The Inner Life of Empires: Emma Rothschild

Emma Rothschild’s Inner Life of Empires presents a “large microhistory” of the Johnstone family, eleven children, their parents, and two of their slaves, who lived and moved within influential social and intellectual circles during the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment (269). This prosopography traces the children’s lives across the British Empire as well as their friendships with philosophers – including David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and the early economist Adam Smith – to illustrate a world of laissez faire as it was lived and imagined at inception.

Rothschild describes her work as a history of “ideas and sentiments” (268). She uses the first three chapters to describe the lives of the Johnstone siblings, from their initial ventures in the British East and West Indies, their economic and political cooperation, and the balance of their lives at their deaths. Rothschild highlights their persistent feelings of anxiety and impermanence, as well as the tragedies of the penultimate child’s death at eighteen in India and another son’s legal tribulations stemming from his participation in the culture of gift-giving as practiced in Bengali during the early years of the East India Company. The chapters are well-written and demonstrate the hyper-globalized world of this modest Scottish family.

Chapter four examines developing theories of political economy, like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, emphasizing a social milieu in which the process of “imaging oneself in a world in which [modern economic] distinctions and definitions were themselves objects of anxious reflection” (133). Chapter five is broad, exploring diverse topics from slavery and information networks to gender and familial intimacy. The following two chapters are where the choice to adopt a period writing style is felt the most. While this disturbs the flow of the text, the monograph makes interesting insights about the activities and outlooks of Enlightenment groups, such as booksellers, clerks, and clerics.

Chapter seven focuses on sentiments and self-reflection while chapter eight returns to an analysis of the lives of two slaves immersed in the story of the Johnstone family: “Bell or Belinda” and Joseph Knight, whose cases, taken together, represent the legal turning point in the practice of slavery in the British Isles. Given the emphasis placed on the role these two people played in Rothschild’s history, more background on Bengalese and African slavery as it intersected with the Johnstones would have been appreciated.

 The rich description of how the agents of Britain’s vast commercial empire viewed themselves and their actions as members of the Enlightenment make Inner Life of Empires interesting to both European and global historians. Tapping archives on three continents, as well extensive use of family correspondence, Rothschild provides ample evidence of the social and economic conventions of an aspiring family of Scottish entrepreneurs.

Emma Rothschild, The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2011.)

By N. H. Gill
Chapel Hill, 2017

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