One of the eccentricities of the historical profession is its tradition of explaining very complicated events by means of very simple formulas. For decades historians tried to explain the French Revolution through the actions of monolithic classes—the “aristocracy,” the “bourgeoisie”—until Richard Cobb and a few other scholars suggested the events were easier to understand if you treated people as individuals rather than as members of a class (acting in unison), a crowd (rioting for the same motives), or, worst of all, a list of statistics.

Even more eccentric is the treatment of the British Empire. Stretching over three centuries and six continents, you might have expected that its extent, duration, and diversity would have made it immune to facile interpretation. Not at all. Indeed, while the interpretations themselves change, the facility seems almost permanent.

A hundred years ago, the history of the empire was widely seen as a steady march toward beneficent dominion, a gradual reddening of the schoolroom map from Canada in the top left corner to New Zealand in the bottom right, a progress that brought with it good government, order, prosperity, and (eventually) liberty to those fortunate enough to belong to the expanding red zones. Many of its subjects agreed with this view: in his autobiography even Gandhi admitted he had believed “the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world.”1 Guided by Providence and by Queen Victoria, Britain assumed extravagantly maternal roles. It (or she) was celebrated as “Mother of the Free” in “Land of Hope and Glory” and as “the mother of Parliaments” by the politician John Bright.

Even when atrocities against subject peoples had to be admitted—like Governor Edward Eyre’s repression of a rebellion in Jamaica in 1865 or Brigadier Reginald Dyer’s massacre of 379 unarmed civilians at Amritsar in 1919—the overall benefits were seldom questioned. You only had to compare the constitutional histories of enlightened Canada and benighted South America to understand the point.

A century later, the simplicities are on the other side. Many historians who call themselves “postcolonial” have taken it for granted that colonial rule was always evil and colonialist motives always bad. A reading of their work leaves the impression that the best of the colonialists was less worthy than the worst of the colonized, unless the latter was an ally of the imperial power, in which case he is dismissed as a “lackey” or “collaborator.” As Maya Jasanoff recalls in her scholarly and imaginative book Edge of Empire, most of the contemporary histories she read while writing “drew a detailed if rather insidious picture of white European colonizers trying to supplant, appropriate, or denigrate the non-European peoples and societies they encountered.”

Most postcolonial writing has no room for altruism. If the British were exploiters, how could they also be altruists? If there is evidence of benign motives—as there is in the letters and diaries of hundreds of civil servants who spent their careers in India—they are very seldom mentioned. Even if an altruistic policy cannot be ignored, it can be disparaged: it could be claimed, for example, that sati, the burning of Hindu widows, was not as widespread as the British said it was, that the abolition of satiby the British was carried out “with much self-aggrandizing fanfare” as one well-known anthropologist put it, and that in any case “moral outrage” was not “the predominant factor” in the decision to outlaw it.2 We have traveled far from the days of W.E.H. Lecky, the nineteenth-century historian who described the “unweary, unostentatious and inglorious” struggle for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain as one of the “three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.” But how far has our understanding advanced?

Contemporary historians compete with each other to find more extreme ways of expressing their opprobrium—frequently making comparisons between the British imperialists and the Nazis. “Who, after all,” says the historian Maria Misra in an article in the London Guardian, “invented the concentration camp but the British [in the Boer War]?”—a question that equally combines ignorance and tendentiousness.3 In fact, the term, first used by two Radical British MPs, is derived from the campos de reconcentracióninto which Spanish forces swept Cuban civilians in the war between 1895 and 1898. But neither in Cuba nor in South Africa, where Afrikaner families were herded into camps during the guerrilla stage of the Boer War, did they have anything in common with the extermination center at Auschwitz.

Of course there were Victorian and Edwardian writers who did not endorse the neo-Whig interpretation of imperial history as one of continuous progress. And there are many historians today who do not belong to the postcolonial school. Maya Jasanoff’s impressive book clearly owes much to historians such as Linda Colley, P.J. Marshall, and C.A. Bayly, three of the leading historians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She and other imperial historians also owe a considerable debt to William Roger Louis, the American editor of The Oxford History of the British Empire, and to the many contributors to its five volumes.4


Jasanoff, who teaches history at the University of Virginia, refuses to see Britain’s imperial history as a simple “saga of colonizers versus colonized” and laments that so “much academic energy has gone into tracing how ‘the West’ exerted and expressed its power over ‘the rest.'” She also declines to share the “postcolonialists'” view of the British Empire as “an insidious behemoth” and argues that historians should be wary of making moral judgments from afar. Denying she is an apologist for any empire, past or present, she points out that

empires are a fact of world history. The important question for this book is not whether they are “good” or “bad,” but what they do, whom they affect, and how.

One of the strengths of her work is her refusal to see anything in black and white. Empires tend to be inclusive, especially as they expand; their borders are porous, above all the cultural ones. “Imperialism is not a one-way street,” because the cultural traffic—among others—can run both ways. Europeans bought (and looted) from the East, but Indian merchants and princes established collections of Western art. As Jasanoff remarks,

It is easy to speak of a “clash of civilizations” when cultures are distilled to the point of abstraction. But real people in the real world do not necessarily experience other cultures in a confrontational or monolithic way.

The principal characters in Edge of Empire are imperial collectors of art, men who “reached across the lines of cultural difference.” In the first part of her book Jasanoff concentrates on Lucknow, the last great Islamic city of northern India. In 1775 it was made the capital of the region of Oudh by the new nawab, Asaf ud-Daula, an amiable young man who enjoyed most things in life except government. Living in a haze of wine and opium, he built palaces and mosques, sponsored poets and musicians as well as great banquets and cockfights. He possessed eight hundred elephants and a stable of a thousand horses, which he kept just for show because he was too fat to ride them.

Under Asaf ud-Daula, Lucknow incarnated the European fantasy of an Oriental fleshpot, corrupt and seductive, decadent and artistic, an exotic blend of palace and spice market, scholarship and sensuality. It was a place of opportunity, a place to make dreams come real. You could make money but you could also remake yourself, or at any rate create a different (or additional) self to the one you already had. Elizabeth Plowden, “the middle class wife of a middle-ranking Company soldier,” befriended Asaf ud-Daula and left Lucknow with the noble title begum. Jasanoff makes much of Lucknow as a place for people to reinvent themselves, a magnet for “border crossers,” a type of person the author is much attracted to. (The book is dedicated to Jasanoff’s “parents, border crossers.”)

Lucknow certainly attracted colorful adventurers. Jasanoff describes a group of Europeans who settled in the city, “went native,” made money, collected art, started families, established new identities—and had problems deciding what to do with their old age. Although Antoine Polier was born in Lausanne in the early eighteenth century, he joined the British East India Company and fought with Clive against the French in southern India. After the company decided that foreigners would be denied promotion beyond the rank of major, he abandoned the British for the service of the nawab of Oudh. During his fifteen years in Lucknow he acquired two Muslim wives, several children (with whom he corresponded in Persian), a considerable fortune, an immense collection of manuscripts, and the title and status of a Mughal aristocrat. The Emperor gave him the Persian name “Lion of Battle.”

Yet a part of him hankered after Europe and, after retiring to Switzerland with his manuscripts but without his wives and with only two of his children, he made the mistake of moving to France in the middle of the Revolution. It was an eccentric choice for the Swiss entrepreneur—as Jasanoff observes, the year 1792 was “a supremely bad time to buy a French chateau”—and things soon went horribly wrong. Polier’s opulent style of life attracted a gang of counterrevolutionary bandits who ransacked his home when he was out, ambushed his carriage on his return, denounced him as a “Robespierrist,” and finally murdered him in his cellar, which they had hoped to find full of Oriental treasure.

Benoît Leborgne, a friend of Polier, also decided to return to Europe. Another Alpine adventurer, this time from Savoy, Leborgne joined first the French army (changing his name to the more aristocratic-sounding de Boigne), then the Russian army (in which he was captured by the Turks), then the East India Company forces (in which he seems to have got bored), and finally the army of Mahadji Scindia, a leader of the Maratha people in western India. De Boigne also went to Lucknow, acquired money and a collection of weapons and artifacts, and married the daughter of a Persian general. Later, for health reasons, he moved to Europe with his family and belongings and chose London as his residence. But he was dispirited by his new home, and his unhappiness was increased by the loss of his artifacts in a shipwreck and also by his brief and miserable marriage to a young French aristocrat. De Boigne eventually returned by himself to his birthplace, Savoy, where he was made a count by its ruler, the King of Sardinia.


After learning of the fate of Polier and de Boigne, their friend Claude Martin decided not to follow them to Europe. Born in Lyon, the youthful Martin had enlisted in the French army, and deserted it while stationed in Pondicherry, the French enclave in India. He joined the British besiegers outside the town and became an ensign in the company’s forces. Like his friends, he took up residence in Lucknow and amassed a fortune and an art collection even larger than theirs; he bought from European dealers as well as from Indians. But although he had a local mistress, he did not “go native” like the others. At Pondicherry he decided he wanted to be British and in Lucknow he led the life of an English gentleman abroad, a connoisseur, scientist, banker, and philanthropist.

After resisting the lure of Europe and failing to persuade Polier to return to India, Martin devoted his old age to building a mausoleum for himself outside Lucknow in the vast, mysterious, architecturally hybrid palace he called Constantia. Renamed La Martinière, as stipulated in his will, the building subsequently became a boys’ boarding school (Kipling transformed it into St. Xavier’s and unkindly sent Kim there for a few years) and remains one today. Indian boys, impeccably attired in ties and navy-blue blazers, learn lessons in English from a variety of British, Indian, and Portuguese-Goan teachers. Martin (still in his crypt in the center of the building) would have been pleased.

Jasanoff acknowledges the late Edward Said’s Orientalism as a “groundbreaking,” “pathbreaking” book. “Gathering knowledge about the Orient,” she writes, “was a prerequisite, and sometimes a substitute, for gaining authority over it.” But she also makes it clear that her own research reveals the limitations of some of the main claims of Said’s work and the postcolonial school in general. Fundamental to postcolonial beliefs is the axiom that people cannot cross borders: they are either the colonialists or the colonized, the oppressors or the victims. Said wrote: “Irish people can never be English any more than Cambodians or Algerians can be French. This it seems to me was always the case in every colonial relationship,” a view that denies complexities of motive and loyalty and even history.5 As Edge of Empire demonstrates, for some people it is not difficult to cross borders and acquire new identities; de Boigne managed to reinvent himself no fewer than five times. Besides, it is patently unhistorical to classify all Irishmen as victims. As Jasanoff writes, “The Irish were builders and beneficiaries of the British Empire at the same time that they were its rebels and victims.” Many Irishmen, even among Parnell’s followers, were proud to call themselves both home rulers and imperialists. The army of the East India Company, Jasanoff observes, was substantially Irish. In the 1890s seven of the eight provinces of British India were at one time headed by Irishmen.

Jasanoff’s account of the many European collectors and scholars described in her book also refutes the widely accepted idea that “Orientalist scholars” pursued their studies in order to assist the administration and exploitation of India and other regions of the “East.” Since their knowledge was acquired to fit political aims, so goes this theory, their work had to be false or at the very least slanted. It was “not disinterested or objective,” the American historian Barbara Ramusack has claimed, “but imbricated with political power” [i.e., overlapping with it].6

The logic of this argument is hard to understand, even when applied to the late Victorians, whose control of India was far firmer than it had been in the years when Polier, Martin, and de Boigne were all flourishing in Lucknow. Scholarship can have diverse aims without being dishonest or invalid. When James Mackenna, a British official, wrote his paper “The Rhinoceros Beetle…and Its Ravages in Burma,” he hoped it would be simultaneously useful to the government, satisfying to himself, and helpful to the people of Burma. Other officials pursued their studies as an intellectual pastime with no suggestion of a colonial purpose. John Fleet, a civil servant in Bombay, compiled Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings and Their Successors, while A.C. Burnell, a judge in Madras, catalogued the Sanskrit manuscripts in the Palace of Tanjore, a labor of scholarship which gained him an international reputation and membership in such bodies as the American Scientific Society. Just how, one can only wonder, is their work “imbricated with political power”? How does it fit in with Said’s theory that “all academic knowledge about India…is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact”7 of British dominion?

In the second part of her book Jasanoff describes Anglo-French rivalry and tries to estimate its effects on imperial expansion. For her it is evidently a crucial factor. As she graphically puts it,

To write the history of the British Empire without including France would be like writing about the United States during the cold war without mentioning the Soviet Union. France vitally influenced the shaping of the modern British Empire.

The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) between Britain and France had left the French in a state of frustration and resentment. A few daring military exploits which every British schoolboy used to know about—Clive’s in India, Wolfe’s in Quebec—had resulted in the loss of French imperial possessions in India and North America to a country half the size of France with less than half its population. The French took revenge by helping the Americans gain independence, but their pleasure was limited by the subsequent realization that their assistance had more or less bankrupted the ancien régime and that it led ultimately to the crisis of 1789. In any case they needed to perform a feat, something more tangibly glorieux, which they identified as the conquest and possession of Egypt.

Although at the time British ships sailing to India had to go around by the Cape—a voyage that lasted six months or even longer—Egypt was seen as the strategic key to India; the route via the Mediterranean and across Egypt to the Red Sea could reduce travel time from Europe to India to two months. Before the Revolution the French had drawn up several plans to invade what was then a province of the Ottoman Empire, but the attempt was not made until a young revolutionary general, Napoleon Bonaparte, persuaded the Directory in Paris to allow him to land an army at Alexandria in the summer of 1798. Napoleon’s aims were always varied and, when he was a young man, usually flexible—his army, called the Armée d’Angleterre, had been intended to invade England—and one of his designs was to take his troops to India, ally himself to Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore who had already lost half his kingdom to the British, and annihilate his country’s historic foes on the soil of the subcontinent. To carry out this plan, he was apparently prepared to ingratiate himself with Muslims by forcing some of his soldiers to convert to Islam although, as Jasanoff observes, these were “unwilling to part with their wine, or with their foreskins.”

In fact, nothing came of the plan. Bonaparte antagonized the Egyptians, failed to capture Acre from the Turks, and lost his fleet to Nelson in the Battle of the Nile. Tipu came to still more spectacular grief at the hands of the British, losing the rest of his kingdom and also his life at the siege of Seringapatam in Mysore. Yet although the alliance between “Abdallah Bonaparte” and “Citoyen Tipu” achieved nothing, it had been potentially a real threat to Britain. Bonaparte’s military genius, demonstrated two years earlier by a series of victories against the Austrians in Italy, might well have flourished in southern India if he had managed to make an alliance with Tipu, a talented soldier himself whose army included French troops and whose state even had a Jacobin Club. Although historians, as Jasanoff points out, have tended to neglect this alliance, the British were right to be alarmed by it. As she concludes, the Mysore War was at least partly “a proxy war with France, touched off by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and by fears of further French encroachments into India.”

The Egyptian adventure turned out to be another humiliation for the French. Bonaparte’s desertion of his army and flight to France (where he staged a coup to install himself as first consul) left the expedition at the mercy of the British. In 1801 they duly invaded, defeated their abandoned opponents, and took possession of the booty that the French savants, scientists brought to Egypt by Bonaparte, had been accumulating over the previous three years. Although they allowed the savants to keep their specimens and scientific papers, they took with them various pieces of sculpture and other bulky objects, including the famous Rosetta Stone, which went to the British Museum.

The military clash over Egypt evolved in the early decades of the nineteenth century into a much larger “war of antiquities,” which forms the third part of Edge of Empire. Although Britain and France never fought each other again after Waterloo, cultural rivalry—in this case between their archaeologists—remained intense and sometimes became violent. The French were by now obsessed by Egypt, regarding their influence there as a sort of compensation, however inadequate, for their failure to make Egypt a French colony. That they won the race to decipher the Rosetta Stone was regarded as a part of the national destiny, while they considered that France held “a kind of copyright” on Egyptian archaeology in general. Obsession fostered ruthlessness. Removing statues lying on the ground may have been legitimate, but disfiguring a standing architectural structure was vandalism. As Jasanoff comments,

A visitor to Paris might find it magnificent to see the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, but to see the Luxor Temple with only one obelisk standing lopsidedly in front of it is like seeing someone smile to reveal a missing front tooth.

Britain eventually eclipsed France in Egypt in the political sphere so that by the end of the nineteenth century Egypt—though still formally a part of the Ottoman Empire—was effectively run by Lord Cromer, the British proconsul with the modest title of consul general. But in archaeological matters France had more success, partly as a result of a close relationship between the Ottomans’ viceroy in Egypt, Muhammad Ali, and the French diplomat Bernardino Drovetti. In Jasanoff’s almost picaresque tales of tangled identities it comes as no surprise to learn that the chief archaeological agents of France and Britain were neither French nor British: Drovetti came from Piedmont while the rival champion, Giambattista Belzoni, was from Padua.

Discussing the relationship between Drovetti and the viceroy, Jasanoff observes that

personal relationships of this kind sometimes get lost in the annals of history, yet they could have profound and unpredictable effects on politics and international affairs.

Here is another strength of her book: an unfashionable insistence on the importance of individuals. In her introduction the author calls her work

most of all…a plea for bringing a human dimension to imperial history, a topic that is often treated in the abstract, whether by sweeping chronicles of conquest or by postcolonial critics of imperial discourse.

Historians who are interested in the people who make history are usually better writers than those who prefer theories. And Jasanoff is certainly a fine writer. She delights in scenes from the past; she knows how to describe the sights and smells of an eighteenth-century bazaar as well as the personalities of her art collectors. She can visualize and imagine history, as well as study it in the archives and the seminar room, and this makes her book a particularly valuable account of the realities of empire.

This Issue

November 2, 2006