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.

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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