Italian Travel Narratives on India: Translation in the Politics of British Imperialism
Jitamanyu Das is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, Jadavpur University. His area of research is the Early Modern Italian writings on India. He is a former Fellow of the Centre of Advanced Study at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. He has previously worked as a trainer/faculty for the Initial Learning Program with Tata Consultancy Services. He did his Post Graduation in English Literature from Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan. His areas of interest include the Early Modern Period, Italian fiction, Diaspora experience, Indian history and aesthetics, Japanese culture and literature, Postmodernity and Postmodern novels.
Late Nineteenth century and early Twentieth century English publications saw a large number of translations from other European languages, of works belonging to the genre of “travel writing” and exclusively focusing on the Indian subcontinent. This new canon in English was a clandestine attempt at historically pointing to the need of submission of the Indian populace to the British rule in order for the former to develop culturally. Two things of importance are to be noted here, the systematic omission of facts and careful substitution in the narrative with fabricated information suiting the Raj. Similarly, their publication in English coincided with the rising emotions of Indian Freedom Movement, and was an effort at nullifying the support that the opposition to British rule was amassing. At the same time this could very well place the “White man’s burden” sentiment and justify the need for it in British Imperialism. While dissecting the politics of this canon formation on India through the gaze of non-English, of the pre-Raj Mughal era, my paper analyses a few “non-English” travel-writings written in Italian and seeks to underline the politics of translation into English and their subsequent publication both in Great Britain and India.
Keywords: British Imperialism, Italian travel literature, translation, memoirs, history, Post-colonialism studies, Orientalism.
The premise of the British Imperialism depended on the intellectual presentations upon the inherent flaws on the subjects of Hindoostan or India1 and fairly large portion of those works came out in Great Britain authored by the English to establish the need for “White man’s burden” to continue with the occupation and rule of India. However, with the increasing dissent and early signs of uprising among the Indian subjects against the ‘foreign’ rule, a need was felt to educate the populace, both Indian as well as English about the ‘real’ status of the Indians. This would establish their need to be civilised through the imposition of a ‘superior’ culture and compel the British rule of law over the natives.
Prime instruments in this politics became the personal notes and travelogues of noted European travellers, which had to be translated from other European languages into English. The reasons for their choices were simple, to draw on the similar cultures which Europe shared at large, and therefore the similar viewpoint with which the Indian culture and its practices were accessed. Also, by choosing historically established texts the English could claim sanctity of their experiences and in the removal of the author figure, they could ideally re-model the narrative according their needs.
The selection made was interesting as it was both from other colonial powers as well as of individuals from countries which did not have any other relation with India apart from trade, thus they could claim a variety of insight. However, it is interesting to note here is that most of such accounts of European travellers to India were of people who had close affinity with the rulership of the native empires, or had substantial understanding of cultural practices of the region.
Admittedly, there are a lot more of English narratives on India, which have been influential in determining the choice of the European narratives. But those accounts, mostly of Englishmen associated directly with the East-India Company, were not free of bias and thus after Queen Victoria’s inclusion of India within the crown, needed newer narratives. Detailed accounts of the early English line of narratives can be found in Roy Moxham’s The Theft of India: The European Conquest of India 1498-1765 (2016) and Jonathan Gil-Harris’ The First Firangis (2015) leading us to understand the way in which India was portrayed in the West through many of such writings. These remarkable studies elucidate in simple language the complications of approaching the Western knowledge production about India, and the complex manner in which the knowledge was utilised by the colonial machinery. Incidentally, Moxham’s work focuses on the aspects of “theft of India”, which also alludes to the usurpation of local knowledge and making it a part of the Western discourses. Both Moxham and Harris emphasise on the importance of narratives as well as their centrality in defining India as a physical space and making inroads into its customs. These narratives come together to explain the rivalry between the early colonisers ‘exploring’ India and figuring out their prospects, but also show the way they were co-opted in their use together well into the 20th century to draw a cultural map of the India and determine the weaknesses through which it could be exploited.
One can curiously note the number of books that came out in Europe about India, many of which were in fact based on the writings of others. Doctor Giulio Ferrario in his thesis published as Il Costume Antico e Moderno (1829) starts out with a list.2 The list runs for pages although it only included the important books published and which were in circulation. The increase in the number of books in the 18th century and later is quite clear from the list, and so are their titles sensationalising the topics about India. One might also alarmingly notice the reductionist approach becoming more prevalent in the later centuries, as the simple titles with travel narratives are soon replaced with studies of Indian cultures and societies. This shift lent a credible proof to the ‘scientific’ determination of the Indian space as opposed to the personal narratives of the earlier travelogues, by claiming an inherent objectivity of the titles and their studies.
It is in fact the basis of Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s theorising this politics in the use of such narratives in Europe’s India (2017) as he moves to acknowledge transition to knowledge production of Europe based on the local narratives of India in a self-explanatorily titled chapter “Transition to colonial knowledge” in his book. However, Subrahmanyam largely restricts himself to the English writings and their institutionalisation within the politics of imperialism. Establishing the British writings’ direct influence upon the Crown rule is easier and is significant in the attitude towards the “native” cultures. It is also of prime importance in relation to the Indian history vis-à-vis postcolonial criticism. Subrahmanyam’s work is a seminal study into the process through which India’s colonial history progressed that saw the culmination of narratives written in different languages and different periods being put to use to strengthen the British claim of having “studied” and “known” India. The establishment of an institutionalised way of translating knowledge on India is highlighted by Subrahmanyam as he leads the readers to see how “India” was “created” by Europe as an antithetical image suited for the creation of its own self-identity and as a way of “self-criticism”, as well as becoming a way to continue the consumption of Indian resources by claiming legitimacy for it.
The politics of writing about India depended on earlier knowledge that reached Europe as translation of Original Indian works or were observations from the narratives of continental European travelogues about the East. In fact, the reality was that most of the British works adapted and borrowed largely from the contemporary writings of other European works on India. Several works in English on India published as ‘real’ depiction of India were in fact false narratives as their authors never ventured beyond their own countries and plagiarised non-English narratives for the sensational view that they wanted to present to the audience. These narratives were thus screened and adapted to suit the British imperialist agenda with an immediate translation highlighting the cultural differences and the implicit need for Western rule over the Indian subcontinent and its populace.
Through a re-reading of the differences in translated editions between the original texts and the adapted/translated editions, one can easily understand the epistemic shift and the power centre(s) that archived such a strong retelling of historical cultural exchanges. The awareness towards cultural anthropology and the need to separate the later addition from the original body of the text is the first step in approaching these power centres to understand their complex machinations. If looked at a few specific examples, this use of non-English European literature for political reasons becomes clear to us. The Said-ian understanding of the politics of Orientalism can be applied to understand the basis of such proliferation of English literature on India.
The publication of India in the Fifteenth Century (1857) edited by R. H. Major, is telling of the British imperial agenda on India and remains one of the most striking examples and definitely one that exposes the British method of utilising knowledge to retain colonial control completely. Translated and published by the Haklyut society with members noted for their involvement personally or belonging to family with interest in the colony of India, it included four narratives on India. One can note that all four of them are from nations with no apparent ‘colonial’ activity in India at any point in history: of a Persian, a Russian, a Venetian, and a Genoese, the last two being from two Early-modern city-states of Italy. Similarly, the narratives chosen from the 15th century would appear to be scandalous to the Victorian readers. Not only would it enforce the need to civilise the “natives”, but also the supremacy of Western education and culture.
The Venetian narrative belongs to Nicolò dei Conti (1395-1469). Nicolò dei Conti had travelled through Indochina for 25 years between 1414 and 1439. Unlike most other previous travellers, Conti ventured inland and wrote about custom and traditions of the people in details. In fact, noted Italian Orientalist Professor Guiseppe Tucci comments about the narrative of Conti and says in his book India and Italy (1974) that “Nicolò’s memoirs were as of then the best description of India and its people in existence.” The narrative of Conti was pretty descriptive as it explained in ample details nature and people of an alien country since he had narrated his entire travel to Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) who has published it as part of his De varietate Fortunae (1447) probably attempting to draw the attention of Italians towards the wonders of India and the East. Thus, Conti had emphasised upon the traditions and practices of the people and compared them with that of Italy. Conti had travelled through Malabar and into the Deccan plateau, to the Coromandel coast and to Chennai, then going to the Ganges delta and moving upstream using the river, and returning to Malabar after having been to Gujarat. His extensive travel though India made him realise the difference among the people and the various customs in existence in all these places.
The depiction of spiritual practices as well as the funeral customs is a testament to the fact. But apart from these, in following the tradition of Marco Polo, Conti depicted in detail the flora and fauna and their rich diversity. It is almost no surprise that Conti’s mention of the Eastern Christian church and the presence of Nestorians all over India finds no mention in the English translation published by the Haklyut society. Conti’s work also alluded to the trade relation between Venice and Calicut with circulation of Venetian ducats being quite regular, a detail that also was omitted to deny cultural (and trade) relations existing between India and other European nations.
It would not be in vain to mention here that Conti’s work was immediately translated from Latin to Portuguese under the orders of the King of Portugal himself, who had realised its cartographical and cultural value in the Portugal’s ambition for a colonial presence in India. Clearly, there is a difference in the prioritisation at the way in which such a text was read in Italy and in Portugal, while in Italy it did little more than to fancy a lot of minds in the aspiration to know more of the world of India, for Portugal it became a guide to the colonial mission. Within the colonising West thus remained a visible, but often comfortably forgotten, cultural filter. The view that Nicolò dei Conti had of India, would in fact enrage a lot of colonisers since it does not fit with their popular belief of the “White man’s burden” and portraying the native as the savage as he stated in his work describing the Indians as– “They live very civilly and without cruelty of any kind, do not lead the inhuman life of barbarous peoples, and are gentle, benign and merciful”, possibly hinting at the other civilisations pretending to be civil in the cover of temporal and religious jurisprudence while being otherwise in reality. It was this detailed narrative that was translated into English to represent an objective view by carefully omitting the personal references of Conti as much as possible.
The English rendering of the Genoese traveller Hieronimo di Santo Stefano, on the other hand, focuses a lot on cultural differences, and the influence of religion on it. Being very limited in content as the accounts were included in a letter sent from Tripoli on 1st September 1499, the narrative centred around the strange aspects of Indian culture. However, the narrative is equally interesting to note as it contains description of the places of trade and the products of the particular places which were sold or had commercial value to the Europeans. The letter also had a significant insight into the differences between the various communities across the places he had visited. But, one of the prime reasons for its inclusion in the anthology could have been the almost blasphemous remarks on the marriage customs and the absence of civil laws in India. His views about India were primarily that of a trader, but at the same time was that of an astonished traveller. The translation of his narrative largely reduced the aspect of a surprised traveller and depended on the extremity of the portrayal of Indian practices in their differences to the European Christian norms. Both Conti and Stefano had also depended heavily on portraying the benevolence of the Christian God in their survival through the journey through the miseries of the Orient, a narrative structure that imitated the Jesuit narratives closely to show the journey as a test of faith.
Consider the English publication of the travels of Pietro Della Valle (1553-1652) in 1845, which took place for a publisher based out of Brighton whereas Della Valle had travelled to India in 1623 and had stayed until November 1624. The original Italian publication of Della Valle’s travels to India had taken place more than one hundred eighty years before the English translation, in 1663. The communiques to Mario Schipano established his position as an explorer and ethnographer with portions of his travels to India translated in English by 1665. But it was his description of India, seemingly problematic in nature, as opposed to the idea of the ‘normative’ in terms of the Western culture which was pounced upon and required English rendering. Commentaries on religion as well as social differences are central themes in Della Valle’s letters which Schipano narrativised. Della Valle’s experiences in the Middle East occupy most of the printed works attributed to him, however, the year-long travel in Surat, Goa, and South of India gain prominence in their English translation for the apparent “authenticity” of the words of a man of letters and science like Della Valle.
For a significant amount of time, it was the only noted historical record of the period about the mentioned regions. In fact, Della Valle’s image as an ethnographer had been formulated to give credibility to his travel narrative, and distance it from the genre of travel to that of study of the Indian space and people. Pietro Della Valle’s position as a nobility in Italy contributed largely to the acceptance of his narrative. Della Valle’s views on India are interesting to note as they undergo a clear shift where the first few sections highlight the fantasy of exploring an unknown space, but the later sections displaying a hostility towards the same unknown space. The conflicts engulfing India due to the colonial ventures and the desire to control trade and the shipping lanes are also narrated to an extent. Pietro Della Valle’s narrative marks the shift within the early Italian travel narratives about India where it is conscious to a large extent about the needs pertaining to the colonial missions, especially those of Portuguese and Dutch, and the subversive ways in which India was narrated in reports and fiction to represent it as culturally being extreme opposite to the developing commonalities of the South European culture.
In both the cases the translated narratives were primarily meant for the consumption of the British readers in the 19th and 20th century. In order to sensationalise the narrative and leave a lasting impression, there were addition of notes and more importantly certain careful omissions. These changes within the text would not have been evident to the readers unaware of the original narratives and there would be no pressing need to justify such changes as well. However, these changes would enable a complete epistemic shift to support the British colonial project and its claim of civilising the natives of India.
However, the most damning narrative prepared in a similar fashion was that of Niccolao Manucci (1638-1717). Manucci’s entire memoirs were published in five-parts by 1731. The first two parts of Manucci’s travel narratives were published by François Catrou under his name in French, to whom Manucci had sent them initially for publishing in Europe. Catrou made significant changes to Manucci’s version. This became almost like a separate text, and was widely canonised and used for historical analysis of Shah Jahan’s rule and till Aurangazeb’s accession to the throne in the Mughal empire to a large extent. Most of the translations of Manucci in other languages were dependant on this particular version. But this version was itself incomplete. In 1907, however, William Irvine, an Orientalist and a “revered” expert on India, a member of the Royal Asiatic society, and a retired Civil Servant in Bengal for the British Crown brought out a translated version Storia do Mogor (1907) where he reduced the original five volumes to four. He also made contribution to the narrative in the form of changes and adding notes to alter the voice of the narrative. These extensive notes and illustrations added to the original of Manucci defined the narrative in a particular way with Manucci’s perspective made critical of the Indian culture and society.
Similarly, notwithstanding Manucci’s own limitations as well as his cunning treacheries throughout his life, he is made to be an objective observer – a detailed scribe of his contemporary Indian society and its moral follies compared to the West. This change of narrative voice was achieved in the systematic approach that was made with the English version of William Irvine as opposed to the voice of the personal memoir that was in the original Manucci’s writing.
Margaret L. Irvine, his daughter, came out with an abridged edition named A Pepys of Mogul India (1913) where she further reduced the entire narrative into a single volume of only the important section or the “cream of Manucci’s work” (H. B., 1914).3 While William Irvine’s translation omitted the issues Manucci pointed out with the presence of other Europeans in India and his strong aversion of the Jesuits following his fallout with François Catrou over the publication of his manuscripts, Margaret Irvine’s abridged edition completely gets rid of all suggestions of criticism of the West, and to a large extent the praises by Manucci of India. Therefore, the narrative is completely turned into objective and factual, to imitate history rather than remaining a memoir of an Italian in India.
Manucci’s representation of India is contrasted with the writing of Francois Bernier by Gil Harris as he explains the difference in approach towards the experience by the two different travellers. Bernier’s attempt is seen as a narrative which essentially fits the British/French imperial agenda. Manucci on the other hand remains descriptive, and often repetitive, of the experiences he had. The flexibility of his narrative comes with the use of “Storia” as his title, which stands for both history and fiction in Italian. He also uses this position to include stories and records he heard from others or Mughal court documents which he has the privilege of accessing.
The “translation” of Manucci appears to omit such instances to carefully bring it to the same status as that of Bernier encapsulating a historical account. The notes of W. Irvine are usefully employed to provide the text authenticity in historical terms. This text plays the role of being a discursive aid to the reductionist representation of India done in Britain in the first decades of the 20th century. One can ponder about the timing of the publication as it coincides with the Indian call for “Home-rule”, and attempts to draw a negative portrayal of the Indian socio-cultural setup historically from the safety of the perspective offered by an Italian traveller not involved in the colonial establishment and removed historically. This double advantage is something that separates the Italian travel narratives on India from other European non-fiction about India, as Italy (or any of its city-states) did not possess colonial ambition or the requisite institution supported by military administration. The British colonial project of “Orientalism” caught on to these benefits and utilised many of the existing narratives, some already well-known in Europe, to strengthen their views on India.
The publication of the Manucci took place serially as part of a series propagated at Indian “educated” audience about the history of the previous era before the arrival of the British to make them aware of the cultural developments and social changes at hand. With no way of comparing the available texts to the original MSS only available in Venice, Paris, and Berlin, and divided across Italian, Persian, French, and Portuguese, the readers would be severely handicapped to believing the printed words in an apparent display of logocentrism in the Modern world.
The English translations, of Conti, Santo Stefano, Della Valle, and most importantly that of Manucci, all appear to play their roles in the same politics of forming a tradition of supporting the British imperialism through the depiction of India in absolutely Orientalist terms and making its re-presentation as the crux of the post-Industrial Western view of India.4 Hence, we can perceive how the Italian travel narratives on India were utilised in their English rendering as vehicles of the politics of Orientalism and contributing to its epistemic body. A particular re-analysis of the politics of translation and publication of non-English European books in English exposes the British control over the entire process of knowledge generation and its use in the defining of India and the canonisation of its history articulated exclusively through a Western mode. The seemingly innocuous knowledge produced over the course of almost four centuries was altered through translation to fit into the narrative of “Orientalism” within the project supporting the British colonisation of India. Personal narratives were transformed into ethnographic studies with the addition of notes and illustrations, as well as carefully omitting large parts of authorial experiences as well as beliefs from the texts. The relationship of Power and Knowledge appearing by the way of such translations to reach to a common identity of India, a view so critical that it offered very less chances of redemption without the intervention of the British masters which they were glad to offer in exchange for their continuing presence.
1 The Identification of the geo-political space as “Hindoostan”, “Indostan”, or “India”, is one example of knowledge production in English writing about the Orient as means of establishing authority over India through a semiotic process. It identifies the entire space with a name giving it an identity as a whole, while seemingly ignoring the regional identities as well as the local names.
2 The list is titled “Catalogo de’ principali autori e viaggiatori che hanno scritto di cose appartenenti all’ Indostan” (A catalogue of important authors and travellers who have written about India and its objects) and runs for 13 pages and contains over 200 titles. This underlines the massive interest towards India in contemporary Europe in general and Italy in particular.
3 The April 1914 review of A Pepys of Mogul India by a Mr. H. B. in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland makes for an interesting read as it gives us the reasons for the abridged edition as well as the notable omissions and the ‘intellectual’ “English” view about it. This aids in our understanding of the political motive which had affected the translation works of Manucci in the first place.
4 Noted Italian Orientalist Professor Giuseppe Tucci presents short introductions to the narratives of the Italian travellers to India in his book India and Italy (1974). They offer an impartial alternative to the English translations in showing the stark contrast in which the translation into English were made. Professor Tucci’s formulation about prior historical connection between India and Italy must be made here, as he thought that a relationship of mutual respect existed between the cultures and was one major reason why Italy had no colonial venture for India.
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