From Publishers Weekly
In her debut book, Jasanoff challenges the idea that the British Empire imposed its own culture on its colonies, arguing instead that the empire thrived because it was able to "find ways of accommodating difference." As evidence, she traces the history of objects collected in India and Egypt by "border-crossers": diplomats and soldiers, "aristocrats and Grand Tourists" who, by collecting artifacts, influenced the homeland's perception of colonized countries. As she explains how various collections were put together through theft, excavation and connoisseurship, she personalizes the history by profiling those who were fueled to collect by the need for reinvention and pursuit "of social status and wealth." Jasanoff's narrative is most notable for synthesizing the study of architecture, art and commerce, as well as military and cultural history, and for digging deeper than predecessors. For example, in addition to the East India Company's infamous Robert Clive, she also profiles Clive's virtually forgotten son Edward, a much more ambitious collector. In this intriguing and readable book, Jasanoff, an assistant professor of British history at the University of Virginia, creates fertile common ground between the dominant stories put forth by postcolonial critics such as Edward Said and boosters like Niall Ferguson. 48 b&w illus.
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Unlike typical historical narratives of British imperialism, Jasanoff's story only tangentially touches on its military component. It encompasses a different aspect of the empire: collecting Indian and Egyptian antiquities. In this postcolonial cultural atmosphere, that practice may seem akin to looting, but during the period Jasanoff considers, it was viewed less disapprovingly, as shown in her richly descriptive accounts of several collectors. The actual items amassed are secondary to Jasanoff's primary focus: how collecting represented the lives of people such as Robert Clive, who extended British suzerainty from its foothold in Calcutta, or the flamboyant circus-performer-cum-collector Giambattista Belzoni, an early excavator of pharaonic monuments in the 1810s. In the collectors' trades and purchases from local potentates, Jasanoff encounters a complex of interactions irreducible to a narrative of colonial oppression, although she acknowledges that the encroaching influences of Anglo-French rivalry and warfare were the fundamental facilitators of the collecting craze. A sympathetic biographer, Jasanoff is also a supple appraiser of acquisitiveness as symbolic of ambition, taste, and a certain time. Gilbert TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved