Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire

Ideas circulate as surely as trade goods, but their paths are a bit trickier to follow. Tony Ballantyne has done a masterful job in mapping an interlocking network of perceptions reaching across the British Empire. In Orientalism and Race, Ballantyne pursues a line of scholarship inaugurated by Edward Said in 1978, but draws a more complex conclusion. Ballantyne traces the migration of rapidly evolving concepts of “Aryanism,” beginning with Sir William Jones’s scholarly and rather benevolent philology in the late eighteenth century. Ballantyne focuses on India and New Zealand, but touches briefly (and tantalizingly) on Scotland, Ireland, and the birth of German Romanticism. He gives full recognition to indigenous agency by adhering to the analogy of a web rather than that of spokes radiating out from a wheel, believing that the latter would carry implications of intellectual imperial cores versus subordinate peripheries. The metropolis was not necessarily the center of intellectual power. Ballantyne portrays colonies as powerful intellectual frontiers, “where new identities and social formation” grew from the “intellectual engagement and innovation” of all parties (p. 4).

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Summaries of complex arguments always involve oversimplification, but to recapitulate Ballantyne’s argument briefly: Sir William Jones, the founder of the Bengal Asiatic Society and judge of the high court of Calcutta from 1783 to 1794, began studying Sanskrit because he mistrusted indigenous translators, fearing both forgery and perjury. In his studies, he developed a great admiration for the structure of Sanskrit and detected certain parallels between Sanskrit and European languages. Jones, inferring that similarities of language implied a kinship between peoples, postulated a common tribal origin between Europeans and South Asians. His findings inspired a flurry of excitement as scholars attempted to correlate contemporary populations with biblical dispersal mythology. During these efforts, the Maori of New Zealand were included with Europeans and Indians in the chain of peoples thought to be descendents of the ancient Aryan tribes. Jones’s translations triggered an age of “Indomania” at about the same time that Captain Cook’s voyages set off a “Pacific craze.” A German traveler, Georg Forster, who had accompanied Cook, presented a copy of one of Jones’s translations to Johann Gottfried von Herder and German Romanticism began taking shape. Other scholars began looking at Irish history through the lens of Aryanism, resulting in an interesting work by Charles Vallancey, The Ancient History of Ireland, Proved from the Sanskrit Books of the Bramins of India (1797). Debates over the relationship between the Irish and the East were resurrected periodically during times of intense resistance to English domination. Everyone who engaged in discussions of the ancient—and now mythical—Aryan tribes reinterpreted their applicability to contemporary issues. Max Müller, a German-born Oxford professor, glamorized and popularized the issue.

Both the passion for Orientalist interpretations and the enthusiasm for tracing kinship extended to the Pacific. Indocentrism led some to postulate an Aryan origin to the Maori. The notion of “Aryanism” generally appeared in discussions as an explanation of superiority (intelligence, “manliness,” and martial ability) or degradation (dull-wittedness, “effeminacy,” and passivity). As Ballantyne observes, notions of “imperial entitlement” could not survive without a counterbalancing population of “backward natives” (p. 87). The web grew increasingly complex as the ideas of kinship were used not only to justify exploitation, but also to combat the racial and ethnic divisions wracking colonial society in the late 1860s (p. 70). After all, no matter how rebellious and difficult, “little brothers” are entitled to a certain amount of protection. Having originated the idea, however, did not mean that European intellectuals and colonizers could retain ownership of it. Neither the Maori nor the Indians were interested in claiming a cadet relationship with Englishmen. The Maori dismissed the idea of an Aryan lineage and invented a new genealogy for themselves; the Indians co-opted Aryanism.

Ballantyne shines in his analysis of indigenous intellectual agency, astutely demonstrating the malleability of intellectual constructions. As an example, when the Maori asserted their right to control their own lands and peoples during the King movement in the mid-nineteenth century, they rejected notions of kinship as well as inferior status. Christian symbols and language became a part of the resistance to notions of kinship as Maori intellectuals began tracing their origins to the ancient Hebrews rather than to the wandering Aryan tribes. Hindu intellectuals, especially in Bengal, reinterpreted the implications of “Aryanism,” some going so far as to insist that “Indian Hindus were … the only true Aryans.” They were understandably reluctant to claim kinship with “beef-eating, whiskey-drinking Englishmen” (p. 182). Ballantyne effectively reminds us that once set loose, ideas take on a life often unforeseen by their authors. National movements and anthropological studies gradually subsumed concepts of “Aryanism” in New Zealand and India. Theories of “Aryanism” relocated to other arenas and achieved an even greater malevolency.

Orientalism and Race is an excellent start for historians interested in tracing a world system of ideas. Ballantyne has made a valuable contribution to the field pioneered by Eric R. Wolf, Edward Said, Thomas Trautmann, George W. Stocking Jr., and several others. It is a strong work, disappointing only in its brevity. It would have been more satisfying if Ballantyne had pursued the topic over a wider field. His references to the Irish and Germans are enticing. One is left wanting to see how the notion unfolded, from Jones through Hitler to the modern American “Aryan nation” proponents of white superiority. One hopes that Ballantyne considers this the first of several studies, and that more will be forthcoming. The work, although a bit dense for undergraduates or newcomers to the field of Orientalism, will appeal to a broad audience of scholars. I recommend it to anyone interested in New Zealand, India, the intellectual foundations of imperialism, Orientalism in general, or simply the history of ideas. The “world systems” approach to ideas is itself an idea whose time has come.