The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History

The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History

The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History

The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History


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 age of revolutions of the eighteenth century was a time of transformation in political and economic relationships, and in ways of thinking about the world. This book is about some of the changes of the times, from the point of view of a large, odd, and enterprising family, the Johnstones, and of their households, friends, servants, and slaves.

The four Johnstone sisters and seven Johnstone brothers grew up in Scotland in the 1720s and 1730s and made their way, in imagination or in reality, to the extremities of the British, French, Spanish, and Mughal empires. Two of the brothers became rich, in many scenes and over many setbacks. The family lived at the edges of the enlightenment, and they were friends, at least from time to time, of David Hume, Adam Smith, and the poet James “Ossian” Macpherson. They were unusually intemperate, unusually literary, and there were unusually many of them.

All I knew about the Johnstones, when I came across the oldest brother's letter book in a library in Edinburgh, was that another brother, John, had been a candidate in a contested parliamentary election in 1774, in Adam Smith's home town of Kirkaldy. They were not a celebrated family, even at the moments of their greatest successes. But they lived amidst new empires, and they were confronted throughout their lives with large and abstract questions about commerce and the state, laws and regulations, and slavery and servitude. They were expressive . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.