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John Keay (born 1941) is an Englishmarker journalist and historian. He specialises in writing popular histories about Indiamarker and the Far East, often with a particular focus on their colonisation and exploration by European. His sweeping narratives, driven by meticulous research and a highly readable style, have put him on a par with similar authors like Patrick French and William Dalrymple.

Life and career

John Keay was born in Devonmarker, Englandmarker to parents of Scottishmarker origin. He studied at Ampleforth Collegemarker in Yorkmarker, before going on to read Modern History at Oxford Universitymarker. Among his teachers at Oxford were the famous historian A.J.P. Taylor and the future playwright Alan Bennett. Keay was a resident of Magdalen Collegemarker and lived on the same floor as Girish Karnad, a Rhodes Scholar from India who became a renowned dramatist and film actor.

In 1965, he visited India for the first time. He went to Kashmirmarker for a fortnight's trout-fishing, but liked it so much that he returned the following year, this time for six months. It was during his stay in Kashmir that Keay decided upon writing as a career. He joined the staff of The Economist magazine, and as their political correspondent, he returned to India several times to cover various elections and conflicts. He also started contributing stories to BBC Radio.

In 1971, he gave up his correspondent's job in order to write his first book. Into India was published in 1973. Keay followed it up 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). The two were later combined into a single-volume paperback by John Murray.

In the 1980s, he worked for BBC Radio as a writer and presenter, and made several documentary series for the Third Programme, the highbrow BBC radio channel. 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.


  • Into India (John Murray 1973), ISBN 0-7195-2918-2
  • Where Men and Mountains Meet: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas, 1820-75 (John Murray 1977), ISBN 0-7195-3334-1
  • The Gilgit Game: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas, 1865-95 (John Murray 1979), ISBN 0-7195-3569-7
  • India Discovered: The Achievement of the British Raj (Windward 1981), ISBN 0-7112-0047-5
  • Eccentric Travellers (John Murray 1982), ISBN 0-7195-3868-8
  • Highland Drove (John Murray 1984), ISBN 0-7195-4105-0
  • Explorers Extraordinary (John Murray 1985), ISBN 0-7195-4249-9
  • The Royal Geographical Society History of World Exploration (Hamlyn 1991), ISBN 0-600-56819-9 (ed.)
  • The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company (HarperCollins 1991), ISBN 0-00-217515-0
  • The Robinson Book of Exploration (Robinson 1993), ISBN 1-85487-240-0 (ed.)
  • Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland (HarperCollins 1994), ISBN 0-00-255082-2 (ed. with Julia Keay)
  • Indonesia: From Sabang to Merauke (Boxtree 1995), ISBN 1-85283-545-1
  • Last Post: The End of Empire in the Far East (John Murray 1997), ISBN 0-7195-5346-6
  • India: A History (HarperCollins 1999), ISBN 0-00-255717-7
  • The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named (HarperCollins 2000), ISBN 0-00-257062-9
  • Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East (John Murray 2003), ISBN 0-7195-5583-3
  • The Spice Route: A History (John Murray 2005), ISBN 0-7195-6198-1
  • Mad About the Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South East Asia (HarperCollins 2005), ISBN 0-00-711113-4
  • China: A History (HarperCollins 2008), ISBN 978-0-00-722177-6

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