Edge Of Empire: Conquest and Collecting in the East 1750-1850
The breathtaking scope of this book, which was recently awarded the 50th Duff Cooper prize, is infused by Jasanoff’s imaginative approach to her subject. Taking the view that events happen piecemeal, with a strong element of accident and chance, Empire is interpreted as a flexible term and her stated aims are to “start small”, namely by using the stories of sometimes unknown collectors whose cross-border activities provide “active, tangible engagement with other cultures”; “it is a plea to bring a human dimension to imperial history.”
The other important strand to the book is revealed by the dates in the title: this account of Britain’s struggle to establish an empire stresses the resistance it encountered from both indigenous powers and, above all, France. Moving from the western Empire to India, and then to Egypt, Jasanoff recounts an astonishing series of episodes – some well-known, others, quite simply, extraordinary – involving such figures as the Swiss mercenary Antoine Polier and the French defector Claude Martin, who between them briefly turned Lucknow into cosmopolitan centre of European and Muslim connoisseurship; or the extraordinary duo of Giambattista Belzoni, the strongman turned collector, and Henry Salt in Egypt. This is academic history at its best: a highly readable and provocative tour de force.