In this imaginative book, Maya Jasanoff uncovers the extraordinary stories of collectors who lived on the frontiers of the British Empire in India and Egypt, tracing their exploits to tell an intimate history of imperialism. Jasanoff delves beneath the grand narratives of power, exploitation, and resistance to look at the British Empire through the eyes of the people caught up in it. Written and researched on four continents,Edge of Empireenters a world where people lived, loved, mingled, and identified with one another in ways richer and more complex than previous accounts have led us to believe were possible. And as this book demonstrates, traces of that world remain tangible—and topical—today. An innovative, persuasive, and provocative work of history.
In her debut book, Jasanoff challenges the idea that the British Empire imposed its own culture on its colonies, arguing instead that the empire thrived because it was able to "find ways of accommodating difference." As evidence, she traces the history of objects collected in India and Egypt by "border-crossers": diplomats and soldiers, "aristocrats and Grand Tourists" who, by collecting artifacts, influenced the homeland's perception of colonized countries. As she explains how various collections were put together through theft, excavation and connoisseurship, she personalizes the history by profiling those who were fueled to collect by the need for reinvention and pursuit "of social status and wealth." Jasanoff's narrative is most notable for synthesizing the study of architecture, art and commerce, as well as military and cultural history, and for digging deeper than predecessors. For example, in addition to the East India Company's infamous Robert Clive, she also profiles Clive's virtually forgotten son Edward, a much more ambitious collector. In this intriguing and readable book, Jasanoff, an assistant professor of British history at the University of Virginia, creates fertile common ground between the dominant stories put forth by postcolonial critics such as Edward Said and boosters like Niall Ferguson. 48 b&w illus. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (Aug. 30) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 11, 2006
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Excerpt from Edge of Empire by Maya Jasanoff
Most histories would begin the account of Britain, France, and their empires not in the East, but in the West: in North America, where Britain's thirteen colonies and New France commanded the Atlantic seaboard, and where the two powers had been vying for dominance since the early 1600s. Their competition reached its climax in the middle of the eighteenth century, during the Seven Years War. The focus of their antagonism was access to the alluring expanse of land beyond the Pennsylvania frontier. With that struggle, Britain and France were effectively fighting for the future of North America: who would win the right to shape it, and whose empire would thrive. Perhaps this story should begin in the West, too, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, in the summer of 1759, where the best-known eighteenth-century scene of Anglo-French imperial war unfolded--the battle of Quebec, whose set-piece quality brought recurrent patterns of British and French conflict vividly to life.
Since the declaration of war in 1756, British attempts to advance into New France had been frustrated. But in the early summer of 1759, a British offensive advanced into Canada along the lower St. Lawrence, arriving at the key French city of Quebec. All summer long the British lay camped by the river, besieging the heavily fortified town perched on the cliffs above. But the French, secure in their position and numbers, remained implacable, while British attempts to attack the city from below were repulsed. In September, British commanders fixed on a plan to strike Quebec from above and so lure the enemy out to battle on the Plains of Abraham, to the north. It was a bold maneuver. The cliffs were steep, the city was strong, the British severely outnumbered. But now, three months into the siege, it was time for such a move. On the night of September 12, 1759, a silent flotilla of British boats crossed the perilous St. Lawrence River and landed nearly five thousand men, who scrabbled up the beetling cliffs in a thin red line.
With the sun rising in a low mist, the black, pungent smell of waterlogged soil, damp, but no more rain: it was as good a day as any for battle. Behind Quebec's thick stone walls, the sleepless French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, had heard cannon fire in the night and knew that some sort of trouble was at hand. In the morning, he gathered his men and trooped out of the city to see what had happened. Perhaps the British had managed to squeeze a few hundred men up the cliff? Instead he confronted a stunning sight. There, not one mile ahead of him, stood the entire British force, thousands of redcoats like beacons in the mist. There was no choice but to attack. At ten o'clock, the French charged, only to be cut down, just forty paces from the British line, by a barrage of musket fire. Through the clearing smoke and chaos of bodies, the British began their counterattack; the French, confused and terrified, scattered in the face of attack. "They run; see how they run!" cried a British soldier. "Never was a rout more complete than that of our army," reported a Frenchman. At nine o'clock that very night, the French began to retreat from Quebec, leaving the city--and the keys to French Canada--in the hands of their British foes.
What had been months, even years, in the making, was over in a matter of hours. So were the lives of the French and British commanders. The Marquis de Montcalm took a ball in the torso late in the action, and was carried back to the town, bleeding profusely and saying, "It's nothing, it's nothing." Through the long night of retreat, he lay dying; his burial the next day, in the words of the historian Francis Parkman, "was the funeral of New France." Out on the Plains of Abraham, the young British general James Wolfe aimed to achieve a more glorious death. While he was leading the charge against the French lines, his wrist was shattered by a bullet; still he rushed, till two more hit him in the belly and the chest, and he fell to the ground. Some officers said that on the river crossing the previous night, Wolfe had been reciting Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." If so, one line would have particularly resonated: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." As if on cue, Wolfe expired near the battlefield, while his men charged to victory around him.
General Wolfe's victory at Quebec is one of the grand scenes of British imperial history, a rare individual battle that really did (seem to) turn the tables. And like so many acclaimed victories, its drama rested in part on a string of depressing defeats that had preceded it. Now, three years into the fighting, Britons finally had something to celebrate: voices were raised in hymns and prayers of thanksgiving, church bells rang, fireworks exploded. Wolfe's fatal heroism was applauded and retold in popular ballads, stage plays, published firsthand