16 - 2002


Itala Vivan


Representations of West Africa as Exotic in British Colonial Travel Writing explores the category of the 'exotic' in colonial discourse with reference to a broad range of nineteenth-century travellers' writing by British and native-born West Africans.
The work opens with a detailed and brilliant introduction analysing the nature of what is generally called 'the exotic' and examining its statute within the frame of the colonial encounter between Europe and Africa. Gualtieri's conceptualisation of the 'exotic' is based on the notions of 'wonder' and 'difference'. The former is considered as a strategy of knowledge - 'wonder-oriented-to-knowledge' - which characterises a culture's dialogic attitude to new encounters, the latter is regarded as a concern which sustains racial and national identity. It is interesting to see how the exotic gaze served well the aims and not only the cultural, but also the political, objectives of coloniality, while satisfying the aesthetic and existential needs of the European world expanding through exploration, conquest and adventure. This introduction is based on a serious, thorough knowledge of what has been said and written on the subject and the definitions to the term 'exotic' are sharp and complex. The introduction also introduces new insights into British colonial travel writing by connecting this genre of literature to a variety of literary products and what is more important to the general frame of history and geography of the British colonies.
The two chapters which follow - Male Travel Writing (1799-1832) and Women's Travel Writing (1897-1912) - analyse texts which by now have become classic - such as Travels into the Interior of Africa by Mungo Park and Travels in West Africa by Mary Kingsley - but approaching them as examples of the European exotic gaze and creating an important gender distinction. The discussion offers useful insights into the ways in which the colonial conventions of the representation of the other are consolidated, and, in turn, weakened and twisted in travel writing, how women travel writers both draw on and subvert colonial discourse, and how received ways of perceiving the world and of using words become defamiliarized in the presence of wonder. Mary Kingsley's imaginative construction of home in West Africa is a fascinating example of domesticity recreated in the wilderness. The third chapter offers on appraisal of colonial adventure tales chosen among less known texts - G.A. Henty's and Edgar Wallace's - which compare very interestingly with the classics in the field.
The most intriguing section of the book is found in the fourth chapter. Here Gualtieri approaches travel writings by native-born West African writers - Olaudah Equiano, Samuel Crowther, A.B.C. Merriman-Labor - and compares their way of telling the tales to the style and manner of colonial writers. The results of these analyses and comparisons are surprisingly fruitful. The fine tools honed by postcolonial criticism allow Gualtieri to unbury, so to speak, the hidden meanings and contents of the West African observers, to reveal the secret irony of their approach (as in the Equiano's section) and the purport of a double edged mimicry (as in Merriman-Labor's subchapter) which makes such texts a wonderful cultural experience for the contemporary reader. The conclusion of the book is both fine and concise. An excellent bibliography is provided - a great asset for such a scholarly work - and a plentiful index.
I trust that Representations of West Africa as Exotic in British Colonial Travel Writing will be well received and widely appreciated among specialists, scholars, and students in the fields of cultural and postcolonial studies, because it is new in its approach offering an original contribution to these fields of research, and it is extremely well documented and rigorous in methodology introducing useful ways of applying methods and theories. It also makes a lively and pleasant reading in its own right.

 Sommario Culture 2002
Indice Culture