Later, this figure returns to De Quincey in an opium-inspired dream saturated in Orientalist imagery and assumptions.

A contemporary of Coleridge and De Quincey, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) channeled Orientalist tropes in his poem “Ozymandias” (1818). Set in the “lone and level sands” of the desert, the sonnet tells of a traveler’s encounter with the ruins of an ancient statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II (“Ozymandias,” in Greek). In part a meditation on aesthetics and the relationship of art to power, the poem can also be read as employing Orientalist conventions concerning the backwardness of Near Eastern political arrangements. Not only is the shattered face of the statue described in Orientalist terms—its cruel “sneer of cold command” is emphasized, for example—but the despotism suggested by the pharaoh’s sneer is cast as just as much of a ruin as the statue itself.

Questions to consider:

  • What Orientalist imagery or stereotypes are present in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”?
  • Study the passage from De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. What countries or regions comprise the Orient, as De Quincey represents it? What terrifies him about the East? What images does he use to represent the opposition between East and West?
  • De Quincey seems unsettled by the possibility that the opposition between the Orient and Britain might collapse. In what ways does the passage blur the boundaries between the Orient and Britain?
  • Are there similarities in the ways De Quincey and Shelley represent the Orient? What might Shelley be suggesting about Oriental politics in “Ozymandias”?

Selected Sources

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York City: Pantheon Books, 1978.