From Natural History to Orientalism, The Russell Brothers on the Cusp of Empire
The British physicians Dr. Alexander Russell M.D., FRS (c.1715 - 1768) and Dr. Patrick Russell M.D., FRS (1726/7 - 1805), both British Levant Company servants, wrote and published two editions in 1756 and 1794, respectively. These brothers resided in Aleppo, Syria, when it was a provincial capital of the Ottoman Empire and recorded their observations and empirical observations in a literary work that would later become the two editions of The Natural History of Aleppo. These editions are vital references for modern scholars concerned with Ottoman Syria, Levantine commercial activity and European presence, and the city of Aleppo. However, these very scholars ignore the significant fact that these two editions were written by two different individuals at two different points in history. Thus, this MA thesis aims to investigate the two editions and illustrate how the variations in these publications were the result of both coexisting and correlated processes that culminated in an eighteenth-century phenomenon of the transformation of British global presence from a commercial power to a modern empire. Various socio-economic, political, and cultural changes related to the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and the growth of Western, especially British, global hegemony, resulted in a particular attitude towards what became constructed as the "Orient". This thesis examines the ways in which the interrelated processes of the rise of modern scientific disciplines, the quest for order, the emergence of the culture of collecting, and the new emphasis on the value of "useful knowledge" rendered the "Orient" a place to be ordered and studied, hence, to be controlled. The eighteenth century witnessed several decisive events that facilitated this phenomenon; with Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763), particularly at the Battle of Plassey (1757), Britain deviated from its previous position as a commercial power and emerged victorious as an imperial empire. The project attempts to demonstrate how the Russell Brothers' book on Aleppo represents a movement from the fascination with natural history, that is, the topography and botany of Aleppo (Alexander Russell's edition), to an attempt at a comprehensive study of a people, language, and culture (Patrick Russell's edition). The change in focus and tenor found in Patrick's edition represents a shift from natural history to ethnographic, a shift that is essentially Orientalist. Though the book is about the relatively marginal city of Aleppo, the shift between the two editions reflects not only the change of the character of British global dominance, which was, after the 1857 Indian Mutiny, officially colonial, but also the very national identity of Britain. This thesis, then, is a study of how Aleppo was conceived and reconceived through the prism of the change of British relationship to India from a commercial entanglement to imperial domination. The variations between the two editions, then, were a result of changing circumstances and consequent shifting attitudes. I not only attempt to illustrate Britain's transformation from a mercantile and commercial power to a colonial and imperial empire, but also how the variations of the Russell brothers' two editions, from a collection of observations to a scientific contribution to a body of specialized knowledge, were the direct results of the two authors' transformations from the botanist to the orientalist.