Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting in the East 1750-1850 
by Maya Jasanoff.
Fourth Estate, 405 pp., £25, August 2005, 0 00 718009 8
Show More
Show More

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 the colonies were not self-contained realms (as the older ‘imperial history’ often assumed); it recognises that empires were made and ruled by individuals with often very different, even conflicting aspirations. Above all it recognises that all empires were precarious, porous, multicultural and multilingual, and that of all the political orders ever devised they, more than any other, defy simple description or heavy abstraction. Maya Jasanoff’s book – her first – is a brilliant contribution to this literature.

Her theme is not how ‘Others’ were excluded by the imperial process, but the far more elusive, and in the end more illuminating ways in which so many were included in what she calls the ‘rhetoric and systems of empire’. Edge of Empire is about crossing boundaries; about the porousness of culture in the early years of the British Empire; about frontiers, both geographical and mental, and how they are constructed and reconfigured. More precisely, it is about two theatres of contact and conflict: the first is India, during the period when the limited and tenuous hold of a private trading company was being transformed into a virtual state within the state, bent on ‘hollowing out’, as the expression goes, the collection of quasi-independent polities which made up the Mughal Empire. The second is about the clash, which began in India but ended in Egypt, between the two major imperial powers of the 18th century, Britain and France.

In the period from the mid-18th century, when Jasanoff’s story begins, until 1858, when the Crown dissolved the East India Company to create the Indian Empire, the fledgling ‘British Empire’ in India was a constantly expanding multi-ethnic frontier zone, where not only Britons but sundry other Europeans mingled, traded, intermarried and sometimes fought with Indians and with one another. Of the ‘List of Inhabitants residing in Calcutta’ drawn up for Lord Clive in 1766, only 129 of the 231 European males were British. The rest came from Portugal, the German states, Switzerland, Sweden, French Chandernagore and Ireland. Life in this frontier world, as Jasanoff says, was ‘never a two-sided saga of colonisers versus colonised’. This was generally true of any imperial state, whether French Algeria, British Rhodesia or Spanish Peru. But in India the would-be colonisers not only faced complex political societies which – unlike the Berber, the Ndebele or the Quechua – were capable of resisting them for long periods of time, they also encountered cultures they were prepared to recognise as, if not equal to their own, certainly worthy of respect.

Take the great Orientalist Sir William Jones (of whom Jasanoff might have made more), who declared Sanskrit – one of many languages in which he was proficient – to be ‘more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either’. The Persians were, he insisted, a ‘nation equally distinguished in ancient history’ as the Greeks or Romans, and the Persian Hafiz as great a poet as Horace. It was only unfamiliarity which made ignorant Europeans, who knew no language other than their own, praise one and ridicule the other. The same applied to Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal from 1773 until 1785, best remembered today as the target of Burke’s fierce condemnation for the ‘Oriental despotism’ with which he had oppressed the Indians, whom Burke described as ‘this unhappy part of our fellow citizens’. The shadow which Burke’s oratory has cast over Hastings’s reputation has occluded his fluency in Persian and Hindi, his sponsorship of translations of Persian histories and the Sanskrit Bhagavat Gita, his compilation of Hindu and Muslim legal codes, as well as his founding of the Calcutta madrassa.

By the mid-19th century, when the Raj had been fully established across the continent and the Empire of India absorbed into the British state, the notion of a ‘two-sided saga’ sometimes came depressingly close to the truth. But in the period described in Edge of Empire, the British were for long merely one interloper among many, more powerful perhaps than others, in particular once the French had been driven out after 1763, but interlopers none the less. And they went to India as interlopers have always done, to make a fortune and acquire the social status they would have been denied at home.

A typical case is that of Antoine Polier, whose career runs like a leitmotif throughout the book. Polier was from Lausanne, the son of a Protestant pastor who had, briefly, been a correspondent of Voltaire’s. He came to Madras in 1757, the year of the Battle of Plassey, which marked the beginning of what was to become the East India Company’s political ascendancy over the Mughal Empire, and joined the Company’s army at 16. Nine years later he was a major. In 1773, he left the Company’s service, crossed the western frontier of Company-controlled Bengal, and went to work for the still nominally independent – independent at least of the British – nawab of Awadh, Shuja ud-Daula. There, in the capital Lucknow, he flourished, earning a fortune and the friendship of prominent Europeans and Mughals alike, including the nawab himself. For all his success, however, Polier was only one of a motley crew of Europeans in a wealthy cosmopolitan world – the ‘capital of cultural crossing’, as Jasanoff calls Lucknow. We have two portraits of him. One is by Zoffany, the society portraitist. Painted in 1786, it shows Polier at home with his friends Claude Martin, John Wombwell, the paymaster to the Company’s troops, and, in the background, with his head turned towards the viewer and painting another picture, Zoffany himself. Although Polier affects a long, drooping ‘Indian’ moustache and wears a turban, his appearance is otherwise entirely European. Except for the presence of Indian servants this could have been a scene from the interior of a well-to-do house almost anywhere in Europe.

The other image of Polier, who had two Indian wives, a daughter and two sons, is the work of a local miniature painter, Mihr Chand. He is dressed in long muslin robes, wears a scarlet turban banded with a jewelled sarpesh and is seated on a settee, smoking a water pipe while a pair of dancers perform for him. This, Jasanoff writes, ‘is the plump, serene profile of a Mughal nobleman’. He had ‘gone native’, as later generations would say of such people, with a mixture of fear and contempt. But in this frontier society of hybrid cultures and mixed identities he was the rule, not an exception.

Another such character who stalks these pages is Claude Martin, also a non-British beneficiary of the British presence in India. Martin was not only French, but had served as an officer in the French force at Pondicherry. In May 1760, he defected to the East India Company, and like Polier, wound up in Lucknow and in the service of the nawab. Again like Polier, he made a fortune: by 1800 he was worth over £400,000, and was probably the wealthiest European in India. Just as Polier had done, he created a new identity for himself and a new lifestyle to go with it. In Martin’s case, however, this was less Mughal prince than English landed gentleman. He owned estates which stretched across north-eastern India, from Lucknow to Cawnpore, Benares, Chandernagore and Calcutta. And he built himself a sprawling mansion, hopefully named Constantia, on the outskirts of Lucknow, which Jasanoff compares to Claremont, the stately home that Clive, another arriviste who had grown rich in India, built in Surrey.

Unlike the colonists who had gone to America, both North and South, most Europeans in India hoped always to return ‘home’. Very few actually made it. But even those who did found that ‘home’ was not quite as they had remembered it. Poor Polier used his fortune to buy a château near Avignon. But this was 1792, and as Jasanoff wryly remarks, ‘a supremely bad time to buy a French château’. He was murdered in February 1795, the victim not of revolutionary zeal but of simple lawlessness. Martin’s fate was, if anything, even more poignant. He never returned ‘home’, wherever that might be. After his friend Polier’s death he resigned himself to living out his days where at least he was assumed to be what he claimed: a wealthy, cultured and successful European gentleman. He had come sadly to accept that his hybrid, transplanted identity could never ‘return’ even if his body could, and that, in the end, he would have to die as he had lived. ‘After me,’ he concluded, with characteristic grandiloquence, ‘the end of the world.’

Both Polier and Martin were doubly marginalised. They were not only men from relatively humble backgrounds who had had to reinvent themselves as wealthy and successful gentlemen; they had also to disguise themselves – although in the end both abandoned the endeavour – as British. The difficulties of displacement which they experienced were not, however, so very far removed from those of the real British, those ‘birds of prey’ as Burke called them, who had alighted in India in the hope of making a quick fortune and then returning home very much better placed than they had been when they left. They, too, had to exist in two worlds, and they, too, were very far from the traditional stereotype of the British colonialist, impervious to, and ignorantly contemptuous of the society and culture among which he – or frequently she – found him or herself marooned. Jasanoff has a detailed and telling account of perhaps the most famous of these ‘nabobs’ (an anglicised form of ‘nawab’) as they came to be called, ‘Clive of India’, the hero of Plassey, and by the time of his death by suicide in 1774 one of the wealthiest men in Britain. His was, Jasanoff rightly says, ‘possibly the greatest rags to riches story of the British Empire’. She points out that the familiar Victorian image of Clive of India, largely created by Macaulay (and commissioned by Clive’s son), was of quite another person from the ‘Clive of Britain’ who had to contend with the knowledge that, no matter how wealthy he might have become, he still represented for many all the vices of the parvenu. Worse still, he soon became for some, as Hastings was a little later, the embodiment of all that was wrong with the unregulated, unprincipled East India Company.

For beneath this snobbish distrust of those whose wealth was made rather than inherited lay a more serious unease. ‘The riches of Asia,’ Pitt the Elder declared, ‘have been poured in upon us, and have brought with them not only Asiatic luxury, but Asiatic principles of government.’ This, in the end, was the real issue. It was what had made Burke such a fervent opponent of Hastings. By the late 18th century, in the wake of the steady decline of the Spanish Empire, many in Europe had come to believe that it was impossible to practise tyranny and brigandage overseas without the vices which such conduct supposedly induced seeping back to corrupt the moral and political fabric of the metropolis. Hastings had argued in his defence that he had ruled as an Indian among Indians, and it was true that few in Bengal seemed to have objected to his actions. But behaving like an ‘Oriental Despot’ in one part of an empire which, for Burke, constituted a ‘sacred trust’, was to threaten the entire fabric of the British constitution. ‘Indianism’, Burke called it, and it was, in his opinion ‘worse by far’ than that other great evil of the time, Jacobinism.

Jasanoff’s entry into these shifting cultural worlds is by way of collecting. All of her subjects collected, sometimes on a massive scale. Collecting evidently enhanced the status of the collector, as it still does: the larger your collection, the more you were worth. But for the deracinated subjects of the British Empire, it was more than a simple manifestation of wealth: it was also a way of mediating the hybrid worlds in which they found themselves. It was not only the parvenus of empire who collected. Some of the century’s greatest hoarders, from Horace Walpole to William Hamilton, had only a slight association with empire. But the collections of the Poliers and the Clives were filled not only with the traditional European decorative objects, from furniture to paintings, with which every well-to-do European home had to be adorned. They also included Indian, Persian and Arabic artefacts. They were an assertion that, in Europe, their owners had arrived socially, and yet still half belonged to another exotic world where it was they who had been the masters.

For Jasanoff, collecting is something more than an activity, it is an extended – sometimes over-extended – metaphor for empire itself. Imperial states ‘collected’ provinces, territories, peoples (Clive is said to have ‘collected’ Members of Parliament) as individuals collected paintings, silks, illuminated manuscripts or diamond-studded eggs. And it is collecting that allows her to make the move from the cultural bazaar of Bengal to the ‘edge’ of another empire: Egypt.

It all began, in Jasanoff’s account, with the war between the East India Company and Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the South Indian kingdom of Mysore. In part this war had been started in response to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, one of whose objectives had been to create a base from which to harass the English in the eastern Mediterranean and to threaten India. Tipu had made some curious overtures to the last remaining French outpost in Mauritius, and there was, improbably, a Jacobin club in Tipu’s capital at Seringapatam. Jasanoff paints an amusing picture of the absolutist Muslim ruler offering overtures of solidarity to ‘the Republic, my Sister!’ and being greeted by cries from a mixed Indian and French crowd of Jacobin supporters, of ‘Hatred to All Kings, except Tippoo Sultan, the Victorious.’ No help ever came from the Sister Republic, however, and by the end of May 1799, Seringapatam was in British hands. Henceforth, the struggle between Britain and France for possession of the ‘Orient’ would be played out in Egypt, then a nominal dependency of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, on whose spoils both imperial nations had designs.

Napoleon had gone to Egypt with not only a huge army but an entire travelling academy, the Institut d’Egypte, made up of 167 scientists, artists, poets, architects, engineers, and ‘one ex baritone from the Paris Opera’, known collectively as ‘the savants’. The savants’ purpose was to map, chart, describe and eventually collect everything that was to be known about ancient and modern Egypt. For two years, while Napoleon achieved a precarious hold over the country, they did just that, amassing in the process the most substantial body of data then available on any ancient civilisation. In March 1801, acting supposedly in the name of the sultan, the British invaded. By then Napoleon had already left, claiming that more urgent matters back in France required his attention. The members of the Institut huddled together in the port city of Alexandria, awaiting deportation along with all that remained of Napoleon’s Armée d’Orient, now engaged in a collectors’ war with the English commander, General John Hely-Hutchinson. Hely-Hutchinson maintained that everything that they had in their possession – including their own drawings and notes – was to be considered war booty. The French, led by the biologist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, violently disagreed. Rather than ‘let this iniquitous, vandalous spoliation take place’, Saint-Hilaire vowed that he would burn all he had. ‘Count on the memory of history,’ he told the unfortunate English negotiator William Richard Hamilton, ‘you too will have burned a library in Alexandria.’ In the end, the savants left with 55 cases of specimens and scientific papers. But the British got most of the artefacts, including the Rosetta Stone, all of which were taken back to London to become the basis of the Egyptian collection of the British Museum.

As a military venture, Napoleon’s bizarre attempt to persuade the Egyptians that he was, as Victor Hugo later phrased it, ‘the Mohammad of the West’, and that Islam and the Rights of Man could be made compatible, was a tragi-comic disaster. But its cultural impact on Europe was considerable. A form of ‘Egyptomania’ gripped Britain and France, spawning an entire decorative and architectural style – known broadly as ‘Empire’. It also allowed a number of collectors and adventurers to make sometimes substantial fortunes for themselves by stripping Egypt of everything that had escaped the clutches of the savants. Jasanoff has some engaging tales to tell of them. Henry Salt, the British consul in Egypt, for instance, combined his diplomatic duties with collecting for (and from) wealthy patrons – his fine collection ended up, ironically for a staunch patriot, in the Louvre after the British Museum had refused it. The Italian Giambattista Belzoni, a giant of a man, a former pantomime actor and fairground performer, managed to enter the sand-choked Temple of Abu Simbel, discovered the decorated tomb of the pharaoh Seti I in the Valley of the Kings, located the entrance to the Second Pyramid at Giza, and, so that posterity should never forget who did all this, carved his name in large letters into the wall of the Rhamesséion at Thebes. He was also responsible for shipping to London the massive red granite head and arm of Amenhotep III and the colossal torso of Ramses II, known as the ‘Younger Memnon’, which Napoleon’s engineers had previously tried and failed to remove; both are now in the British Museum. Then there were the Swiss-born Jean-Louis Burckhardt, the first European to set eyes on Petra, and the Piedmontese Bernardino Drovetti, who collected antiquities on behalf of himself, and the Louvre. Between them these men did incalculable damage, but their interlocked stories mark crucial stages in the evolution of modern Egyptology and modern archaeology, and as Jasanoff describes them, they make fascinating reading. Picaresque and colourful though they are, however, they are largely marginal figures, living ultimately precarious lives on the frontiers of the Ottoman, British and – what was left of it – French Empires. They were certainly not (not even Salt, who tried, and failed, to use collecting as a means of securing a place in society) on a par with Polier or Martin, much less with grandees like Clive. They were dealers and middlemen, and less the heirs of the great 18th-century collectors than the precursors of the Duveens and Berensons of the next century.

But then Egypt was not India, and the 1820s were not the 1770s. By 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne and something formally designated as the British Empire emerged for the first time, that empire began to assume the all-too familiar shape Jasanoff describes as ‘white rulers and non-white ruled facing off against each other like animals and keepers at a zoo’. Now, if never consistently before, Jasanoff’s claim that empire itself was a form of collecting became for many across the globe an inescapable reality. ‘C is for colonies,’ declared the ABC for Baby Patriots published in 1899:

Rightly we boast,
That of all the great nations
Great Britain has the most.

The swagger of this is a far cry from the uncertain, creative, fluid environment of a little more than a century earlier. By means of a series of anecdotes and vignettes, Edge of Empire brings that world, the world where ‘enduring cultural, social and political boundaries between East and West were taking shape’, to life with an imagination few could hope to match. It is a remarkable debut.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 28 No. 10 · 25 May 2006

Anthony Pagden refers to Antoine Polier as ‘marginalised’ and ‘of relatively humble background’ (LRB, 11 May). On the contrary, Polier was what one might call a gentleman of no independent means, a class that since feudal times has produced its fair share of wasters, chancers and social parasites, but also, out of sheer necessity, its fair and perhaps more than fair share of energetic and enterprising individuals attracted to the possibilities offered by overseas adventure. Polier, known to his relatives as ‘l’Indien’, came from an armigerous family of French origin established in Lausanne since 1575. The uncle whom he went to India to join was one of 16 children of a local landowner, which is explanation enough of his need to seek an honourable way of making a living.

Roger Jones
Andover, Hampshire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences