The “field” of Macintosh studies

I was pleased to discover recently that I am no longer the only academic working on Macintosh and his travel account; there is now a nascent “field” of Macintosh studies (albeit its population currently numbers only two).

As part of an upcoming symposium at Queen Mary University of London—”Representations of ‘Europeanness’ in the Long Eighteenth Century“—Dr Laura Tarkka-Robinson (University of Sussex) will be presenting a paper entitled “Ambition and its Others: The European Framework of William Macintosh’s Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa (1782)”. Sadly, marking duties mean I can not attend the symposium to hear Dr Tarkka-Robinson’s paper, but it is encouraging to know that others are taking Macintosh and his work as their focus. The abstract of Dr Tarkka-Robinson’s paper follows.

Upon the appearance of William Macintosh’s Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa in 1782, British reviewers directed special attention to his account of how the day was ‘commonly spent by an Englishman in Bengal’. This caricature of indolence and luxury naturally contributed to public concern about British ‘nabobs’ exploiting the English East India Company’s territorial dominions. In addition, the Travels also provided some descriptions of Indian customs and manners. These, however, were already considered as familiar enough for reviewers to bypass.

The prosed paper will focus on another aspect in Macintosh’s Travels which contemporary readers had no inclination to pinpoint as either scandalous or new: representations of Europe as a system of competing commercial societies. As recently pointed out by Innes M. Keighren (2017), regardless of its epistolary form, Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa was by no means a plain travel narrative but a carefully crafted assemblage of political and economic proposals. Significantly, the eyewitness observations contained in the published work therefore became largely subservient to the argument that the British could benefit more from reforming the colonial government in Bengal than from fighting over the rebellious colonies in America. As such, the Travels also embarked on a dialogue with the political economy of Adam Smith.

Considering the implications of such explicit political motives and the underlying context of European commercial rivalry, the paper will argue that in the Travels, the European civilization was defined by a shared commercial ambition. Thus, although Macintosh’s letters also stressed the importance of peace and politeness to European prosperity, his depiction of the ‘gentle’ mindset of the Indian population served to underline the Occidental ‘ardour of improvement.’ From this perspective, various descriptions of natural, desirable and deviant behaviour in India can be read as attempts to work out a way to sustain ‘the glory of the British name’ by separating European ambitions from European avarice.

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