Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850

Linda Colley

Pimlico 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
The later strength of the British Empire has often veiled its early weaknesses, both actual and perceived. In Captives, Linda Colley tackles one aspect of this, Britons in captivity, focusing on the captivity narratives they produced and their reception. She covers three periods: North Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, North America up to and including the American Revolution, and India and Afghanistan from around 1760 to 1840. The result is a lively read which offers intriguing insights into some of the neglected aspects of Empire and into the social history of Britain more generally.

From 1662 to 1684 Britain maintained, at great cost, a colony at Tangier in North Africa. This now little known episode exemplifies the "paths not taken, interludes of defeat, sporadic failures and significant limits" which beset the paths to Empire — and also the central role of the Mediterranean in British policy.

Barbary corsairs were widely feared, and with good reason. Colley estimates that there were "at least 20,000 British and Irish captives held in North Africa between the beginning of the seventeenth century and the mid-eighteenth century." The responses of the British state were limited, since maintaining bases at Gibraltar and Minorca against Catholic Europe required alliances with North African states. Ransoms were left to private collections and publicised from the pulpit and through widely distributed captivity narratives.

Encounters in the Mediterranean zone also forced a rethink of British attitudes to Islam. With the Ottoman empire still an imposing presence, Islam was different and inferior, but also strong: "Britain's disdain for Islam and the Eastern ... was — before 1750 especially — more apparent, noisy, and ritualistic, than profound and formative."

Turning to North America, Colley considers attitudes to Native Americans and responses to stories of Britons held captive by them; there was a divide here between the colonies and metropolitan Britain.

"London's newspaper and book press devoted little sustained coverage to settler experiences in America, as distinct from details of transatlantic trade."

The Seven Years War against France brought British regular troops to North America and changed the way Britons received stories of captivity. Though the war was a resounding success, increasing knowledge also helped to fuel panics in Britain about emigration and "the smallness of its own size, resources and population". Post-war "British reactions and references to Native Americans were sometimes conspicuously sympathetic".

Tens of thousands of British soldiers and seamen were taken prisoner during the American Revolution. In North America there were obvious problems defining "British" and "American", while recognition of Americans held in Britain as prisoners of war would have implied recognition of their government. Stories about captivities and the mistreatment of prisoners played a part in both sides' propaganda campaigns, but were used more effectively by the Revolutionaries.

The early history of Britain and the East India Company in India is one of relative weakness, heavily dependent on Indian manpower. And there was homeland ambivalence about Britons who spent too much time in India:

"to those on the home front, Britons in India still seemed a long way away, the agents of a greedy, grasping Company rather than of the nation at large, alien in terms of their reputed behaviour, and altogether unworthy of much sympathy."

In 1780 Tipu Sultan, king of Mysore, defeated the British at Pollilur, taking thousands of captives. At first few accounts by these were published; the government took a relatively pro-Mysore stance and criticism of the army was widespread. Growing British power and militarisation saw a change in attitude, however.

"The rewriting of Mysore captivity ordeals from the 1780s onwards was one of the ways in which — very much with official sponsorship — the British military overseas was repackaged for improved domestic consumption."

Colley goes on to consider British soldiers as "captives" of the system, in many ways treated worse than native sepoys. She also looks at the presence of renegades and the persistence of corporal punishment, which contrasted with changing attitudes to the working class and slavery in Britain.

An epilogue considers the disaster in Afghanistan in 1841/1842, which "in some ways ... was not an aberration in British imperial terms at all". Colley considers 19th and 21st century perspectives on a British Empire, "characterised at its core by insecurities and persistent constraints". And she brings out some parallels and contrasts with the much stronger American empire.

This summary of Captives fails to capture what is perhaps its strongest point — the details Colley marshals, in particular the compelling stories of individual captives. This is of course anecdotal evidence, with no methodical sampling, and it's hard to know how much weight it should be given in judging her broader theses, but Colley has done us a great service in bringing it into the light. Anyone curious about the origins and evolution of the British Empire should find Captives enthralling.

December 2003

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%T Captives
%S Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850
%A Colley, Linda
%I Pimlico
%D 2003
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0712665285
%P 438pp