Barnstaple, Devon, England
|Occupation||Writer and historian|
|Known for||Histories of colonial Asia|
|Amanda Douglas (2014-), Julia Keay (died 2011)|
|Relatives||Anna Keay, Humphrey Atkins, Simon Thurley|
John Stanley Melville Keay FRGS, is a British historian, journalist, radio presenter and lecturer specialising in popular histories of India, the Far East and China, often with a particular focus on their colonisation and exploration by Europeans. In particular, he is widely seen as a pre-eminent historian of British India. He is known both for stylistic flair and meticulous research into archival primary sources, including centuries-old unpublished sources.
The author of some twenty-five books, he also writes regularly for a number of prominent publications in Britain and Asia. He began his career with The Economist. He has received several major honours including the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal. In 2019, he received an Honorary Doctorate, presented by Princess Anne, from the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland.
The Economist has called him "a gifted non-academic historian", the Yorkshire Post has called him "one of our most outstanding historians", The Independent has called his writing "exquisite" and The Guardian has described his historical analysis as "forensic" and his writing as "restrained yet powerful". He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Keay lives in both Edinburgh and in Argyll in the West Highlands of Scotland and travels widely.
John Keay was born on 18 September 1941 in Barnstaple, Devon, England, to parents of Scottish origin. His father Stanley Walter Keay (1902-72) was a master mariner and his mother Florence Jessie née Keeping (1905-92) was a housewife. He studied at Ampleforth College in Yorkshire before going on to read Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he earned high honours. Among his teachers at Oxford were the historian A. J. P. Taylor and the future playwright Alan Bennett. In 1965 he visited India for the first time. He went to Kashmir for a fortnight's trout-fishing and liked it so much that he returned the following year, this time for six months.
It was during his second stay in Kashmir that Keay decided upon writing as a career. From India, he sent unsolicited articles to many British magazines and newspapers and eventually joined the staff of The Economist (1965-71) and returned to India often as its political correspondent. He also started contributing stories to BBC Radio.
In 1971 he gave up his correspondent's job to write his first book, Into India, which was published in 1973. Keay followed it with two volumes about the European exploration of the Western Himalayas in the 19th century: When Men and Mountains Meet (1977) and The Gilgit Game (1979). These two books were later combined into a single-volume paperback by John Murray. Alexander Gardner (1785-1877), the American adventurer and mercenary employed by the Sikh Empire, who is featured in Keay's 1977 and 1979 books, is the sole focus of his latest book, The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner, released in 2017.
In the 1980s he worked for BBC Radio as a writer and presenter, and made several documentary series for BBC Radio 3. He also made programmes for BBC Radio 4. During this time he wrote India Discovered, the story of how British colonialists came to find out about the great artefacts of Indian culture and architecture.
John Keay's major books have all received strong positive reviews in leading publications in the UK, US, Asia and elsewhere. The professional recognition he has received has included the following:
His late first wife Julia Keay, née Atkins (1946-2011), was also a successful writer and historian. She was the daughter of the politician Humphrey Atkins. The historian Anna Keay (b. 1974) is the daughter and second child of John and Julia Keay. John Keay also has three other children with Julia Keay: Alexander (b. 1973), Nell (b. 1977) and Samuel (b. 1979). The architectural historian Simon Thurley is his son-in-law. In 2014 Keay married Amanda Douglas. Among his relatives, Keay had an uncle who was an Indian Civil Service officer in British India.