by Linda Colley

Britain’s pursuit of empire seems an inexorable march across continents toward its ultimate—if temporary-—global hegemony. But, as Linda Colley shows in this masterfully written book, Britain’s overseas enterprises were always constrained by its own limitations in size, population, and armed forces, and by divisions among its…  See more details below


Britain’s pursuit of empire seems an inexorable march across continents toward its ultimate—if temporary-—global hegemony. But, as Linda Colley shows in this masterfully written book, Britain’s overseas enterprises were always constrained by its own limitations in size, population, and armed forces, and by divisions among its subjects-—constraints and deficiencies that could make the dream of empire an ordeal even for its makers. Drawing on a wealth of captivity narratives by men and women of different social and ethnic backgrounds from the early seventeenth century to the Victorian era, Colley chronicles the complicated dynamic between invader and invaded.
Here are the stories of Sarah Shade, who was married to a succession of British military officers, attacked by tigers, and imprisoned by Indian ruler Tipu Sultan; Joseph Pitts, a white slave in Algiers from 1678 to 1693 and author of the first authentic—and very complimentary—English account of the pilgrimage to Mecca; and Florentia Sale, a captive in the Kabul insurrection of 1841 who used her time in confinement as an opportunity to interview military men for her memoir. There were also those who crossed the cultural divide and switched identities, like the Irishman George Thomas, a mercenary fighter for Indian rulers and failed dictator, and those who crossed but made it back, like John Rutherfurd, the onetime Chippewa warrior and Scot.
Colley uses these extraordinary tales to trace the changing boundaries of Britan’s pursuit of empire and its shifting attitudes toward Islam, slavery, race, and American revolutionaries.
Hailed by The Financial Times as a“White Teeth version of imperial history,” Captives is at once an
original chronicle and a prescient meditation on the meaning of empire.

Author Biography: Linda Colley has taught at Cambridge and Yale and is currently Leverhulme Research Professor at the London School of Economics. In 2003, she will become Shelby M. C. Davis Professor of History at Princeton University. Her most recent book, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, won the Wolfson Prize.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
The story of the British Empire has often been told as a steady, irresistible rise. Colley, however, shows how complex and uncertain that rise really was by examining the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Britons taken captive in America, North Africa, and India between 1600 and 1850. Captives embodied the costs of empire and the possibility of failure. Many of them came from the lower classes -- a reminder of the fact that those who built the imperial edifice were usually not its prime beneficiaries. Often, they spent years living in -- and even accommodating themselves to -- foreign cultures, underscoring the fact that the Empire always depended as much upon negotiation and collaboration with local peoples as upon sheer force. Colley's final, provocative suggestion is that it wasn't just the actual hostages who were held captive but, rather, all Britons who found themselves in empire's thrall.
Publishers Weekly
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. Agents, Emma Parry and Michael Carlisle. (Jan. 7) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
The author of the best work on British national identity, Britons, Colley has now written an equally remarkable book that shows the other side of the coin: the British imperial experience as seen through the writings of British soldiers and civilians captured by their "native" enemies. She insists on the importance of Great Britain's "smallness" (geographic and economic), a trait that put great pressure on its limited armed forces but also aided Britain's imperial success by fueling extroversion, greed, and aggressiveness. At the same time, she points out, this empire had huge costs, including the very large numbers of British captives, which she documents along with their reactions to their foreign captors. The number of British captives was highest in North America, and it was no coincidence that the British became the most aware of the strains of empire there, especially when London had to try to maintain a balance between the demands of land-hungry settlers and the decent treatment of Native Americans. In India, meanwhile, British captives wrote letters that the Britons at home had no interest in publishing; it was feared that the treatment imposed on the captives could be viewed as "shame, degradation and terror." Another fascinating chapter looks at Afghanistan, comparing a nineteenth-century dispute over British captives there to the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1979-81. Both Britain and the United States were traumatized when a weak opponent "held their compatriots at mercy." Her conclusion emphasizes the insecurity caused by the discrepancy between Britain's size and its empire's reach, and the likelihood that in the twenty-first century "covert empire" might last farlonger, "being in the main contiguous, land-based," and endowed with weapons of mass destruction.
Kirkus Reviews
Of empire-building, discovering the Other, and going native: a thoughtful reappraisal of England’s centuries-long process of world conquest.

English literature offers two great, conflicting parables of that process, writes Colley (History/Princeton Univ.; Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837). The first is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, whose shipwrecked protagonist "uses force and guile to defeat incomers who are hostile, while firmly organizing those who defer to his authority"; the second is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, whose eponymous hero finds himself captured by unimpressed locals who "sell him like a commodity, turn him into a spectacle, and sexually abuse him." Both parables are useful to keep in mind, Colley writes, in following the fortunes of the British warriors who carved out an overseas empire hundreds of times larger than their homeland and dominated a quarter of the world’s people. Many of them fell captive to the nations they set out to overwhelm, and much of England’s knowledge of those nations came from their accounts of being ransomed or escaping, through books and broadsides such as Joseph Pitts’s True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohammetans (1704). Colley combs through that library to chart Britons’ evolving view of their would-be subjects, and offers some interesting notes along the way; for instance, while discussing representative texts of the "Indian captivity narrative," perhaps the earliest literary genre of European America, she volunteers that Britons’ relations with peoples throughout the world were "complex, mutually uncomprehending, but by no means automatically hostile," a far more useful take than the usual good-versus-bad ofpostcolonial studies. Indeed, Colley writes, the most successful of the empire’s soldiers had the wisdom to acquire knowledge of the other, court "indigenous tolerance," and even consent, and otherwise behave in un-Crusoe-like ways as they went about their business--behavior that counted as much as any weapon in coloring so much of the world map scarlet once upon a time.

A nuanced complement to the growing library of revisionist histories of empire.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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9.84(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.41(d)

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