SOAS University of London

Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London

Early European Travellers: Caricature Orientalists or just Men of their Time?

by Christina Lorimer, with Caroline Mawer

David Lockhart Lorimer was the Vice-Consul for Arabistan (SW Persia) in 1906 and an important local ally for the first oil explorers – successfully renegotiating as he did the key 1905 agreement.

In his early correspondence, he was not that complimentary about the Bakhtiari – describing them as "scheming persons [who] often leave much to be desired in their behaviour" and whose "general character . . is a compound of insatiable avariciousness and truculence modified by cowardice".

But can Lorimer be condemned as a caricature Orientalist: racist, imperialist and oppressive?

His own lantern slides, some of which are reproduced below, belie this idea. Although he captured images of the usual groups of high-ranking men, he also – rare for that time – photographed ordinary women and children, in their tents, collecting salt from surface deposits, and otherwise engaged in daily life.

And his work on his real passion, philology, also suggests that he did not presume to impose the values of his own culture. As a linguist, Lorimer was all too aware of what peril a society faced if they lost sight of their mythological traditions. Some of his sensitive translations of Bakhtiari verse are included in the exhibition.

Lorimer came from a truly outstanding family

Most of his family were similarly gifted – and similarly fascinated by the East. A family photo (above) shows six of his seven siblings, with their parents: from left top: Hilda (who could speak Greek and Latin by age 5, and who – amongst other achievements – was the Vice Principal of Somerville during World War II); Gordon (also stationed in Persia and the compiler of the still-useful Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, before his death in 1914); Emilia (a poetess). Middle row: father David, mother Isabella (born in India and educated across Europe, Isabella habitually spoke Italian at home with her husband. Isabella’s father was a judge in India – and was hanged by his own servants during the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857); Robert (discharged from the Indian civil service when he refused to participate in any way in the flogging of a ‘native’, his moral stance continued into his old age – demonstrating against Vietnam, and camping out in nocturnal vigils until the age of 81). Bottom row: Charles; Florence (Aurel Stein’s personal secretary and ‘recording angel’). William is missing – he translated the New Testament into Scots from the Greek, and was latterly Professor of Classics at St Andrews.

A clearer idea of Lorimer as human being is included in Language Hunting in the Karakorum, where his wife chronicled the post-retirement year the couple spent in a Hunza village (now Pakistan) documenting several endangered and previously unrecorded languages. Returning from the mountains, weathered and ‘unusually’ attired, the couple had some difficulty in convincing British Embassy officials who they actually were!

Perhaps, therefore, Colonel Lorimer can more accurately be seen as one of many men and women of the colonial era – a man of his time, a man with a great interest in the East.