The history of humanity is largely the history of empires, and empires have always striven to keep the conquerors separate from the conquered. For all the stern reality of such distinctions, however, they have never been absolute – the story of empire, as Maya Jasanoff argues in this captivating book, is not just of the ‘clash of civilizations’ but also of border-crossers, social climbers, cultural buccaneers, and spiritual emigrés. Furthermore, she points out, empires are not born with fully formed, unchangeable identities – the identity of an empire is often built up piecemeal in the course of struggles with rival imperial powers. Jasanoff establishes both these contentions with detailed studies of episodes from the imperial adventures of Britain and France in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century India and Egypt. She has produced a fascinating book, packed with information and insights and written in vibrant, mellifluous prose. Nobody interested in imperialism and its history could fail to learn from this truly innovative work, and it is a welcome corrective to the many simplistic studies of imperial history and culture inspired by the late Edward Said’s 1978 tract, Orientalism.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of Jasanoff’s work is its relentless focus on the individual, the concrete, and the material. The book is a veritable cornucopia of stories about memorable people, battles and objects, strung together into the argument that just as empires were built up piece by piece like