Orientalism? Maybe, but so what? A good read still…

I really did enjoy something unexpected from Gutenberg in the past few days, a novel by this person:



An Eastern Romance.

Dr. P. A. S. van Limburg-Brouwer.
Translated from the Dutch by
M. M.
With notes and an introductory life of the Emperor Akbar,
Clements R. Markham. C.B., F.R.S.

W. H. Allen & Co., 13 Waterloo Place.
Publishers to the India Office.

Markham is indeed also an interesting forgotten figure:

Sir Clements Robert Markham KCB FRS (20 July 1830 – 30 January 1916) [below] was an English geographer, explorer, and writer. He was secretary of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) between 1863 and 1888, and later served as the Society’s president for a further 12 years. In the latter capacity he was mainly responsible for organising the National Antarctic Expedition of 1901–04, and for launching the polar career of Robert Falcon Scott


Of course in these PoCo days post-Said we not only do not know who any of these people are but are convinced we are so much wiser and more virtuous than they ever were because they are all damned Orientalists, you know, and slavering racists and grinders-down of The Other with not a thing to say to us any more…  Well, yes, Akbar has its moments – like anything written before around 1970 – where one cringes at some naive bit of “race” theory. They were all into it back then, though it wasn’t always malicious or even maleficent! But it now seems as ugly as a really bad tic.

However, does that holier-than-thou pose we now so unreflectively adopt – thanks to Said and others – cut us off from what often is really there and indeed was in its day well in advance, even progressive and not to be despised by 21st century upstarts like us? I’d say “pygmies” like us, but that no doubt offends some residents of regions around the Congo….

Now this novel is a romance – and not always in the best sense, as it has its melodramatic very stagey side of course. But hey, the 1870s?

Petrus Abraham Samuel van Limburg Brouwer was born in Liège on 15 November 1829. His father, Petrus van Limburg Brouwer (1795-1847), was the first to use the full surname Van Limburg Brouwer. Initially, Petrus senior studied medicine, taking his doctor’s degree in 1816 and thereafter setting himself up in practice. However, he had already been fascinated by the classics during his student days and in 1820 he took a second doctor’s degree, this time in classical literature. He continued studying the classics and was appointed associate professor in the faculty of arts at Liège in 1825, a chair he lost, as a Northern Netherlander, as a result of the Belgian Revolution in 1830. In 1831 he was appointed professor at Groningen, where he taught general and Roman history and was also made librarian of the university. He published on classical literature and history, as well as on Dutch literature. He also wrote some belletristic work, of which Het leesgezelschap van Diepenbeek (1847) in particular was widely read…

Before he was twenty-one he had taken his doctor’s degree in law, cum laude, at Groningen. He departed for Amsterdam where he joined the editorial board of De gids in 1854, a position he retained until 1865. In 1855 he declined a professorship at Groningen. From 1856 onwards he worked at the General State Archives in The Hague, in which city he also took up residence. He accomplished important work at the General State Archives, by arranging various archives and publishing several text editions, especially in connection with collections relating to the Dutch East Indies. He was a regular contributor to the liberal cultural periodical De Nederlandsche spectator from its very first issue in 1860. He was a member of parliament from 1864 to 1868; a freethinker when it came to religion and philosophy, in politics associated with the liberalism of Thorbecke. He published on a wide variety of subjects. His first article about the Dutch East Indies appeared in 1860. In the course of time this was to prove his major subject; he became increasingly interested in the language, literature, philosophy, art and society of the Hindus, especially in relation to the history of the Indies. Van Limburg Brouwer was a member of the board of the Royal Institute of Linguistics, Geography and Ethnography of the Dutch East Indies. His scholarly studies of the East inspired him to write his only novel, Akbar (1872), which turned out to be quite popular because Van Limburg Brouwer had the knack of blending academic knowledge with the products of his own imagination. The book gives an impression of life in the Indies at the time of Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), the third and most important Mogul emperor of India who brought his empire to great prosperity. He proclaimed his own religion, in which he wanted to unite the essence of all religions. Van Limburg Brouwer’s novel gives an idealised picture of Akbar’s life…

Here is a sample:

“So you are going to leave us again, worthy Father?” said Akbar, as the Jesuit was ushered into his presence.

“I must do so, Sire,” answered Aquaviva; “our Provincial summons me back to Goa. But I cannot depart without expressing to your Majesty my heartiest thanks for the honour and favours that have here been shown us, though I hesitated to ask an audience after your serious and bitter loss. A worthy man, a true friend, and a faithful servant was Abú-l Fazl, and the memory of such a man is certainly a comfort in the midst of the sorrow that his loss causes. But,” added he, after a moment’s pause, “this would not be to me a sufficient consolation.”

“Not enough!” repeated Akbar in surprise. “What more would you demand?”

“I should wish for the certainty that he died with a purer soul, and with happier expectations than was possible.”

“Abú-l Fazl,” answered the Emperor, in an earnest but calm voice,—“Abú-l Fazl was as pure of soul as any of yours can be, without saying more, and he died as I would wish to die.”

The Jesuit waited, expecting Akbar would add something more, but he was silent; and the tone of his reply clearly showed that to ask for further explanation would be imprudent.

“Do you expect to return soon?” asked Akbar, after a few minutes silence.

“That will depend on the orders I receive,” answered Aquaviva. “So far as I am myself concerned, with sorrow I am compelled to confess that my mission here has been a failure.”

“How a failure? Have you not received here the fullest protection, and been shown all respect and fitting honour? and have you not enjoyed the most complete liberty to preach what you will, and to convert whom you can? Do you reckon that as nothing? Here, where a few years ago, under my predecessors, any preaching of your doctrines would have met with the punishment of death.”

“Sire,” answered the Padre, “we should indeed be ungrateful did we reckon such important privileges as nothing. Yet I must repeat that our mission is a failure as respects its principal object. You know well with what glorious hopes we came to Agra; the reverent interest you took in our holy writings, and in the ceremonials of our Church, had filled us with hope that in the end the light of truth would sink into your noble heart and deep-thinking mind; we had hoped, and almost expected with certainty, that the Church of Christ would greet in Shah Akbar one of, if not the most famous of her sons. These hopes and expectations we cannot now flatter ourselves were anything but idle; so, cannot we say with truth that our mission has failed in its highest aim? Still, it may be that here and there in our teaching there are difficulties which your philosophers cannot now solve, which closer study and research will throw light upon. I think of the great benefits that the Church has showered upon the West, and which would not here be wanting did she possess like power.”

“With reason,” said Akbar, “you now leave on one side the real dogmatical questions, for about them we shall never agree, and for the moment I feel no inclination for their discussion. You speak of benefits; I believe, willingly and with reason, that your Christian doctrines have done much for the world—more, perhaps, than any other religion—in the application of the principles of universal love of our fellow-men, and self-sacrifice; however, as we have already shown you, this is not exclusively taught by your doctrines, which, if they have done much good, have also done much that is evil. Have you not introduced the greatest intolerance that the world has ever known? Have not you, you priests, in the West exalted yourselves to tyrannize over the consciences of your fellow-men? Have you not doomed hundreds and thousands to the stake because they differed from you on some point of faith? And you call these benefits! Then, indeed, you have strange ideas of doing good; and your love for your fellow-men is of a strange kind. Tell me,” he continued, turning a penetrating look on Aquaviva, “tell me, how would you treat me, Akbar, whom you now honour so highly, were I a Christian subject of one of the princes who obey your commands? Would you not thrust me into a dungeon, and, if I remained hardened in my unbelief, deliver me to a judge to be condemned to the fire and stake?”

Perplexed, the Jesuit drew back. Such a question he had not expected; and what could he reply? Certainly it could not be denied that in all probability Akbar would be so treated were he in the situation he imagined.

“Sire,” at last he stammered, “that is not the case; and how can Akbar, the mighty Emperor of Hindustan, think of himself as the subject of one of our princes?”

“Certainly it is not so, fortunately for me! but your answer shows that my hypothesis was well grounded. Now another question: what would you do with me, Emperor of Hindustan, as I am? You wish me to be as one of your princes, who are submissive to your orders, and to use me as a tool for the maintenance of your clerical tyranny. Naturally you are very anxious for my conversion. Well, I tell you, once for all, you will never see it; not even if I entirely accepted your Evangelists, and were really publicly or privately to embrace them. I could have nothing to do with your present Church, well knowing what fatal consequences to a State would follow on its monarch taking such a step.”

“Then,” said Aquaviva, “nothing remains to us but to pray to our Lord that He by a miracle will bring about that which our zealous and feeble efforts have been unable to accomplish. And this prayer, I feel certain, will not remain unanswered. Reflect, O powerful ruler, that against Him the great of the earth are as nothing, and that He can punish those who withstand Him. He, and He alone, will triumph, and the gates of hell will avail nothing against the rock of Peter, while Christ and His Church will endure until the end of the world.”

“That may be your affair,” cried Akbar, losing a little of his usual patience; “mine is to watch over the liberty and rights of my people, and to defend them against you, as against the mullahs or priests of any other creeds. Remain here, or go, as it best pleases you; preach as seems good to you, and build churches. You shall enjoy the same privileges as Muhammadans in their mosques and Hindus in their temples. There is, however, one warning which I must give you: the moment I find you attempt to introduce any persecution amongst your converts or others, as already has been the case on the coast of Malabar, that moment shall you be banished from my kingdom, never to set your foot within it again.”

I honestly believe this book assumes a new relevance in our post-9/11 world.



The tomb of Akbar

From PBS:

During Akbar’s reign, the Mughal empire tripled in size and wealth. Akbar had created a powerful army and instituted effective political and social reforms. By abolishing the sectarian tax on Hindus and appointing them to high civil and military posts, he was the first Muslim ruler to win the trust and loyalty of his Hindu subjects. He had Hindu literature translated, participated in Hindu festivals, and realizing that a stable empire depended on strong alliances with the Rajputs, fierce Hindu warriors, he married a Rajput princess.

Akbar was truly an enlightened ruler, a philosopher-king who had a genuine interest in all creeds and doctrines at a time when religious persecution was prevalent throughout Europe and Asia. Understanding that cooperation among all his subjects – Muslims, Hindus, Persians, Central Asians and indigenous Indians – would be in his best interest, he even tried to establish a new religion that encouraged universal tolerance.

Akbar was strong-willed, fearless and often cruel, but he was also just and compassionate and had an inquiring mind. He invited holy men, poets, architects and artisans to his court from all over the Islamic world for study and discussion,and he created an astounding library of over 24,000 volumes written in Hindi, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Kashmiri, staffed by scholars, translators, artists, calligraphers, scribes, bookbinders and readers.

Manifesting the ancestral love of the arts on a monumental scale, Akbar filled the landscape with walled cities of royal pleasure and comfort, designed to dazzle the native rajas and advertise the glory of his reign. In the lovely capital city of Agra, Akbar built his remarkable Red Fort beside the Jamuna River. Part fortress, part palace, its construction proceeded at a hectic pace, and in eight years of frenzied building, more than five hundred graceful pavilions and sumptuous residences – adorned with exquisite carvings, lattice and pierced-stone screens,wall paintings, canopied roofs, carved brackets and pilasters – were created within the massive red sandstone walls to accommodate his considerable court. And Agra became the repository for all the wealth and talent of one of the most extensive empires in the medieval world.

This video is eccentric in some of its choices of image, but does provide a pretty good overview of Akbar – who was, remember, a contemporary of Elizabeth I – and beside him the Virgin Queen pales somewhat.

This document (PDF) has some interesting cultural information about The Netherlands in the 19th century.

Around 1900, Buddhism enjoyed a hitherto unknown popularity in Western culture. The ‘light of Asia’ cast its rays over Europe and North-America, where many came under  the  spell  of  the  person  and  teaching  of  Buddha.  Buddhism  proved  a  great source  of  inspiration  for  artists,  men  of  letters,  liberal  Christians  and  freethinkers. Knowledge  of  Buddhism  increased  considerably  in  the  Western  world  during  the 19th century, partly through translations of its key texts. German philosophers such as  Schopenhauer  and  Von  Hartmann  also  contributed  to  the  spread  of  Buddhist ideas,  in  keeping  with  their  message  of  pessimism.  Hence  it  was  with  some justification that the century was labeled ‘the century of Buddhism’ (Ernest Renan).

The  interest  in  Buddhism  may  be  placed  within  the  broader  context  of  the academic interest in non-Christian religions, in the same way as on the more popular level  we  note  that  interest  in  other  religions  and  world  views  is  accompanied  by enthusiasm for the so-called ‘new mysticism’ and things exotic. In those circles people liked to think of Buddhism as the ‘religion of the future’. 
In the Netherlands, too, Buddhism attracted attention. An early 19 th -century representative  of  the  interest  in  Buddhism  is  the  well-known  learned  Mennonite preacher  Joost  Hiddes  Halbertsma,  whose  treatise  Het  Buddhisme  en  zijn  stichter (Buddhism  and  its  founder)  appeared  in  1843.  Although  subsequent  endeavours  by P.A.S. van Limburg Brouwer to bring Buddhism to the attention of the Dutch public only met with a lukewarm reception, this changed around 1880, partly also because of  the  propagandist  efforts  by  the  liberal  Samuel  van  Houten  and  the  modern theologian Hayo Uden Meyboom. In the early 20th century the ‘hype’ surrounding Buddhism reached its climax. Information on this Eastern religion was diffused not only  via  academic  treatises,  but  also  via  public  lectures  and  cheap,  popular  tracts. The influence of Buddhism was also reflected in the arts and in literature…