The Anarchy by William Dalrymple review – the East India Company and corporate excess


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Patriotic myths are exploded in a vivid pageturner, which considers the Company as a forerunner of modern multinationals, ‘too big to fail’

About a century ago, a series of giant murals was unveiled in the Palace of Westminster depicting the “Building of Britain”, which bounded in eight set-pieces from King Alfred’s long-ships beating back the Danes in 877 to bewigged parliamentarians presenting Queen Anne with the articles of Union in 1707. The penultimate scene travels to India in 1614, where the Mughal emperor Jahangir receives an ambassador from King James I, on a mission to promote trade with the newly chartered English East India Company.

From the hindsight of the 1920s, this embassy looked like a key step in the building of a British imperium that would end with Britain’s monarchs as India’s emperors. But the arrival of the British in India in the early 1600s looked very ...

She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen review – the women of the Raj


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Katie Hickman’s study recounts stories with sympathy, clarity and verve, but raises the question of British misapprehensions about the empire

“It’s a well-known saying that women lost us the empire,” the film director David Lean said in 1985. “It’s true.” He’d just released his acclaimed adaptation of A Passage to India, EM Forster’s novel in which a British woman’s accusation of sexual assault compromises a friendship between British and Indian men. Misogyny may not be the first prejudice associated with British imperialists, but it has proved as enduring as it was powerful. As Katie Hickman discovered when she started writing about British women in India, Lean’s view (if not Forster’s) “remains stubbornly embedded in our consciousness”. “Everyone” she talked to “knew that if it were not for the snobbery and racial prejudice of the memsahibs there would, somehow, have been far greater harmony and accord between the races”.

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The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan review – the present and future of the world


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Power is shifting eastwards ... travels in central Asia prompt a breezy analysis of how the world will be

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the British empire spanned a sixth of the world, the geographer Halford Mackinder gave a lecture to the Royal Geographical Society laying out a theory of global power. “The pivot region of the world’s politics” was not in Britain or its seaborne empire, but “the vast area of Euro-Asia” that stretched from the Volga to the Yangtze. He called it the “heartland”, and whoever controlled it, he argued, controlled the world.

Mackinder’s vision stood at odds with the political map of his times. Britain, notably, did not control the heartland; nor did the next biggest territorial empire, that of the French; nor did the emerging rivals Britons were worried about, Germany and the US. A century later, Mackinder has enjoyed a revival for his ...

Victorious Century by David Cannadine review – a sparkling history of 19th-century Britain


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An era in which the UK enjoyed unparalleled influence in the world seems long distant but its contradictions remain embedded in our own

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1859, imagining France on the eve of revolution. He may as well have been describing Britain during his own century. It was an era when industry energised and enriched, but polluted and proletarianised; when men enjoyed expanding political rights but women’s freedoms were curtailed; when some rejoiced as the British empire flung pink arms across the world, but others resisted. It was a “Victorious Century”, as David Cannadine entitles this sparklingly intelligent survey, for a United Kingdom whose hegemony rivalled that of the US and China today – but a century of contradictions for the people who lived in it.

Victorious Century opens in 1800, with the passage of the ...

How Joseph Conrad foresaw the dark heart of Brexit Britain


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From financial crises to the threat of terrorism, the works of the Polish-British author display remarkable insight into an era, like ours, of elemental change in a globalised world

A terrorist bombing in London, a shipping accident in southeast Asia, political unrest in a South American republic and mass violence in central Africa: each of these topics has made headlines in the past few months. But these “news” stories have also been in circulation for more than a century, as plotlines in the novels of Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest and most controversial modern English writers.

Conrad is known to most readers as the author of Heart of Darkness, about a British sea captain’s journey up an unnamed African river. And Heart of Darkness is known to many as the object of a blistering critique by the late Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who condemned Conrad as “a ...

Koh-i-Noor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand review – an infamous diamond and imperial bloodshed


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A dynamic and gory history of the celebrated gem, from emperor Shah Jahan’s peacock throne in the 1600s to present-day demands for its returnInvestigative journalists know that the way into a great story is to “follow the money”. In this vivid history of one of the world’s most celebrated gemstones, the Indian diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor, Anita Anand and William Dalrymple put an inventive twist on the old maxim. “Follow the diamond,” they realise, and it can lead into a dynamic, original and supremely readable history of empires. Well before diamonds became a western synonym for wealth, Hindu scriptures endowed gems with magical, even divine, qualities, while central Asians – including 16th-century India’s Mughal rulers – prized rubies as tangible distillations of the light of the setting sun. On festive occasions the Mughal emperor would have himself weighed against offerings of gems, pearls and gold presented by his courtiers ...

The New Odyssey and Cast Away review – stories from Europe’s refugee crisis


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These detailed, passionate reports from journalists Patrick Kingsley and Charlotte McDonald-Gibson of perilous journeys across the Mediterranean aim at producing better policy through empathy
Spring is here, migration season in the Mediterranean. Warmer temperatures and fewer storms mean more boats putting out for Europe from Africa and Turkey. More boats mean more destitute migrants landing in Lesbos, Kos, Lampedusa – over 185,000 so far this year. More boats mean more wrecks, more losses: 100 people drowned or missing one April weekend, 500 the week before that, nearly 300 the month before. How did these holidaymakers’ paradises become the scene of postwar Europe’s greatest humanitarian crisis? The Romans called the Mediterranean mare nostrum, “our sea”, cuddling it like a pet in Europe’s mighty arms. But to understand what is happening now, it helps to look at a map in Fernand Braudel’s epic history The Mediterranean, which turns the cartographer’s ...