Enlightenment

Further work on English pamphlets that coopt “a Persian” for political polemics

Cyrus Masroori is one of the editors of Persia and the Enlightenment, the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, along with co-editors Whitney Mannies and John Christian Laursen. By carefully studying Persia in the Enlightenment narratives, this volume throws new light on the complexity of intercultural encounters and their impact on the shaping of collective identities. In this blog post, Cyrus Masroori discusses additional research not included in this book, specifically the text Remarks of a Persian traveler.


There is an almost unlimited potential for further work in the area of influences from Persia in the Enlightenment, an area that is explored in our very recent volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Persia and the Enlightenment (2021). Each chapter can be considered a pointer in the direction of further research. For example, my chapter, “George Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian”, reviews a number of English texts purporting to be written by “a Persian Traveler”. These texts started appearing in response to George Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian in England, to his friend at Ispahan (1735), and are best understood in the context of an intense political fight between Prime Minister Robert Walpole and his opposition. I did not mention one such text,  entitled Remarks of a Persian traveler on the principal courts of Europe With a dissertation upon that of England, the nation in general, and the Prime Minister Written originally in the Persian language, and now translated into English and French, which I will discuss here.[1] As customary at the time, it insisted that the text, presented as a single letter, was written in Persian by a traveler named Ismael to his friend Ibrahim. The introduction declares that the translator expects to translate other writings by Ismael, particularly a narrative on “the History of that Hero of Asia, Thamas Kouli Kan” (p. 5).[2] 

In fact, in 1741, The Complete History of Thamas Kouli Kan, Sovereign of Persia, was printed in London.[3] It was a translation of Jean-Antoine Du Cerceau’s Histoire de Thamas Kouli-Kan Sophi de Perse, which was first printed in 1740 (Amsterdam: Arkstee & Merkus).  One interesting distinction of Remarks of a Persian traveler is that it presents the purported letter from Ismael to Ibrahim in French and English simultaneously, leading to the speculation that it could have been written by the translator of Jean-Antoine Du Cerceau’s Histoire.

Remarks of a Persian traveler is in a distinct way different from the other Persian letters mentioned in my chapter of Persia and the Enlightenment. Although as a single letter it is short, a substantial part of it is dedicated to Ismael’s observations while in the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Denmark, Prussia, Holland, and France, before turning its attention to England. The author, who appears to be knowledgeable about current European affairs, is particularly fond of the Russian and French regimes.  Meanwhile, he describes the Ottomans as prejudiced and violent, and their political system as “tyrannical, and bloody” (p. 9).  

The author of Remarks of a Persian is also relatively familiar with Persia. His choice for the purported Persian author of the letter, Ismael, is much more realistic as the name for a Persian in the 18th century than Montesquieu’s Usbek or Lyttelton’s Selim. His reference to Meszat, “A Town in the Province of Corassan, whither the Persians go in Pilgrimage,” denotes Mashhad in Khorasan, where the tomb of the eighth Shia Imam, Reza, is a main destination for pilgrims.  He knows of Tahmasb Qoli Khan (later Nader Shah) who, as chapter four of Persia and the Enlightenment discusses, was a controversial figure in Europe. The author of Remarks of a Persian has a positive view of Nader referring to him as  the “Invincible Thamas Kouli Kan [who] so happily governs our Country, and makes it his chief care with great Discernment and justice, to reward true Merit” (p. 9). The author’s remark about the Russians “being at all times friends [of the Persians],” in conjunction with his reference to Shah Abbas III (p. 9), is perhaps based on his up-to date information about the 1735 treaty of Ganja that established a counter-Ottoman alliance between Peter I of Russia and Nader, who at the time was Abbas III’s regent.

 Particularly relevant to my chapter of Persia and Enlightenment is the author’s assessment of Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian. To begin with, he refutes the authenticity of Lyttelton’s claim that the book was a collection of letters originally written by a Persian, arguing that it was “easily perceived, that the Name the Author had taken, was only a Mask which he made use of to cover his Designs.” He continues, “I found nothing in those Letters which savour’d of the true Genius of a Persian” (p. 23). The author of Remarks of a Persian accuses Lyttelton of attempting to disturb “the Publick Peace,” and claims that Lyttelton has “taken” his ideas from Henry St. John Bolingbroke’s “Disertation upon Parties” (p. 23). 

The author is overt about his affection for Prime Minister Robert Walpole. The Prime Minister is described as an eloquent speaker, whose “harangues full of Force and Beauty, always filled with such Measures as might render his Country formidable to her Enemies, and serviceable to her Allies.” The author compliments Walpole’s ability to expand trade and keep Great Britain out of war (pp. 27-30). In fact, the letter ends not by Ismael saying farewell to his friend, but praising Walpole as a great man “who by the strength of his mighty Genius, alike admired abroad and at home, has acquired the Confidence of his Master, and is become not only the Glory of his Nation, but is also consider’d as one of those who contributes the most to the many Blessings She at this Day enjoys” (p. 32).Remarks of a Persian traveler further supports the assertion made in my chapter of Persia and the Enlightenment that Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian had a wide reception in England, and because of its extensive influence, the author’s opponents felt obliged to attack it immediately after its publication. It also indicates that in 18th century England, the Persian letter genre had turned into a popular and effective instrument of propaganda, widely utilized in the intense political rivalries surrounding Robert Walpole’s long ministry.

— Cyrus Masroori (California State University, San Marcos)


[1] Anonymous,   Remarks of a Persian traveler on the principal courts of Europe With a dissertation upon that of England, the nation in general, and the Prime Minister Written originally in the Persian language, and now translated into English and French (London: John Hughs, 1736).
[2] The author reports from visiting a coffee house in London: “I heard most of them celebrate the Praises of our invincible Kouli Kan, in a manner which convinced me that his Reputation was in as high esteem in England, as in Persia it self” (p. 21).
[3] The 1741 edition is mentioned in Catalogue of the Printed Books in the Library of the Society of Writers to H.M. Signet in Scotland (Edinburgh: Neill and Company, 1762), p. 555. A second edition was published in 1742 (London: J. Brindley). 


Persia and the Enlightenment is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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