The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History

Donald MacRaild is impressed by a new spin on British imperialism, seen through the eyes of siblings

July 7, 2011

During the 18th century, the burgeoning British Empire offered many outlets for adventurous and ambitious individuals to make their way in life. The Inner Life of Empires examines such opportunities through the prism of a single, large family of siblings who emerged from modest land-owning circumstances in the Scottish Borders to become successful in many spheres. Here, Emma Rothschild offers a truly transnational family history set in an age of turbulence, war and imperial growth; a moment in time where dramas were many.

Rothschild's story of Empire, however, comes with a new spin, offering as it does a micro-historical account of one family's interconnections with the empires, politics and ideologies of the age. Drawing on many intensively mined sources from an array of archives, including a rich collection of family letters, she furnishes a richly detailed, highly readable account of the Johnstones, four sisters and seven brothers born into middling circumstances in Dumfries in the 1720s and 1730s.

Alongside a very close reading of those sources, and providing helpful biographical sketches and family-tree details, she also offers three excellent contextual chapters that frame the age through which they lived.

The Johnstones, it is clear, had a complicated prosopography, and their lives were made additionally complex by the contexts in which they lived and the places they visited. Rothschild's focus on the history of the Johnstone family demonstrates the channels of opportunity available to people like them. In so doing, she brings us engagingly close to the ordinary daily concerns of the nascent British world - much more so, perhaps, than might have been the case with the story of a more powerful brood.

The siblings' father, James Johnstone, spent much of his life with only a modest income, and he tried repeatedly to prove his lineal connection to the nearby estates of the Marquis of Annandale. Horace Walpole described the father as a "poor Scot". From such unpropitious circumstances, his children had to do better to make a mark - and most of them did. Marriage was a normal route to advancement for those without significant economic power of their own, but this route did not work for any of the Johnstones except William, who took the name Pulteney when he married Frances Pulteney in 1760. He later inherited a fortune through that union, and became a man of genuine wealth, power and influence.

Six of the brothers became involved in the military, from the Jacobite Rising of 1745-46 onwards. Two served in the Army, two in the Navy, and a further two were involved with the British East India Company. With its monopoly on trade with the East, and equipped with its own military units, the company symbolised the coming together of imperial, commercial and private interests. Scottish involvement in the East India Company is a well-known factor in the history of imperial commerce, but Rothschild's study puts real flesh on the bones of such relationships through the lives of John and Gideon Johnstone.

The Johnstones, it is clear, lived through times of drama and change. Margaret was a Jacobite who fled to France, was tracked by British agents and died in the 1750s. James, the oldest son to survive to adulthood, studied in Leiden, married into Norfolk money and served as an MP. Alexander soldiered in North America and Grenada, rising to the rank of general. John and Patrick were caught up in the fighting in India during the Seven Years' War (1756-63), the latter dying in 1756 in the prison that became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

After the war, with Britain's Empire in both the Americas and Asia secured, the Johnstones experienced an upturn in fortunes. George Johnstone was named the first British governor of West Florida, a turbulent frontier that presented many challenges. Alexander was stationed on Grenada, which was also a place of turbulence and division between British and French, Catholics and Protestants, slaves and slave-owners. He rose to be an elected politician on the island, but became involved in disputes with many parties, including his own military command, which eventually led to his conviction for mutiny. William had studied with Adam Smith, became an MP, and owned property in the American colonies and the West Indies. According to Rothschild, "he died intestate in 1805, one of the richest men in England". These stories are lucidly told and cleverly knitted together.

In India, John became very well situated in the commerce and governance of Bengal, through the East India Company, although it all ended spectacularly in 1765 following a spat with Clive of India over charges of extortion, which caused John to quit the company. There followed a complex legal wrangle before he was finally able to bring his Indian wealth home to Britain in 1770. With new money to hand, he was able to purchase numerous properties. He offered £46,000 for one estate and bought another property that his brother James would dub "the Elisium of the Hanginshaw", near Ettrick Forest in the Scottish Borders. Such extravagances were the subject of much jealous comment against both men, who were scornfully known as "nabobs" for their shameless displays of new-found Indian wealth.

The Asian Empire also paid off, albeit in less spectacular fashion, for those with less acumen or guile than John Johnstone. As Rothschild tells us, "even Gideon, the youngest and most feckless of the brothers, returned home (from India) as a fairly rich man, and by 1768 was in search of an estate in the west of Scotland".

Thus the finances of the Johnstone sons could hardly contrast more sharply with those of their father. The hidden hub of all this activity, Rothschild shows, was William. He was the brother who stayed at home, after enriching himself through marriage; the brother who acted as the family financier, banker and investor, supporting many of his siblings and sometimes capitalising their speculations. He also bought into imperial, commercial ventures in his own right, including the slave estates and plantations in Grenada, Dominica and Tobago, where family members had political and economic connections.

Interestingly, both William and Alexander paid homage to their father's estate at Westerhall by naming streets after it: Alexander did so on Grenada and William did the same in the English seaside resort of Weymouth, a part of the world where he and his wife's family had influence and connections.

Writing a collective biography is not easy, particularly when the individuals concerned are spread across the world: by the 1750s and 1760s, Johnstone family members could be found in Scotland, England, India, North America and the Caribbean. However, Rothschild succeeds in her task. The strength of this book lies precisely in its focus on the family as a collective, for it is here that we see how Empire and individuals came together.

Historians are rightly fascinated by the types of networks of interaction that Rothschild carefully reconstructs here, showing how the ties that bound people could be used to strengthen their circumstances and minimise their risks. Such connections allowed people to take advantage of good fortune or take flight from bad luck. The Johnstones deployed such networks remarkably well, even though their lives were marked by almost as many wrangles and failures as successes and achievements. The Inner Life of Empires is an excellent recovery of the ways in which such connections shaped both individual lives and history.

The Author

Emma Rothschild was born in London and received a bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford in 1967. Upon completing her first degree, she went immediately to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Kennedy Scholar, and she says she has felt quite at home in both countries ever since.

She currently divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she has served as director of the Joint Center for History and Economics at Harvard University since 2008, and the University of Cambridge in England, where she is honorary professor of history and economics. "However," she adds, "I also feel very European." She has lived in Sweden and in France, where she was director of research at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. She speaks French, Swedish and Italian, and can read and understand German, Danish, Norwegian and Spanish.

A member of the board of directors of the United Nations Foundation, she was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in the New Year Honours in 2000 for her services to Britain's international cultural and academic relations.

She recalls: "A brown envelope just arrived in the post. I was really thrilled, especially because the letter mentioned academic and cultural exchanges."

In her free time, she enjoys having dinner with her family and is "always reading novels".

The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History

By Emma Rothschild

Princeton University Press

496pp, £24.95

ISBN 9780691148953

Published 29 June 2011

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