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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: December 2013

6 - M. C. Sprengel's Writings on India: A Disenchanted and Forgotten Orientalism of the Late Eighteenth Century


In 1786, a professor at the University of Halle, Matthias Christian Sprengel, published a history of what was, at the time, the largest and most powerful Indian kingdom, about which few of his German readers had probably ever heard. Die Geschichte der Maratten bis auf den lezten Frieden mit England den 17. Mai 1782 contained nearly 250 pages of sober, statistic-filled narrative that Sprengel had stitched together from dozens of European sources. With this book, the deskbound German surprisingly became the first European to write a comprehensive history of the Maratha Empire, despite the advantages his colonial English, French, and Portuguese contemporaries had in obtaining firsthand information about India. Sprengel's history of the Marathas and two other books that he wrote stood out among eighteenth-century European literature on India, as they were published in German rather than English or French. Sprengel's nonpartisan tone and interest in contemporary politics did not fit the pattern of later German orientalist literature that emerged in the nineteenth century either.

Sprengel's work defies common characterizations of orientalist scholarship. His books do not assume a binary opposition of rational West versus irrational India. He says nothing about Aryan superiority, Indo-European racial connections, or linguistic affinities, and he does not indulge in “the fantasy of a uniquely religion-obsessed India.” His writing contains no “romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences,” and he does not perceive the Orient as the subject of artistic fantasies rather than an actual place.