How They Made the Empire

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National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./Molly Eyres
Siblings John and Betty Johnstone with their grandniece Margaret Wedderburn; painting by Henry Raeburn, circa 1790–1795

In 1763 an impecunious Scottish naval officer, George Johnstone, who had served in the Seven Years’ War with a conspicuous lack of success, was appointed governor of the new British colony of West Florida, which had been ceded to Great Britain by Spain in the peace settlement of that year. Not much was known in the British Isles about the newly acquired colony, to judge from a letter sent some nine years later to the Gentleman’s Magazine requesting “any curious gentleman, who lives in Florida, or any of the adjacent parts, to acquaint you, whether there are any lions in the forests of those places.” By that time Johnstone, who had been dismissed by George III from his governorship in 1767 for “rashly rekindling the war between the Indians and his subjects in North America,” would at least have been in a position to inform the letter-writer that there were no lions in Florida.

This information about the checkered career of George Johnstone comes from Emma Rothschild’s marvelous new book, The Inner Life of Empires, and introduces us to one of its central themes: the uncertainties of empire in the age of the Enlightenment, when the rapid expansion of Britain’s overseas empire seemed to offer unlimited opportunities to those who were determined to better themselves, and when the key to success lay in the making of useful connections and the acquisition of useful information in an age consumed with curiosity. As Rothschild makes abundantly clear throughout her book, George Johnstone and his contemporaries belonged to what Robert Darnton has called an “information society.” The uncertainties of empire were compounded by the uncertainties of information, ranging from the fate of relatives in India to the nature of Florida’s fauna.

The book is the outcome of a remarkable archival discovery, of the kind of which every historian dreams. Emma Rothschild, who is a professor of history and director of the Joint Center for History and Economics at Harvard, tells us that in the Edinburgh University Library she came across the letter book of James Johnstone, whose younger brother, John, was a candidate in a contested parliamentary election in 1774 in Adam Smith’s hometown of Kirkaldy. This led her on an extensive transnational paper trail in pursuit of the largely unknown and generally unremarkable Scottish family of the Johnstones, whose family home, Westerhall, was in Dumfriesshire, in Scottish–English border country. The paper trail seems sufficiently exciting for one to wish that she had told us rather more about it.

The generation of the Johnstone family around whose papers and life stories her book is constructed grew up in the 1720s and 1730s, and consisted of the eleven surviving children, seven brothers and four sisters, born to Barbara Murray and James Johnstone, both of them drawn from the professional classes of the …

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