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Reading Travel beyond Stereotype in William Coxe’s ‘Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark’

By Basundhara Chakraborty

During the Eighteenth century, the age of Grand Tour, travel and travel writing was synonymous with the growth of empirical knowledge. An earnest believer in the spirit of grand tourism, William Coxe considered travel to be an opportunity to gather knowledge and all his travel narratives are records of his deep-seated interest in the histories of art, science and geology of the nations he travelled into. His aristocratic background (he was the Archdeacon, a senior Christian cleric of Wiltshire) and association with the British royal household (he was a physician to the British royal household) offered William Coxe an opportunity to become a travel companion with the travelling noblemen like Lord Herbert and Samuel Whitbread. A historian, mainly remembered by the successive generations for his scholarly biographical works such as Memoirs of Sir Robert Walpole (1798), Memoirs of Horatio, Lord Walpole (1802), Memoirs of John, Duke of Marlborough (1818-9), Private and Original Correspondence of Charles Talbot, Duke of Shrewsbury (1821), History of the House of Austria (1807) and Memoirs of the Bourbon Kings of Spain (1813), Coxe was an extensive traveler as well, having a number of travelogues to his credit: Sketches of the Natural, Political and Civil State of Switzerland (1779), Account of the Russian Discoveries between Asia and America (1780), Account of Prisons and Hospitals in Russia, Sweden and Denmark (1781), Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark (1784), Travels in Switzerland (1789) and Historical Tour in Monmouthshire (1801). The present paper is a reading of Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark (1784), a voluminous work that detailed his journey to the Scandinavian countries. His insightful observation and the rich historical detailing of the country earned his work a pioneering status among the travel literature on the region. The work served as a yardstick through which the later generation travel writers used to measure their individual works. In spite of writing one of the pioneering travel texts on the Scandinavian region in the eighteenth century Coxe like his other contemporaries such as George Shelvocke (1675-1742), James Bruce (1730- 1794), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) has never gained popularity among the travel historians. The present paper is an attempt to bridge this scholarly gap – by doing an extensive study of Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark, it would analyse how Coxe and his lesser known travel work needs to be read and appreciated on their own right.

A fellow of King’s College in 1768, Coxe has followed the dominant trend of his time of initiating an impersonal scientific probe into his socio-political study of the Nordic countries he visited. His upper-class status turned into a disadvantage to Coxe as it prevented him from any inter-class encounter in his travel destinations and he failed to get any insight into the lives of the people inhabiting there. Highly impersonal in tone, Coxe’s travel writings though abound in factual information, contained relatively few personal anecdotes or reflections. Though the travel text can be used as a rich archival documentation on the financial, political and historical lives of Scandinavia, the text does not shed light on the various issues of social life such as the inter-class relationship, inter-sex relationship, and largely on the socio-political complexities and various developments in the nineteenth century Scandinavia. The impersonal stance of Coxe can be interpreted as an intentional one to safeguard his own personal interest (he was a part of the English nobility and was accompanying the young aristocrats there). As a result the scheming Danish Foreign Minister Count Bernsdorf, whom Mary Wollstonecraft censured in her travelogue, appeared as an amicable host to him. In Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark, Coxe recollected their encounter thus: “among others we had the honour of dining several times with the prime minister Count Bernsdorf, at his villa, about four miles from Copenhagen” (133).

Until the end of the nineteenth century, the British travel historians were keen to distinguish themselves from the ‘savage’ Scandinavians. One of the chief traits of Coxe’s travel narrative on Scandinavian countries was his awareness of racial identification of the British and the Scandinavians. In re-assessing the Germanic past of Britain, Coxe was able to deconstruct the contemporary prejudice against the Scandinavians and the Northern region that considered its distinction with Greco-Roman culture to be a testimonial of its inferiority. Unlike his anti- Teutonic contemporaries, Coxe throughout his travelogue has stressed over the Germanic origins of the Scandinavians and the British and reemphasized the origin and position of the Nordic languages. His view on the Germanic language was quite similar to the Germanic linguists: he considered the German language both as langue and parole – that stands both for the specific language and the whole language group as well. Coxe in Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark, argued: “the Swedish and Danish languages are both dialects of the Teutonic or German, and are both spoken in a singing or chanting tone” (7). For him linguistic identity was synonymous with the ethnic one: “the Norwegians being the same race with the Danes, and so long connected with them in religion and government, speak the same language, with a necessary mixture of provincial expression” (8). He was foresighted enough to consider language as a nation-building tool. At the same time, his resourceful observation on the close association between Icelandic culture and Germanic culture stands for his exceptionality among his contemporary travel historians. He considered the Swedish and Danish languages as branches of the German language tree. Scholars like Rask have found the various cultural boundaries between different Nordic cultures a vague one and have proposed to nominate the whole language branch including the Germanic and Scandinavian languages as Gothic instead of calling it Germanic. The term Germanic was a foreign one in the Nordic region and the ancient Romans have always used the term to denote a particular tribe instead of the whole populace. For the theorists who have drawn the binary between the Saxonist/Teutonist cultural model have recognized the Goths, not the Germans, as representatives of the Nordic culture backed up by reliable traces both in the Nordic countries and the south. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Iceland was the ‘new Greek’ for the historians of the Northern region. Coxe was also no exception as he, in Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark, considered the language of Iceland as “the Old Gothic or Teutonic, the vernacular tongue of the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians, before it branched into the several dialects since spoken by the natives of those three kingdoms” (190). Coxe’s perplexity regarding the linguistic and national demarcation of the Nordic countries was a reflection of the confusion that engulfed the late eighteenth century British intelligentsia. For him the Gothic and Teutonic were synonymous as he considered the Icelandic saga literature, both in its written and oral form, to be a part of the Teutonic one that has been fragmented into many subgroups down the ages. Coxe’s thesis was inspired by the eighteenth-century Herderian hypothesis according to which the languages of the world had been developed from a very small group of root languages and various external factors like climatic, geographic, ethnographic and cultural ones are behind linguistic changes and development down the ages.

Influenced by the climatology theory propagated by Aristotle, the extreme climate in the far Southern and Northern region have caused the place to be an uninhabitable one, making civilized life an impossible thing there. This unenthusiastic image of these regions has prevailed in the European intelligentsia since long. Pierre Martin de la Martinière’s A Voyage to the North of Europe (1670) and Francisco de Miranda’s Viajes por Grecia, Turquía y Rusia (1786) are representative texts of this dominant discourse. Unlike these prejudiced texts that present the Northern countries as a locus of sorcery and supernatural events, Coxe in his travelogue presented an Arcadian vision of those regions to his readers. In addition to presenting the Scandinavian culture as a subgroup of the German civilization, Coxe in his travel narrative has also traced the importance of Danish influence in the development of European literature, the influence that has largely been ignored by his predecessors and contemporaries. By recognizing the literary accomplishments of the Danish people and their contribution in the world of European literature, Coxe’s travel narrative has gone beyond its limit and turned out to be a reliable source of literary development in addition to being a travelogue. While deconstructing the dystopian vision of the Scandinavian region and its inhabitants fashionable in his contemporary time, Coxe has also replaced it with a Utopian one. Fascinated by the rich cultural repository of Iceland, Coxe recognized the land to be the single safe haven of Northern literature. As the other states of the region like Denmark, Sweden and Norway were in a situation of perpetual warfare, the Utopian ambiance of Iceland played a pivotal role in turning the place into a rich repository of the antiquities, history, and mythology of the northern nations. Coxe has redefined the literary history of the region that has largely ignored the position of Iceland as an important European cultural centre. By retracing the literary productions of the skaldic poetry and the medieval sagas, Coxe argued how the modern European cultural productions were indebted to these medieval Vikingist literatures. Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark can be read as an attempt on his part to recognize the contribution of the Icelandic troubadours in the cultural history of Europe. The contribution of these long forgotten forefathers needed to be recognized by the later generations for without their hard labour various historical events would have remained hidden under the mist of obscurity: these minstrels in their literary works have meticulously recorded the principal events from the arrival of Odin to the introduction of Christianity that happened in those remote quarters of the world and passed on to the future generations. Thus by subverting the prevailing reading of the saga years as a “period of barbarism and ignorance” Coxe was successful in resituating the Scandinavian region as a cultural hub of Nordic civilization.

By resituating Iceland at the centre of the cultural map of the entire Europe and highlighting the historical rather ethnographical importance of the Icelandic language, Coxe went beyond his previous thesis that explained the Northern section of Europe to be a part of the Germanic civilization. Coxe’s travelogue not only rewrote the cultural history of Europe but also subverted various popular prejudices of his time regarding geographical location and climate. While the popular theory of his time insisted that the inhabitants of colder regions were victims of lesser mental and intellectual abilities due to the “disadvantageous” geographical location and climate, Coxe in Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark pointed out these seemingly disadvantages to be the actual boons for the inhabitants there as it helped them to nurture their natural capabilities without any utter unfavourable situation that engulfed the nations situated in seemingly favourable geographical location: “the political tranquillity of Iceland [provided] its inhabitants [. . .] sufficient leisure for literary occupations [and] the nature of their climate, which obliged them to seek for some relief against the tediousness of the long nights and continued darkness” (194-5). By presenting the Icelandic people, as enlightened ones since the “dark” Middle Ages, despite of their being “disjoined from the rest of the world”, Coxe has defied the contemporary theory that considered geographical location and climate conditions to be pivotal factors in building national character. At the same time he has subverted the age-old prejudiced image of the Nordic people as noble savages. Thus Coxe, through his thought-provoking writings, has made his readers to “see” the world in a new light and rethink the various concepts such as language, civilization, culture, savage, etc.

Though the title of the text reads as a travelogue, Coxe’s Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark went beyond its immediate radar and turned into a reliable ethno-historical study of the Scandinavian nations that has largely been ignored in the European meta-narrative of culture and civilization. Dimitrios Kassis in Representations of the North in Victorian Travel Literature (2015) has defined this travel text as “a pioneering work that instigated British travel literature on Scandinavia” (51). In addition to moving beyond the stereotypical representation of the North, Coxe subverted the various popular concepts of his time, for instance, the theory of climate, the concept of noble savage and introduced new concepts such as the Teutonic-British association, Iceland as a literary Arcadia and the importance of Anglo-Saxon influence on the Britons that shook the core of British intelligentsia in mid-Victorian England. Though he focused largely on factual information in his travel writings, Coxe initiated a new stream of study that concentrated on the systematic study of the past though he neglected the intricacies of the present in the process.

Basundhara Chakraborty is currently writing her Ph.D. thesis on eighteenth century British women’s travel writing, at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, India. She is also working as a project fellow there. Her research interests include travel writing, feminism, gender studies, Indian Writing in English, cultural studies and linguistics. She has published research papers in various national and international reputed journals and also contributed chapters to a number of peer-reviewed edited volumes.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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