‘Edge of Empire’ wins Duff Cooper Prize
As the British Empire expanded, the cultures of East and West mingled in surprising ways, Jasanoff’s book reveals
By Robert Brickhouse
Photo by Duncan Chesney
|Maya Jasanoff, assistant professor of history, in Calcutta
In the early 19th century an eccentric Irish-born army officer named Charles “Hindoo” Stuart became so fascinated by the culture of India that he adopted local customs and began acquiring art objects and sculpture wherever he went. The pieces now form part of a major Hindu art collection in the British Museum.
At about the same time, a wealthy Calcutta nobleman, Rajendro Mullick, was building an Italian-style palace deep in the alleyways of his city where a visitor today can see his vast collection of European art.
Not the sort of people who usually appear in history books, they are among dozens of characters who mingle the cultures of East and West and populate the pages of a recent book by Maya Jasanoff, assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, about the formation of the British Empire. Her unconventional approach in “Edge of Empire” is to offer a panorama of European imperialism by following the lives of often little-known collectors in India and Egypt who were deeply involved in daily life on the early frontiers of the empire.
On Feb. 22 the book brought Jasanoff one of Britain’s most prestigious non-fiction awards, the Duff Cooper Prize, whose previous winners have included Laurence Durrell, Seamus Heaney, Richard Ellman, Richard Holmes and Robert Hughes. The award is given annually for a literary work in the field of history, biography, politics or poetry. For more on the prize, go to www.duffcooperprize.org.uk/.
“Edge of Empire” also has been chosen as a notable book of the year by several publications, including the influential Economist magazine. It has drawn wide praise for its colorful accounts and depth of research.
Digging into mostly unexplored records in archives and museums on four continents, Jasanoff describes life in India and Egypt as seen through the letters and diaries of the European adventurer-collectors who bought or sometimes plundered the artifacts of ancient civilizations and had intimate cross-cultural encounters and even friendships along the way.
In the process, she says, she began to see Britain’s colonial expansion as something more haphazard than a carefully planned “imperial project.”
As they gathered up art works, manuscripts, jewelry, swords and other artifacts that fascinated them, Jasanoff writes, the European collectors mirrored the piecemeal formation of the empire itself, which was partly acquired in response to a fierce rivalry with France. And, just as many of the collectors tried to re-create themselves with a newfound social status, Britain “reinvented” itself over the years as a global power.
“Instead of seeing collecting as a manifestation of imperial power, I see the British Empire itself as a kind of collection: pieced together and gaining definition over time, shaped by a range of circumstances, accidents and intentions,” Jasanoff writes.
“It is easy to speak of a ‘clash of civilization’ when cultures are distilled to the point of abstraction. But real people in the real world do not necessarily experience other cultures in a confrontational or monolithic way. What the stories of imperial collectors make clear is how much the process of cultural encounter involved crossing and mixing, as well as separation and division.”
One of her goals, she says, was to uncover how it felt to live in “this vast and changing world” and to tell the stories of people living on the frontiers of an empire. Her characters range from such famous imperialists as Robert Clive in India and Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt to little-known figures such as a circus strongman, Giambattista Belzoni, to a Swiss mercenary, Antoine Polier, who became a rich collector of Asian manuscripts.
Jasanoff, who joined the U.Va. faculty in 2004, researched the book over several years, while studying at Cambridge and Yale universities, with fellowships that took her to Asia, North Africa and Europe. With a lifelong interest in museum displays of other cultures, she said, she also became interested in the individual characters who did the collecting.
As she worked her way through boxes of letters, diaries and records in archives, her fingers became sore from typing into her laptop computer. She also visited all the sites she writes about to offer vivid descriptions of streets and markets. Along the way she had such adventures as being shown into the back room of an out-of-the-way archive in the French Alps and finding in a battered chest, folded into narrow strips and probably unread for 200 years, a stash of letters from an Indian emperor to one of the European collectors.
Not condoning plundering but admiring the passion of collectors, Jasanoff said, “in certain ways the global dispersal of culture facilitates learning about other cultures.” By bringing art and other artifacts to Europe, the 19th-century collectors “played an active role in representing foreign cultures to a wider Western public.”
Living in “a newer age of empire,” Jasanoff also emphasizes that she is not an advocate of or apologist for empires, “past, present or future.” Indeed, the United States often shows little awareness or understanding of the ancient cultures in regions where it is embroiled, such as Iraq, she asserts. Instead she would urge “remembering the essential humanity of successful international relationships.”