In 1777 Edmund Burke remarked that for his contemporaries “the Great Map of Mankind is unrolled at once.” The period from the late seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century had seen a massive increase in Britain’s knowledge of the non-European peoples of the wider world, and this was reflected in the proliferation of travel accounts of every kind.
This is a history of British perceptions of the exotic peoples and lands of Asia, North America, West Africa, and the Pacific who became well-known during that great age of exploration. It shows how the contours of intellectual and cultural history changed as news poured in. Philosophers contemplated man in a state of nature; the study of religion was broadened as Hinduism, the naturalistic religions of North America, and Chinese rites and ceremonies were revealed. Racial issues like slavery and negritude, questions about advanced versus backward nations, the great Chain of Being argument, and the Unchanging East theory became concerns of educated persons. Along with the impact of explorations on men’s ideas, the use of “sciences” like anthropology, ethnology, archeology, and philology came into vogue. And not incidentally, interest in empire grew, missionary zeal was strengthened, and tolerance and intolerance toward strangers struggled for dominance.
It could be argued that by the end of this age of “enlightenment,” investigation of the inhabitants of these distant lands had reinforced those assumptions of superiority that were an essential feature of British global expansion. To that extent this book is concerned with the intellectual foundations of the second British empire, for it seeks to show how many of the attitudes present in Britain’s dealings with the world in her imperial heyday were formulated during the eighteenth century.