The shift in national consciousness that arose from imperial policies in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries resulted in the notion of the mastery of British identity, justifying a highly ordered worldview that included the conquering of other lands and the people that inhabited them. Mary Louise Pratt, one of the foremost critics of imperial travel writing, writes that travelogues of the nineteenth century provided British and European readers a sense of curiosity and adventure about the world and their place within it, which supported the desire to travel to places abroad.

However, these works also supported, Pratt argues, “a sense of ownership, entitlement, and familiarly with respect to the distant parts of the world that were being explored, invaded, invested in, and colonized.”[1] Borrowing from the aesthetics of the picturesque, travelogues of this time supported a vision of foreign lands that appeared comforting and domestic, spaces that could easily be inhabited by British subjects, and inscribed with their own definitions of value. Domesticizing foreign spaces for the empire ensured that British travel writers and tourists could feel ‘at home’ and to support the imperial efforts on the colonial frontier.

Recreating interactions with ‘others’ exposed what Pratt coins ‘contact zones:’ “space[s] of imperial encounters, the space in which people geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish relations.”[2] However, these encounters usually occur from the traveller’s—or as Pratt terms, ‘invaders’—perspective, leading to accounts that represent the “co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices … [of] radically asymmetrical relations of power.”[3] Ultimately, the depicted contact zones in British travel writing are demonstrative of the highly politicized origins of a seemingly innocent mode of writing, a mode which was constructed in the service of the British Empire.

Letting in the Jungle

Title illustration by John Lockwood Kipling for Rudyard Kipling's chapter "Letting in the Jungle" (1895)

[1] Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 3.
[2] Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 8.
[3] Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 8.