They were abolitionists, speculators, slave owners, government officials, and occasional politicians. They were observers of the anxieties and dramas of empire. And they were from one family. The Inner Life of Empires tells the intimate history of the Johnstones--four sisters and seven brothers who lived in Scotland and around the globe in the fast-changing eighteenth century. Piecing together their voyages, marriages, debts, and lawsuits, and examining their ideas, sentiments, and values, renowned historian Emma Rothschild illuminates a tumultuous period that created the modern economy, the British Empire, and the philosophical Enlightenment.
One of the sisters joined a rebel army, was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, and escaped in disguise in 1746. Her younger brother was a close friend of Adam Smith and David Hume. Another brother was fluent in Persian and Bengali, and married to a celebrated poet. He was the owner of a slave known only as "Bell or Belinda," who journeyed from Calcutta to Virginia, was accused in Scotland of infanticide, and was the last person judged to be a slave by a court in the British isles. In Grenada, India, Jamaica, and Florida, the Johnstones embodied the connections between European, American, and Asian empires. Their family history offers insights into a time when distinctions between the public and private, home and overseas, and slavery and servitude were in constant flux.
Based on multiple archives, documents, and letters, The Inner Life of Empires looks at one family's complex story to describe the origins of the modern political, economic, and intellectual world.
"The eleven Johnstone siblings of Westerhall, in Scotland, were 'a large and disorderly family,' whose lives, playing out on three continents between 1723 and 1813, illuminate what Rothschild calls an 'empire of intimate exchanges.' The subject is well chosen and provocatively explored."--New Yorker
"The book is the outcome of a remarkable archival discovery, of the kind of which every historian dreams. . . . The nature of her ambition is revealed by her title, The Inner Life of Empires. She wants to show us how the opening of the world to a family like the Johnstones affected their thoughts, sentiments, and behavior, and is anxious to recapture the day-to-day responses of people who had no idea, any more than we ourselves have, of how the story in which they found themselves caught up would end. Would the new republic of the United States survive? Nobody knew for certain. The range of sources she has consulted, the extraordinary wealth of detail she has unearthed about even the most obscure individuals, and the quite unexpected connections between them that she has uncovered fully support her claim. It is wonderfully appropriate that a book that gives us so many new and surprising insights into the new 'information society' of the eighteenth century should itself depend so heavily on new information technology, drawing, as Rothschild puts it, on 'a world of searchable databases and digitized archive catalogues.' In doing so, it presents what I suspect is a foretaste of a kind of history that will become increasingly common in the years to come, even if, as I fear, not all its practitioners will bring to it the historical imagination and sensitivity of Emma Rothschild."--New York Review of Books
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