Edge of Empire, Mahogany, and the English Industrial Age

In the latest of our recommendations series for undergraduate History degree applicants, we spoke to Dr Kate Smith, Senior Lecturer in 18th Century History.


Maya Jasanoff's work is always insightful, thought-provoking and rigorous in its approach. I would recommend you take a look at one of her earlier books, Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture and Conquest in the East 1750-1850. Here Jasanoff explores how Europeans engaged in imperial projects of conquest, such as the East India Company, collected objects while working and living on the Indian subcontinent. The book examines how such collecting was deeply related to broader imperial processes of conflict, power and accumulation.

If you are interested in Jasanoff's work and her focus on objects (and the processes they illuminate), you might also want to read Jennifer Anderson's brilliant book Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America. Anderson's work investigates not only the objects made from mahogany in the eighteenth century, but also the material itself. Her book explores the political, cultural, social and economic impacts of producing mahogany in large quantities, particularly in terms of enslaved labour and violence. Anderson also examines the ecological impacts of utilising mahogany, showing us the complex consequences at stake in material processes.

If questions of methodology interest you, you could also look at Carolyn Steedman's Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age. In this book Steedman asks what it means to research an individual (Phoebe Beatson - an eighteenth-century servant) who is ostensibly absent from the historical record. There are no documents written by Beatson, she only appears through the words and records of others. Steedman asks, what might such history do and mean? A great book, that really makes you think about the nature of history and what we do as historians.