critical review

‘A Key Genre’

Travel Writing and Colonialism

In this critical review I consider four recent essays on travel writing that deal with the theme of colonialism, my aim being to identify the key research questions they address and the insights they offer. Although the essays are all different – their objects of study range from British women’s accounts of visiting Melbourne in the mid-18th century to Instagram travel content, from 19th century travel books set in Tasmania to recent ‘footsteps’ travel narratives – they do, I argue, have an important similarity. All four essays attest to the crucial role travel writing played in transmitting ideas and attitudes associated with British colonialism.

In ‘“English, Yet Essentially Un-English”: Female Constructions of Imperial Belonging in Melbourne, 1850-1870’, Sophie Cooper addresses the following question: how did the experiences of British women visiting Australia in the mid-19th century shape both their sense of identity and their impressions of their colonial compatriots (189). In doing so, she examines the travel memoirs of three British women.

Although the three female authors are alike – all were middle-class, for example, and all sought to inform British women about Australian life – they had different perspectives (Cooper 190-1). The first, Ellen Clacy, was a single woman who visited Victoria’s goldfields with her brother; the second, Emma Macpherson, a married woman who travelled to Australia with her family; and the third, Clara Aspinall, the sister of a prominent Melburnian lawyer.

Cooper justifies her study in two ways, observing that research has established a strong link between travel and identity-formation (189), and arguing that travel memoirs set in Australia in the 1850s are revealing because the ‘removal of indigenous peoples’ from cities made Melbourne in particular an ‘urban ideal’ for British travellers (190).

Travel memoirs were, Cooper argues, ‘tools in constructing ideas of imperial belonging and connection’, and she shows how her four subjects sought and found familiar things in the unfamiliar city (193). Aspects of Melbourne reminded the women of home (e.g. its institutions and traditions) (193) and yet its freedoms were to them ‘essentially un-English’, as one female traveller wrote (cited in Cooper 195). Aboriginal peoples, too, were used by the women to bolster their Britishness; as the ‘Other’ they were represented as everything a British person supposedly was not (193-4).

Cooper’s essay offers some useful insights. By writing about their travel experiences, British women were, Cooper argues, promoting the agency of their sex and women’s ability to travel and exert a ‘stabilising influence’ on men in the colonies, where it was apparently needed most (201). Cooper shows that travel memoirs written by British women in the mid-19th century were important to individuals and the Empire because these texts helped build ideas about what it meant to be British and to be a British woman.

In his essay, ‘Instagram Abroad: Performance, Consumption and Colonial Narrative in Tourism’, Sean P. Smith investigates how a particular type of contemporary travel ‘writer’ (the Instagram author) represents foreign peoples and places, and what this representation reveals about modern-day tourism. He argues that Instagram travel writers invariably use one of three ‘motifs’ – the tropical exotic, the promontory-witness and fantasised assimilation – and that these motifs are essentially colonial in origin and effect (173).

Smith begins by addressing a preliminary question: can Instagram content be considered travel writing? Citing evidence attesting to social media’s popularity with tourists, he argues that the platform does indeed function as a ‘form of multimodal travel writing’ (173). But what influence, if any, does social media have on real-world tourism? A great deal, Smith argues, for two reasons: the tourist industry relies on the commodification and mediation (the ‘performance’) of travel experiences for its success, and social media platforms such as Instagram are designed to effectively disseminate such ‘performances’ (173-5).

Smith examines the ‘tropical exotic’ motif, the primary expression of which is the depopulated, ‘ahistoricized’, eroticised beachscape (177), an imaginary destination valued more for its iconography than its inhabitants (179). According to Smith, these contemporary performances ‘re-inscribe colonial-era assumptions about the occupation of tropical land as a prerogative of the colonisers’ (179).

Similarly, Smith sees the promontory-witness motif as a modern-day expression of colonialism and an echo of the ‘monarch-of-all-I-see’ trope, arguing that these performances on Instagram are a means of taking possession of a landscape and commodifying it (183). And even when Instagram authors seek out an ‘authentic’ travel experience by trying to live like a local, they are, Smith suggests, invoking the fantasised assimilation motif, ‘[enacting] their own conceptualisation of local culture’ (184) and perpetuating the colonial practice of ‘othering’ non-European peoples (187).

Smith concludes by arguing that the ‘structural inequality’ that underpins modern tourism was created (and is maintained) by the colonial system and its ideology (187-8). The extent to which this is the case, along with the three-motif model, is the main insight his essay provides.

How did the ‘little England’ trope emerge and develop in travel writing about Tasmania – this is the key question Anna Johnston addresses in her essay, ‘Little England: Nineteenth-Century Tasmanian Travel Writing and Settler Colonialism’. Johnston also poses a second, more general, question. How important, she asks, was travel writing to the formation of knowledge about the British empire and its colonies?

Citing various primary sources, Johnston argues that English accounts of travel in Tasmania, of which there was a proliferation in the 19th century (17-18), portray the island as a ‘little England’, a soothing nostalgia-inducing ‘playground’ for British visitors (20), because travellers looked for and found much that seemed reassuringly familiar about the island, including its climate, its landscape, architecture and institutions (19-20).

Johnston asserts that as the century progressed travel narratives began paint a more troubling picture of the colony (23-24), starting, in 1820, with Charles Jeffreys’ (albeit ‘sanitised’) account of the violent treatment of Tasmania’s indigenous peoples (22-24). This ambivalence, Johnstone argues, led to the island becoming the ‘pre-eminent repository of the extremes of settler colonialism’ (29).

According to Johnston, travel narratives written after 1830 increasingly invoke the ‘dying race’ trope (white people prosper while ‘savages’ perish), this being ‘key to the consolidation of Tasmania’s image as a little England’ (25). Johnston argues that the trope generated a ‘ghoulish’ interest in the island, one which continues to this day in the form of genocide studies, for example, whose practitioners, Johnston suggests, run the risk of failing to acknowledge the ‘lived reality’ of contemporary indigenous peoples and the complexity of colonialism’s legacy (28-29).

How important was travel writing to knowledge formation? According to Johnston, the genre is a crucial one in this respect because it is deeply concerned with ‘questions about sovereignty, establishing legal order, and codifying rights and responsibilities’ (25). In fact, the nature and extent of travel writing’s importance to scholars is one of the two insights provided by the essay, the other being the notion that Tasmania played a key ideological role in the Britain’s imperial enterprise.

In ‘Contemporary Postcolonial Journeys on the Trails of Colonial Travelers’, Christopher M. Keirstead explores the insights footsteps travel writing offers scholars of postcolonial travel writing (140). He does so by classifying and critiquing a range of contemporary texts.

Writers of footsteps travel narratives attempt to retrace the paths of previous travellers (Keirstead 139). Keirstead argues that the genre comprises three subgenres: narratives interested mainly in historical events (forensic footsteps), narratives largely concerned with literary texts (foliated footsteps) and narratives that show a ‘simultaneous interest in the place and mobilities of ancestral pasts’ (familial/ancestral footsteps) (140).

According to Keirstead, forensic and foliated footsteps travel narratives are the more problematic of the three subgenres when viewed from a scholarly perspective (140). Although some of these types of texts are, he argues, evocative and illuminating – Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, for example, and Caroline Alexander’s One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley – others suffer from paying too much homage to their subjects (being too much in the past) (145) or from dwelling more on the author’s experiences than on historical context (being too much in the present) (141).

Written (usually) by descendants of colonial subjects, familial/ancestral footsteps travel narratives generally avoid this dilemma by being more ‘mobile’ – by moving more meaningfully between the past and the present (Keirstead 140). According to Keirstead, authors of this kind of travel narrative also tend to be more critical in their approach to such journeys, creating texts that, like Caryl Phillips’ The Atlantic Sound, seek to ‘engage in history in personal, deeply felt ways but which also stresses appreciation for the complexities and more troubling ideological cross-currents of the past’ (149).

Thus Keirstead concludes that the footsteps travel narratives of most value to scholars are those whose approach is ‘critical’ and not simply ‘creative’, and those whose authors explore the limitations of travel as means of connection (150). This, along with his assertion that the most revealing travel narratives are those that move meaningfully between the past and the present, is the main insight his essay offers.

In this critical review I have considered four recent essays on travel writing, discovering that, despite their differences, they offer similar insights on the theme of colonialism. The essays show that travel writing was of real importance to colonising peoples, because it entrenched their sense of superiority and their belief in the morality and inevitability of the imperial enterprise. And yet, as the final essay suggests, the genre must be approached critically if its true value is to be fully fathomed.


Works Cited

Cooper, Sophie. ‘“English, yet Essentially Un-English”: Female Constructions of Imperial Belonging in Melbourne, 1850-1870.’ British Women Travellers : Empire and Beyond, 1770-1870, edited by Sutapa Dutta, Taylor & Francis, 2019, pp. 189-204.

Johnston, Anna. ‘Little England: Nineteenth-Century Tasmanian Travel Writing and Settler Colonialism.’ Studies in Travel Writing, vol. 20, no. 3, 2016, pp. 17-33.

Keirstead, Christopher M. ‘Contemporary Postcolonial Journeys on the Trails of Colonial Travelers.’ The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Travel Writing. edited by Robert Clarke, Cambridge University Press, 2018, pp. 139-54.

Smith, Sean P. ‘Instagram Abroad: Performance, Consumption and Colonial Narrative in Tourism.’ Postcolonial Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, 2018, pp. 172-91.