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The idea of Asia in British geographical thought, 1652-1832

Stock, Paul (2023) The idea of Asia in British geographical thought, 1652-1832. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1. 121 - 144. ISSN 0080-4401

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Identification Number: 10.1017/S0080440123000026


This article explores popular British ideas about Asia from the mid-seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century, using largely neglected sources: geography books. Thanks to their popularity and focus on conventional knowledge, this genre of texts – geographical reference works, gazetteers, encyclopaedias and schoolbooks – allows us to glimpse the commonplace mentalities of the period, and consequently to understand how Asia was perceived by ordinary literate Britons and not just by prominent intellectuals. Geography books typically regard Asia as a ‘place of origin’ for the cultural and societal achievements of Europe. They also assume that Asia possesses plentiful natural resources and is thus ripe for economic exploitation. At the same time, however, Asia is understood to be degenerate and corrupt, usually due to a combination of climactic decay, religious failings, and government mismanagement. Asia is thus alien and entirely distinct from Europe, and, simultaneously, it is intimately connected to Europe’s rise and future imperial progress. British geography books can tell us a great deal about how ordinary literate people understood Asian peoples and places in the formative age of British empire-building.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2023 The Author.
Divisions: International History
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation
D History General and Old World
Date Deposited: 22 Feb 2023 09:06
Last Modified: 26 May 2024 06:15

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