Edge of empire: Conquest and collecting in the East 1750-1850
by Maya Jasanoff, Harper Perennial, London and New York, 2006. ISBN-13 978-0-00-718011-0. RRP A$24.99

review by Roslyn Russell
Edge of empire book cover

'Only connect', wrote British novelist EM Forster. Maya Jasanoff, in her magisterial account of imperial collecting in India and Egypt from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, fulfils Forster's dictum when she reveals some compelling cultural connections across the Northern Hemisphere.

Close examination of the history of the British Empire, and the relationship between imperial centre and colonial periphery, has become a historiographical and museological commonplace over the last two decades. Maya Jasanoff takes this examination further, in what can be described as a 'trans-imperial' analysis of the formation of collections of material culture. She asks the question in her introduction: 'What would empire look like from the inside out?' (p. 4)

Her method, in this intriguing and highly readable book, has been to parallel the history of individual collecting with the larger story of how Britain 'collected' an empire in India and beyond, in the hundred-year period from 1750 to 1850. She does this by examining the role of individuals in fashioning collections and, as part of this process, using these collections to forge their own malleable identities. Jasanoff highlights not only the geopolitical transactions of great powers in deadly rivalry, but also the activities of these individuals who operated within — and generally profited from — the ambiguities inherent in cross-cultural situations. Some of the collections now on display in museums and great houses in the territories of the former empires of Britain and France are the direct result of these interactions on the edges of empire, a process Jasanoff calls 'border crossing'.

For Jasanoff, collecting was not simply 'the playing-out of an "imperial project"':
Rather, the history of collecting reveals the complexities of empire; it shows how power and culture intersected in tangled, contingent, sometimes self-contradictory ways. 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. (p. 6)

As a child of 'border crossers' herself — Jasanoff's parents, both academics, come from Bengal and Brooklyn — her view of history is expansive, and tracks national aspirations and personal stories across three continents. She ranges from the French defeat in Quebec (1759) to Clive's victory at Plassey (1757) and the defeat of Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam (1799), to the ill-advised French invasion of Egypt and the Battle of the Nile (1798–1801). The reader, as a result, gains a very different view of international relations on the Indian sub-continent and in Egypt from the unitary narrative of imperial expansion most familiar to those of Australo-British background and education.

Knowing the broad outline of the story of revolutionary France and the major events of the Napoleonic wars, for example, had not prepared this reader for the fact that Napoleon, to make the French invasion of Egypt more acceptable to the locals, had not only represented himself as a devotee of Islam, but was also prepared to make the entire Armée de l'Orient convert as well.

Reading Jasanoff's book also enables readers to make those connections between objects and the stories of individual lives that are integral to modern museology. A popular object in the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection, 'Tipu's Tiger', is bound up with the story of the ambitious ruler of Mysore who courted the French as a bulwark against East India Company expansion, to his ultimate undoing. Instead of the troops and cannon he craved, Tipu Sultan was sent a set of Sévres porcelain by Louis XVI. Some years after Tipu's death at British hands at Seringapatam, paving the way for the ever-expanding power of the East India Company, the coffee cups from this set were collected and brought home from India to Powis Castle by the son and daughter-in-law of Robert Clive ('Clive of India', the original 'nabob', and a notable collector whose story also features in the book).

After reading Edge of Empire, the Egyptian collections in the British Museum and the Louvre gain many more meanings and associations. There is an account of the understandable chagrin of Napoleon's savants when the vast collections they had assembled during the invasion of Egypt were seized as war booty by the victorious British. This acquisition of Egyptian material was also a transformative moment in the British Museum's history, marking in effect its transition from a repository of collections assembled by private individuals to a national museum: 'The Egyptian collections were effectively the first public collection to arrive at the British Museum, acquired by the nation, for the nation.' (p. 224) The Museum was not prepared for this rate of expansion: in 1803 the Townley Gallery was added to accommodate the Egyptian antiquities, the British Museum's 'first-ever purpose-built wing' (p. 225).

The sweep of Jasanoff's narrative carries the reader onward, as she outlines the careers of the frequently idiosyncratic characters who collected the Indian and Egyptian objects that now adorn the public and private collections of Britain. Nevertheless, there is one snag. As any analyst of material culture must, she refers often to illustrations of paintings and objects, and gives detailed descriptions. Sadly, her publishers have let her down in this regard. In quite a number of crucial cases the point of her vivid descriptions of a scene depicted in an artwork, or on the page of a manuscript or book, is lost because the reproduced image is too small for a reader to be able to discern the figures or words to which she refers.

Maya Jasanoff's Edge of Empire will extend the understanding of anyone who is interested in how the collection of objects intersected with imperial expansion — and imperial follies — at all stages of history. For antipodean readers, it is a valuable reminder of the unitary nature of the empire to which we once belonged; and of the pressures operating on those who were instrumental in bringing into being the segment of the imperial project of which our national stories are a part.

Roslyn Russell is a historian and museum consultant, and editor of Musems Australia Magazine and Friends (of the National Museum of Australia) magazine.