Saturday, April 10, 2010

jasanoff: edge of empire

#30 Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture and Conquest in the East, 1750 - 1850, Maya Jasanoff

A history of art collectors in the earliest days of the British Empire, in India and Egypt: how could a book like this rise above its context of plunder and appropriation? Jasanoff is also concerned with this. At the end of her preface, she says:

In no way do I wish to make an advertisement or an apology for empire, past, present or future. But empires are a fact of world history. The important question for this book is not whether they are "good" or "bad," but what they do, whom they affect, and how.'

It may not be immediately clear how someone who wishes to liberate a study of empire from an ethical context can also be so categorical in stating that she is not going to be an apologist. In fact, I'm not sure how the book actually succeeds at what it does. But it is a success. How does she do it?

Her book is a tightrope act. The stories of the marginal men she collects in this book - scholars, dilettants, bounty-hunters and artful dodgers - are propelled by orientalism: both in the Saidian formulation of this basic facet of empire-building, as well as her own understanding of how orientalism develops in an imperial culture. Her goal is to focus on the accumulation and loss of power through cultural artefacts for individuals. Because the book travels on foot, so to speak, a lot of the tensions of race and conquest unspool into something less domineering than the edifice of Empire at the institutional level. Her subjects are fascinating men driven to the cosmopolitan mess of late-1700s India, a battlefield of interests that in many ways absorbs the tensions of that other great battlefield of the time: Europe. In the stories of men like Claude Martin (well-known to Indians thanks to his La Martiniere schools, which are still around and - I think, judging by their regular appearance on the Bournvita Quiz Contests - flourishing) and Antoine Polier, both Frenchmen in Lucknow under the reign of the dissipate Asaf-ud-Daula, Jasanoff is also telling the history of empire as a history of land and wealth collected as spoils in a global war between England and France. It is a history of pettiness, bureaucratic tangles, and the desperation of mercenary tricksters trying to fashion themselves through the works of beauty they acquired.

And they are fantastic stories without exception. Jasanoff goes from men like Robert Clive, Empire's Number One man and a frantic social climber, to women like his daughter-in-law Henrietta, travelling through Srirangapatnam in the wake of Tipu Sultan's death, describing wide-eyed the changes taking place in the landscape around her, and acquiring plants, animals and - of course - art, along her route to and from Madras. The men collecting in Egypt are even less savoury, but no less interesting, from the pathetic Henry Salt, to the Savoyard strongman Belzoni, both of whose names are still carved as graffiti into the wall of the Ramesseum at Thebes. The scale of the presumptuousness of the Egyptian collectors is offset by the enormity of its situation as a theatre of war: between the Mameluke governors and the restless Arab population, the Ottomans overseeing the country and their shifting alliances, the British and - most memorably of all - Napoleon. At the time of invasion Napoleon circulated the Arabic 'Proclamation to All Egyptians', and Jasanoff quotes it in a section called 'Abdallah Bonaparte'.

You have been told that I have come to this land only with the intention of eradicating your religion. But that is a clear lie; do not believe it. tell the slanderers that I have come to you only to rescue your rights from the hands of the oppressors. I, more than any Mamluk, worship God, glory be to Him, and respect His Prophet and the great Quran ... O you shaykhs, judges, imams, jurbajjiya and leading men of the country, tell your nation that the French are also sincere Muslims. A confirmation of this is that they entered Rome and there destroyed the throne of the Pope, who had always urged Christians to combat Islam. Then they marched on Malta, whence they expelled the knights, who claimed that God, exalted is He, sought of them that they fight the Muslims. Moreover, the French continued to be sincere friends of His Excellency the Ottoman Sultan and the enemies of his enemies ... All Egyptians must be grateful to God ... for the termination of the dynasty of the Mamluks, saying loudly, "May God perpetuate the paying of honour to the Ottoman Sultan, may God perpetuate the paying of honour to the French army, may God curse the Mamluks, and may He ameliorate the condition of the Egyptian nation."

You try that on for size, Nicolas Sarkozy. [And the whole letter is on the Internets, here.]

My favourite bit, of course, is the chapter on Srirangapatnam, with its thrilling account of Tipu Sultan's friendships with France on the cusp of Revolution. From the Bourbons he received an array of Sevres porcelain, and from Napoleon, letters of support against the hated British. A Jacobin Club of Seringapatam was actually in existence back in the day. This is what they did on Republic Day in 1797, in Tipu's capital, in the middle of eighty-two gun salutes and so on:

"Behold my acknowledgement of the Standard of your country," said Tipu when the guns fell silent, "which is dear to me, and to which I am allied, it shall always be supported in my Country, as it has been in that of the Republic, my Sister!"

The club members then planted a liberty tree (a Maypole-like post that was the centrepiece of many revolutionary festivals) and listened to an impassioned sermon from their president, Ripaud, on the sublimity of republican values, the "barbarity and atrocity' of the perfidious English, and the treachery of counterrevolutionary rebels. "Citizens!" he intoned in fervent climax. "Do you Swear, Hatred to all Kings except Tippoo Sultaun the Victorious, the Ally of the French Republic. War against all Tyrants and love towards your country, and that of Citizen Tippoo." "Yes!" the chorus of voices, European and Indian both, swelled enthusiastically back: "We swear to live free or die!"

In retelling the story of Tipu and Srirangapatnam, its fabled hordes of jewels and how they - and Tipu - were used to construct the legitimacy of Empire to the British public, Jasanoff writes one of the most insightful and complex explanations of this history.

And this is really her trump card. She is a superb writer. Her voice comes through without quite the elegant authoritativeness of Linda Colley, but does capture some of its stateliness and poise (and it turns out that Colley happens to be one of her teachers). The book cannot help being episodic as it builds its rather limited thesis - of individual collecting reflecting on the collection of an empire - but that does not stop this from being absorbing. Shock and absurdity are dealt with coolly; the bombast of Empire continually punctured; the study of individuals inclined towards the dignity of human aspiration, on all sides of the divide.

Perhaps this is where Jasanoff's attempt at chronicling the transactions of empire rather than critiquing it hollows out. Empire as a conflict of race is not a unidimensional behemoth, especially at the time she writes about. But what about empire as an act of economic exploitation? Jasanoff takes the classic liberal view of capitalism as something valuable when individuals practice it to improve themselves. The men Jasanoff focusses on collected their fortunes, and their identities, only sometimes on behalf of the Empire. Often, they collected in spite of it. But the nature of the beast is that breaking the bonds of class is not always an act of empowerment. Indeed, it may end up enslaving others to a degree that the acts of those who are already free (or freer), need not.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
Songs of Blood and Sword
Zorba the Greek
Ravan and Eddie
The Age of Innocence
Alice in Bhuleshwar
The Beast
The Yacoubian Building
Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
Human Voices

So many of these are so frustrating, I'm putting this out to make myself writes notes on all of these.

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