13 February 2012

They Don't Teach Geography Like This Anymore - Part II

So, as I was saying, Professor J.M.D. Meiklejohn's 1890 A New Geography On The Comparative Method is a work to behold. For those of us, whether cabinet ministers or otherwise, who rave about how much better British education was back in the old days, it's quite the lesson.

About half the book deals with the delights of Europe, as I've described, after which it moves on to explore the wonders of the rest of what was then a red-splattered world.

India, or Hindustan as the book reminds us it is also known, is rightly marvelled at for its phenomenal diversity, and then commended for its sheer luck in having finally come under British rule. Because this is a Good Thing, remember:
'It has been for ages the object of envy and the prey of different conquerors; until at length it reposes in peace and comparative prosperity under the rule of QUEEN VICTORIA, EMPRESS OF INDIA.' (241)
Yes, she got capital letters. That was Prof M, not me.

North of Hindustan, of course, one can make one's way to Thibet, or the Snowy Kingdom, as Professor Meiklejohn refers to it:
'The inhabitants form a branch of the Mongolian Family. They are gentle, frank, dignified, courageous, fond of music and song. They are Buddhists in religion.' (277)
'When two persons meet,' he explains, 'they salute each other several times by showing the tongue and scratching the right ear.'

You may remember how Professor Meiklejohn believed the Germans to be the best-educated people in the world; well, they may have been the best-educated people, but China, on the other hand, seemingly has the most highly trained mountain ranges, the must erudite deserts, and the most learned cities:
'In some respects, China is still the best educated country in the world; and it possesses the oldest literature.' (276)
What's more, Meiklejohn's Chinese seem a friendly race, if somewhat inclined to odd behaviour.
'The most distinguishing mark of the Chinese is their courtesy and kindliness. "Even strangers have travelled from one end of the land to another without even meeting with a rudeness or incility." Age is reverenced by all. A drunk person is never seen in the streets. Industry is the chief passion; and peace the universally required condition. Most of their customs are the exact opposite of ours. The place of honour is the left; the mourning colour is white; the sign of being puzzled is to scratch the knee. Physicans are paid when their patients are well; their pay stops when they fall ill.' (276)
To which is added what seems to be a proverb:
'In China, "roses have no fragrance; roads no vehicles; ships no hulls; workmen no Sundays; and magistrates no sense of honour,"'
The Chinese do, however, come off second-best to the Japanese, with whom Professor Meiklejohn explicitly compares them:
'In character the Japanese exhibit striking contrasts to the Chinese. The Chinese are dirty, the Japanese scrupulously clean; the Chinese are conceited and despise everything foreign, the Japanese keep an open and receptive mind for everything that is good, no matter from what quarter it comes.' (283)
That Professor Meiklejohn should be such a huge fan of the Japanese is hardly surprising, given its similarities to his own homeland:
'The beautiful land of Japan, or "Country of the Sun," has often been called, and with much justice, the "Great Britain of the Pacific."'(280)
Lest we wonder what these similarities might be, he reels off a baker's dozen of apparent likenesses, my favourite of which is:
'The climates of both are addicted to fogs.' (281)

So much for the Far East. What of the parts of Asia nearer to home? Well, with reference to Asiatic Turkey -- that's the Ottoman Empire on the far side of the Bosporus -- we read of Syria:
'Syria is a long strip of high mountain country which stretches in an almost straight line from the Peninsula of Sinai to the Gulf of Scanderoon. Its coast is called the Levant. A small district in the south is called Palestine or the Holy Land -- a district about twice as large as Yorkshire.' (303)
The reference to Yorkshire may not be entirely accidental; there are those, of course, who refer to Yorkshire as 'God's own county' and say that God Himself is a Yorkshireman. No, I have no idea why.

Arabia sounds like a most exciting place:
'It has always been an isolated region -- a land apart. Its hot climate and its barren soil have attracted no settlers, and its waterless deserts have repelled invaders; while it has poured out horde after horde of warriors who carried the religion of Islam with fire and sword into the richest countries of Asia, Africa, and Europe.' (307)
Peppered, it would seem, with most exciting people:
'The Arabs form a branch of the Semitic family. The Arab is a noble-looking man -- tall, spare, muscular, and with brown complexion, dark-eyed, dark-haired. "Independence looks out of his glowing eyes;" he is quick, sharp witted, imaginative, and very fond of poetry. "Courage, temperance, hospitality, and good faith, are his leading virtues."
"The Arab is satisfied with little; but all that he owns must be of the choicest quality. His dates, his perfumes, his coffee, are the best in the world."' (310)
But if the Arabs are exciting, the Iranians, or the Persians as they then were, sound a thoroughly superior sort:
'The Persian presents a striking contrast, in character and manners, to the Turk. The Turk (or Ottoman) is a stock-breeder, a husbandman, and a soldier; the Persian is a trader and, by temperament, an artist. The Turk is a man of few words and of serious speech; the Persian is a fluent talker and a brilliat logician.' (315)
Really, one would hope we'd never cross swords with such splendid fellows.

The Afghans, on the other hand, clearly are mere ruffians, and best avoided. It's difficult to see why the British, Russians, and Americans keep invading and expecting it to work out okay:
'Compared with the Persians, the Afghans are rude, almost coarse, and careless of outward show. But they are skilful artisans, hospitable, generous, and even truthful -- at least in peace; but when their evil passions are stirred up by war, they are cruel, revengeful, treacherous, and greedy. "God shield you from the vengeance of the elephant, the cobra, and the Afghan," is a saying current among the Mahometan Hindus. When any specially atrocious act is done, the Afghans themselves speak of it as "an Afghan job!" "Nothing is finer than their physique, or worse than their morale." They are extremely independent; all are equal, and no clan will obey any one but its chief.' (320)

Onward, then, to Africa, with the relevant section opening as follows:
'Africa has been called the "Dark Continent." And this for two reasons: first, because it is the least known and almost inaccessible of all the continents; and secondly, because it is inhabited by dark races.' (329)
Professor Meiklejohn classifies the inhabitants of Africa as original natives, old immigrants such as Copts, Berbers, and Arabs, and new immigrants such as Dutch, English, and French. The original natives are the aforementioned 'dark races', and the book takes care to distinguish between Bantus, Negroes proper, and Hottentots and Bushmen. Of these it says:
'The Hottentots have a yellowish complexion, low stature, and weak muscles. The Bushmen belong to the pigmy peoples that are said to be descended from the old aborigines who were deprived of their lands by more powerful races. "If Africa is the continent of the great anthropoid apes (gorillas, etc.), it is also the home of the most ape-like human beings."' (343)
Yes, I'll just let that sit for a while.Victorian schoolchildren must have felt very lucky to be English. British, even. Best in the world, clearly.

Barbaric though the Africans themselves might be, the late nineteenth century was clearly a good time for them, with them being lucky enough to have caught the eye of Europe's eligible suitors:
'Africa is at present in the peculiar position of being ardently coveted by the most enterprising states of Europe.' (346)
Of the eight European powers then holding portions of the continent, Germany, we are told, is 'always eager for more,' while Italy 'looks with longing eyes towards Tripoli'. 'The little enterprising country of Belgium,' meanwhile, 'has also on eye upon Africa; and the King of the Belgians is the "Sovereign" of the Free Congo State.'

The 'Race for Africa' is returned to later on, with the book detailing a series of European agreements on how best to carve up the continent, preceding this with the observation that 'For some time past the greater powers of Europe have been engaged in seizing as much of Africa as they could safely lay hands on without embroiling themselves with each other. Germany has been, on the whole, the most active aggressor; but England has always been the most daring and persevering explorer.' (371)

The Americas
I'm sad to say that Professor Meiklejohn isn't nearly as extravagant in his comments on the New World than on the old, but I was struck by his thoughts on Greenland:
'Greenland is probably an archipelago of elevated islands which are almost completely buried under ice, and are joined together by ice.' (387)
None of that pub quiz nonsense of 'what's the largest island in the world?' for Professor Meiklejohn and his protegees, thank you very much. Seemingly there are those who think that view may be right, too, that Greenland may in fact be at least three large islands rather than one huge one, all three bound together by glaciers.

With regard to Canada Professor Meiklejohn raves about its promise and what it might achieve; of the United States he notes with approval how there are 'very few illiterates' in the northern states, and comments on how small its army of only 25,000 men is.

I didn't notice him saying anything about the Falklands. Of course, presuming they're 'as British as Whitehall', as I've been told, I'd expect him to say something of the sort.  

And there's Australia, of course, a land of oddities...
'Though nearly as large as Europe, it has only one river of any size or importance; and that river does not reach the sea, and sometimes does not flow at all. It is full of other oddities: mammals lay eggs; cherries have their stones outside; trees shed their bark, not their leaves; quadrupeds run on two feet; flowers have no scent; and many birds no song. When the first European settlers visited the country, they found no grain to eat, no domestic animal to give milk or to drawn burdens, and not the smallest trace in the continent of what is called civilisation.' (445)
The book, predictably, has nothing good to say of the Australian aborigines. Brace yourselves:
'The native Australian is of the average European height, has a very lean body -- no calves (as is general with the dark races), nose broad and fleshy, complexion coffee-brown, much hair -- curly but not woolly, and a long narrow head with low brow. He is one of the most degraded of savages -- without house or domestic animals, with no weaving, no pottery, and no religion. His language can count up to five -- and no further. He lives on shell-fish, lizards, snakes, frogs, worms, insects, grubs, etc. He sometimes eats his own children. The chief occupation of the men is hunting and war; of the women, getting food and cooking it.' (454)
I think that's enough, don't you? You should all feel thoroughly well-informed at this point.


MaidrinRuadh said...

Any comments on the various regions of the British Isles? How do we Irish fare?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Not much, really, no. It basically treats the UK, as it then was, as the international standard, and compares others with the UK.

There's a smidge about Celts, in the section about most English being essentially Teutonic, but in the main I think that's left for books on domestic stereotypes.

Also, British Isles? Sigh. I know Prof Meiklejohn goes with that, but surely we've moved on. ;)

GOR said...

Interesting and enlightening TG – not to mention hilarious in spots!

As I read the excerpts I had the distinct image of the good professor wending his way through ‘foreign parts’ humming contentedly: “For he is an Englishman!” from HMS Pinafore.

I don’t know if he was familiar with G &S, but I’m sure he was glad that he was not “…a Roosian, a French, or Turk, or Proosian” or even “Ital-ian.”