Christina Granroth

By Bonnie Harper,2014-12-03 17:35
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Christina Granroth

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    Early descriptions of Penang:

    1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    Christina Granroth



    This paper looks at representations of landscape and people in early descriptions of Penang. Examining British travel accounts and official reports, the paper argues that the deployment of the language of the picturesque in combination with established perceptions of the Malay introduced a new phase in British knowledge of the Malay peninsula.

    In describing the beauty and diversity of the scenery British visitors to Penang painted a new picture of the ‘other India’: a tropical but still wholesome Eden. In this creation of a ‘tropical picturesque’, Penang came to stand out in contrast to the India proper. This

    picture was further enhanced by British perceptions of Penang’s indigenous inhabitants. The European stereotyping of the character of the Malay during the eighteenth century had created a people that fitted well into a romantic notion of boldness, courage and adventure. This environmental and ethnographic distinctiveness, the paper suggests, contributed to inspire the early scholars to more systematic enquiries into Malay culture and history. Raffles’ fascination with Malay history was partly propelled by a romantic yearning for a glorious past. The wider influence of his scholarship, however, would be seen in the promotion of official British interest in the region.

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 1/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

Early descriptions of Penang: Ethnography & the tropical picturesque

     ‘It is the most extensive and beautifully variegated prospect we had ever seen in

    India….so strikingly grand and beautiful is it, that the most phlegmatic observer

    can hardly fail to experience some pleasing sensations, when placed on this fairy

    spot.. I could not help feasting my eyes, for hours together, within undiminished

    delight, on the romantic scenery which nature, assisted by art, had scattered around

    in bountiful profusion… from the salubrity of its air, it is justly esteemed the

    Montpellier of India...from the dawn of day, until the sun has emerged above the

    high mountains of Queda, and even for some time after this period, Penang rivals

    2any thing that has been fabled of the Elysian fields’.

    Historians of early Penang often stress that its establishment, earliest history and place in Empire has to be understood in the context of economic development, world politics and strategy. However, these writers seldom venture outside straightforward reasons for the founding and importance of early Penang, seen as directly linked to the financial and political state of the East India Company. This paper wants to take early Penang into the arena of representation, to look at its place in what has been called the ‘informal’ or ‘invisible’ empire, by examining how early Penang was presented in Britain. Through a reading of travel literature as well as official reports, I want to suggest that Penang came to stand out as very distinct place in the second British Empire, a place that not only confirmed the old notion of the ‘other India’, (‘India extra Gangem’) but also introduced the British to a different India. This new ‘other India’ was a result of intellectual rather than political or economic shifts.

    This distinctness of Penang evolved on two levels. Firstly, the representation of landscape, climate and a tropical environment which was based on the language of the picturesque. The first decades of Penang’s history coincided with the emergence of a new mode of topographical description in Britain, whereby nature was increasingly described thought the language of the picturesque, a movement which had originally been applied to art. I want to suggest that Penang, through the unique qualities of its landscape to a higher degree than India corresponded to the criteria for the picturesque. This is evident in travel literature, but also in more official reports, where a fact-based narrative is interrupted in order to dwell on the picturesque beauty of Penang. Expressed through the language of the picturesque Penang then also contributed to imperial knowledge through topography, agricultural opportunities and variety in landscape. But I also want to argue that the special place of

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 2/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    Penang was buttressed by ways in which its landscape evoked a domestic equivalent in the minds of the British, through topography, cultivation and other features not found on the subcontinent.

    Secondly, I want to link the picturesque and its development into the Romantic Movement with British perceptions of the Malay, touching on colonial knowledge as ethnography as well as European knowledge of the Malay world. All European visitors agreed that Penang’s most striking feature was its ethnic diversity. Even so, it was perceived that the Malay were the original inhabitants. Early Penang also coincided with the emergence of the first scholarly attempts to systematically describe the history and language of the Malay, representing a shift in ethnographical knowledge which would pave the way for the British imperial project in the peninsula. Here I want to take a look at the perceptions of Malay character, proposing that it was the literary romantic notion of the historical Malay as bold, enterprising and courageous which appealed to John Leyden, and through his transmission to

    3Stamford Raffles.

    The idea of the picturesque had been proposed by Edmund Burke in the 1750’s. His essay A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

    proposed a new way of perceiving and describing nature, through the concept of the ‘picturesque’, where nature is basically judged by its resemblance to art, specifically to a certain tradition of composition of landscape. Burke also put forward the idea that the only medium in which the sublime can be properly represented is in words. This started off the movement of the picturesque in literature.

    4By the 1790’s William Gilpin’s three essays on the picturesque would influence the

    way travellers described landscape, and have a profound effect on the genre of travel writing.

    What Gilpin and Burke brought into aesthetic theory was a questioning of the essential qualities of ‘beauty’. By introducing the categories of ‘the picturesque’, ‘the sublime’ and the foreign element as ‘exotic’, the experience of beauty was divided into

    degrees of intensity. Sensations and psychological influences were brought in as determining an aesthetic experience. The landscape favoured by the picturesque was characterised by romantic disorder, irregularity, singular shapes. But the picturesque also embraced humans into this landscape, with wild terrains inhabited by outlaws and bandits, who could be brought within the aegis of good taste.

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 3/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    By the beginning of the nineteenth century the cult of the picturesque had become a way of perceiving both landscape and its inhabitants. Although Burke and Gilpin were mostly concerned with domestic landscape, the picturesque became a language through which the steadily growing scenic tourism enacted visual and verbal framing of natural scenes. Words such as ‘landscape’ and ‘prospect’ where here essential in describing views of diversity as well as rugged mountain scenes from Scotland and the European Alps.

    The language of the picturesque would, however, travel further than Europeans making the Grand Tour. While Gilpin still toured the mountains of Scotland and Wales, the artists travelling with the expeditions of Captain Cook began the long process of ‘aesthetizising’ the exotic landscape of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and Australia. From India, Thomas and William Daniell contributed to the cult of the exotic picturesque in England during the last decades of the eighteenth century by depicting Indian landscapes, at the same time giving many in Britain their first glimpse of life in India. Connoisseurs of art eagerly purchased the works of the Daniells for their celebration of India’s ‘sublime’ landscape, conjuring up the exotic through a tropical flora and fauna and description of ‘native manners’. The Daniells also visited Southeast Asia briefly and published aquatint

    prints of Java in the their Picturesque voyage to India by the way of China. (William

    Daniell’s set of engravings of Penang in 1821 were aquatinted and hand coloured after paintings by Captain Robert Smith of the Bengal engineers, who was stationed in Penang

    51814-1818. Although splendid engravings, they cannot convey personal experience nor demonstrate contrasting perceptions of nature in comparison to India).

    The role of the literary picturesque in an imperial discourse is still an under researched aspect of colonial knowledge. Landscape description have been highlighted in studies of the Pacific voyages, and most importantly though the work of Sidney Parkinson, who developed the picturesque as the agent whereby topography, art as information, could be elevated to the level of taste. In the case of India Sara Sulieri has seen the picturesque within the categorical distinction between aesthetic and practical, useful and ornamental, as a tool whereby both categories converge in support of merchant capitalism. The relationship between the picturesque and landappopriation or ethnography, important in the case of Penang, has not been properly discussed in a colonial context, in the way, for example Ann Bermingham has seen the picturesque on a social an political level, as providing an aesthetic whereby the English countryside could be appropriated imaginatively by a new class of landowners responsible for the enclosures of common land. In ethnography, on the other hand,

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 4/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque

    The Penang Story International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

    Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

    some Canadian historians have come to see the picturesque as instrumental in the

    6dehumanisation of native peoples and in the exploitation of the environment.

    I will now turn to Penang, to point to the aspects in which I think the island answered particularly well to the call for picturesque qualities, and so contributed to this special place Penang came to hold, distinguishing it from the rest of India. These were the unique topography, diversity of landscape, the climate, cultivation and lastly the similarities to British and in particular Scottish landscape.

    It seems clear that the fascination many felt for Penang can be explained through the ways in which the topography of the island possessed several of the qualities which were essential to the language and idea of the picturesque. The smallness of the island facilitated the opening up of different kinds of ‘prospects’. Gilpin, in his essay on picturesque travel had emphasized the change in landscape: ‘nor is there in travelling a greater pleasure, than when a scene of grandeur bursts unexpectedly upon the eye, accompanied with some accidental circumstance of the atmosphere, which harmonizes with it, and gives it double value.’ This trope was used to describe the first sight of Penning, the approach. ‘We were about twenty miles distant and, as we approached the deepening tints became more and more vivid, point after point opening gradually to our view, until the whole extent of the picturesque Isle formed one side of our splendid panorama. Whilst, on the other side not more than four miles, off the hilly and jungly coast of Queda displayed almost equal beauty, though of bolder character.’

    It was, however, the topography of Penang which primarily invited to picturesque description. What fascinated visitors to Penang was of course the hill, and the opportunity it offered to gain access to a ‘prospect’ equalled only in the Scottish highlands or the Alps of the Grand Tour. Euphorically described by Lord Minto on his visit to Penang in a letter to his family, the following scene could as well be taken from his native Scotland.

    ‘The situation is beautiful - on the bank of a running stream fresh form mountains

    springs. Beyond the stream the plain extends perhaps a quarter of a mile to the foot of

    a sublime mountain, and not more sublime than beautiful, steep, craggy, broken into

    smaller hills, and the whole covered with the most magnificent wood, interspersed

    with underwood, and here and there vacant spaces which are green and flourishing’.

    Christina Granroth, Early descriptions of Penang: 5/14 1 Ethnography and the tropical picturesque