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 Scottish lowlands. It is not always easy to separate out in one’s mind the different members of this large family as the author weaves their individual life stories and observations through her text, and there are moments when the reader is hard pressed to remember whether it is Alexander or George who winds up on the West Indian island of Grenada, or whether it is John or Gideon who tries to make money selling the water of the Ganges to Indian pilgrims. Miniature biographies of each of the siblings at the start of the book act as a useful aide-mémoire, but a family tree would also have been helpful.

The Johnstone children were all educated at home or in the homes of tutors, and became highly literate, to the great benefit of posterity. One of the delights of this book is the multitude of brief extracts from the family correspondence that pepper its pages. It was the unmarried Betty Johnstone (1728–1813) who acted as the principal source of family information, keeping the siblings apprised of each other’s fortunes and misfortunes as they moved away from the family home, handling business and legal matters for them in their absence, and proffering wise advice in her always erratic spelling. There is an intimacy about her letters and those of her brothers and sisters, often expressed in turns of phrase that bring them vividly to life.

In 1759, for instance, she wrote to her brother William, who changed his name to Pulteney on marrying an English heiress and was to become a prominent member of Parliament, imploring him to visit the daughter of their sister Barbara in her boarding school in Kent to break the news that her parents had separated:

its a melancholy and disagreeable office at the same time its an act of Charety as it might Shoock the Child Doubly hearing it from any indifferent person.

Here, as elsewhere in the family letters, we enter a world both of human affection and of eighteenth-century sensibility, with hints that the age of Jane Austen is around the corner: “its an unlucky fancy for women to get it into their head that they must have a Husband,” wrote the Johnstones’ aunt, Anne Ferguson, on hearing that Charlotte Johnstone had eloped with the son of the local minister.


While Emma Rothschild has turned up a treasure trove in the Johnstones’ letters and papers, it may reasonably be asked whether the life stories of one generation of a fairly obscure and unimportant family justify a book of three hundred pages of text and 150 pages of densely packed endnotes. As the book proceeds, however, it becomes clear that a study of the family affairs of the Johnstones gives us entry, with Rothschild as our expert guide, into interconnected eighteenth- century worlds of great historical interest and importance—the world of empire at a moment of its making and unmaking, the world of the Enlightenment, especially the Scottish Enlightenment, and the world of sentiments and inner feelings.

During the forty years, between 1763 and 1806, in which members of the family were active in public life, they seem to have collected between them a veritable Who’s Who of friends and acquaintances. In Scotland, among the luminaries of Edinburgh society, there were David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith; there were Robert and James Adam, the architect brothers employed on building works by William Pulteney; the artist Sir Henry Raeburn, who painted a family portrait of John and Betty Johnstone with their grandniece Margaret; and James Macpherson, the translator of the “Ossian” poems, who accompanied George Johnstone to Florida as secretary of the province.

Then there was the circle of London politicians, ministers, and society figures, of which Pulteney formed a part; there was Lord Clive, later hailed as the founder of “British India,” who became John Johnstone’s mortal enemy; and William Wilberforce, over whose views on slavery the family was divided. Even Jane Austen’s uncle, an East India Company surgeon, has a walk-on part, buying “15 Sheep and a goat” at an auction in Calcutta at which John Johnstone makes the more elegant purchase of twenty-three volumes of sermons and a silver saucepan.

In the face-to-face society of eighteenth-century Britain, connections were of paramount importance, and it was by means of the exploitation of useful connections that the male members of the Johnstone family sought to rise in the world. Three main opportunities, Rothschild suggests, were open at this time to those seeking social and economic advancement: military (and naval) service, overseas commerce, and marriage—the latter spectacularly achieved by William (Johnstone) Pulteney. It was, above all, the rapid growth of British overseas trade and the no less rapid expansion of the British Empire, with which commercial activity was intimately connected, that gave the Johnstones their chance of advancement, although not without constant petitioning along the way and endless hanging around in the waiting rooms of London high society.

Empire meant opportunity in this eighteenth-century world, and in particular for impoverished Scots. This was a people long accustomed to emigrating—in particular to Ireland, Poland, and Scandinavia1—but the Act of Union with England of 1707 opened doors to overseas trade and imperial service that had previously been closed to them. In addition, as Rothschild might have told us in the body of the text, the appointment of a Scot, the Earl of Bute, as prime minister can only have helped when it came to appointments, and George Johnstone’s surprising nomination as governor of West Florida was surely a direct consequence of Bute’s patronage.

Having made the necessary connections and enlisted the necessary support, the Johnstone brothers fanned out across the world, with the exception of William and the solid eldest brother, James, who settled with his wife in Norfolk after a period of service in the British army. Alexander became a soldier, serving in Canada and northern New York, and ended up as the owner of a West Indian sugar plantation. George spent many years at sea before acquiring his American governorship. Subsequently he became a supporter of ambitious schemes to exploit the commercial possibilities of the Gulf Coast of Central America, and in 1778 formed part of the Carlisle Commission to effect a reconciliation with the United States, from which he was compelled to return home precipitately after offering a bribe to ease the path of the negotiations. Gideon, too, joined the navy and was constantly on the move, whether as a merchant in Asia, an official of the East India Company, a soldier in its army, or eventually as a naval officer in the West Indies. John went to India in 1751 as a servant of the East India Company, in which he rose to a position of eminence, making a fortune along the way. His brother Patrick joined him there, and died in the Black Hole of Calcutta when still only eighteen.


This was a family that saw much of the world, and it was not only the men who traveled. One of the sisters, Margaret, was an active Jacobite who, with her husband, followed Bonnie Prince Charlie in his travels around Scotland during the 1745 rebellion, and then, after escaping from the prison where she had been incarcerated following the defeat of the rebels, lived in exile in France. Elizabeth Carolina Keene, who married John Johnstone in Bengal, traveled to India with her sister in 1761, apparently to join friends in Madras.

Perhaps because it formed such a part of the Scottish tradition, travel to distant parts seems to have been accepted as nothing out of the ordinary by these people, even if Betty Johnstone constantly worried about their health and well-being, and waited anxiously for news of their activities in remote corners of the earth. The world was their oyster, and for the Johnstones Britain’s global empire became something of a family enterprise, with different members of the family helping one another out when they needed connections and especially money, as they generally did. What is not clear from Rothschild’s account is whether the Johnstones were in any way unusual as a family in the intensity of their determination to extract the maximum benefit from the lucrative opportunities offered by empire and overseas commercial expansion. Is it just the size of the family that makes the range and extent of its activities so striking, even if the results so often failed to come up to expectations? If not, does the behavior of the Johnstones represent a distinctively Scottish response to the opportunities of empire, or is it indicative of a more general British reaction?


Musée Franco-Américaine, Blérancourt/RMN/Art Resource

George Johnstone, eighteenth-century caricature

What at least is clear is that the attitudes they adopted and their modes of operation were characteristic of a thrusting, innovative section of the wider British society to which they belonged. In Citizens of the World, a fascinating account of the global activities of a group of London merchants in exactly the same period, David Hancock portrays a set of restless, opportunistic men on the make, just like the Johnstone brothers.2 Acting loosely together as associates, they, like the Johnstones, operated through a network of patrons, relatives, informants, and dependents, and shifted from one form of activity to another as opportunity beckoned. They, too, thought of ways to improve themselves and society at large, and, like the Johnstones, they reaped their rewards. “The history of the Johnstones’ fortunes,” writes Rothschild, “is an unusual story of economic improvement,” and although only one of the brothers, John, made a large fortune overseas, it was the existence of the “British Empire,” as it gradually came to be known in the aftermath of the Act of Union of 1707, that did much to make the family’s social and economic improvement possible.

In exploring the character and impact of that empire through the lives of selected individuals, Rothschild, like Hancock, is pursuing an approach to imperial history that has become increasingly popular in recent years. For a long time, the history of empire tended to be written as a history of imperial institutions and of the policies and actions of the metropolitan center. Then, in the wake of decolonization, the angle of vision was reversed, and it became fashionable to view empires through the eyes of the colonized. Now, however, in an age of self-conscious globalization and of an interconnected world, the traditional dichotomy of center and periphery has come to look excessively stark, and it is the links—between rulers and ruled, colonists and colonized, Europeans and non-Europeans—that are receiving the attention of historians.

History seen as the history of connections has become pervasive in the writing of the history of empire, as in the writing of many other kinds of history. An important consequence of this has been to give a fresh validity and impetus to individual case histories and to the life stories of men and women whose travels and activities enabled them to cross national, imperial, and cultural boundaries and form the connections that made the world a smaller place by bringing its diverse peoples into contact with each other.

In a book whose very title, The Web of Empire, evokes the theme of interconnection, Alison Games recasts the early history of the British Empire through the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English “cosmopolitans”—merchants, soldiers, adventurers, clerics, ambassadors, consuls—who traveled to foreign parts and learned in the process how to adapt themselves to a variety of environments and lifestyles in what was already a shrinking world.3 Similarly, in The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, Linda Colley has shed light on the twin themes of imperialism and globalization by following the life of a woman who, like Elizabeth Carolina Keene and the Johnstone brothers, eventually reached the India of the East India Company after a series of extraordinary adventures and travels.4

One of the dangers of the history of empire when it is treated as a history of connections is that it may make us forget the degree of institutional coercion and sheer brute force inherent in all imperial enterprises. We are given vivid reminders of the brutality, however, in Rothschild’s account of the degree to which slaves and slavery were integral to the world of the Johnstones. As she tells us, “of the seven Johnstone brothers who set out from the valley of the Esk in the 1730s and 1740s, at least six became the owners of other people.” They may have differed in their views of the morality of slavery and the slave trade, but they possessed or inherited slaves in the West Indies and Florida, and John Johnstone owned “Bell or Belinda,” a native of Bengal, whom he brought back with him to his estates in Scotland. Her story is a peculiarly poignant one, and it runs movingly through the book. Convicted in 1771 of infanticide by a court in Fife, she was “to be sold as a Slave for Life,” and shipped to Virginia where even Rothschild’s remarkable detective work has failed to find any further traces of her.

“Bell or Belinda’s” case, however, turns out to be of historical importance as marking the last occasion on which the state of slavery was determined in a British court. But this was not the only time the Johnstones had a brush with history. By an extraordinary chance one of the most celebrated legal cases of the age turned on the petition for freedom in 1773 of Joseph Knight, a slave whom John Wedderburn, the husband of the Jacobite Margaret Johnstone’s daughter, had brought back to Scotland from Jamaica. Knight’s petition was inspired by the verdict in the famous case of James Somerset, the slave who ran away from his owner in London, was placed in irons in a ship bound for Jamaica, and was released on a writ of habeas corpus. Knight won his freedom, and made history, when the high court eventually upheld the county judge’s resounding decision that “the state of slavery is not recognized by the laws of this kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof.”

Rothschild was no doubt lucky in that both these important cases turn out to be intimately connected with the lives of the Johnstones, but here, as elsewhere, she has shown remarkable skill, resourcefulness, and historical imagination in pursuing the stories of even those who at first sight might seem to be only bit players in her large cast of characters. In doing so, she has sought to show how empire, in its multiple forms, “extended into the deep interior of the English and Scottish countryside, and into the interior of family life.” It was not only human beings like Joseph Knight or “Bell or Belinda” who, as they waited unobtrusively on the Johnstones and accompanied them on their travels, must have been constant reminders of empire both to them and to their acquaintances. So, too, were commodities from distant parts of the globe, like the Indian muslins that John sent home from Bengal and that gave rise to a bitter family quarrel. In Rothschild’s words, “the lives of the Johnstone sisters and sisters-in-law, at home, were changed by the new empire of things.”

Her book, however, has an even more ambitious aim than that of reconstructing the impact of empire on the externals of Johnstone family life. The nature of her ambition is revealed by her title, The Inner Life of Empires. She wants to show us how the opening of the world to a family like the Johnstones affected their thoughts, sentiments, and behavior, and is anxious to recapture the day-to-day responses of people who had no idea, any more than we ourselves have, of how the story in which they found themselves caught up would end. Would the new republic of the United States survive? Nobody knew for certain.

At various points in the book Rothschild stands back from what she is doing to comment on why she is doing it, and the problems involved in the enterprise. “The history of the mind,” she writes, “is enticing,” because it gives us an understanding of events as they were seen by individuals at the time. But if, as she argues, “the history of empires in particular…is the history of thought,” how to enter the inner life of the mind? As a historian, she lacks the freedom of the novelist and is constrained by the evidence, even though, as she tells us, the history of the Johnstones “has come close, in a number of respects, to the historical novel”—a novel that, with its interweaving family destinies, she describes at one point as being Balzacian in character. Her response to the challenge of entering the life of the mind while rejecting the opportunities afforded the novelist and respecting “the limits of historical inquiry” is in part traditional, and consists of a close reading of the text.

The text in this instance is the Johnstone family correspondence. In some virtuoso pages of an earlier book, Economic Sentiments, Rothschild explored in depth and from every angle the concept of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”5 She applies the same technique to the Johnstones’ letters, circling around words and themes, like the gift of the Indian muslins and their disastrous impact on family relations, or returning to the same phrases at different points in the book as she places them in different contexts. For example, Betty Johnstone’s words to her nieces, “go on and prosper,” appear first in a paragraph devoted to Betty as the fixed point in the life of the family, and later in a passage designed to illustrate how the ideas of the Enlightenment were giving women a new sense of independence. The cumulative effect of these recurrences and repetitions, which may at first seem irritating, is ultimately to make us sense that we are somehow participants in the inner life of the Johnstones and know what they are thinking and feeling.

Rothschild herself asserts, in one of the many authorial interventions that are characteristic of her book, that the Johnstone family’s story told, as she has told it, through a “multitude of views or glimpses,” as in David Hume’s description of probability, makes “a new as well as an old-fashioned kind of historical inquiry.” She goes on to say that this was made possible by “the spectacular increase in information about early modern individuals, which is the consequence of late modern technologies of historical investigation.” The range of sources she has consulted, the extraordinary wealth of detail she has unearthed about even the most obscure individuals, and the quite unexpected connections between them that she has uncovered fully support her claim. It is wonderfully appropriate that a book that gives us so many new and surprising insights into the new “information society” of the eighteenth century should itself depend so heavily on new information technology, drawing, as Rothschild puts it, on “a world of searchable databases and digitized archive catalogues.”

In doing so, it presents what I suspect is a foretaste of a kind of history that will become increasingly common in the years to come, even if, as I fear, not all its practitioners will bring to it the historical imagination and sensitivity of Emma Rothschild. This new-style history will deploy a range of information, generated by electronic resources, that will enable future historians to assemble in a matter of days vastly more facts and figures that their predecessors could ever have assembled in a lifetime of archival research. It will enable them, as Rothschild has done, to evoke an age by relating the microhistory of even the “uneminent,” as she likes to call them, to the larger historical scene—national, imperial, global—that shaped the setting of their lives. It will allow them, like Rothschild, to look at the same people and events from a range of standpoints, encouraging them in the process to introduce, for good or ill, the authorial first-person singular into narratives that it has been the convention to treat as rigorously impersonal.

There will undoubtedly be losses as well as gains in this new kind of history. Empire, after all, was more than simply a series of information networks and webs of human relationships. It was shaped, too, by political, economic, and social forces that swept individuals along in their wake, even if they contributed to their making. E.M. Forster’s “only connect” may be the beginning, but it is not the end, of wisdom.