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.
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.