Display case of disparate territories

Edge of Empire
July 28, 2006

Lucknow, the most eclectic of Indian cities, advertises its past with three architectural colossi. The cupola-ed Great Imambara typifies the extravagance of the much-misunderstood Nawabs of Awadh (or "Oudh"); the stern and scarred British Residency recalls the set-piece siege of the Great Rebellion (or "Indian Mutiny"); and Constantia, an ersatz palace-cum-castle-cum-school, preserves the memory of Claude Martin, connoisseur of both worlds. Martin, a major-general, princely factotum and moneylender, sought not to conquer bits of India but to collect them. His jackdaw palace, all balustrades and gesticulating statuary, was to be his museum and his memorial; and when he was duly buried beneath its treasures in a specially designed crypt "two Mullahs at 20 rupees per month or one Priest at 50 rupees per month" were to be retained to pray over his grave.

It is the sort of detail at which Maya Jasanoff excels. Although American, she bucks the transatlantic trend in critiques of British imperialism by looking behind the narratives of perfidy, exploitation and cultural disparagement to discover how "real people experienced imperial expansion from within". In the case of India, which along with Egypt provides her context, the conventional way of doing this would be to line up the diarists - William Hickey, Eliza Faye, Emily Eden et al . But Jasanoff opts for a very different group of people, namely those who out of curiosity, predilection, vanity or greed amassed objects.

Collections such as that amassed by Martin are treated as "historical testaments" with all manner of antiquities and objects, both Oriental and Occidental, being subjected to intelligent scrutiny. Their collectors, although not quite as unknown to history as is claimed, make "beguiling escorts into the intimate history of empire". Robert Clive, he of Plassey and the infamous jagir , leads the way, closely followed by other soldiers of Indian fortune such as Martin himself, Antoine Polier, the builder of Calcutta's Fort William, and Benoit de Boigne, the mercenary general in the employ of the Maratha empire. Egypt yields the oft-rehearsed activities of Napoleon's savants as they strove not just to collect but to engross the country's entire intellectual product. Then comes an excursion back to India for Tipu Sultan of Mysore's attempt to turn the tables on his British adversaries by aping some of their own collecting habits; "Tipu's Tiger" in the Victoria and Albert Museum is treated as iconic in this context. Finally comes the extravaganza of Pharaonic tomb raiding and Egyptological horse trading associated with Bernardino Drovetti, Henry Salt and that giant showman Giambattista Belzoni.

Along the way Jasanoff puts up some inviting hares. Collecting served as a means of "self-redefinition", "self-refashioning", "self-reinvention", she insists. Clive spent his ill-gotten gains on properties and pictures; the canvases were bought at auction for him by "others who understood them". He was, we are told, buying into society and repositioning himself for the English peerage he coveted over the Irish title with which he had been fobbed off. The British Empire, with its display case of disparate territories, itself betrayed some of the characteristics of such haphazard collection. In the late 18th century, it too was undergoing redefinition, repositioning itself from the Atlantic seaboard to the East and reinventing itself as a continental power rather than a maritime trader. Yet no less plausibly, Clive's pictures and houses were simply in the nature of sound investments, and so were his acquisitions in Bengal.

The changing character of Britain's empire was neither foreseen nor intended; gung-ho empire-builders such as the turn-of-century Governor-General Richard Wellesley were in fact heavily censured for their aggression. Almost any activity, from a change of address to a shopping spree, can be seen as an attempt at self-reinvention. That does not mean that it is.

But if the psychology of collecting proves unrewarding, the collectors themselves provide a rich seam of eccentricity and obsession that Jasanoff mines with aplomb. Give or take a few adjectival effusions, Jasanoff writes elegantly and handles a complex narrative deftly.

Indeed, herein lies the great strength of the book and its importance to the scholarship of empire. For in juxtaposing the British engagement in India with that in Egypt, she discovers and explores unexpected linkages.

Rarely has Anglo-French rivalry been so convincingly portrayed as the motive force behind the spread of British power in the East. The 1756 assault by Clive and Admiral Watson on Chandernagore, the French base in Bengal, is rightly seen as more than an incidental prelude to Plassey; Tipu's dalliance with France while Napoleon moved on Egypt proves a decisive factor in his downfall; and the subsequent, if largely forgotten, counterinvasion of Egypt by forces of the English East India Company seems to prove her point: the Nile and the Kaveri "were in fact two fronts in a single Anglo-French war".

Jasanoff's title Edge of Empire refers not just to the chronological and geographical context of an Oriental imperium-in-the-making but to the borderline loyalties and tastes of her chosen collectors. In hybrid societies such as those of 18th-century Lucknow or early 19th-century Cairo, political and cultural crossover was accepted.

Well into the 1830s, cross-culturalism still flourished on the edges of Empire, most notably in the Punjab. In Lahore, French, Italian and American adventurers served their adoptive land and collected its antiquities with as much gusto as had Martin and de Boigne in Lucknow. Although one regrets that Jasanoff's narrative does not quite extend to the Punjab, this is a book of enormous promise, most of it brilliantly realised.

John Keay is the author of many books on imperial themes. His latest book is The Spice Route: A History .

Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting in the East 1750-1850

Author - Maya Jasanoff
Publisher - Harper Perennial
Pages - 404
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 0 00 718011 X

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