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Catching the Conquerors


by Linda Colley
Pantheon, 438 pp., $27.50


When we remember such events as the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and consider current reports on the “detainees” at GuantĂĄnamo Bay and the prisoners of war in Baghdad, it becomes clear that the era of America’s global dominance is also an era of American and foreign captives. But those of us who are old enough to remember maps of the world on which about one fourth of all land (over 14 million square miles) blazed forth in red, depicting a British empire on which the sun “never sets and never rises,” do not automatically associate the winning of such an empire with hundreds of thousands of British captives, the subject of Linda Colley’s book.

Reading Captives, though, I recalled the film Gunga Din, in which three dashing British sergeants, Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., were taken captive in India by the murderous Hindu “thugs.” It was Gunga Din,1 Kipling’s slave waterboy, “a better man than I am,” who climbed, wounded, to the top of the thugs’ golden temple and alerted with his trumpet the about-to-be-ambushed regiment of Scottish Highlanders and Bengal Lancers.

Like the famous film, Linda Colley’s fascinating book links captivity with imperial expansion and underscores the Britons’ ultimate dependence on loyal “natives” like Gunga Din. But far from romanticizing Britain’s “dream of global supremacy,” Colley, author of the now classic book Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 2 and a Briton herself, presents British imperialism as a collective crime of “oppression, exploitation, violence, arrogance, slavery and racism” that warrants more than apology and badly needs much further investigation and understanding. Colley succeeds in conveying the complexity of Britain’s imperial expansion as well as the effects of empire-building on the small, vulnerable, and often uncertain island nation of England, Wales, and Scotland.

She fails to consider, however, why so many Americans could identify with the three sergeants in Gunga Din, having long cheered on their British predecessors as allies in creating a vast and “civilized” Anglo-Saxon-dominated world. One would never suspect from reading Captives that British occupation had had any positive effects or legacy whatever, such as eradicating most forms of slavery and creating the educational systems that prepared many future third-world leaders, writers, and scholars to complete their training at such institutions as Cambridge and Oxford (or the London School of Economics, where Colley was Leverhulme Research Professor before moving this year to become Shelby M.C. Davis Professor of History at Princeton).

Between 1600 and the 1640s or beyond, there were many more English slaves in Muslim North Africa than African slaves under English control in the Caribbean.3 When during that period more than eight hundred British and Irish trading vessels were seized in the Mediterranean and Atlantic and most of some 12,000 Britons were enslaved for life, it was only natural for their countrymen to associate “slavery” with white Christian captives in Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunisia. Linda Colley shows that these victims of Barbary corsairs, who continued to be enslaved through much of the eighteenth century, were among the first of hundreds of thousands of British men, women, and children who were taken captive as British bases and colonies expanded over the years from the Mediterranean to North America, India, and Afghanistan. Colley draws on more than one hundred printed and manuscript narratives written or dictated by former English, Scottish, and Irish captives. Whether discussing India or Morocco, she makes telling observations from her own travels (somewhat in the way that Francis Parkman, one of America’s greatest historians, did in the nineteenth century). For example:

If you visit Rabat in Northern Morocco, once a major corsairing centre, you can still enter the medina or old city through the Bab Mellah, and stroll along the narrow and tumultuous Rue des Consuls to one of the places where white captives are known to have been sold, the Souk el Ghezel. But even if you can resist being distracted along the way by the smells of fresh mint, ground spices and new-baked bread…you will still find precious little to see when you finally arrive. The place where unknown numbers of British and other European captives were once stripped, fingered, and haggled over, is now a tree-shaded car park and home to some of Rabat’s best wood-carvers, quite lacking in any indicators of its former use.

Colley is also deft in providing the setting of events, and artful in her selection of diverse stories to tell.

For example, in order to dramatize the importance of linguistic comprehension and of being able to tell a story of captivity to the right people, Colley describes the seizure and enslavement of two Moroccan sailors, whose release helped to make clear the eighteenth-century boundary between legitimate and illegitimate enslavement. Having first been captured in 1736 by a Portuguese cruiser, a Moroccan sailor named Hamet and his friend escaped and then trusted an English ship captain whom they understood to be headed for England, where he could arrange their return to Morocco.

At that time Britain was dependent on Morocco for various kinds of support in the Mediterranean, and treaties supposedly bound both countries to prevent enslavement on either side. But Hamet and his friend could not understand English and eventually discovered that the English captain had sold them to a plantation in South Carolina, where they worked as slaves for fifteen years. During that time they learned English, which enabled them to tell their story first to the bankrupt plantation’s creditors, and then to South Carolina’s royal governor. He, amazingly, shipped them home to Morocco where, even more amazingly, the British envoy paid them an enormous sum in compensation. This was at a time when few if any officials were troubled by the fact that British ships were transporting hundreds of thousands of slaves from regions south of Morocco to the New World.


Colley makes the important point that historians’ recent interest in the transatlantic slave trade has understandably diverted attention from the Muslims’ enslavement of tens of thousands of British sailors, fishermen, petty traders, and even women and children, especially between 1600 and the 1730s. One needs to emphasize that Barbary corsairs enslaved far more Spaniards, Italians, Frenchmen, and Portuguese than they did British citizens, not only by capturing European ships but by raiding the coastlines of southern Europe. Muslim corsairs also captured and enslaved coastal peoples in western England, the Channel Islands, Ireland, and even Iceland. And though Colley does not mention this, the Barbary enslavement of American sailors became one of the major issues of foreign policy for the administrations of Washington, Adams, and then Jefferson, who finally retaliated by launching four years of naval assaults against Tripoli and other “piratical” Barbary powers.

Colley makes some interesting comparisons with modern Islamic terrorism when she discusses the extraordinary vulnerability of British sailors, maritime passengers, and even farmers and residents of coastal towns in England’s West Country of the time. She does not, however, position Barbary corsairs as part of some multi-millennial global struggle between a Christian and civilized West and a “barbarous” Barbary or Islam. Indeed, she briefly considers and rejects Edward Said’s “powerful and seductive theory” that negative and debasing stereotypes of Islamic cultures prepared the way for British invasion and domination “once the other technical, economic and military preconditions were in place.”

Not only was Islam “linked in British minds with aggression against themselves,” as opposed to their own future conquests, she writes, but Britain became increasingly dependent on supplies and support from Barbary states as it sought to expand its trade in the Mediterranean and monitor the usually hostile Spanish and French fleets at CĂĄdiz, Cartagena, and Toulon. The ardently Protestant British looked upon their Catholic enemies as more serious threats than the Muslims, though Colley could have added that in this period, Christians in Western Europe only rarely enslaved other Christians.

Moreover, even in the mid-seventeenth century, as trade with the Muslim world increased, Morocco established a large embassy in London; Oxford and Cambridge founded chairs in Arabic; and Britons could for the first time read the Koran in English translation. Since the British looked upon Muslims as an urban, civilized people, as opposed, for example, to American Indians or sub-Saharan Africans, a “multi-faceted British discourse on Islam” developed along with a strange mixture of “captivity, commerce and Christian scholarship.” One of the greatest fears about captivity, reinforced by many genuine and shocking examples, was that British slaves would convert to Islam, be circumcised, and become assimilated into a highly alien culture. In 1750 it was still inconceivable that by 1850, Britons would rule millions of Muslim peoples.

England’s first and little-known attempt at Mediterranean conquest ended in disaster. Colley’s four chapters on the Mediterranean are the most memorable in the book, and her treatment of England’s occupation of Tangier, a North African base dominating the Strait of Gibraltar, is especially original and interesting. In 1661 King Charles II acquired the Portuguese settlement of Tangier as part of the dowry of “his sad, barren Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza.” The English were determined to gain greater access to Mediterranean markets and thus to a supply of silks, calicos, spices, sugar, dyestuffs, wines, figs, oranges, and olives. Having access to these goods, as well as finding markets for British exports, seemed to the British much more important than the economic benefits of the North American colonies. The British also believed that engineers could transform Tangier into a strategically ideal free port protected by huge fortifications and a harbor deep enough to shelter the Royal Navy’s largest warships. As work continued on a huge artificial breakwater, some four thousand English troops, many of them veterans of Cromwell’s New Model Army, joined crowds of English, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, French, Jewish, and Italian civilians in Tangier.

But until the nineteenth century Europeans did not have superior weaponry, and the British greatly underestimated Moroccan military power. By the early 1680s, the Moroccan army had captured three of Tangier’s forts and killed the British governor and hundreds of his troops while capturing and enslaving at least fifty-three more. The surviving colonists felt they were, in effect, trapped in a foreign prison until, in the settlers’ words, Charles II recalled them “from danger to security, from imprisonment to liberty, and from banishment to our own native country.” They soon left. Earlier, the Moroccans had profited from the services of many British deserters who were lucky enough not to be caught and hanged by their own countrymen or enslaved and shackled by them. Colley convincingly uses the often repressed or airbrushed story of English defeat in the seventeenth century as an initial example of the human cost, in the pain, suffering, oppression, and anguish experienced by these mostly lower-class Britons, of even small-scale imperial expansion.

Colley should have done more to differentiate chattel slavery, to which British prisoners in North Africa were subjected, from other forms of captivity, particularly that of prisoners of war. But she usefully points out that some of the white slaves of the Arabs and Berbers could at least look forward to the possibility of being ransomed. That could never have been a hope for the “Slavic” slaves in the late-medieval Mediterranean or for the African slaves in the New World.

  1. 1

    Admirably played by Sam Jaffe.

  2. 2

    Yale University Press, 1992.

  3. 3

    See my article “Slavery—White, Black, Muslim, Christian,” The New York Review, July 5, 2001, p. 51.

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