Maya Jasanoff is Professor of History at Harvard. She is the author of Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World and Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East 1750–1850. (April 2014)

A Passage from Hong Kong

Edward Burtynsky: Container Port, Maasvlakte, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2011; from Burtynsky’s new collection of photographs, Water. The book includes essays by Wade Davis and Russell Lord and is published by Steidl. Burtynsky’s new documentary film, Watermark, codirected with Jennifer Baichwal, will be released in the US this April.
Imagine the Empire State Building. Now imagine tipping it on its side, nudging it into the Hudson, and putting out to sea. That was the scale of thing I contemplated one day in late November, as I gaped at the immense navy hull of CMA CGM Christophe Colomb, one of the world’s largest container ships, which stretched above and out of sight on either side of me, on a quayside in Hong Kong. Nearly twelve hundred feet long, it’s bigger than an aircraft carrier and longer than the world’s largest cruise ships. On Christophe Colomb, all of that space goes to boxes.

Our Steamboat Imperialism

Slaves returning from a cotton field in the American South, early 1860s
Chugging against the current on a boxy steamer, the officer closely monitored the course of the Congo River. You’d think a river might be easier to navigate than the sea, since it flows in one direction and looks, more or less, like a line. You’d think it would be more …

We Are More English Than We Know

Benjamin West: The Cricketers (also known as Ralph Izard and His Friends), 1764
In the Strand, in Georgian London, the big-haired prostitutes grind their hips and sing ditties about their trade. Young blades cram into the cockpit in St. James’s Park to bet on fighting roosters with silver spurs. Coffeehouses around the Bank and Royal Exchange resound with clinking cups, clacking dice, and …

The Unknown Women of India

The baby arrived early one April morning, guided into the world by a Bengali midwife while the doctor waited in the next room. It was a boy: Sophia Elizabeth and Richard Plowden’s seventh child, born, like the others, in India. The infant drew his first milk from the breast of …