British Essentialism in Eighteenth-Century British Travel Literature of the West Indies and North America

Stephanie Matos-Ayala, Purdue University


This dissertation explores issues of representation and cultural negotiation by examining how the white colonial other was depicted in eighteenth-century travel literature, specifically Janet Schaw's Journal of a Lady of Quality written during the years 1774 to 1776. Travel narratives and histories speak to many different topics, yet they reveal the most about eighteenth-century British ways of thinking about race and national identity, more so than about the various peoples and cultures they seek to describe. I argue that this literature reveals a hierarchy based on the absorption and consumption of British practices and goods by the colonial subject. Neither physical appearance, ethnicity, nor gender carried as much weight in the mind of the British observer as did the colonial subjects' acceptance or rejection of British customs and consumer goods. While adoption of British deportment did not erase differences in race or class, those individuals that emulated British manners and practices were depicted more favorably than those who did not, regardless of social class, political affiliations, or ethnicity. Thus, this dissertation argues that eighteenth-century British essentialism was not founded on location, or social class, but on shared manners, memories, and connections.




Zook, Purdue University.

Subject Area

European history

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