Kief Hillsbery

Empire Made

My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017

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Kief Hillsbery‘s Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) follows the career of Nigel...

Kief Hillsbery‘s Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) follows the career of Nigel Halleck, an English tax assessor in employ of the British East India Company and his travels on the Indian frontier from 1841 to 1878. Hillsbery reconstructs his ancestor’s life through his own travels to the region in the late 1970s. Believed by his family to be a gentleman gone rogue, gem smuggler, or possibly eaten by a tiger, Hillsbery unravels a fascinating tale of a man who choked under the stifling conditions of Victorian cultural norms and set out to reinvent himself at the court of Nepal during its years of self-imposed isolation.

A man with limited horizons for economic and social advancement in Victorian England, Halleck was obliged to seek employment with the Company. Seeking a life of adventure and self-expression on the other side of the world, Halleck instead found a life of shallow colonial routine in Calcutta. Halleck chaffed under the rules and regulations Company bureaucracy. He became increasingly alienated by his surroundings and began to question the racist assumptions of the British imperial project. Inspired by the career of Henry Lawrence, Halleck left the shadow of Company in search of his own autonomy in Nepal, a distant locale outside the reach of British rule. A linguist and explorer, Hallack became one of the first Europeans to visit the country. Under the Rana court, Halleck found his place as advisor and companion to Jang Bhadur Rana during a period of political reform.

Empire Made is an imperial history constructed from fragments of family letters, archival research, and the author’s own extensive travel in the frontier regions of India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. Hillsbery reconstructs the life of his ancestor while finding many parallels with his own experiences on the Indian frontier as a young man. In search of his uncle’s grave, Hillsbery uncovers the mysteries of Nigel Hallack, a nonconformist who transgressed the boundaries of colonizer and colonized as well as European attitudes towards homosexuality in the Age of Empire.


James Esposito is a historian and researcher interested in digital history, empire, and the history of technology. James can be reached via email at [email protected] and on Twitter @james_esposito_

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