Rifling Through The Religious Baggage of Early Modern Travellers

As promised, as a follow-up to the guest blog on using the Hakluyt Society’s publications for doctoral study, Hector Roddan in this companion post shares with us some of the fresh insights from his PhD research on the religious baggage of early modern travellers. He argues that the texts penned down by these travellers allow the researcher to trace the processes by which deeply held beliefs were renegotiated in response to contact with foreign societies.

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Just like today, early modern travel writing was informed by various assumptions and experiences of life at home. My research has focussed on how travellers’ religious backgrounds informed their descriptions of other societies. I discuss texts by English visitors to Russia, Turkey, India, Southeast Asia and Polynesia between 1550-1800. Both mainstream and minority English religious beliefs informed descriptions and critiques of other societies’ beliefs and practices.

Many travellers in this period were content to ‘catechise the world by their own home’.[1] Indeed, the seventeenth-century antiquarian Henry Blount bemoaned the fact that many contemporary descriptions of Islam reiterated the perceived doctrinal errors of Turkish religion, rather than identifying any similarities between European and Ottoman military discipline or learning from the latter. Blount was cynical of the traditional accoutrement of religion, both Christian and Islamic, and this informed his measured praise of Ottoman military and political successes.

The religious identity of other travellers was far from straightforward. The Devonshire mariner, Joseph Pitts, was captured by Algerian pirates, enslaved and forcibly converted to Islam. Following 16 years living in North Africa both as a slave and a free servant, he returned to England and wrote about his experiences. In his text, he elides reference to his apostate status following his conversion.

Instead, he cites the authority of Christian neighbours and English traders who knew him during his captivity in order to prove that, whilst he may have verbally denied Christ and taken on the garb of a Muslim, he maintained his duties as a Christian worshipper whenever possible. He seeks to maintain his identity as a Christian apart from the Muslim society he was intimately familiar with. Yet his prolonged stay also gave certain benefits. Pitts was one of the first Englishmen to perform the Hajj and write about his experiences. Thus, Pitts’ conversion establishes his authority to represent North African religion.

In contrast, eighteenth-century travellers writing about Indian polytheistic traditions sought to use foreign practices to undermine or subtly critique mainstream Christian orthodoxies. In describing Asian religions as akin to ‘natural religion’, contemporary Orientalists like William Jones and Michael Symes dabbled with rationalist critiques of the Established church. In particular, he drew on a deist conception of natural religion that tacitly undercut the exceptionalism inherent in the mainstream Judeo-Christian culture of his day.

Travellers betrayed a range of heterodox and orthodox religious beliefs in their dealings with, and representations of, other cultures’ beliefs and practices. As a result, their texts provide an insight into how deeply held beliefs were affected, negotiated and sometimes altered by contact with those of other societies.

[1] Henry Blount, A Voyage into the Levant: A Breife Relation of a Journey, Lately Performed by Master H. B. Gentleman…, 2nd edn (London, 1636), sig. A2r, p. 77. See image.

Hector Roddan is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University, supervised by Dr. Garthine Walker. He has recently completed his AHRC-funded doctoral project entitled ‘Defining Differences: The Religious Dimension of Early Modern Travel Narratives, c. 1550-c. 1800’. His research interests include travel writing and religious identities in the long early modern period.

Henry Blount Voyage

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