Maya Jasanoff

Maya Jasanoff teaches British and Imperial history at Harvard.

Inky Scraps: ‘Atlantic Families’

Maya Jasanoff, 5 August 2010

‘Crisses Cryssis Crises Crisis’, Grace Galloway scratched at the bottom of the page. She might not have known how to spell it, but she certainly knew what crisis felt like when she wrote about it in wartime Philadelphia in the fall of 1781. Grace’s husband, Joseph, a prominent Pennsylvania politician, had been a delegate to the first Continental Congress, convened in 1774 to...

Diary: in Sierra Leone

Maya Jasanoff, 11 September 2008

The helicopter service to Freetown from the airport at Lungi was suspended; it had crashed one too many times. That meant I would have to take the ferry, across the neck of one of the world’s largest natural harbours. After a jolting truck ride, I found myself at the edge of a concrete pier, watching the sun-set through the haze, waiting for the boat. Fishermen poled their pirogues onto...

On a February morning in 1788, dozens of spectators filed into the gallery of Westminster Hall. Among them appeared the cream of London society, headed by Queen Charlotte herself, elegant in fawn-coloured satin and a modest splash of diamonds, and flanked by three of her daughters. With three hundred guards keeping the passages clear, the peers of the realm marched in according to rank. The...

Not long ago I attended a lunch at which the guests were invited to discuss the Iraq debacle. It was deep in red-state America, but everybody present was an academic, and expressed due sentiments of horror and outrage. Most were also historians of empire, and started casting about for parallels. Is Iraq like Suez, some wondered? Or Cyprus, perhaps? Or is it most like India, where the British...

Winding south-east from Ouarzazate through the Drâa Valley in Morocco, the road peters out after Zagora. Beyond, lie the swelling dunes of the Great Eastern Erg, the Algerian frontier, open Sahara. Camels are your best bet from here, as Zagora’s chief attraction colourfully advertises: a painted sign pointing the way to Timbuktu, 52 days away by camel caravan. Traditionally, this end of the road was a crossroads: the first stop out of the desert for caravans emerging from the West African interior, and the last stop before it for traders from the north. You can sense something of sub-Saharan Africa in the mud-brick ksars and kasbahs of the region; in the dark faces of the women who billow by in their djellabas, like gusts of black wind. The Arab world makes its mark, too. In the nearby village of Tamegroute, a 17th-century Koranic school called the Zaouïa Naciria houses a library that boasted tens of thousands of volumes in its heyday. Some of them are still displayed beneath cloudy glass: a 14th-century Koran written on gazelle skin in blocky Kufic script, Pythagoras translated into Arabic, medical treatises and geographies.

Let in the Djinns: Richard Burton

Maya Jasanoff, 9 March 2006

Trieste, it has been said, is a nowhere of sorts: unreal, isolated, out of time, attractive to exiles, unknown to almost everybody else. So it was an apt city to serve as the final home of a man regarded as one of the most unreal, isolated and timeless figures of the Victorian era. Richard Burton arrived in the Adriatic port in 1873 as Britain’s consul. He had pretty much seen...

“Tucked away in the lanes of Old Delhi, not far from the Red Fort of the Mughal emperors, sits the little visited Anglican church of St James, consecrated in 1836. With its Renaissance-style dome and campanile, and painted a cheerful lemon, this church would not look out of place in Italy. In Delhi it is an oddity, as was its founder, the swashbuckling military adventurer James Skinner, who built it ‘in fulfilment of a vow made while lying wounded on the field of battle’. (Skinner’s equally remarkable contemporary Begum Samru – a Kashmiri dancing-girl turned army commander – built a Catholic church in similar style at Sardhana, with two Wren-like spires flanking the dome.) Skinner did not come seamlessly to Christian piety: half-Scot and half-Rajput, he never visited Europe, began his career in the service of the Marathas, and sired numerous part-Indian children by (it was said) 16 wives and mistresses. In a small yard outside the church, members of his multi-ethnic clan lie buried. Some of their tombs have crosses on top and epitaphs on the side in Persian – memorials to a period in Anglo-Indian history when European and Eastern cultures comfortably converged.”

A new history of empire, no longer either triumphalist or cast in the shades of black and white favoured by the post-colonialists, is beginning to be written. It assumes that the metropolis and...

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