Top Young Historians: 39 – Maya Jasanoff


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

39: Maya Jasanoff, 1-8-07

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Virginia, 2004-present
Area of Research: Modern Britain, British Empire, Imperialism and Colonization
Education: Ph.D., History, Yale University 2002
Major Publications: Jasanoff is the author of Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850
Maya Jasanoff JPG(Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. London: Fourth Estate, 2005), (Paperback: Vintage, 2006; HarperPerennial, 2006). An Italian translation for Il Saggiatore is under contract. Edge of Empire is the winner of the 50th Duff Cooper Prize, 2005. Shortlisted for the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Prize 2005 and for the Whitfield Book Prize of the Royal Historical Society. “Book of the year” choice in “The Economist,” “The Sunday Times,” “The Observer,” “The Guardian,” “The Independent.” “Editor’s choice” in “The New York Times Book Review.”
Jasanoff is currently working on Imperial Exiles: Loyalists in the British Empire, a book about the global diaspora of Loyalists after the American Revolution, in Canada, the Caribbean, Britain, Sierra Leone, and South Asia.
Awards: Jasanoff is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including:
Fellow, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, 2006-2007 New York Public Library Fellow, John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress 2006;
Postdoctoral Fellow, Society of Fellows, University of Michigan, 2002-2004;
Jacob K. Javits Fellowship 1998-2002;
Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities 1997-1998;
Frank M. Knox Memorial Fellowship 1996-1997;
Duff Cooper Prize, 2006;
Shortlist, Whitfield Book Prize, Royal Historical Society 2006;
Shortlist, Longman-History Today 2005 Book of the Year 2006;
Harrison Research Award (Faculty Sponsor), Center for Undergraduate Excellence, University of Virginia 2006;
National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend 2005;
Hans Gatzke Prize for Outstanding Dissertation in European History, 2003;
Yale University;
Phi Beta Kappa 1996.
Additional Info:
Jasanoff was formerly a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan, 2002-2004.
Jasanoff has published numerous book reviews in general publications including the London Review of Books, and academic forums such as H-Net.

Personal Anecdote

My dissertation about British imperialism in India and Egypt was partly inspired by traveling around the former empire. So it was only fitting that I should actually start writing it while visiting a one-time British colony: with pen and paper one July day, on the roof-terrace of the British Hotel in Valletta, Malta.

The hotel overlooked Valletta’s spectacular Grand Harbour, ringed in the sixteenth century by elegant, severe stone walls. A couple of days before, a friend and I had seen it as it was designed to be seen: we sailed in, coasting past the pointed batteries and watchtowers, one mysteriously carved with a staring eye. We had arrived on a Maltese container ship named—could it be otherwise?-the Maltese Falcon. For the voyage from Genoa, we had had the run of the ship; the only other passengers were two truck-drivers who spent the whole journey closeted in the small lounge, curtains drawn, smoking and watching pirated action movies. On the bridge, the Iraqi skipper let us peer at his charts and quiz him about the instruments. The ship’s cook, Salvator , regaled us with his decades of sea-won wisdom, which he delivered in emphatic outbursts composed chiefly of nouns. One of the senior sailors, slicking another layer of green paint onto the deck while I sunbathed next to the empty turquoise “pool,” offered his own nuggets of enlightenment like milestones punctuating long stretches of silence.

The cargo ship turned out to be a suitable introduction to the rather lost-in-time quality of Valletta itself. (The Maltese Falcon has now been sold, and the national shipping company, Sea Malta, dissolved.) From 1800 to 1964 Malta was a British colony. The bar of the British Hotel, with its dust-caked bottles of cheap whisky and liqueurs, looked as if nobody had frequented it since the British had left. Under British rule, Valletta boasted a huge naval dockyard and served as the home port of Queen Victoria’s Mediterranean fleet. Now, that great naval tradition was evoked by two quite different warships, French and American, on NATO service. Maltese families strolled past to look at the dour, steel craft; off-duty officers got boisterously drunk in a nearby bar.

British influences lingered elsewhere. Converted British troop carriers from the 1940s now served as Malta’s signature public buses. Menus advertised fish fingers, chicken and chips, spaghetti bolognese, and, in one gourmet touch, chicken “Gordon Blue.” Where every other Mediterranean country comes to life again in the evening after a siesta, the Vallettans, in most un-Mediterranean style, closed up shop at siesta-time and never came back. (Indeed, the only place that seemed to serve reasonable evening meals was the café of the Maltese Labour Party.) To walk the streets on those baking July afternoons was to walk with echoes and ghosts, across a historical stage set.

I wrote about India while I was in Valletta, and Malta only figured in two or three sentences in my entire dissertation. But I will always remember how and where it first took shape—in the blaring sunlight by the Grand Harbour, in a city tinted by imperial memories.


By Maya Jasanoff

  • “So familiar is the late-nineteenth-century empire of crowns and trumpets (or, more accurately, pith helmets and bagpipes), of white church steeples among the palm trees, gin and tonics on club verandas, and rubicund Englishmen attended by bevies of native servants, that it is sometimes difficult to think back to an earlier period before the ideology of an imperial ‘civilizing mission’ was in place. This book endeavors to do just that. It steps back into a time and into places where people lived, loved, fought, and identified themselves in ways considerably more complicated than later imperial chauvinism, or even many present-day treatments of empire, might suggest. Edge of Empire JPG Most of all, this book is a plea for bringing a human dimension to imperial history, a topic that is often treated in the abstract, whether by sweeping chroniclers of conquest or by postcolonial critics of imperial discourse. These collectors and their world have vanished. But the objects they collected, moved, and brought together still tender proof of their passion. In Britain and in its former colonies-indeed, around the world—the artifacts give hard evidence of the human contacts that underpinned the otherwise intangible quantities of globalization and empire…. To the extent the history offered here seeks to reflect on a newer age of empire, it is to make an appeal for remembering the essential humanity of successful international relationships: for borrowing, learning, adapting, and giving. For collecting, and for recollecting.” — Maya Jasanoff in “Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East 1750-1850” (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

About Maya Jasanoff

  • “Maya Jasanoff stumbled on a new way of looking at empire almost by accident. She had embarked on a study of European collectors in India and Egypt, the sometimes significant but often marginal figures who purchased or plundered the artefacts of the ancient cultures that they encountered and shipped them back to Europe. In the course of what might have seemed a somewhat esoteric area of study, she began to see the often ill-tutored mania of the imperial collectors as a metaphor for the formation of the empire itself – not the planned seizure of distant lands or the remorseless expansion of capital, but the piecemeal and haphazard acquisition of territory that only developed the lineaments of a distinct imperial pattern with the benefit of hindsight…. This brilliant insight has produced a riveting and original book that gives an entirely fresh dimension to our understanding of the creation and expansion of empire.… Britain’s empire will never look quite the same again.” — Richard Gott in “The Guardian” reviewing “Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East 1750-1850”
  • “A new history of empire, no longer either triumphalist or cast in the shades of black and white favoured by the post-colonialists, is beginning to be written. It assumes that the metropolis and the colonies were not self-contained realms (as the older `imperial history’ often assumed); it recognises that empires were made and ruled by individuals with often very different, even conflicting aspirations. Above all it recognises that all empires were precarious, porous, multicultural and multilingual, and that of all the political orders ever devised they, more than any other, defy simple description or heavy abstraction. Maya Jasanoff’s book – her first – is a brilliant contribution to this literature.Her theme is not how ‘Others’ were excluded by the imperial process, but the far more elusive, and in the end more illuminating ways in which so many were included in what she calls the ‘rhetoric and systems of empire’. Edge of Empire is about crossing boundaries; about the porousness of culture in the early years of the British Empire; about frontiers, both geographical and mental, and how they are constructed and reconfigured.” — Anthony Pagden in “The London Review of Books” reviewing “Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East 1750-1850”
  • “Jasanoff…refuses to see Britain’s imperial history as a simple “saga of colonizers versus colonized”…. She also declines to share the “postcolonialists'” view of the British Empire as “an insidious behemoth” and argues that historians should be wary of making moral judgments from afar. Denying she is an apologist for any empire, past or present, she points out that “empires are a fact of world history. The important question for this book is not whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but what they do, whom they affect, and how.”… Historians who are interested in the people who make history are usually better writers than those who prefer theories. And Jasanoff is certainly a fine writer. She delights in scenes from the past; she knows how to describe the sights and smells of an eighteenth- century bazaar as well as the personalities of her art collectors. She can visualize and imagine history, as well as study it in the archives and the seminar room, and this makes her book a particularly valuable account of the realities of empire.” — David Gilmour in “The New York Review of Books” reviewing “Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East 1750-1850”
  • “Great class. Lectures were always very interesting and entertaining.”… “Probably one of the better professors at this school. Very clear and to the point during her lectures, extremely knowledgeable, and very approachable.”… “She’s the best lecturer I’ve had at UVA”… “Really good teacher and pretty good lecturer. She has a sense of humor about the topic.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 2:46 PM

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