Many of the greatest ethnographic collections in museums in Europe were created as a consequence of the empire building by various countries at that time. In many ways, the British Museum & the Louvre could be seen as archetypal examples of this trend.
Collectors traveled through countries such as Egypt & India taking whatever artefacts they could fins back with them. A new book by Maya Jasanoff looks at how the way in which these collectors operated could often be seen as a metaphor for the formation of the empire itself.
The Guardian 
Maya Jasanoff has discovered an entirely new dimension to our understanding of Britain’s imperial expansion in her study of European collectors, Edge of Empire, says Richard Gott
Saturday August 20, 2005
Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting on the Eastern Frontiers of the British Empire, 1750-1850
by Maya Jasanoff
416pp, Fourth Estate, £25
Each generation concerned with the history of the British empire seeks to reassess it according to the demands of changing attitudes and circumstances. Today’s emphasis on otherness and fusion, on border-crossing and multiculturalism, has favoured a revisionist and more benign recollection of the past, particularly noticeable in studies of 18th-century India. The stark vision in the historical kaleidoscope of imperial red banners confronted in battle by the green flags of Islam has given way to a more nuanced shade of grey.
Maya Jasanoff stumbled on a new way of looking at empire almost by accident. She had embarked on a study of European collectors in India and Egypt, the sometimes significant but often marginal figures who purchased or plundered the artefacts of the ancient cultures that they encountered and shipped them back to Europe. In the course of what might have seemed a somewhat esoteric area of study, she began to see the often ill-tutored mania of the imperial collectors as a metaphor for the formation of the empire itself – not the planned seizure of distant lands or the remorseless expansion of capital, but the piecemeal and haphazard acquisition of territory that only developed the lineaments of a distinct imperial pattern with the benefit of hindsight.
Her collectors were not just possessed of a passion for accumulation, although they had that in full measure. They created their often bizarre collections with an underlying purpose. Coming from uncertain and shallow-rooted origins, they sought to “re-fashion” their image and to recreate themselves in their adopted countries with a new social status. In the same way, Jasanoff argues, Britain’s acquisition of distant territories changed and reinvented not just the empire but the ambitions and attitudes of the imperial homeland as well.
This brilliant insight has produced a riveting and original book that gives an entirely fresh dimension to our understanding of the creation and expansion of empire. Jasanoff’s sheer excitement in telling the stories of these unusual and extraordinary figures, who often emerged from the minor principalities of Europe to work within the interstices of the embryonic imperial system, is well conveyed in vivid and delightful prose.
The “edge of empire” of her title has a threefold purpose: it refers to the distant geographic frontier of India and Egypt, to the time frontier of a particular imperial moment, and to the peripheral nature of her chosen participants. The book also has three overlapping topics, tenuously and cleverly knitted together. The first part deals with collectors in 18th-century India and the last with those in post-Napoleonic Egypt, while the second and most historically fascinating section examines the inter-related British interventions in those nations during the conflict with France in the years after the French revolution.
The book opens with the lives and collections of three wealthy friends associated with Indian rulers in the late 18th century, chiefly in Lucknow. Antoine Polier was a Swiss engineer from Lausanne who fought with Robert Clive and became a rich trader. He devoted his free moments to collecting manuscripts in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. His friend Claude Martin was a French officer from Lille, who migrated in India from the French to the British camp. He, too, ended up in Lucknow and became a collector, not just of Indian artefacts and manuscripts but of everything from Europe that any 18th-century collector might have been assembling – paintings, books, coins and natural history specimens. A third acquaintance, Benoît de Boigne, was a soldier of fortune from Savoy who served in various Indian armies and specialised in the collection of swords, guns and daggers.
Jasanoff chronicles their intertwined lives and those of the nawabs they served (some who also became renowned collectors) and recovers a memory of an open-minded Indian society very different from the staid and stratified empire of the late 19th century. Collections, she reminds us, are as vulnerable as the acquisition of imperial territories, and she discusses their fate (often by sale and dispersion), as well as that of the collectors, often disrupted by war and revolution.
The central part of the book concerns the Anglo-French wars of the 1790s, when Napoleon seized Egypt as the key to India, and the British overthrew the pro-French Maratha kingdom of “Citizen” Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam (and seized much booty for subsequent display in London). Jasanoff describes these conflicts as the “revolutionary-Napoleonic wars”, and she argues cogently that they introduced an era of territorial “collecting” that endowed the British with a heightened sense of imperial purpose.
This emphasis on the imperial dimension of these wars is long overdue, though Jasanoff is too polite to point out that Britain was largely engaged – in Ireland, South Africa and the West Indies as well as in India – in what was essentially a “counter-revolutionary” war against Jacobinism. In fighting against France, the country that had launched the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the British were laying the groundwork for a permanently counter-revolutionary empire that would keep those rights low on the agenda. Jasanoff’s attention to the French is welcome, but she ignores the British obsession with the Jacobin menace that arose in the Dutch territories (Ceylon, Cape Town and Java), where they also felt obliged to intervene (and where Stamford Raffles was a noted collector).
Napoleon, of course, like Clive before him, was also a great appropriator of foreign artefacts, and the book’s final section deals with Anglo-French rivalry over acquisitions from pharaonic Egypt and the story of the individuals who created the great Egyptian galleries at the Louvre and the British Museum, and scattered “Cleopatra’s needles” across the globe. Napoleon’s collection was set at naught by the French capitulation at Cairo in September 1801 that effectively concluded the first half of the Anglo-French wars; and the British claimed for London the great monuments (including the Rosetta stone) that the French had been preparing for removal to Paris.
This is both original and revisionist history, but far removed from the imperial triumphalism of a Niall Ferguson. Jasanoff’s ambition is to escape from the familiar conquering/conquered vision of empire, and to replace it with a more nuanced explanation of colonial development, uncovering the distortions caused by the permanent clash with the empire of France and highlighting the role of individuals far from the centre of imperial decision-making.
As a 21st-century historian working in the United States, Jasanoff is conscious of living in “a newer age of empire” – in the era of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib – and she seeks to recall “the essential humanity of successful international relationships” in the earlier experience of empire. She reminds us that the wealthy and privileged members of Europe’s imperial elites, foregrounded in her history, never found much difficulty in establishing friendships across the colonial divide, but the harsher aspects of empire – the repression of the great mass of the populace and the slaughter of indigenous peoples – are inevitably absent from her story.
Her novel vision throws up a handful of other problems: the timescale is restricted, the focus is too narrowly directed towards the super-rich, and there are moments when the tightrope bravura of her enterprise wobbles on the edge of collapse. Yet this remains a historical tour de force, with wonderfully original and unusual material moulded into a convincing new narrative. Britain’s empire will never look quite the same again.
· Richard Gott is writing a book about imperial rebellions