The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History

  • Emma Rothschild
  • Princeton University Press
  • 496 pp.

The fortunes of a large Scottish family illustrate the material opportunities and moral challenges that arose from Britain’s expansion of empire.

Reviewed by Dane Kennedy

Empire is a public word, not a private one. It alludes to the power politics of expansionist states, not the personal experiences of their individual agents and victims. The Inner Life of Empires,  however, is concerned with the private lives that were entwined in the public affairs of the imperial state. The state in question is late-18th-century Britain, which had political and economic interests that stretched from the Americas to India and beyond. Emma Rothschild gives us an intimate and insightful glimpse into the various ways this turbulent, expansive empire shaped the experiences and perceptions of a large, peripatetic group of Scottish siblings and their dependents.

Large families were hardly unusual in the 18th century, but James Johnson and Barbara Murray were more fruitful than most, siring 14 children. More remarkable still, 11 of these siblings — seven brothers and four sisters — survived into adulthood. Raised at the margins of middle-class comfort, they had to make their own ways in world, and how they did so speaks to the opportunities an expanding empire presented. Two of the brothers served in the British Army, two in the Royal Navy, and two in the East India Company. The seventh brother trained for the law, married an English heiress and died a very wealthy man with vast property holdings in Britain, the Caribbean and New York.

One of the East India Company brothers made a fortune in newly conquered India. (The other brother died soon after his arrival in India.) One of the naval brothers was appointed governor of West Florida after it had been taken from Spain; the other became a private merchant who traded in India, the Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius and even Basra. One of the army brothers acquired a slave plantation on the island of Grenada while the other returned to Scotland to inherit the family home. Five of the brothers ran for Parliament and four of them were elected, gaining reputations as men with opinions on imperial issues. (The sisters’  fortunes were determined by marriage, leaving them with fewer opportunities for personal distinction, though one led no less adventurous a life than her brothers: she married a committed Jacobite,  joined the rebellion in support of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, was arrested and imprisoned, made a daring escape and fled to France, where she lived her final years in exile.)

The Johnsons were personally linked to some of the most dramatic developments in late-18th-century British history. Several of them served in the Seven Years War against France and Spain, benefiting from victory with political power in Florida and plantation property in Grenada. One of them died in the Black Hole of Calcutta during the British struggle for control of Bengal. Another took part in the East India Company’s systematic looting of India, though he subsequently cast himself as a critic of the country’s despoliation by Robert Clive and his cronies. The outbreak of the American Revolution inspired two of the brothers to express sympathy for the rebels’ cause in speeches to Parliament.  Several members of the family had personal ties to Adam Smith, David Hume and other leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment, and most of them were immersed in the moral and material culture of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on legal rights,  political freedoms, moral sensibilities and an educated public.

Finally,  the Johnsons were connected in various personal ways to one of the most profitable but morally problematic enterprises of the 18th-century British empire: slavery and the slave trade. One brother owned a slave plantation, another became a leading defender of the slave trade in Parliament, and most of them had black domestics in their households,  referred to interchangeably as slaves and servants in the contemporary records. At the same time, two of the brothers who owned other persons became vocal opponents of the slave trade. The last legal ruling to affirm slavery in Scotland occurred in 1778 in the case of a South Asian slave owned by one of the Johnson brothers. A few months later, a slave in the household of the daughter of a Johnson sister won a lawsuit that put an end to the practice of slavery in Scotland.

The experiences and opinions of the Johnsons are skillfully used by Rothschild to expose the transitions and contradictions that characterize the period. It was both an age of British imperial expansion and the age of revolutions against its empire. It was both an age in which British merchants and planters made unprecedented profits from the slave trade and slave labor, and an age in which more and more members of the British public were questioning the morality of slavery,  creating a climate of opinion that led to legal rulings outlawing slavery in England and Scotland (though not in the empire itself until 1834). It was both the age of mercantilism, with its system of state control of the economy and monopoly enterprises like the East India Company, and the age of Adam Smith, who argued for the abolition of mercantilism and the establishment of free trade.

Like most people who are caught up in a period of great changes, the Johnsons seesawed between contradictory beliefs and practices. They embraced Enlightenment ideas about personal and economic freedom, but they also owned slaves and manipulated mercantilist policies to their advantage. They were simultaneously immersed within established institutions and traditions and served as harbingers of a new one.

This is a meticulous study, based on an immense amount of research,  including a large cache of family correspondence, court records and much more. Unfortunately, the book is also as dry to read as Scottish oatcakes are to eat. Rothschild pores over every shred of evidence she can find, scrutinizing matters large and small with such indiscriminate zeal that she sucks much of the life from her narrative.  Moreover, for all the information she acquires about the Johnsons, one of the most revealing aspects of her story is how little she is able to learn about their domestic slaves, particularly Bell or Belinda, the South Asian slave of one of the brothers who was convicted of infanticide and transported to America in the last known case affirming the legality of slavery in Scotland. It is to Rothschild’s credit that she is able to tease out some evidence about the slave’s relationship with the Johnsons, but it isn’t much, as the uncertainty about the slave’s name —  is it Bell or Belinda? — makes abundantly clear.

There are limits, then, to what we can learn about “the inner life” of empire, especially the inner lives of its victims. Still, there is much to admire about this book. It skillfully links the “microhistory” of the Johnson siblings with the “macrohistory” of Britain and its empire,  giving us an intimate glimpse into the way one family pursued the material opportunities and confronted the moral challenges that arose with Britain’s late-18th-century advance around the globe.

Dane Kennedy teaches history at George Washington University and writes on the history of British colonialism.

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