In John Boorman’s charming movie Hope and Glory (1987), young Billy Rohan is carrying on being British in spite of the Blitz, with barrage balloons overhead and a gas mask tucked beneath his school desk. Pointing out “the pink bits” on the world map, his teacher grandiosely catechizes the students on the reach of the British Empire. “What fraction of the earth’s surface is British?” she barks. When Jennifer, the clever girl, correctly volunteers “two fifths,” Mrs. Evans declaims, “Two fifths, ours…. Men are fighting and dying to save all the pink bits for you ungrateful little twerps!”
The pink bits only got that way because of a huge national investment. Linda Colley has written a number of books that influence the way we think about the small country that got under its hand two fifths of the world’s landmass. She has highlighted particular individuals—visionaries in the old-school version—whom she portrays as caught in skeins of high endeavor, greed, and sanctimony. One of her subjects is the incitement to expansion offered by books of travel and adventure.
The English were a race of sea-farers who, as the navigator William Dampier put it, loved “rambling,” They were privateers, snapping up whatever enemy cargo vessels or undergunned and poorly officered hostile warships came within cannon shot. When Dampier and Rogers were not sweating the details of sailing for loot—something not easily done when in the grip of fevers, fluxes, and scurvy—they were scribbling in their journals, storing away impressions of new lands and waters. While England had no monopoly of travel literature, it produced brilliant examples that in turn inspired fictions like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722).
Elizabeth Marsh in some respects exemplifies the sharp-eyed roving Briton. Her story was lost until Linda Colley seized upon it as illustrating “a woman in world history.” Marsh reminds us of Defoe’s Moll, with her “Story fruitful of Instruction to all the unfortunate Creatures who are oblig’d to seek their Re-establishment abroad….” Not rich or well-born, Marsh knew how to place a high value on her worth as a human being, possessing an inner toughness that enabled her to breast the storms of a difficult existence. In a tour de force of scholarly investigation, Linda Colley has brought her to life, by following the surprisingly numerous tracks that ordinary people can sometimes, though rarely, leave behind …