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The Colonial Gaze: Western Perceptions of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 1600-1960


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenors: Fred Anscombe, Hilary Sapire
  • Assessment: an 800-word coursework assignment (20%) and 3200-word essay (80%)

    Module description

    This course will examine, through intensive study of primary materials and specialist works of scholarship, the history of Western (to include western Europe and North America) perceptions of China, Japan, South Asia, Africa and the Middle East from the seventeenth century to the present. It will consider political, cultural, economic, social, religious and ideological encounters between the West and the non-Western world over the past four centuries, setting this ambivalent and often troubled relationship within a broader historical context.

    The course will progress chronologically through the period under study, beginning with the conflicts and challenges of perception produced by the 'expansion of Europe' and ending with discussion of the ways in which decolonisation transformed, complicated or entrenched pre-existing perceptions, misperceptions and distortions of the non-Western world.

    Each week's seminar will also be organised around a specific theme, such as travellers, trade, war, religions, and focus on a specific region, although comparisons with other regions will be encouraged, where relevant and feasible.

    The course will explore how important themes in the cultural history of perception can be usefully applied to modern Western interactions with these different regions. To this end, you will discuss general theoretical perspectives on the historical relationship between the 'West' and the 'East', through reading texts such as Said's Orientalism, and the scholarly controversies they have provoked.

    The course will also offer rigorous methodological training in the use of diverse and contrasting primary materials for historical research. A wide range of primary sources will be covered including diaries, memoirs, travel writings, novels, newspapers, journals and films, as well as other forms of visual materials and material culture (including maps, cartoons and posters). The course will sharpen your ability to analyse rigorously the particular types of insight and meaning that different cultural forms (textual, literary, cartographic, cinematic and so on) can offer. The option will therefore hone your technical capabilities to assess and engage critically with a variety of sources.

    The course will build on knowledge and skills acquired in Group 1 and Group 2 courses in modern European, African, Asian and Middle Eastern history, British imperial history and North American history, providing you with a new opportunity to study in depth the history of encounters between the Western and non-Western worlds in the colonial and postcolonial eras.

    Indicative module content

    In Term 1, we will explore East Asia, the Pacific and South Asia, while in Term 2, we will explore Africa and the Middle East.

    • Introduction to the themes of the course, and discussion of conceptual/methodological frameworks, including how to use the diverse categories of primary sources that will be studied
    • Introduction to the histories of China and Japan, 1600-twentieth century, to enable students to navigate the period of history that they are studying through Western perceptions
    • The Jesuit encounter with China and Japan between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries
    • Utopian visions: the eighteenth-century cult of China in the Enlightenment and the Chinoiserie craze
    • Embassies and economic wars: gunboat diplomacy, Sinophobia and the rise of Japan
    • Encounters in the South Seas: Captain Cook, Joseph Banks and Pacific Islanders
    • Introduction to the history of South Asia, 1600-twentieth century
    • The Orientalist Gaze in South Asia in the late eighteenth century
    • The Mutiny/Rebellion of 1857
    • Portrayals of Indian nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
    • Introduction to the history of Africa, 1600-twentieth century
    • The Atlantic Slave Trade in the nineteenth century and the defence of slavery
    • Indian Ocean slavery
    • David Livingstone: exploration, abolition, Christianity and commerce
    • Mau Maus of the mind and the decolonisation of Kenya.
    • Introduction to the history of the Middle East, 1600-twentieth century
    • The exotic Middle East: Lawrence of Arabia and the romanticisation of the Bedouin
    • The Thousand and One Nights: gender, sex and the harem in European imaginations of the Middle East
    • The afterlives of Orientalism: the Middle East in the Western media
    • Occidentalism: 'The West' in African, Asian and Middle Eastern eyes

    Learning objectives

    By the end of this module, you will be able to:

    • demonstrate a confident familiarity with diverse themes in Asian, African, Middle Eastern history from 1600 to the twentieth century
    • identify themes specific to Western perceptions of these regions
    • analyse in-depth a broad range of primary sources, understand their limitations and biases, and confidently compare and contrast the insights that textual (both documentary and literary) and visual (photographic, cartographic and painted/drawn) sources offer
    • account for historical changes in Western perceptions of Asia, Africa and the Middle East
    • reflect on the general issue of how themes and perceptions of non-European societies and cultures are constructed by theorists and commentators
    • engage critically with the political, cultural and social contexts of Western imperialism and the non-Western societies that encountered it
    • discuss the long-range impact and afterlives of particular Western perceptions of the non-Western world
    • analyse and summarise the intentions and arguments of primary and secondary sources
    • compare and contrast different interpretations of the same event/period/phenomenon.