Keay, John 1941- (John Stanley Melville Keay)

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Keay, John 1941- (John Stanley Melville Keay)


Surname is pronounced "Kay"; born September 18, 1941, in Devon, England; son of S.W. (a master mariner) and F.J. Keay; married Julia Margaret Atkins, April 22, 1972; children: Alexander John Melville, Anna Julia, Nen Christina, Samuel M. Cosmo. Education: Magdalen College, Oxford, B.A. (with honors), 1963.


Home and office—Dalmally, Argyll, Scotland.


Economist, London, England, special correspondent, 1965-71; freelance writer, journalist, and editor, 1972—. Worked in advertising, printing, sales, engineering, and plumbing; traveled widely in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the United States.


Royal Geographical Society (fellow).


Into India, Scribner (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1999.

When Men and Mountains Meet: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas, John Murray (London, England), 1977, Archon Books (Hamden, CT), 1982.

The Gilget Game: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas, Archon Books (Hamden, CT), 1979.

India Discovered: The Achievement of the British Raj, Windward (Leicester, England), 1981.

Eccentric Travellers: Excursions with Seven Extraordinary Figures from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, John Murray (London, England), 1982, J.P. Tarcher (Los Angeles, CA), 1983.

Highland Drove, John Murray (London, England), 1984.

Explorers Extraordinary, J.P. Tarcher (Los Angeles, CA), 1986.

(Author of text) Rajesh Bedi, photographer, Banares, City of Shiva, Brijbasi Printers (New Delhi, India), 1987.

(Editor) The Royal Geographic Society History of World Exploration, Hamlyn (London, England), 1991.

The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company, HarperCollins (London, England), 1991, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.

(Editor) Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, HarperCollins (London, England), 1994, expanded edition, 2000.

Indonesia: From Sabang to Merauke, Boxtree (London, England), 1995.

Empire's End: A History of the Far East from High Colonialism to Hong Kong, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997, published as Last Post: The End of Empire in the Far East, John Murray (London, England), 1997.

The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.

India: A History, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 2000.

Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2003.

Mad about the Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South-East Asia, HarperCollins (London, England), 2005.

The Spice Route: A History, John Murray (London, England), 2005, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2006.


John Keay's forte is history—in particular, the history of Asia and the effect of colonial occupation in areas like India, the Himalayas, and Hong Kong. Keay counters Western-romanticized images of British colonialism with more down-to-earth facts. India: A History, for example, presents the British-born author as "no apologist for Britannia's rule," according to a Publishers Weekly review. He presents the India of the British Raj as one beset by unfair taxes, public turmoil, and political scandal. Empire's End: A History of the Far East from High Colonialism to Hong Kong chronicles the Far East under Western sovereignty until Hong Kong reverted back to mainland China. Noting Keay's "astute eye for psychology [and] well-honed British wit," a contributor to Publishers Weekly called Empire's End an "engrossing account of what remains for Westerners today's most important and misunderstood geopolitical region."

In The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company, Keay recounts the history of the roguish band of merchants who played a major role in the shaping of British rule in India. Chronicling what the author terms "commercial greed and political mayhem," the book portrays the often messy details of trade between East and West during the company's most active years, from 1600 to 1820. In its business dealings, English East India had "more than a little to be ashamed of," as P. Bruce Buchan observed in a Business History Review article, in its continuing exploitation of Asians in the name of profit. As Keay put it, this band of merchants and accountants "lived by the ledger and ruled with the quill."

The company itself was not immune from risk. The author details the extent to which Dutch rivals went to keep English East India out of the Indonesia spice trade: a form of water torture that left company mariners with bodies "swollen twice or thrice as big as before … eyes staring and strutting out beyond their foreheads." Then there was the fleet that ran afoul of Indian Hindus in 1721. The English East India leader, according to Keay, "had his tongue cut out, the tongue was then nailed to his chest, and he [was] then nailed to a log and sent floating down the river; the rest of the deputation were simply dismembered." Such revelations, in Buchan's view, help make the book "fast-moving, exciting and informative." Kenneth Labich reviewed Honourable Company for Fortune and found it "a lively, eminently readable narrative."

The English East India Company fizzled by the mid-nineteenth century, a victim of failing commercial activity. Toward the end its main revenues derived from the sale of opium. "It may have seemed a seedy end for such a formidable organization," wrote Labich, "but as Keay's delicious history makes clear, it was a fitting one." Like start-up enterprises throughout history, he added, the English East India Company "was never guided by any vision other than a single-minded, unreflective pursuit of gain."

In The Spice Route: A History Keay, for the first time, combines myriad histories of individual spices into a panoramic exploration of the ephemeral, sometimes almost intangible "trail" that brought the western world these delicacies, so rare and coveted that many were literally worth their weight in gold. Part geography of exotic lands, part history of the widespread spice trade, part a look at spices as political and financial tools, and overall a 500-page collection of colorful characters, anecdotes, and fables, The Spice Route draws into a single volume the centuries-old quest for adventure and riches beyond measure. Though scholarly in nature, a reviewer in African Business called the volume a "lush, evocative history … an exotic saga with the tang of drama in every voyage." In Geographical, contributor Jack Turner noted Keay's "impossibly exotic cast of characters" woven into "a mosaic of interlocking histories." He wrote, "Such a book has been a long time coming."

Keay adjusts his focus in Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East, concentrating on the sixty-year period from the collapse of the Ottomon Empire around 1900 to the Suez Crisis around 1960. He begins his presentation with the disclaimer that he is no specialist regarding the time period, the geographical area, or its religious and cultural constituents; this naivete may have contributed to the mixed reviews the book generated upon its publication. Keay's account was regarded as "highly informative" by Library Journal contributor Nader Entessar, but "highly biased" by Booklist correspondent Jay Freeman. Some reviewers pointed to a lack of balance in Keay's assessment of the Arabic residents of the Middle East as hapless victims and the intrusive Western influences on the region as primarily inept or heavy-handed meddlers, particularly regarding the creation of a Jewish homeland in Arabic Palestine. Others observed that Keay's account introduces events rarely mentioned in the traditional history books. For example, he explains that the countries of the modern Middle East were created mainly by renaming the administrative provinces of the old Ottoman Empire and assigning their sovereignty almost arbitrarily to local chiefs or nobles. Little regard was paid to the mixture of religious, cultural, fiercely tribal, and territorial ethnic groups who lived within, none of whom had practical experience with self-government or political diplomacy. In the case of Palestine, Keay reports that it was the existing Arabic population, not the hopeful Jewish immigrants as is often thought, who repeatedly rejected attempts at a settlement of peaceful coexistence in the region. Despite what Keay no doubt intended as an objective exploration or an alternative viewpoint with no particular agenda, the value of Sowing the Wind seems to remain in the eye of the beholder.



Keay, John, The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company, HarperCollins (London, England), 1991, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.


African Business, December, 2005, review of The Spice Route: A History, p. 64.

Booklist, April 1, 1994, review of The Honourable Company, p. 1412; May 15, 1997, review of Empire's End: A History of the Far East from High Colonialism to Hong Kong, p. 1559; September 15, 2003, Jay Freeman, review of Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East, p. 197.

Business History Review, summer, 1994, review of The Honourable Company, p. 174.

Business Traveller Asia Pacific, December, 2003, review of Sowing the Wind, p. 12.

Contemporary Review, November, 2003, review of Sowing the Wind, p. 320.

Far Eastern Economic Review, July 2, 1992, review of The Honourable Company, p. 26.

Fortune, July 11, 1994, review of The Honourable Company, p. 174.

Geographical, August, 2005, Jack Turner, review of The Spice Route, p. 80.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2003, review of Sowing the Wind, p. 95.

Library Journal, May 15, 1997, review of Empire's End, p. 86; September 15, 2003, Nader Entessar, review of Sowing the Wind, p. 74.

New Leader, November-December, 2003, Lawrence K. Grossman, review of Sowing the Wind, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly, March 21, 1994, review of The Honourable Company, p. 61; March 24, 1997, review of Empire's End, p. 68; December 13, 1999, review of India: A History, p. 70; August 4, 2003, review of Sowing the Wind, p. 68.

Wall Street Journal, June 3 1994, review of The Honourable Company; June 30, 1997, review of Empire's End.