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In the middle part of the nineteenth century, the ideas and practices of empire went through fundamental reconfigurations. Still built on the old imperial processes of subjugation and exploitation, the new imperialism also carried an ideology of reform, improvement, and order, not unlike those presented to working-class subjects of empire in Europe. The new vehicles for managing and expanding empire were reactions against anti-imperial resistance as well as pressure from humanitarian ideals. At the core were struggles over concepts of race, development, and capital that would help undo almost all empires in the century that followed.

As the most influential, and probably also the most powerful, empire in the mid nineteenth century, Britain relied on its military forces and an extensive imperial civil service to serve its purposes. James Bruce (1811-1863), the eighth Earl of Elgin, may serve as an epitome of the imperial agent in his era: Governor of Jamaica and Canada, emissary in China and Japan, and Vice-Roy of India, Elgin became the quintessential troubleshooter for the British empire as it was immersed by dissension and rebellions. His life allows us to explore dimensions of imperial rule in the mid nineteenth century at their peak and their nadir.