The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History
Princeton University Press, 2011
496 pp., 35.00
Big and Little History Both
In September 1771, a young woman went on trial for infanticide in Perth, Scotland. Four months earlier, a passerby had found the body of a baby boy wrapped in a linen cloth in the river Leven. The body had "the marks of violence upon him." Execution was the likely sentence if the court found her guilty: ten years earlier, another woman in Perth had been convicted, hanged, and then "publickly dissected" for the same offense.
Identifying the mother was easy because the child was not white. She was a slave owned by John and Elizabeth Johnstone. The Johnstones had met in India, where John had made a fortune as a merchant and tax collector with the British East India Company. When they returned to Scotland, the Johnstones took several Indian servants with them, including the woman who would later find herself on trial for murder. Her name is uncertain. In the court records she went by Bell or Belinda.
A conviction was likely. Bell or Belinda had concealed her pregnancy and given birth alone, both of which were evidence of infanticide in 18th-century Scotland. There was one witness who could have helped, but he was in London. Fearing the worst, Bell or Belinda therefore petitioned the court to transport her: "May it therefore Please your Lordships to Banish me to one or other of His Majestys Plantations or settlements in the East or West Indies or in America." The judges accepted, and entrusted her to a merchant "to be sold as a Slave for Life." Bell or Belinda sailed from Glasgow on January 12, 1772, arriving in Virginia on March 31, 1772.
She was probably not guilty. The locals had been horrified by her behavior: keeping the child for two days after the birth, then wrapping him in a cloth and throwing him in the river. But an 18th-century translation of Hindu burial rites described how "they burn not … an infant who has not cut its teeth, but bury them, or throw them into the river." The traditional period of mourning ended on the third day.
Transportation was the best option for Bell or Belinda. The records do not tell us who paid for her food and accommodation in prison, or for the legal fees necessary for her to enter her plea for banishment. But perhaps John Johnstone covered the costs because he wanted to save his servant's life. Attitudes to slavery were changing in Britain in the 1770s. Bell or Belinda was the last person deemed a slave in a British court: five months after her boat left Glasgow, a decision in the case of a runaway slave brought an end to slavery in Britain. John Johnstone later became a subscriber to the Society for the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which was founded in Edinburgh in 1788.
Growing sympathy for abolition was just one of the many changes that Emma Rothschild has captured in her new book, a highly original history of the British Empire in the 18th century that uses the story of one family to explore the ideas, experiences, and sentiments of the era. It could not have been written twenty years ago: the sources are so diverse and so scattered that it is difficult to imagine anyone tracking all of them down without the internet and electronic databases.
John Johnstone was the son of James and Barbara Johnstone, a professional family who lived in lowland Scotland. John was one of 14 children born to them between 1720 and 1739. Eleven survived infancy, four sisters and seven brothers. They lived at a time when the British Empire was booming and precarious, and Rothschild uses their lives to tell that story.
Here are some details on eight of the siblings. John Johnstone we have already met; he made his fortune in the Indian trade and then used it to establish a career as a Member of Parliament back home. His brother Alexander Johnstone served with the British army in Canada, and then became a colonel and plantation owner in Grenada. Margaret (Johnstone) Ogilvy supported the Stuart claim to the British throne, traveling with Bonnie Prince Charlie's armies in Scotland in 1745. Imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, she escaped in 1746 with the help of two of her siblings. William Johnstone married Frances Pulteney, an English heiress, took her name, and shared her fortune. He studied with Adam Smith and became a lawyer, writing what David Hume called "the most-super-excellent-est Paper in the World" in a case in 1763. By the time of his death, he owned property in Dominica, Grenada, Florida, New York, and Tobago. He was a supporter of the slave trade. Betty Johnstone lived with her parents all her life, was the family's chief correspondent, and fought with her mother over a valuable packet of Indian textiles. George Johnstone became governor of West Florida and was a supporter of the American revolutionaries until he took part in the British peace commission of 1778. James Johnstone studied in Leiden, became a Member of Parliament, and opposed the slave trade. Gideon Johnstone joined the navy and served in the West Indies before becoming a merchant in the East Indies. Rumor had it that he had set up a business selling the water of the Ganges to Hindu pilgrims.
The book traces their stories. Individually, they are intriguing. Together, they are instructive and overwhelming. Life is always more complicated than books, but this book gives a remarkable and rewarding sense of just how complicated the past really was. The relationships, the shifts in location, the triumphs and disasters, the insecurities of the Johnstone family provide a large window on life in the sprawling empire. (At times I wished that James and Barbara had had fewer children, which would have made for a simpler narrative.)
Rothschild does more than just tell the stories. The first three chapters do that, but the next four are thematic, looking at economics, empire, Enlightenment, and moral sentiments. She covers industrialization, slavery, the place of women in society, bookselling, the legal system, scientific thought, political thought, textiles, letter-writing, and more (although she has little to say about religion). Her aim is to bring some order out of the Johnstones' lives. She does a superb job of showing how empire and Enlightenment impinged on fairly minor players. In the introduction, Rothschild tells us that her book is "a new kind of microhistory … because it is an exploration of new ways of connecting the microhistories of individuals and families to the larger scenes of which they were a part: to important or 'macrohistorical' inquiries."
Here, however, Rothschild has a harder time as she tries to make substantive points, clearly, from the narratives she provides. The way she frames her project suggests she is aiming for a general readership, but this is not an easy read. Concluding paragraphs can be overdone, yet some of Rothschild's sections cry out for them. At times, it feels as though she too was overwhelmed by all she could see through the window of the Johnstones. (Her endnotes take up 150 pages.)
In the penultimate chapter, Rothschild provides a series of insights into what working on this book was like. They offer a rare, frank, and fascinating example of scholarly self-assessment. Rothschild acknowledges the problems of her sources and the uncharacteristic nature of the Johnstones; she admits to her own compulsion and frustration when faced with missing pieces ["It is almost a Hegelian 'bad infinity,' of doing the same thing again and again (looking for Bell or Belinda) and not knowing how to stop"]. She likens the limitations of her labors to the work of a portrait photographer:
The sources of information about the Johnstones and their households are like a multitude of vistas or photographic images. It is as though the different individuals can be seen at different distances and with different resolutions: portraits and horizons and landscapes. "The point is that you can't get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you've got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface," the photographer Richard Avedon said of the "performance" of portraits.
Still, sometimes it is good to be overwhelmed. Our vision of the past, like our vision of the present, is never as clear as we would like it to be or sometimes think that it is. We see and know only in part. Rothschild's history—global and personal, ambitious and intimate—reminds us of our own finitude as human beings making our way through the world. That reminder is a gift. But the book also reminds us of the importance of human agency, in a world just as vexing as our own, and of the remarkable things people can achieve. Especially if they have 14 children.
Alister Chapman is associate professor of history at Westmont College. His book Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement was recently published by Oxford University Press.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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