Scottish orientalism

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Scottish orientalism refers to the collective views of a group of Scottish scholars of oriental languages, informed by the Scottish Enlightenment, and applied to the culture and administration of the Indian subcontinent though the East India Company, from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century.

The word "orientalist" is recorded in English from 1779. In its early days and in relation to India (rather than the Ottoman possessions) it connoted not only proficiency in languages of India, but also study of the culture, and advocacy of administration of the existing legal systems and customs. This attitude was opposed by both evangelical and Utilitarian critics.[1]


Scottish dominance within British orientalism at the end of the 18th century—the period after the death of Sir William Jones in 1794—was almost complete: the only leading exception was Henry Thomas Colebrooke.[2]

Rendall's theory[edit]

Rendall has identified a group of Scottish oriental scholars, under the influence of Dugald Stewart and his view of "philosophical history". They bridge the gap between William Robertson who warned of the ethnocentrism into which the approach of stadial history could betray Europeans, and James Mill who in The History of British India embraced the assumption of European superiority, in the case of Hindu culture. These men all had contact with Edinburgh University, and comprise:[3]

Orientalism in government[edit]

Michael Fry has argued that there was a "Scottish orientalist regime", including Elphinstone.[4] The views of Scottish administrators derived from the contemporary Moderate church party, and Scottish intellectuals including Robertson and Adam Ferguson, leading to an accepting line on Indian custom and culture.[5]

In literature[edit]

Strong sympathy for Indians was shown in the 1796 novel Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796) by Elizabeth Hamilton, sister of the orientalist Charles Hamilton. The family was Scots-Irish.[6]

See also[edit]


  • Philip Constable, Scottish Missionaries, 'Protestant Hinduism' and the Scottish Sense of Empire in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century India, The Scottish Historical Review. Vol. 86, No. 222, Part 2 (Oct., 2007), pp. 278–313. Published by: Edinburgh University Press. Stable URL:
  • Jane Rendall, Scottish Orientalism: From Robertson to James Mill, The Historical Journal Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar., 1982), pp. 43–69. Published by: Cambridge University Press. Stable URL:


  1. ^ Robert Irwin (2006). For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. Allen Lane. pp. 159–60. ISBN 0-713-99415-0. 
  2. ^ Theodore Koditschek. Liberalism, Imperialism, and the Historical Imagination. Cambridge University Press. p. 66 note 19. ISBN 978-1-139-49488-5. Retrieved 3 March 2013.  Others mentioned there are: Neil Benjamin Edmonstone; John Gilchrist; William Hunter; James Kirkpatrick; William Kirkpatrick; Colin Mackenzie; and Thomas Munro. Mark Wilks was from the Isle of Man.
  3. ^ Rendall, pp. 44–5.
  4. ^ Avril Ann Powell (21 October 2010). Scottish Orientalists and India: The Muir Brothers, Religion, Education and Empire. Boydell & Brewer. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-84383-579-0. Retrieved 5 March 2013. 
  5. ^ Constable, p. 282.
  6. ^ Ian Brown (2007). The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: Enlightenment, Britain And Empire( 1707-1918). Edinburgh University Press. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-7486-2481-2. Retrieved 3 March 2013.