Empire Made by Kief Hillsbery is part travelogue, part family memoir. It’s the story of Nigel Halleck who sets out from England to be a clerk in the East India Company in 1841. But it’s also the story of his American nephew many times removed, who travels to India, Nepal, England, and Afghanistan, to unearth Nigel’s story.
I loved the rabbit-holes of the Raj the book took me down—the Golghar in Patna, the Russian in the court of Nepal, the machinations following Ranjit Singh’s death, the atrocious goings-on at Haileybury, the origin of the phrase “in the nick of time,” the sad tale of the decline of Dacca and its eponymous muslins, and so much more. The book follows the slow evolution of the Company from a band of feckless adventurers into the instrument of Empire but along the way, the tales of oddball characters lend enchantment (Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, is just one among them). Fluid writing with an engaging narrative sweep. I found it pleasing when odd, unexpected connections showed up–e.g., Monier Williams whose Sanskrit-English Dictionary sits authoritatively on my bookshelf, was a classmate of Nigel’s.
Finally, Hillsbery offers an unusual take on all these layers of history for two reasons: firstly, because he’s American, he makes connections broader than either a British or an Indian writer might. He notes, e.g., how the Cornwallis monument in Calcutta commemorates his victories in battles against Americans in the Carolinas, Irish rebels in Connacht, and Indians under Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore. And secondly, while I felt from the start how deeply personal this story was, there remained mysteries about it that didn’t clear until the very end. At that point those elements became a kind of poetry, echoing fragments of information I’d had from the beginning, only it took this whole journey through history and geography for me to understand what they meant.
I suppose the question to ask yourself, in every writing project that comes your way, is “What draws you there?” Those lines connecting writer and subject gained in strength and significance as I read my way through this book, each link placed clearly and with intention.