The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

18. (i) Skirting controversy

The author of the article INDIA, a high-ranking public servant of Empire, who joyfully assayed the quality and value of its coronal gem, nonetheless lamented, as we have seen, the erosion of a culture rich in its own arts and crafts, acknowledging that it had preceded and been emulated by Britain in developing the textiles trade; so fore-shadowing some of the motivating sentiments that later propelled Gandhi in his fight to end the Raj. This brings to mind George Orwell's opinion of Rudyard Kipling, that, whatever his faults, no writer in English ever brought the Indian world of his time alive to the same degree, and if we dismiss a writer because of the 'side' that they are on, it is very much to our loss.

The contributors to the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica broadly share a common background. Or indeed narrowly share - a very large proportion of them being academics from Scottish universities. However subject to exception, it is not inconceivable that there might be some justice in a preconceived notion of, let us say, a degree of conformity to certain expectations of the world view of a Victorian academic.

There is at least one article in the Ninth which stands out as being, frankly, inexcusably of its time. It makes explicit a certain attitude and widely held belief in what we may as well here clarify, in its own terms, as the white Anglo-Saxon world, and not, sadly, without its relevance today. As a matter of historical record, the essay NEGRO, by A. H. Keane, gives a stark, explicit and as such perhaps disturbing insight into the philosophy expounding the inferiority of people of African descent.

The enterprising chap responsible for , has this to say on the matter:

I came across this article about a year ago and it has caused me a lot of concern. Some articles (e.g. SLAVERY) do talk occasionally of "inferior" races but the NEGRO article really goes a lot further than that -- you could just imagine it being gleefully quoted by rightwing extremists in online forums. You can see the article dates from the time of Gobineau.

I had been thinking of either not publishing the article at all or just publishing some of the paragraphs as JPG images (so they would not get indexed by the search engines).

Could another strategy be an adaptation of that which used to be employed by the Loeb bilingual editions of Latin and Greek classics ( In the early 20th century, Loeb used to translate certain passages into another classical language rather than into English. For example, the Greek romance, Daphnis and Chloe, by Longus, was mostly translated into English on each facing page, but had its more explicit erotic passages translated into Latin rather than English.( )

The author of NEGRO was Augustus Henry Keane, F.R.G.S., Emeritus Professor of Hindustani, University College, London; late Vice President, Anthropological Institute; author of Stanford's Asia, Africa, Ethnology; Man, Past and Present; etc. I have uploaded a couple of other articles by him to the website, including YORUBA . The latter article (e.g. the final three paragraphs) is, comparatively, more moderate in tone.

I share these concerns. Google checks have made clear that its noxious passages are not floating about in the ether of Interwebshire, and have yet to be quoted and bandied about by peddlers of hate and ignorance: I don't relish the notion of being responsible for that eventuality, or the possibility that certain words and phrases might result in an unwholesome growth of traffic to this rarely-trod corner.

All this said, I will endeavour to dismantle this particular piece of writing, in my usual cheerfully flippant and selective manner. I may be less generous than usual in the servings of direct quotation than if the subject matter were something more innocuous (such as the correct usage of the word Abracadabra). For all this hesitation, I continue to subscribe to the philosophy that truth is better perceived with open eyes; the original entry is always worth reading in full. For the time being, this may require getting thee to an actual library somewhereabouts, and manhandling the volume concerned, perhaps whilst shaking your head and tut-tutting concernedly.

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