Perception of Orientalism in Edwardian era

Sara S

Member
Hello everyone,

I have asked a similar question a few weeks ago, about how arab and muslims passengers were treated on the titanic. Now I wonder what the general perception of the middle east and orientalistic culture and the ottoman history was in edwardian Britain. Did people at that time in Europe know what islam is? If yes what were their thoughts of it? Were arabs and practising muslims in Europe and America looked down upon, similar to how Italians for example were often discriminated? I also read somewhere that the west perceived arabs as barbarians who were still stuck in middle age. Was that the image they had? I mean, they probably knew that muslims ruled in Spain for like 700 years and the ottoman empire used to be huge. Did they hold respect and curiousity for the orient, or were they rather averse to it, antipathetic, or just plain indifferent about them?

Maybe anyone knows something, can tell random stories and share bits of that they know?

Thank you
 
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Seumas

Member
There is a lot to cover there Susi, I'll try to answer a few points ;)

It's complicated.

There was a hell of a lot of racism in those days, no doubt about it.

However, at the same time, it would be completely wrong to tar absolutely everyone with that brush. One young man alive in 1912 who had a great respect and interest in Arab and Islamic culture and heritage was T. E. Lawrence. He was an Anglo-Irish archaeologist who would later would become world famous as "Lawrence of Arabia".

In British ruled India the Hindus were often neither liked nor trusted by the British. The Muslims by contrast were often quietly admired by the British and even the high priest of British imperialism himself, Rudyard Kipling, typically portrayed the Muslim characters in his stories and poems in a favourable light. This of course is a classic example of the "divide and rule" tactics used by many empires throughout history.

Asian art (painting, porcelain, textiles etc) was certainly very popular with many European and North American aristocrats. Asian religious mystic texts also had a small but loyal number of devotees in Europe and North America, some of them were serious about it but with others it was just a fad.

Would my own ancestors in 1912 have known what Islam was ?

Firstly, keep in mind that their education in those days would have ended at the age of twelve. Secondly, they likely would have known from popular culture of the day that it was a very different religion from their own Presbyterian and Roman Catholic faiths respectively and that it was practised in far off countries very different from their own. Thirdly, could they actually explain the profound theological differences ? I suspect not, but then again I may be doing them a disservice.

As to how the Ottoman Empire was perceived in 1912 ? In a nutshell, badly.

It was described at the time as "The Sick Man of Europe", basically a once mighty empire that was clearly now on it's final legs and unable to compete with the industrialised, technologically advanced nations of Europe.

Indeed, at the time of the Titanic disaster, Italy had just defeated the Ottoman's in a war over Libya and several months after the Titanic disaster, the Ottoman's would fight and lose a war against Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro. That said, it wasn't totally finished. British, French and ANZAC troops would find that out at great cost on the bloody beaches of Gallipoli in 1915 ...

With regard to exposure to non-European and non-Christian people in the UK as an example. From the mid-Victorian era onwards, many high caste Indian (pre-1947 partition India) students came to the UK to study. Often they studied law, medicine or engineering at the universities in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Two Indian gentlemen had also been Members of Parliament for London constituencies, and the cricketer Prince Ranji was widely admired throughout the British Empire for his skills on the cricket pitch. It was also not uncommon for Indian princes to appear at functions attended by the royal family or aristocracy.

There were some parts of the UK where people were used to seeing African, Indian and Chinese sailors on a daily basis. These would be places such as the dockside districts of London and Liverpool (both in England), Cardiff (in Wales) and Greenock (in Scotland). I believe London also had at least one (albeit small) mosque at the time of the Titanic disaster.

Although uncommon, intermarriages did take place. In the UK there was no law at all stopping an English woman marrying a Chinese man or a Welshman marrying an Indian woman.

The UK also enjoyed a brief close relationship with Japan at the start of the 20th Century.

I hoped that was of some help ? It's a big subject.
 
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Sara S

Member
There is a lot to cover there Susi, I'll try to answer a few points ;)

It's complicated.

There was a hell of a lot of racism in those days, no doubt about it.

However, at the same time, it would be completely wrong to tar absolutely everyone with that brush. One young man alive in 1912 who had a great respect and interest in Arab and Islamic culture and heritage was T. E. Lawrence. He was an Anglo-Irish archaeologist who would later would become world famous as "Lawrence of Arabia".

In British ruled India the Hindus were often neither liked nor trusted by the British. The Muslims by contrast were often quietly admired by the British and even the high priest of British imperialism himself, Rudyard Kipling, typically portrayed the Muslim characters in his stories and poems in a favourable light. This of course is a classic example of the "divide and rule" tactics used by many empires throughout history.

Asian art (painting, porcelain, textiles etc) was certainly very popular with many European and North American aristocrats. Asian religious mystic texts also had a small but loyal number of devotees in Europe and North America, some of them were serious about it but with others it was just a fad.

Would my own ancestors in 1912 have known what Islam was ?

Firstly, keep in mind that their education in those days would have ended at the age of twelve. Secondly, they likely would have known from popular culture of the day that it was a very different religion from their own Presbyterian and Roman Catholic faiths respectively and that it was practised in far off countries very different from their own. Thirdly, could they actually explain the profound theological differences ? I suspect not, but then again I may be doing them a disservice.

As to how the Ottoman Empire was perceived in 1912 ? In a nutshell, badly.

It was described at the time as "The Sick Man of Europe", basically a once mighty empire that was clearly now on it's final legs and unable to compete with the industrialised, technologically advanced nations of Europe.

Indeed, at the time of the Titanic disaster, Italy had just defeated the Ottoman's in a war over Libya and several months after the Titanic disaster, the Ottoman's would fight and lose a war against Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro. That said, it wasn't totally finished. British, French and ANZAC troops would find that out at great cost on the bloody beaches of Gallipoli in 1915 ...

With regard to exposure to non-European and non-Christian people in the UK as an example. From the mid-Victorian era onwards, many high caste Indian (pre-1947 partition India) students came to the UK to study. Often they studied law, medicine or engineering at the universities in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Two Indian gentlemen had also been Members of Parliament for London constituencies, and the cricketer Prince Ranji was widely admired throughout the British Empire for his skills on the cricket pitch. It was also not uncommon for Indian princes to appear at functions attended by the royal family or aristocracy.

There were some parts of the UK where people were used to seeing African, Indian and Chinese sailors on a daily basis. These would be places such as the dockside districts of London and Liverpool (both in England), Cardiff (in Wales) and Greenock (in Scotland). I believe London also had at least one (albeit small) mosque at the time of the Titanic disaster.

Although uncommon, intermarriages did take place. In the UK there was no law at all stopping an English woman marrying a Chinese man or a Welshman marrying an Indian woman.

The UK also enjoyed a brief close relationship with Japan at the start of the 20th Century.

I hoped that was of some help ? It's a big subject.

First of all, thank you very much for taking time to write all of this. I see you have lots of knowledge and this post alone really helped me!

Would you say that sailors were less likely to be racist, since they traveled and interacted with foreign people all the time, or do you think racism was just as prevalent among sailors as it was with normal citizens?

Based on my researches, indian and japanese or even chinese people seemed far more often involved with western states like Britain and had much deeper relations with them and it is much easier today to find information about their lives in western countries. Yet although the middle east carry as much historic, cultural and economic value on their own and make up quiet a considerable region of the world, they seem kind of ignored by the west during the Edwardian era. I can't find any detailed or interrelated stories between arab immigrants and the european/american people. I mean, the fact that the titanic alone carried over 100 arab immigrants must speak of a large migration wave that happened throughout the edwardian era which applied to arabs wanting to settle in the west. But still, we hardly find those little stories about interactions or intercultural and interreligious impressions.
I find it a little sad that most findings only include rather shallow ideas of how it might have been, instead of having first hand accounts and experiences.

I will continue to search:)
 
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Seumas

Member
Thanks Susi that's very kind of you. Honestly though, I know nothing about anything. I merely repeat what I've read in books.

If you want to learn more about the British Empire I would highly recommend the "Pax Britannica trilogy" written by one of my heroes, the late, great Welsh writer and traveller Jan Morris. And a good book on the Ottoman Empire's final years is "The Fall of the Ottoman's: The Great War in the Middle East" by the widely respected Middle East historian Eugene Rogan.

I don't know if sailors in 1912 were more or less likely to be racist.

A mixed bag perhaps. Nasty raving bigots here, but live-and-let-live types elsewhere. One thing to consider is that sailors on the North Atlantic run will infrequently come across Asian or African people on a run to Halifax or Boston, as compared to a voyage from Madras or Yokohama.

Regarding Arab immigrants. There were certainly many thousands of Arab Christians who immigrated to the USA and Canada before WW1. They surely must have some heritage groups in existence I imagine.

One thing you'll find is that they almost always anglicised their names after settling in the new continent. The Tu'mah family who survived the Titanic subsequently became the Thomas family.
 
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Sara S

Member
Thanks Susi that's very kind of you. Honestly though, I know nothing about anything. I merely repeat what I've read in books.

If you want to learn more about the British Empire I would highly recommend the "Pax Britannica trilogy" written by one of my heroes, the late, great Welsh writer and traveller Jan Morris. And a good book on the Ottoman Empire's final years is "The Fall of the Ottoman's: The Great War in the Middle East" by the widely respected Middle East historian Eugene Rogan.

I don't know if sailors in 1912 were more or less likely to be racist.

A mixed bag perhaps. Nasty raving bigots here, but live-and-let-live types elsewhere. One thing to consider is that sailors on the North Atlantic run will infrequently come across Asian or African people on a run to Halifax or Boston, as compared to a voyage from Madras or Yokohama.

Regarding Arab immigrants. There were certainly many thousands of Arab Christians who immigrated to the USA and Canada before WW1. They surely must have some heritage groups in existence I imagine.

One thing you'll find is that they almost always anglicised their names after settling in the new continent. The Tu'mah family who survived the Titanic subsequently became the Thomas family.
Thank you for the recommendations, I love history so I might purchase one of these books.

Your answers are always so detailed and helpful,
it's much appreciated:)!

good night!
 
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I'm a bit late to the party but I wanted to add my two cents:

"what the general perception of the middle east and orientalistic culture and the ottoman history was in edwardian Britain" - Well, I think it would depend on which social group or class would you ask. But I think it's safe to assume that in comparison to their own world and culture they would perceive it as somewhat backward. During the Victorian era, Orient was romanticized by art and literature, and that take would still influence how it was perceived in Edwardian era. Still, it was something different, unusual, not available for all. That's why items or even rooms stylized in oriental manner were fashionable among upper classes.

"Did they hold respect and curiosity for the orient, or were they rather averse to it, antipathetic, or just plain indifferent about them?" - There probably was curiosity but it wasn't always the scholarly kind. For some I suspect, contact with oriental culture was like going to cabinet of curiosities or even to zoo (yes, zoo, keep in mind that during 19th and early 20th century human zoos were still quite popular).
 
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Sara S

Member
I'm a bit late to the party but I wanted to add my two cents:

"what the general perception of the middle east and orientalistic culture and the ottoman history was in edwardian Britain" - Well, I think it would depend on which social group or class would you ask. But I think it's safe to assume that in comparison to their own world and culture they would perceive it as somewhat backward. During the Victorian era, Orient was romanticized by art and literature, and that take would still influence how it was perceived in Edwardian era. Still, it was something different, unusual, not available for all. That's why items or even rooms stylized in oriental manner were fashionable among upper classes.

"Did they hold respect and curiosity for the orient, or were they rather averse to it, antipathetic, or just plain indifferent about them?" - There probably was curiosity but it wasn't always the scholarly kind. For some I suspect, contact with oriental culture was like going to cabinet of curiosities or even to zoo (yes, zoo, keep in mind that during 19th and early 20th century human zoos were still quite popular).
You're not late at all! Thanks for sharing this info:)
 
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