While combing through the archives of the French consul to Constantinople (1806) today, I came across a large stash of his more literary notes. These included a no doubt useful guide to reading Arabic, as well as more whimsical writings, such as his attempts at imitating Virgil in French verse and translations of Horace. He also recorded a number of local myths and fables.
I sometimes forget how intellectually curious these people were. Many of their documents pertain, of course, to dull bureaucratic matters; but they also spent a great deal of time studying the places in which they lived and worked. Frequently, I will find “missions” in which the consul has sent a dragoman (a Levant translator) to scope out forgotten ruins or local folk songs. If you were interested in these cultures, working as an ambassador or consulate was ideal; conversely, if you had the interest, you would be good for the job.
I think there’s also a tendency to lump everyone who travelled outside of Europe in the nineteenth century in with the mad imperial scramble of the time (really the latter part of the century). I have had scholars respond with shock when they found out that I am interested in finding out whether the traveling writers that I am studying actually supported the colonial project. “But, of course they did,” one insisted to me. “They were imperialists!”
Well, maybe. But how do all these different motivations: patriotic duty, intellectual curiosity, a love of culture, keeping a job, and even self-discovery: play out and how do they relate to the world around us? Heidegger might have been a bit of a con artist, but he was perhaps right that “to be” can only be understood as Being-in-the-world. How much of “who we are” is basically where we are, and when we are? And, as a historian, am I only really able to study those parts of people’s lives that related to their time and place, but not whatever lies beyond that? Does my curiosity make me an “imperialist” too?