Constructing ‘Asia’: Despotism as a rhetoric tool of Civilisational Othering in 19th century Siam

Within colonial-era travel writing and orientalist discourse, ‘despotism’ is a common term used to describe Asia. Montesquieu applies the term ‘despot’ as a reflection of a civilisation’s ‘enslaved’ status.1 However, writers that utilise this term through orientalist language fail to expand on their application of despotism. Its definition, application and usage are vague and contradictory. Thus, I argue that in most historical discourse, engaging with the notion of despotism utilises it as a literary device as a form of othering, constructing barriers between a civilisational ‘us’ and a despotic ‘other’. Unsurprising that orientalist discourse is utilised to construct boundaries of ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’, my argument highlights the importance of distinguishing between rhetoric and concept within historical writings. Despotism and enslavement are not used as conceptual terms to describe a governmental system or nation state, rather, they are used as rhetoric tools to establish boundaries of civilisation.

‘Despotism’, within Montesquieu’s texts, is used to construct an idea of a ‘despotic Asia’, in contrast to the free and liberated Europe.2 Asia exists in a state of enslavement, either enslaved by other Asian empires or enslaved by their own people.3 Despite the existence of vast empires similar to those in Europe, those empires differ in that they are not truly free. Montesquieu provides the example of the ‘Tartars’ as ‘Asia’s natural conquerors’, describing how despite their military prowess in expanding their empires, the ‘Tartar’ people will eventually become enslaved.4 This characteristic is attributed to their eventual demise into ‘despotism’ as a desire to emulate the original conquerors of their newly acquired land.4 Thus, the ‘Tartar’ colonies become enslaved from arbitrary powers imposed on the colonised subjects. The example provided here describes despotism not as an intricate governmental system but rather as a rhetorical tool to invoke an idea of Asia and Asians as disenchanted, enslaved people. Despotism constructs Asia into both a geographic and ideational space in the minds of European readers.

This ideational spatiality is also applied in travel literature as travellers were important in constructing ‘Asia’ into the minds of their readers. The language of despotism is also applied within the writings of Howard Malcolm, an American missionary who wrote accounts of his travels to British India, Burma, Siam and Malaya during the mid 19th century. Notable mentions of despotism come in his description of Siam, where he constructs a dystopian image of Siam as opposed to Burma as a ‘civilised’ society.5 His descriptions of the Bangkok population fall upon orientalist discourse’s rhetoric as he views them as ‘crafty, mean, ignorant, conceited, slothful, servile, rapacious, and cruel.6 This assessment of Siamese character reflects on their ‘civilisational value’ as Malcolm attributes these characteristics to Siam’s ‘despotic’ state. Slavery is emphasised to support Malcolm’s despotic reflection of Siam as he argues that ‘men may sell their wives, parents and children, at pleasure; and often sell themselves’.7 By highlighting the arbitrary nature of the Siamese slave trade and how people ‘sell themselves’, Malcolm emphasises Siam’s despotic nature through its ‘enslaved’ population. Much like Montesquieu, Malcolm constructs an idea of Asia and the ‘Asian’ as a disenchanted and enslaved individual. This is not to challenge Malcolm’s observations of slavery, rather, I provide this example since Malcolm uses slavery to support notions of ‘despotism’ while also utilising slavery as a means of highlighting Burma’s civilisational prowess. As mentioned previously, despotism is ill-defined and vague, used in contradictory manners. While constructing a disenchanted image of Siam through its extensive slave trade, Malcolm argues how Burma’s well-structured regulations regarding slave maintenance and usage show Bruma’s civilisational prowess in relation to its neighbours.8 Additionally, Malcolm’s contradictory discourse on slavery disregards his national context as an American whose country still practised slavery during the time of his travels and publications.

Although it is unsurprising that colonial discourse is contradictory, it is important to unravel those contradictions to highlight the writer’s underlying messages and intended image. It becomes clear that Malcolm utilises dystopian rhetoric to construct an idea of a ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ Asia in the reader’s mind. Siam, through the rhetoric of enslavement, is othered as ‘uncivilised’, while Burma, through the same rhetoric of enslavement, is accepted as ‘civilised’. The contradictory application of despotism and enslavement highlight the weaknesses in his argument but also uncover the role of these terms as rhetoric tools rather than conceptual terminology. As a result, the imposition of an idea of Asia becomes the primary effect of Malcolm’s text as Asia becomes more than a geographic space, but it is an ideational space within the mind of the reader.

  1. Anne M. Cohler, Basia C. Miller and Harold S. Stone (eds.), Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge, 1989), p. 282. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid., pp. 282-283. []
  4. Ibid [] []
  5. Howard Malcolm, Travels in South-Eastern Asia: Embracing Hindustan, Malaya, Siam and China; with Notices of Burmese Missionary Stations and full account of the Burman Empire (Philadelphia, 1850), p. 161; pp. 320-322. []
  6. Ibid., pp. 320. []
  7. Ibid., pp. 321-322. []
  8. Ibid., p. 169. []