Orientalism in the Occident: Scotland’s “Caste System”

In her work Letters of a Hindoo Rajah, Elizabeth Hamilton seems determined to make a bold statement about the nature of British Imperialism. Similar to playwright Elizabeth Inchbald’s satirical Mogul Tale, Hamilton seeks to address the perceptions and misperceptions promulgated by Orientalism and western fascination with the East. Hamilton does this by rewriting the tale of Orientalism, casting the Occident as the Orient, and having Hindoo characters play the roles of Imperial stereotypes. Sheermaal is the intrepid Orientalist, exploring the exotic region of the British Isles. Maandaar, the exiled Rajah, is a reflection of a deposed Scottish “Laird”, struggling to maintain his former position after being conquered by a foreign power. Zaarmila, then, represents the gullible populace of Britain, who absorb and perpetuate Oriental stereotypes in their everyday life, yet are also aware that not everything is as it appears.

This recasting of the Occident as the Orient is made apparent by Sheermaal’s etymological comparison of “Laird and Rajah”, which also sheds light on Hamilton’s own beliefs regarding the nature of Empire. This section of Sheermaal’s letter is interesting because it proves how impossible it is to explain a foreign culture without restructuring. The only way Sheermaal is able to explain British society—particularly classes in annexed Scotland—is to compare it to the Hindu caste system in an attempt to show cross-cultural similarities. This is clearly evident when he says towards the end of the letter, “the people of Great Britain are, at this day, divided into separate Casts (sic), as distinct from each other as the Brahmin from the Kettrie.”

However, Sheermaal’s comparison of Lairds and Rajahs is important more because it shows that, in Hamilton’s eyes, British Imperialism does not begin with the crossing of an ocean. Rather, Scotland itself is an example of a country overrun by a cultural hegemon with which it chose to engage. From Sheermaal’s account, it is clear that the Scottish class structure has been largely cast aside in favor of English practices, as evidenced by his example of the Scottish lady who was “a person of family”. This reflects British imperial practices in India that drained the Brahmin and ruling castes of power.

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4 thoughts on “Orientalism in the Occident: Scotland’s “Caste System”

  1. andriannakyeatts says:

    Your claim that Hamilton “rewrites the tale of Orientalism,” casting the East as the West, and vice versa, is certainly interesting. But I most enjoyed your original idea that to Hamilton, British Imperialism begins in the UK, rather than in a foreign land. This claim is clearly evidenced by the text, with Sheermaal’s descriptions of Scotland. I think that providing more detail as to how, exactly, Scotland was “overrun by a cultural hegemon” would augment your argument by connecting its experience more to that of India.

  2. […]  Switching roles when talking about colonialism and imperialism, “However, Sheermaal’s comparison of Lairds and Rajahs is important more because it shows […]

  3. KATGBELL,

    Your introduction of the “western fascination with the East” being an Orientalist issue is deeply interesting to me. In this text, we have an eastern fascination with the West. In this text, the East badly misses the mark (initially) on what the West is like. Is Hamilton trying more to critique her society or to warn against having any preconceived or strong notions about the east?

    Also, how is Scotland implicated as an imperialized nation in the text? Yes, Laird is fairly obsolete, but I read the point of identifying this was Hamilton saying that England (the Christian west) does have a class system.. It isn’t the perfect place Zaarmila opines about.

  4. morris41 says:

    I especially enjoy Andrianna’s comment about British Imperialism starting not in the East, but close by in the UK. I make a similar idea in a previous post with regards to gender equality, particularly in the education system. Zaarmilla’s juxtaposition between the treatment of widows in Britain and in India provides an incredibly revealing foil for Hamilton’s greater point. In India, widows are burned (Sakti) rather than live without their husbands. In Britain, however, women are left uneducated as to how to run the estates left by their deceased husbands, making them victim to folly and and furthers their inequity. The definition of Imperialism is “a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy and military force”. While the marginalizaton of classes and women may not directly be considered Imperialism, one could substitute a few words in the definition to see the parallels. British men, especially those of greater socioeconomic privilege, “extend… [their] power and influence by segregating the system of education. To me, it seems that Hamilton is proposing that if education equality can act as a solution in Britain, perhaps it can help to close societal gaps in the Orient as well. Then, though, I am reminded that the mere notion that the East could also benefit from a different educational system implies that it “needs fixing,” and is, in itself, an Orientalist view.

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