East meets west in the global eighteenth century

Adam Smith, one of the eighteenth century’s most perceptive minds, claimed in The Wealth of nations that the ‘discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events in the history of mankind’. His observation illuminates one of the key issues affecting major European powers in the late eighteenth century: where to expand on the world stage?

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Britain, for example, was experiencing contrasting fortunes. Having defeated the French in the Seven Years War in what is often regarded as the first global conflict, the British were subsequently defeated in the American War of Independence. Attention was increasingly directed to opportunities offered by the east, as the celebrated voyages of Cook and Bougainville to the Pacific Ocean were opening up new territorial and cultural challenges.

It was, however, the Indian sub-continent with its promise of new commercial opportunities and wealth that proved most attractive to European powers. As history has proved, the Indian sub-continent became fertile ground for colonial expansion and the transformation of the global order.

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But the relations between east and west were more complicated and nuanced than a simple binary opposition would suggest, as contributors to India and Europe in the global eighteenth century uncover. European rivalries in India produced unanticipated repercussions back in the Old World, expansionist agendas were questioned and enhanced knowledge of ancient Indian civilisations and belief systems challenged the hegemony of Greco-Roman antiquity. India was, in a sense, expanding west and making a mark politically, commercially and culturally in Europe as an essential part of an increasingly interconnected global world.

–Simon Davies

See also Céline Spector’s blog on Civilisation et empire au siècle des Lumières (October 2013).

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Frontispiece and title-page of La Cabaña Indiana y El Café de Surate (Valencia, José Ferrer de Orga, 1811).

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Disparate de bestia, Goya.

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The Bernardin de Saint-Pierre Project

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Today marks 200 years since the death of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814). Best known for his novel Paul et Virginie, he was also the author of a voluminous correspondence: nearly 2800 letters to and from the author survive detailing the author’s travels to Eastern Europe and Mauritius, and providing insights into the cultural and social life of Paris at the turn of the eighteenth century.

The Bernardin de Saint-Pierre Project, the first critical edition of his correspondence, generously funded by the AHRC, the British Academy and the MHRA, is now nearing completion. The Voltaire Foundation has been publishing the letters in batches via Electronic Enlightenment since 2008. The publication in electronic format allows us to update letters as more information becomes available, and also to add new letters as they come to light.

Whilst the correspondence project is almost complete, the first complete critical edition of the author is under way under the general editorship of Jean-Michel Racault. This will replace the early nineteenth-century editions of Aimé-Martin which sometimes contain unreliable texts and lack scholarly annotation. A special Bernardin de Saint-Pierre issue of Nottingham French Studies will appear in 2015.

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Further links

  • Anybody taking the ferry from Britain to Le Havre (Bernardin’s birthplace), may wish to see the exhibition on Bernardin: ‘Paul et Virginie, un exotisme enchanteur’, until 16 May 2014.
  • A website hosted by the University of Exeter contains all the manuscripts of the author that are held in the Bibliothèque Armand Salacrou, Le Havre. There are over 10,000 manuscript pages, available to all without password.

-Malcolm Cook

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment – what’s in a name?

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Jean-François de Troy, ‘Reading from Molière’, c.1728, Collection Marchioness of Cholmondeley .

As it enters its sixtieth year, and approaches its 550th volume, SVEC is changing its name; from 2014 the series will be known as Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.  

A change of name, yes, but not a change of direction. Over the last few years, the series has published leading research relating not only to France, but also to the UK, Germany and Spain, Russia and Greece, Africa and America; and it has encouraged work across a broad range of disciplines – economics and science, political and cultural history, music and the visual arts, literature and publishing -, as well as promoting new areas of research such as environmental studies.

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This editorial policy is quite consistent with the eighteenth century itself, which was constantly crossing boundaries of language, of nation and of discipline. Distinctions we might wish to make between, for instance, exception and rule, reason and emotion, functional and ornamental, laughter and tears, are all questioned in this period.  The Enlightenment is not about a single discipline, methodology, geographical terrain, intellectual position, or even about a defined period; it is an extensive process of exploration, exchange, and transgression.

The title Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment reflects those editorial principles and that intellectual practice.  The fact that the series is published by the Voltaire Foundation, a department of the University of Oxford and birthplace of the Electronic Enlightenment project, could not be more apt. Voltaire was one of the most interdisciplinary and international of writers, who thought beyond intellectual, cultural or even chronological boundaries.

It is in this spirit that the first book of the newly renamed series, India and Europe in the global eighteenth century, looks afresh at the relations between Europe and India using both eastern and western sources to explore the emergence of a new political and commercial order. From their home in Oxford University, Studies in the Enlightenment are well and truly global.

-JM