A few months ago I came across an old book that my grandmother had been left by her grandmother. Called ‘Geography for Children On A Perfectly Easy Plan’ it dates from 1856 (first printed 1848) and is a British geography school textbook, educating children on each country in the world, its inhabitants and its economy. What follows is presumably therefore how British schoolchildren viewed Europe and Europeans in the mid-19th century. It bares a remarkable similarity how the British tabloid press views Europe and Europeans today.
Europe, it notes, ‘though the smallest of the four quarters of the earth, is the most distinguished for its power, its wealth and its knowledge’.
First up is Scandinavia and Sweden, with a population of ‘three millions’. Its capital, Stockholm, is ‘a fine city, containing 80,000 inhabitants…the surrounding scenery is beautifully romantic’. Norway, with its ‘million inhabitants’ who live ‘cheaply by fishing and are robust, well made, patient under hardships and distinguished for their hospitality to strangers’. It’s not so keen on the Laplanders, who are ‘low in stature, thick set, habitually filfthy. Not enjoying the blessings of education they are extremely ignorant and superstitious’
Moving eastwards to Russia, where the ‘nobility are in general very wealthy and live in great splendour; but the peasantry are in the most abject state of slavery; they can neither read nor write; they live in houses of the most wretched description; and are bought and sold with estates; yet with all these disadvantages they , they are robust, and patient under hardships’.
France, the most populous country with 33 millions, enjoys a ‘fine situation near the centre of Europe’, and Paris is distinguished ‘by the magnifence of its public buildings but many of its streets are narrow and dirty’. The British love/hate relationship with the French is clear; they are: ‘A gay, active and lively people, graceful in their deportment and very polite; posessing however not an inconsiderable share of vanity’
The Prussians are ‘a brave people; the higher classes are well-informed and courteous, but the peasantry are uncultivated and superstitious’. Sadly the Austrian nobility are ‘haughty and oppressive, but the middle classses are moral and industrious and greatly attached to reading and music’. The Swiss are ‘a robust people, noted for the simplicity of their manners and their love of liberty’, while the Poles are ‘gallant, and those subject to Russia made a brave attempt to assert their independence, but unfortunately without success’.
Moving inwards, Holland is ‘a very flat country’, with Amsterdam, the capital, ‘chiefly built on wooden piles and contains many magnificent buildings. It has broad canals nd good coach roads, with 200,000 inhabitants’. The Dutch are ‘slow and heavy but remarkable for their cleanliness, frugality and industry’. Belgium makes ‘good corn and wine’ and Brussels is ‘one of the most elegant cities in Europe’. Of course they can’t resist mentioning it is just a few miles north of Waterloo, famous for ‘the great battle in whch Bonaparte met with his overthrow’.
Heading south finds more praise and scorn. The ‘fourteen millions’ in Spain are: ‘grave and haughty people, posessing elevated notions of honour; but they are indolent and revengeful’, while pity the Portuguese,. with their: ‘Swarthy complexion with dark hair and eyes’, and where, ‘the peasantry are very poor, living in wretched huts, almost without furniture and their diet consists of mainly bread and garlic’. In Italy there are 17 millions Italians, who are ‘discreet and polite people but extremely effeminate’.
As ever Turkey’s position in Europe is unclear. The Turks ‘appear completely different from other inhabitants of Europe; the men instead of the close dress of Europeans wear loose robes and turbans instead of hats’ and while ‘Turkey abounts with natural advantages, owing to the depotism of its government and the baneful infleuce of its religion, it cannot be considered a great nation’. Greece, which was ‘long in state of bondage to the Turks’ recently due to it’s ‘own bravery and the support of the great Christian powers has established its independence’.
Safely back over the channel to England and its 13 millions, of whom: ‘The intelligence, industry and enterprise of her people have raised her to a pitch of greatness enjoyed by no other power’. London may be ‘considered the first city of the world’. The book is also keen on the Scots: ‘temperate in their diet, of robust and healthy constitutions and by superior management made very productive’, noting that there is ‘less crime’ there too. The rest of the British Isles fares less well, with the Welsh: ‘Brave and hospitable but inclined to be hasty in their temper and priding themselves extravagantly on their pedigrees and families’; the
Irish: ‘Hardy, active and brave; the lower classes however are in general ignorant and superstitious and in a wretched state of poverty’