[Marxism] Scottish imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 29 08:45:33 MDT 2011


The money’s still out there
Neal Ascherson

To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010 by 
T.M. Devine
Allen Lane, 397 pp, £25.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 7139 9744 6

The Inner Life of Empires: An 18th-Century History by Emma Rothschild
Princeton, 483 pp, £24.95, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 14895 3

Looking at the imperial magnificence, the Habsburgian gigantism of 
public buildings in Edinburgh and Glasgow, you want to ask: where 
did all that wealth go? Looking at the stone ruins in the bracken 
of Lowland and Highland hills, you want to ask: where did all 
those people go – and why? These are questions rooted in the 
history of the British Empire, and they concern the very distinct 
and remarkable and sometimes shocking part which the Scots – the 
traders and the plebeians, the Lanarkshire industrialists and the 
Gaelic poor – played in the development of that empire.

Scottish historiography used to resemble a half-reclaimed 
landscape: solid fields of established research in an undrained 
bog of questions. Some ambitious channels were dug by Victorians, 
with generally Unionist teleologies. But in the first part of the 
20th century those channels seemed to silt up again until Marinell 
Ash published her poignant appeal The Strange Death of Scottish 
History in 1980. By then, however, Scotland’s cultural and 
political revival was already underway. Synoptic histories, 
serious but highly readable, were reappearing as Ash wrote: 
Rosalind Mitchison, T.C. Smout and Christopher Harvie were among 
the most successful authors. They wrote mostly narrative or social 
history, revealing unknown territory to generations who had 
learned almost nothing of Scotland’s past at school. Now, though, 
the fashion is more reflexive. Tom Devine, currently Scotland’s 
leading historian, targets myth – aspects of the past which have 
been either flamboyantly invented or furtively dropped down the 
memory hole. What are these tracts of their history which the 
Scots have distorted or ignored? And why did they do so?

Devine addresses these questions in the third volume of a trilogy 
which probably wasn’t planned as a trilogy. The first book, The 
Scottish Nation, 1700-2000 (1999), was an all-round narrative 
history which became a bestseller and made him famous. The second, 
Scotland’s Empire, 1600-1815 (2003), covered Scottish trading and 
colonising before and after the 1707 Union with England, and dealt 
with the critical 18th century, when Scots – admitted to equal 
rights in what was now a ‘British empire’ on the brink of enormous 
global expansion – learned to take full advantage of their 
chances. To the Ends of the Earth retraces that early period and 
carries on into Scotland’s paradoxical Victorian apogee of 
industrial triumph and mass emigration. Then Devine asks that big 
question: where did it all go? Why has contemporary Scotland 
benefited so little from those billions of intercontinental 
profit? And why do the Scots – once, per capita, so much more 
involved in the empire than the English – now affect amnesia about 
it, sharing none of England’s imperial nostalgia?

Each of the later volumes repeats and refines material in the 
previous one. That’s a virtue. Research is now moving fast in 
Scotland, and it’s exciting to register how Devine’s ideas mature. 
Take the sombre question of slavery. Could it be true that the 
immense profits from slave-worked sugar and tobacco plantations 
made Scotland’s industrial take-off possible? The older myth 
emphasised Scotland’s role in the abolitionist movement and was 
assembled by historians who were reluctant to investigate who 
owned and oversaw the plantations of Jamaica, Grenada or Virginia. 
As late as 2001, the Oxford Companion to Scottish History had no 
index entry for ‘slavery’, while the Caribbean was mentioned only 
as a market for Scottish linen. In Scotland’s Empire, Devine was 
cautious about this ugly problem, but fresh research has hardened 
his views. He writes here that capital inflows from ‘the 
slave-based economies were of fundamental importance in the first 
textile-dominated phase of Scottish industrialisation’ up to about 
1830. As for the slave trade itself, it’s true that Glasgow did 
not send slave ships to Africa and the Caribbean as Bristol or 
Liverpool did. But Scots abroad were managing and financing the 
trade in disproportionate numbers.

It’s a cliché that the Scots ‘punched above their weight’ in the 
empire, and it’s misleading. They seldom competed directly with 
the English or Irish, but established distinct and almost 
exclusively Scottish fiefdoms: the fur trade, the tobacco trade, 
the jute industry, the opium business in China, the 
‘hedge-banking’ outfits in Australia, the executive levels of the 
East India Company. Later in the 19th century, in the second phase 
of industrialisation, the Clyde basin achieved something 
approaching world domination in shipbuilding, locomotive and 
bridge construction and other branches of heavy engineering. 
Overseas enterprise was a pattern of near monopolies from 
Scotland’s regions. The Hudson’s Bay Company was staffed by 
Orcadians; its Canadian rival, the North West Company, was run by 
Highlanders; the sugar plantations of Jamaica were packed with 
younger sons of Argyllshire lairds; the great trading houses of 
South-East Asia were mostly family businesses from Aberdeen and 
north-east Scotland; the outflow of foreign investment was 
cornered by Edinburgh solicitors.

The myth that the Scots were somehow closer to indigenous peoples 
than the English has been well punctured by recent Scottish 
research. They were indeed closer – by the length of a 
slave-driver’s lash. Scots, in that sense, were the 
non-commissioned officers of empire; even Robert Burns, a 
sentimental abolitionist, planned to take a job in Jamaica as an 
overseer of slaves. The same myth suggested that Gaelic emigrants 
raised in a clan system had a special rapport with traditional 
societies. In fact, Highlanders behaved with sometimes genocidal 
savagery; among other examples, Devine recalls the Gaelic 
vigilantes who carried out the Warrigal Creek massacre of 
Australian aboriginals in 1843. In northern Canada, by contrast, 
the fur trade could only operate as a joint endeavour with local 
communities. There, the Hudson’s Bay Company encouraged its men to 
form ‘connubial alliances’ with Indian women (in 2004, a large 
Cree delegation travelled to Orkney to visit ‘the home of their 
grandfathers’). Some Scots gave real support to the ‘first 
peoples’ in times of crisis. But in the long term, the joint 
endeavour turned into what Devine calls a ‘historic disaster’ for 
Indian societies, ravaged by disease, alcoholism and the collapse 
of the hunting economy.

In an absorbing chapter, Devine studies the ‘missionary dynamic’, 
the almost forgotten torrent of Scottish men and women who went 
out to ‘convert the heathen’. Strict Calvinist doctrine objected 
that preaching the gospel to the heathen was ‘preposterous’; God 
had already ordained who was to be ‘elect’ and saved. It was not 
until the evangelical movement tore the Church of Scotland apart 
in the Disruption of 1843 that Scottish energy flowed into foreign 
missions to India and then Africa. These missions produced their 
saints, even superstars: Mary Slessor’s good works on the Upper 
Niger still earn her an image on Scottish banknotes, while David 
Livingstone became the world’s best-known Scotsman. They did not 
save many souls. After 50 years’ work in India, the missions could 
show only 3359 converts. But their influence on empire was deep 
and paradoxical, at once the advance guard of colonialism and the 
engineers of its fall. In Africa, above all, Church of Scotland 
mission colleges would educate critical generations to struggle 
against the racism of white settlers. As a journalist on the 
Scotsman in 1959, I saw at first hand how the Church of Scotland 
missions in Nyasaland (now Malawi) successfully crippled the 
British government’s sinister ‘federation’ scheme, designed to put 
all Central Africa under the control of white Rhodesia.

Through the whole of this book glitters the tartan streak which 
Devine calls ‘Highlandism’. By that he means the tendency, 
steadily gathering force since the mid-18th century, to assimilate 
everything Scottish into largely imaginary versions of Gaeldom. 
It’s a tendency fostered not only by foreigners but by many Scots, 
Lowland or Highland. Children leave school believing that all 
Scottish emigration was caused by the Highland Clearances. Mel 
Gibson in Braveheart wears a kilt to play William Wallace. George 
IV squeezed himself into a kilt and pink tights to visit 
Edinburgh. Livingstone was supposed to get on well with Africans 
because of his Highland ancestry. It wasn’t until the 1960s that 
radicals like Tom Nairn and Murray Grigor began to satirise ‘the 
Tartan Monster’ as the product of a false consciousness which 
excused Scots from contemplating their real past and possible future.

Highlandism’s most powerful vehicle was the British Army. Within a 
few years of the 1745 rebellion, the British government was 
raising Highland regiments for foreign wars in Europe and North 
America. A region once seen as inherently treacherous suddenly 
became the source of loyal battalions ready to die for the 
Hanoverians and the Union Jack. Jacobite refugees who had settled 
in America almost unanimously rejected the revolution and fought 
for the king who had crushed them at Culloden. How was that 
possible? Some say that Jacobitism was always blindly 
authoritarian. Devine, on the other hand, suggests ‘rampant 
commercialism’ on the part of the clan chiefs, who simply 
harvested their dependants and sold them as ‘family’ regiments to 
the Crown.

Whatever its origin, the cult of the Highland soldier grew more 
extravagant from campaign to campaign, from Quebec through the 
Peninsular War, from Waterloo to the Crimea, the Indian Mutiny and 
the two world wars. In the Napoleonic Wars, Devine estimates, some 
50,000 Highlanders were recruited from a region with a population 
of fewer than 300,000. Queen Victoria adored her Highland 
warriors, and so does her current successor (a deafening pipe-band 
in full kilt and bearskin still tramps round the table during 
state banquets at Windsor). Highlandism soon ensured that all 
Scottish soldiers would be to some extent tartanised, to the 
distaste of ancient Lowland regiments such as the Royal Scots. 
Bagpipes spread to every army in the British Commonwealth, and to 
many beyond.

The Scottish martial tradition, the ‘sojer laddie’, still lives 
proudly on as a component of national identity. Unlike many 
traditions, it is more genuine than invented; as Devine puts it, 
‘Scotland was born fighting.’ But it may be that it belongs more 
to the Lowlanders, who after all fought the Wars of Independence, 
than to the Highlanders. Wherever the Gaelic clans and their 
claymores were in 1314, it wasn’t at Bannockburn.

Emigration and the formation of a diaspora are the central topic 
of To the Ends of the Earth. Here Devine is once again dispelling 
a popular legend: the belief that all emigrants were and are 
unwilling ‘victims’ of clearance or deprivation. He points out 
that emigrating is something Scots have always done, and will 
probably go on doing, almost irrespective of what may be happening 
at home. Scots were settling in Europe – Poland, Scandinavia, the 
Low Countries – by the 15th century. In the 17th century, hordes 
of Protestant Lowlanders were scrambling into Ulster. The Union of 
1707 opened the way for emigration to the Americas and the 
Caribbean and also, increasingly, to England. Later came the 
colonisation of Australia and New Zealand. Devine calculates that 
if Scotland’s population in 1825 was about 2.3 million, a total 
equivalent to that had left by 1938. Between 1951 and 1981, 
753,000 Scots left, nearly half of them going ‘down south’ to 
England. The net migration loss between 1951 and 2006 was 825,000 
from a population of only five million.

Before 1815, emigrants to the overseas empire were mainly 
Highlanders. Most families went voluntarily, even eagerly to the 
ships, while their chiefs and lairds tried to deter them. It was 
not until the early 19th century, after the collapse of the kelp 
industry and the disaster of the potato famines in the 1840s, that 
landlords in the Highlands and Islands opted for sheep rather than 
people and set about forcible eviction – the Clearances. But one 
of Devine’s most striking feats as a historian has been to 
demonstrate that there were also ‘Lowland clearances’, equally 
drastic in their changes to landscape and demography, which 
released a flow of landless men and women into overseas emigration 
or into Scotland’s new industrial cities. After about 1860, most 
out-migrants were non-Highland.

Emigration is not a straightforward subject. It’s easy to assume 
that people queued up at the shipping offices when unemployment 
was high and living standards low. But that won’t wash. Devine 
points to two periods during which Scotland was thriving and yet 
emigration soared. One was the later 19th century, when Scotland 
was the expanding workshop of the empire and rolling in a surplus 
of investment capital. The other was post-1945, when, with the 
introduction of the welfare state, life and health became secure, 
jobs were available for all and decent housing was beginning to 
replace foul urban slums. England also had a postwar surge in 
emigration, but it fell away in the 1970s. In Scotland it has 
continued strongly into the 21st century. Why? Devine calls it 
‘aspirational’. Prosperity gave people the optimism and confidence 
to move. And for Scots, after so many generations of emigration, a 
future in Canada, Australia or the US did not seem unfamiliar. In 
a small nation, few families lacked a friend or relative in the 
global diaspora.

As diasporas go, the Scottish one is a dozy elephant. Enthusiasts 
suggest that there may be 40 million people in the world who can 
‘claim Scottish descent’. But apart from Burns Suppers and 
Highland Games, they have done little or nothing about it. The 
contrast with some other great diasporas – the Poles, the Greeks, 
the Irish above all – is startling. The Scots overseas never saw 
themselves as political exiles from some independence struggle. On 
the contrary, they have taken almost no interest, economic or 
political, in actually existing Scotland.

Attempts to imitate Ireland’s example and rally them into a 
‘diaspora engagement plan’ – rich returnees investing in a ‘smart, 
successful Scotland’ – have not come to much. Instead, the 
diaspora has cultivated a harmless minority identity through Burns 
Clubs and mutual-help St Andrew Societies. Only in the last 30 
years has there been an upsurge of enthusiasm for ‘Scottish 
heritage’, a spreading craze in North America and Europe which is 
all about kilts, Highland Games and gruesome invented ceremonies 
like ‘The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan’, and has nothing to do with the 
small European nation now hesitating over a possible return to 
independence. Braveheart produced a stampede to join clan 
societies in the United States, and encouraged Trent Lott to 
mobilise Scottish-Americans in the South into an ominous Celtic 
warrior movement, especially attractive to heavily armed white 
males wearing ‘Confederate tartan’. The US now celebrates an 
annual Tartan Day to promote the ‘Scottish-American heritage’, 
accompanied by much baloney about Scotland’s contribution to the 
Declaration of Independence. The Tartan Monster is alive and 
stamping over the globe. But there is a compensation: in reaction 
to the craze, serious centres for Scottish studies have begun to 
flourish in Canada and the US.

Where did the money from Scotland’s empire go? Devine answers this 
by defining several phases. Up to the early 19th century, profits 
from the Americas, the Caribbean and Bengal came home to prime 
agricultural improvement and the first, ‘textiles’ stage of 
industrial revolution. This generated enough domestic capital to 
power the next phase: iron and steel, shipbuilding and heavy 
engineering. Production took place in Scotland, but the product 
itself was overwhelmingly exported. By about 1870, there was a 
surplus of capital for domestic use, and Scottish savings began to 
pour overseas, often through the new Scottish device of the 
investment trust.

This was a fateful change of direction, in Devine’s opinion. 
Between 1870 and 1914, money ceased to flow into new domestic 
branches of industry or into modernising Scotland’s social fabric. 
Wages remained lower than in England, often by as much as 20 per 
cent, while the fetid working-class housing thrown up during 
Scotland’s breakneck urbanisation was allowed to decay. The 
outcome was that Scotland largely missed the third phase of the 
industrial revolution, the turn towards consumer production for 
the domestic market. Underpaid workers, rural and urban, lacked 
the purchasing power which might have encouraged manufacturers to 
diversify. Instead, Scottish industrialists stayed in an 
increasingly unreal export economy of heavy engineering, kept 
alive as time passed by war production and state subsidy. When 
that economy began to collapse in the 1960s, there was little to 
replace it.

And the wealth of empire? Grand municipal palaces in three or four 
cities, damp pseudo-baronial castles built by retiring nabobs in 
Argyll, some fine museums of global loot, the Carnegie libraries … 
Few other traces remain. In a way, the money’s still out there. 
It’s in Asian railways and canals, the infrastructure of Canadian 
cities, the colleges of New Zealand, the rubber plantations and 
tin mines long since nationalised by post-colonial governments or 
taken over by American conglomerates. Modern Scots feel that such 
relics have little to do with them. They are wrong, but who can 
blame them?

Emma Rothschild has a written a strange, immensely thoughtful book 
which at first glance ought to complement Devine’s work. But it 
does nothing of the sort, attending instead to the history of 
sensibilities rather than of nations. It is based on the lives and 
milieux of 11 Scottish brothers and sisters, born into a minor 
landowning family in the 18th century, who in very different ways 
built their lives round the new British Empire. Most of the 
brothers were slave-owners at one time or another; among the 
destinations of the siblings and their children were the American 
colonies, the islands of the Caribbean, Florida when it was a 
British possession, Bengal, Penang, the United States and once – 
when pursued for rebellion – France. Some became nabobs and built 
or bought grand houses in Scotland; one died young in war; two 
governed indigenous peoples in vast provinces; four became MPs. 
All cultivated connections with financial and political power, and 
shared those connections in lively letters which circulated round 
the family and round much of the known world. It was the 
accidental discovery of one cache of those letters that set 
Rothschild off down the track to this book.

So the Johnstones of Westerhall could offer Devine and his Centre 
for Diaspora Studies multiple examples of Scottish empire-building 
in its early phase. But that isn’t what interests Rothschild. A 
contribution to Scottish history is one of several things The 
Inner Life of Empires is not. Instead, she is after

     the history of the inner life, in the sense of the interior 
of the household or the home, and the interior of the mind, or the 
intentions, character and conscience of individuals that were 
discussed so endlessly in the Johnstones’ own lives and in the 
sense, too, of the ideas and sentiments that are the subjects, or 
one of the subjects, of historical understanding.

Her book is a sort of prosopography, a study of a human group in 
operation. She fancies the Johnstones precisely because they were 
‘so often unestimable’; living through the most dazzling years of 
the Enlightenment, acquainted with many of its Scottish stars 
(David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith) and yet constantly muddled 
about what they should think and how they should act, about how to 
respond to newfangled notions of human rights, about where the 
shifting frontier between universal law and private greed might run.

Their mother bore 14 children. Eleven survived, growing up in a 
decaying mansion in back-country Dumfriesshire. There was an old 
baronetcy but no money. Each child took its own path. Barbara, the 
eldest, married fast to get away, was dumped by her husband for 
‘ill-nature’ and settled in Edinburgh. Margaret rode into battle 
as a fanatical Jacobite, married another one, was imprisoned after 
Culloden, escaped to France and died in exile. James (‘poor 
unlucky Jamie’) was huge and clumsy, jilted an heiress, married a 
penniless English widow and eventually became a Dumfriesshire MP. 
Alexander began as a soldier and bought a slave plantation in 
Grenada. Betty never married but stayed at home until her parents 
died; she was the key information hub, writing and receiving 
letters with sibling news. William married a colossally rich 
English heiress, changed his name to Pulteney and moved south; as 
an MP, he owned but never visited several slave estates, developed 
English town properties and was rated one of the wealthiest men in 
Britain. George became governor of West Florida, where he lived 
with his mistress, Martha, and his improbable lieutenant, James 
‘Ossian’ Macpherson. Charlotte ran away with an exciseman, who 
turned out to be an intellectual genealogist. John went to Bengal 
for 15 years with the East India Company, where he acquired a vast 
fortune in bribes (the equivalent of six million pounds in one 
deal alone) and shocked Clive by denouncing him for corruption. 
Patrick, aged only 18, was killed in the Black Hole of Calcutta. 
Gideon, the youngest, knocked about the world in the Royal Navy 
and made a few bucks in India selling bottled Ganges water to 

In Rothschild’s words the Johnstones were ‘unusually intemperate, 
unusually literary, and there were unusually many of them.’ They 
lived through three ‘founding moments of the modern Anglo-American 
world’. These were the East India Company’s acquisition of power 
over Bengal’s finances in 1765, which eventually led to the rule 
of the British Raj over the whole subcontinent; the American 
Revolution; and what Rothschild calls the ‘construction’ (between 
1772 and the abolition of the slave trade in 1806) of ‘a new and 
less impure British Empire in the West Indies and the South 
Atlantic’. But she observes that the Johnstones persistently came 
down on the losing side of big issues. They were wrong – some of 
them – about Jacobitism, and wrong about the American Revolution. 
They approved of Adam Smith and free trade in principle, but in 
practice stuck to a closed, protectionist family economy. That was 
a very Scottish ambiguity. So was their deep reluctance to see 
that the empire could not remain a matter of trading and shipping 
but was turning inexorably into a Roman system of territorial 
conquest, annexation and settlement. The Johnstonian vision – 
George was the visionary brother – was of ‘a society of persons, 
or merchants … more than an empire of land and settlement. It was 
an empire without a state, with the protection of naval rather 
than military power.’

On slavery, the Johnstones were both right and wrong. Some of them 
changed their minds, but then enlightened opinion was changing all 
around them in the later 18th century. Their friend Adam Smith was 
a consistent opponent of slavery, whereas Hume notoriously said in 
a footnote that ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally 
inferior to the whites.’ The family itself was divided, 
inconsistent. All the brothers except for Patrick (who died too 
young) at one time or another owned field and domestic slaves in 
the Caribbean or Bengal; they used them for sex as well as sugar, 
and some of the slaves they brought back to Scotland were almost 
certainly their children. But Alexander, owner of the plantation 
he named Westerhall after the family home, attacked the governor 
of Grenada for using torture on slaves. James, who inherited the 
property from Alexander, argued in Parliament for immediate 
abolition – while still owning Caribbean slaves. George denounced 
the enslavement of Indians, but praised the ‘kindness’ of American 
plantation owners to their human chattels. John brought at least 
two slaves back with him from Bengal, and yet subscribed to an 
abolitionist society. Only William, the richest of them all, 
forcefully defended slavery and the slave trade in the House of 
Commons. As Rothschild mournfully observes, ‘their language of 
enlightenment – their discourses on rights in the midst of 
conquest, and on freedom in the midst of terror – is still 
extraordinarily difficult to make sense of.’

She gives close attention to the fate of two Johnstone slaves, 
whose cases in different ways made history. Bell or Belinda was 
brought back by John from Bengal to serve in his Scottish mansion. 
There, in 1771, she had a baby whose corpse was found in a nearby 
river. (Suggestively, nobody asked who the father was, but 
somebody unknown paid her legal expenses.) Bell was sent for trial 
in Perth on presumption of infanticide, but the case was dropped 
for lack of witnesses and she was ordered to be transported to 
Virginia and there sold: her price to be remitted to John 
Johnstone after deducting the transport costs.

This was the last case in Scotland to recognise that one human 
being could be the property of another. Joseph Knight, a Jamaican 
brought to Scotland by Margaret Johnstone’s son-in-law John 
Wedderburn, won an appeal against his enslavement. In 1773, Joseph 
decided to leave his master, who went to law. But the sheriff 
depute of Perthshire found that ‘the state of slavery is not 
recognised by the laws of this kingdom and is inconsistent with 
the principles thereof,’ and his judgment was upheld by the Court 
of Session in 1778. The ‘Somerset case’ in England, in 1772, had 
released a slave by deeming him entitled to habeas corpus. The 
Joseph Knight case, however, was the first ‘general determination’ 
in England or Scotland that slavery was illegal.

The family correspondence does not so much as mention Bell/Belinda 
or Joseph Knight. They were ‘invisible’ in polite intercourse. 
Instead, the letters are about sibling news, money and, above all, 
about things: teacups, bad claret, cuttings and seeds sent out to 
distant places, and repeatedly about textiles – linens, shawls, 
muslins, ‘Dutch Pretties’, ‘Patna Chints’ and so endlessly on. 
Rothschild delicately brings all this cloth to life, showing how 
each had significance for the Johnstones’ inner lives. (Docile 
Betty’s only rebellion against her parents came when she thought 
her mother had taken a special piece of Indian muslin which John 
had meant her to have; the row was so fearsome that she left home 
and didn’t come back for two years.)

The letters are also about advancement. The book is a lexicon of 
how ambitious young Scots made their way. You ‘waited on’ 
important figures, to beg for a job or at least for a 
recommendation. You wrote ‘solicitations’, letters asking some 
connection or acquaintance to put in a word for you. You tried, 
with family help (and the wealthy Johnstones unfailingly funded 
the poorer ones), to buy a military commission. You married money 
(as William spectacularly did, and ‘poor unlucky Jamie’ didn’t). 
And, as Rothschild points out, advancement was not possible 
without information, without the rapid distribution of news and 
gossip and debate which fuelled the Enlightenment and was the 
purpose of the Johnstone family letters.

In discussing how to get on, the Johnstones also revealed the 
dense web of connections through which they operated. Scotland 
then held just over two million people, of whom only a tiny number 
owned property or hung around Edinburgh salons. It was natural for 
the Johnstones to know and be known in the small worlds of the 
law, philosophy, science and literature, even though none of them 
– with the exception of George – was what we would now call an 
intellectual. Hume admired and corresponded with William and 
George; William studied under Adam Smith and boarded in his house; 
Adam Ferguson was George’s secretary on a mission to Philadelphia.

They were physically related to many denizens of those small 
worlds. Rothschild’s minute research shows, for instance, that in 
the Joseph Knight case the sheriff’s brothers had been close 
friends of John in India and George in the navy, that John 
Wedderburn’s first counsel was his first cousin, whose father, 
Lord Pitfour, had been the judge in the Belinda case, that 
Wedderburn’s second counsel had studied under Adam Smith with his 
wife’s uncle William, that Sheriff John Swinton had also been 
Bell/Belinda’s agent at her original precognition. It surely says 
a lot for the Scottish Enlightenment and its wider ‘disposition’ 
that such a bold and independent judgment emerged from that 
bramble-bush of relationships.

What were the Johnstones like to know? Would we take to them, if 
resurrected? Probably not. Rothschild calls them ‘remiss’ by 
Enlightenment standards; lacking moderation and consistency, they 
were erratic, quarrelled often and seldom cared about what 
happened to human beings outside the family and its circle. Having 
said that, much of what comes out in the letters is touching. 
John, for example, damned in public memory as a monster of 
colonial greed and corruption, was endlessly kind, generous and 
patient with his family, who adored him. George had noble dreams 
of a realm in Florida in which settlers, Choctaws and Creeks would 
have equal rights ‘to shew we are all one people’. John’s mother 
wrote to him in India: ‘you say fiveten years in indes has made a 
great choing [change] in your constitution it ought to be now in 
its prime all it can afoord you is not worth risquing it oh come 

There must be – there is – far more to know about the Johnstones. 
But Rothschild is writing an inquiry into thoughts and values 
rather than biography. The boundaries of her interest are rather 
austere. It’s almost incredible, for instance, that there are no 
illustrations at all in the book, with the exception of an 
absolutely beautiful Raeburn on the dust-jacket. This shows a 
young girl, the granddaughter of that Margaret who was a Jacobite 
rebel, eagerly reading a book to two smiling, faintly sceptical 
old people: her great-aunt Betty (the one who stayed at home) and 
her great-uncle John, the nabob of Bengal. Where are all the other 
family portraits by Gainsborough, Angelica Kauffmann, Romney and 
probably many others?

Where, come to that, is Scotland? A perspective which would set 
this extraordinary family into the narratives of empire and 
expansion being assembled by Devine and others is without interest 
for Rothschild, who is travelling down a quite different 
historical path. In short, there is a large Scotland-shaped hole 
in the middle of The Inner Life of Empires. It’s symbolised 
perhaps by the publisher’s misspelling of Adam Smith’s home town 
Kirkcaldy in seven separate references.

It would surely not have been digressive to mention that James 
Johnstone was a political hero for Burns, who wrote election songs 
about him (‘Up and waur them a’, Jamie’ and the scorching ballad 
‘The Five Carlins’). Or that William financed and promoted Thomas 
Telford, who gave Britain its first modern infrastructure. Or to 
say at least something about the Darien Scheme disaster in the 
1690s – did the family lose its savings in the mania, like so many 
other laird houses, and how did it colour their approach to the 
new British Empire? Or to measure the distance the Johnstones had 
travelled in a few short decades after the Union. By about 1720, 
the family had reached at least relative security, emerging from a 
terrible century which had devastated south-west Scotland with 
famine, full-scale civil war and the fanatical guerrilla struggle 
of the Covenanters. Rothschild identifies underlying anxiety in 
the Johnstone letters, a constant fear that everything could 
revert to chaos. She considers that this anxiety sprang from the 
Enlightenment’s undermining of certainties. But family memories of 
Scotland’s bloody and beggarly 17th century must have been 
another, perhaps stronger source.

It’s pointless, though, to lament what a book is not. Within the 
limits it sets itself, The Inner Life of Empires is original and 
unforgettable. It’s not an easy read. But trouble taken to copy 
out the names and careers of the 11 siblings, who will otherwise 
grow jumbled in the reader’s memory, is well worth the while. So 
are the 152 pages of endnotes. Some will protest that their 
content should be in the main text, but I found their immensely 
detailed ramblings a rabbit-warren of intriguing information. The 
success of this book is that, once familiar with the Johnstones 
and their passions, doubts, hypocrisies and ambitions, a reader 
will always yearn to know more about them.

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