chapter  2
30 Pages

History as Imperial Lesson

S ir James Mackintosh sailed back home from Bombay on November 6, 1811.1 He found himself in the ship a “spacious apartment” o f nine square feet with one side port, two windows to the deck, sitting at a desk

placed on an old library-steps table alongside a large camphor trunk full o f books and papers. “My happiness at present,” he wrote at the time, “depends on a few simple circumstances . . . a cool breeze and a quiet quarter deck.”2 On board he began composing the introduction to his illustrious history of the 1688 Revolution. Writing amid the bustle, he likened his circumstances to those o f Julius Caesar trying to draw up plans for the next battle. The situation for the conception of a history o f England, he reflected, could not have been more curious; these were circumstances decidedly more “inauspicious and vulgar” than what Gibbon found as he lingered by the ruins o f the Capitol, listening to vespers that stirred the conception of his magnum opus. The setting was apt, nonetheless: “But a cabin nine feet square in a merchant ship, manned by Mahommedan sailors, on the coast o f Malabar, is, if not a convenient, at least a characteristic place, for the beginning of the history of a maritime and commercial empire.”3