Age of Invention: Observing the Occident

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While researching the causes of the Industrial Revolution, I often pay especial attention to what foreigners had to say about Britain at the time. Their testimonies can often give a slightly more faithful look of how the country was doing in terms of living standards, commerce, and technological development, without the nationalistic gloss that some British writers might have given.

Typically, I read the things that German, Italian, or French observers had to say. Such accounts are numerous, and often even the tiniest details can turn out to be informative. But this past week I’ve become engrossed with travel accounts from farther afield: the things that the very earliest visitors from China, India, Siam, or the Ottoman Empire had to say about Europe. Unfortunately, such accounts are extremely rare, especially for the earlier period that I’m most interested in, roughly 1540-1650. But even the smallest fragments can speak volumes.

Take Michael Shen Fuzong. A convert to Catholicism, he came to Europe in the 1680s to become a Jesuit. He became an instant celebrity, meeting Louis XIV of France, the Pope, and James II of England. Shen Fuzong was by no means the first East Asian to come to England — in 1588 the explorer Thomas Cavendish brought back two young Japanese men, one of whom showed the clergyman and scientist William Barlow how to float a magnetic needle in a water-filled porcelain dish to serve as a compass. Yet Shen Fuzong’s arrival was still a rare and exciting event: James II had a wonderful full-length portrait of him painted, to hang in the king’s own bedroom.

While in London, Shen Fuzong brushed up on his Latin — the common language of the learned throughout Europe — and met leading scientists like Robert Boyle. During a trip to Oxford, he also struck up a friendship with the linguistic scholar Thomas Hyde, teaching him a little Chinese and helping him to translate the titles of various Chinese manuscripts that had made their way to the Bodleian library. While the English scholars wanted to know more about China’s languages and religion, however, Shen Fuzong himself seems to have been most fascinated by English mathematical and astronomical instruments. We have only a handful of letters that he wrote to Hyde over the course of his stay in England, but they frequently asked or reminded him to send various “mathematical gifts”, including “curious glasses such as microscopes or optic tubes, and the like”. As I’ve mentioned before, over the previous century England’s mathematicians and navigators had become increasingly innovative. Indeed, the kinds of instruments Shen Fuzong requested were apparently popular everywhere outside of Europe. The French ambassador to Siam in the 1680s was accompanied by a clockmaker, glass-maker, and fireworks engineer, all at the king of Siam’s request.

But these hints about Chinese and Siamese opinions are incredibly frustrating, because so little has survived of what they actually wrote about them. Although a Siamese embassy arrived in Paris at around the same time as Shen Fuzong was there, and although that embassy meticulously recorded absolutely everything they saw and did, those records were destroyed in a fire. There was, fortunately, a copy, but then that was destroyed in a fire too. We only know the Siamese embassy had documented everything because they told Louis XIV about it. The only fragment of the work that survives is from a few draft pages on some borrowed paper, which they left behind in France. And as for Shen Fuzong, although we have his letters to Thomas Hyde, he sadly died on his return journey to China. Any impressions, had he intended to write them, were thus lost.

Nonetheless, we do have some fuller accounts from the eighteenth century, especially by Ottoman and Indian visitors. Unlike the other works, they were very quickly translated into French and/or English and then published. Although it’s disappointing not to be able to find any earlier accounts, they are at least a delight to read, full of juicy details and charming personal observations. One of my favourites is the account of Yirmisekiz Mehmed Çelebi, the Ottoman ambassador to France in the early 1720s. Most charming was how impressed he was by the Canal du Midi, which helped connect the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. He devoted pages upon pages upon pages to describing the way that the canal locks worked, and how they allowed the boats to go so up-hill. He was astonished that at one point the canal crossed over another river via a bridge, and that at one stage it had been tunnelled through a mountain. “It deserves”, he exclaimed, “to be numbered among the wonders of the world”.

When he finally reached Paris — he had to spend a long while under quarantine, because smallpox was then raging throughout southern France — Çelebi continued to geek out over French water infrastructure. He took care to note the heights reached by the water fountains of the various nobles’ gardens, and was amazed at the complicated systems of reservoirs, aqueducts, and water-powered pumping machines. “I have never heard of anything approaching this miracle of art”, he exclaimed. He also had a chance to tour the king’s tapestry-making factory, the famous Gobelins, as well as to visit a glass-making facility where he was shown mirrors “as big as a sofa”.

He even had a tour of the Paris observatory, peering through its telescopes at Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon. Although he was impressed at how the westerners’ invention of the telescope had allowed them to make discoveries that were unknown to the ancients, he still had a bit of scepticism about their bolder claims. When looking at the Moon, he saw only craters and channels, and “could not perceive the trees and the waters that some French pretend there are”. Çelebi was also entertained by a set of concave iron mirrors, which focused the sun’s rays to ignite wood or melt lead. Science was amusing. Such items turned out to be a must-have for the Ottoman sultan upon Çelebi’s return. He ordered various telescopes, mirrors, and microscopes, as well a few of the other luxuries the ambassador had noted. And Çelebi’s son, who accompanied him on the embassy, helped found Constantinople’s first Arabic-character printing press (he himself became an ambassador to Paris in the 1740s, when he again toured the city in pursuit of technological novelties).

In addition to the geekery, Çelebi’s account contained touching personal portraits. He described, for example, a meeting with the 11-year old king Louis XV (Louis XIV lived so long that he outlived his own eldest son, and this his eldest son too, so that he was succeeded by his great-grandson). Young Louis was delighted to examine Çelebi’s clothes and his ornate daggers, all while his governor doted, commenting on the child’s growth and manners. Çelebi was invited to feel the king’s long hair, after which his majesty was made to parade about the room to show off his gait —“the majestic gait of a partridge”, apparently. Then the young monarch proceeded to explain to the ambassador the meanings of the ornate room’s various paintings. The king even offered the ambassador some of his most precious jewels — but this earned him a reprimand from his governor. He was reminded that they belonged to the crown, not to him.

As for Europe’s Indian observers, one of the earliest full accounts is that of Mirza Shaikh Ictisam al-Din, sent to Britain by the Mughal emperor in the late 1760s. Although the Industrial Revolution is popularly dated to about 1760-1830, as I’ve said many times before this periodisation is clearly too late. Britain was already gaining a reputation for wealth and invention long before this. Ictisam al-Din noted that the poor French people he saw at Nantes and at Calais rarely wore any leather boots or shoes. They went in either wooden clogs or barefoot. As for the English, however, they were clearly better-fed, and he rarely saw any of them without shoes or boots. To this disinterested foreigner, the wealth disparity was already obvious. Although he repeated what the French said about the English — that they were a “stupid race, and slow at acquiring knowledge” — Ictisam al-Din was having none of it. “I clearly perceived”, he wrote, “that the whole conversation of the French was an attempt to display their own superiority, and without any good reason they abused other castes”.

Indeed, Ictisam al-Din had a chance to see a lot of Britain. He visited Scotland, perceiving that “the towns are daily augmenting and there is also an increment in the wealth”. It was a region on the make. Yet he also noted that the national prejudices seemed rooted in lingering wealth disparities. The Scotch, he reported, “esteem themselves far superior to the English, and say that the English are great gluttons”. They were proud of being abstemious. Yet the English, he reported, “account themselves better by reason of their wealth, and despise the Scotch for being poor.”

He noted much about English laws, customs, and social habits, some of which seemed downright bizarre. Ice-skating, apparently, was something he had thought an unbelievable myth. He described how women with milk-pails and baskets of vegetables on their heads and shoulders would effortlessly skate around some towns. The dogs, too, were simply beyond belief: “they are taught to perform many wonderful and surprising things, which the common people of this country do not believe a word of.” And, of course, there was the food. It was, he thought, under-spiced, under-salted, and could do with some ghee. My favourite observation, however, was that the English “do not at all relish to be praised before their face”. He described how flattery led the English to mumble, blush, and look awkwardly at their own feet. Some stereotypes haven’t changed.

Until next week,


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