Maya Jasanoff

Hearts of Darkness

The incoherence of the British Empire

Was there ever really a British Empire? Cartographers certainly wanted you to think so. Starting in the late eighteenth century, British mapmakers colored territories ruled by the British in red or more often in pink (for contrast with the typeface). At the height of Britain’s global power, imperial pink tinted a quarter of the map. Suspended on the walls of schoolrooms around the empire, the map became one of the most memorable icons of British dominance.

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The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century HistoryBy Emma Rothschild (Princeton University Press, 483 pp., $35)  BY A RURAL SCOTTISH river on an early summer’s day in 1771, someone makes a catch: a package wrapped in cloth, and inside the cloth, a baby boy, and on his tiny sodden body “the marks of violence” that may have caused his death. It does not take long to identify a suspect, the infant’s mother, who works in a nearby household. She is brought to the local sheriff’s court, interrogated, and charged with the murder of her son. Every suspect, by definition, invites doubt.

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A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War By Amanda Foreman (Random House, 958 pp., $35) The world’s biggest superpower has a problem. The citizens of a nation overseas have risen up against their tyrannical rulers, determined to claim liberty even if it takes a civil war. As the most powerful global advocate of freedom, the superpower has to admire the rebels’ cause. Should it help them? Humanitarians argue that intervention can prevent hundreds of thousands of civilians from suffering hideous state-sponsored subjugation.

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