In this path-breaking book Linda Colley reappraises the rise of the biggest empire in global history. Excavating the lives of some of the multitudes of Britons held captive in the lands their own rulers sought to conquer, Colley also offers an intimate understanding of the peoples and cultures of the Mediterranean, North America, India, and Afghanistan.
Here are harrowing, sometimes poignant stories by soldiers and sailors and their womenfolk, by traders and con men and by white as well as black slaves. By exploring these forgotten captives - and their captors - Colley reveals how Britain's emerging empire was often tentative and subject to profound insecurities and limitations. She evokes how British empire was experienced by the mass of poor whites who created it. She shows how imperial racism coexisted with cross-cultural collaborations, and how the gulf between Protestantism and Islam, which some have viewed as central to this empire, was often smaller than expected. Brilliantly written and richly illustrated, Captives is an invitation to think again about a piece of history too often viewed in the same old way. It is also a powerful contribution to current debates about the meanings, persistence, and drawbacks of empire.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Colley (Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837) brilliantly marshals an array of captivity narratives by everyday Britons captured by foreign powers to show the dizzying ethnic and cultural complexity of empire. She considers four zones of the British Empire-the Mediterranean, North America, India and Afghanistan-between the years 1600 and 1850. For reasons of size, population and geography, Britain couldn't run its empire alone. In India and the Mediterranean, for example, collaboration and accommodation with indigenous groups was the rule; most "British" troops in India were native-born sepoys. And over two and a half centuries, tens of thousands of Britons were taken captive by foreigners. In North America, settlers were seized by Native Americans; sailors were sold into slavery by Barbary (North African) corsairs. Colley describes how these captives handled painful encounters with the "other." To a surprising degree, she shows, captives learned to adapt to, and accommodate, a vastly different cultural milieu. Colley also provides an original account of the Revolutionary War, showing how captivity narratives became part of the propaganda war. In India, most British captives were soldiers taken in battle. These Indian narratives "served to personalize overseas and imperial events" to the larger British public. Colley, who in 2003 will become Shelby M.C. Davis professor of history at Princeton, makes a first-rate argument for her provocative thesis about the complex cross-cultural relations of empire, with lucid prose, exhaustive research and surprising insights from unexpected sources. This is highly recommended for those wishing a more nuanced, inclusive and less monolithic approach to the British empire. 74 illus.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 05, 2004
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Excerpt from Captives by Linda Colley
The strip of sea that brought them to the shores of their new prize and the entrance to the Mediterranean is famously volatile. Even today, crossing or passing through the straits of Gibraltar, the narrowest stretch of water between Europe and Africa, is a slow and turbulent business. However bright the sunshine at embarkation, strong winds and rain can move in swiftly, blotting out coastlines and turning the oil-flecked, ultramarine sea into a choppy slate grey. In bad weather, the trip churns the stomach and can be dangerous. Migrant workers from Morocco and Algeria, their belongings tied up in immaculate brown paper parcels, together with some hardier backpackers will still entrust themselves to the larger, older ferry boats, huddling below deck amidst the cigarette smoke and old coffee stains. But comfortable tourists looking forward to a sea excursion from Gibraltar to Tangier ('Your Day Out In Africa') cancel their bookings in droves, while the smaller, faster hydrofoils linking Tangier with Tarifa and Algeciras in Spain sometimes cease operating. As for amateur craft, they can vanish altogether. Hundreds of men and women still die on this eight-mile stretch of water every year.
It was the unpredictability of its offshore waters, the sudden, violent rainstorms, and the quirks of the landscape that most impressed the English occupation force when it first arrived in Tangier in 1662, yet these things did not make the soldiers, officials and families feel any more at home. The fact that, at a distance and shrouded in mist, the low mountains behind Tangier might almost have passed for those of North Wales, only accentuated the strangeness of the rest: the clarity of the Mediterranean sunlight, the expansive sands, the luminosity of the settlement's white and ochre-coloured buildings, fruits and vegetables most of them had never tasted before, roses that bloomed even in winter. Sir Hugh Cholmley, though, remained undistracted and was immediately busy, for his mission was to regulate the sea itself.
Cholmley was a Yorkshire landowner from a moderately royalist background, a highly intelligent and driven man whose idea of relaxation was pegging away at mathematical puzzles. He was also a gentlemanly capitalist of a kind, as concerned to invest in England's intermittently expanding empire overseas, as he was to diversify his income at home. He developed the alum mines on his family estates at Whitby, married off his daughter to a speculator in Indian diamonds, and, most of all, applied himself mind and muscle to Tangier. Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, had acquired the settlement along with other colonial booty in 1661, as part of the dowry of his sad, barren Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza. One year later, Cholmley signed a contract with the government to build a mole at Tangier at the rate of thirteen shillings for every cubic yard completed. As Cholmley noted down with typical thoroughness, the word 'mole' comes from the French and Latin for a great mass. The idea was to construct a substantial artificial outcrop or breakwater from Tangier's natural shoreline, lined with cannon and other defences, and thereby make the harbour deep enough for the Royal Navy's largest warships, and a safer, more congenial haven for what was expected to become an ever-growing share of the world's trade.
For Tangier was and is a special place. Its now dated reputation for transgressive sexualities and international intrigue masks its extraordinary strategic and geographical significance, but does at least acknowledge the city's role as a meeting-place for different cultures. Adjacent to the point where the continent of Africa comes nearest to Europe, it is bounded on the one side by the Atlantic, while commanding on the other the western entrance to the Mediterranean. So its attractions for its English occupiers were profound and plural. At one level, Tangier offered a base from which they could look to make further commercial and colonial advances into the North African interior. At another, it supplied them with a naval stronghold from which to monitor the fleets of richer and more powerful European rivals, Spain, and above all France. At yet another level, Tangier guarded the entrance of what one contemporary called 'the greatest thoroughfare of commerce in the world', by which he meant not the Atlantic Ocean, but the Mediterranean, at this stage still the most profitable arena by far for English imports and exports. Trade with southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, Turkey and the Levant, had been expanding since before 1600. England shipped its cloth here of course, as well as fresh and salted fish for the Catholic ports, and by the second half of the seventeenth century an ever-growing supply of colonial re-exports, pepper, tobacco, sugar, East Indian silks and calicos. In return, the English looked to the Mediterranean for imports of Levantine silks and dyestuff, for Turkish cotton and Spanish short wool, for Italian wine and Portuguese Madeira, for leather and fine horses from Morocco, and raisins, figs, oranges and olives to diversify the diet of the well-off. Tangier appeared an ideal base and mart for this rich and varied commerce, and one of the first things that London did after 1662 was proclaim it a free port.