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A Very Satisfied Survivor

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,”1 a homey enough word for repeatedly circumnavigating the globe under conditions that ranged from enchanting to hellish, with hellish being by far the greater part. His later commander, Woodes Rogers, characterized their harrowing ocean odyssey (1708–1711) as a “cruising voyage.”2 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….”3 Marsh lived out her life in such a hectic fashion that, as Virginia Woolf says of Moll, “the one impossible event is that she should settle down in comfort and security…. She has a spirit that loves to breast the storm. She delights in the exercise of her own powers.”4 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 them. In a previous book, Captives,5 Colley has shown the cost of imperial expansion to some ordinary Britons who were captured by its enemies. Marsh figured briefly in that book as one such victim. The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh follows the travails and triumphs of an ordinary woman who exploited the chances that came her way within a world run by men.

Marsh, as Colley calls her throughout the book, was a child of the Royal Navy. Her father, Milbourne Marsh, was a shipwright, a highly skilled carpenter who built and repaired ships. The navy stationed him in Jamaica where he married the widow of a Port Royal tavernkeeper in December 1734. The records, or absence of them, suggest that she may have been of mixed race. Shipwrights enjoyed a measure of power and authority aboard Royal Navy vessels, where they ranked as warrant officers. Milbourne Marsh was able to take his bride aboard his warship, the Kingston, carrying her back to his home base of Portsmouth. A month after their arrival, Mrs. Marsh presented her husband with the daughter who is the subject of the book.

Elizabeth Marsh would grow up in a town where her family was deeply engaged in the unsleeping life of the dockyards. Chandlers, ropemakers, victuallers, armorers, and government officials made good livings off the Admiralty purse. Overseas expansion and long periods of warfare guaranteed that men who built and outfitted ships, and all those who “used the sea,” would be in great demand. The Marshes occupied a secure niche. Shipwrights did not qualify as gentlemen or their wives as ladies. But they were part of the respectable working class, and high enough to cherish thoughts of climbing higher. Not to cherish such hopes, in a world where kinship and friendship networks drove a system geared by kickbacks and gratuities, would have been thought peculiar. Living in what they knew to be “a prime site of state power and imperial projection,” the Marshes could believe “that they were marked out in some fashion” for better things.

One of them, Milbourne’s younger brother George, an earnest Horatio Alger type, was the one who clearly made it. He may have enjoyed some strokes of good luck along the way, but he quickly grasped the ins and outs of a system in which knowing the right people meant as much as doing the right things. He took care to do both. Beginning as a humble clerk, one among hundreds, he finished his life in 1800 as a commissioner of the navy, having served two decades as the not-at-all humble clerk of the acts, the post from which Samuel Pepys had made his mark on naval administration a century earlier.

His success made life easier for the other Marshes, not least his niece, who brought to the quest for better things less talent and less patience. Elizabeth had at best “an ironic counterfeit of genteel female education,” but was fluent in French and had a head for figures. As Colley tells her story, it was a series of ordeals for a woman without fortune. Shrewdly resourceful, Marsh was also charmlessly self-centered. She did not return her husband’s affections and left her children in the care of others for long stretches. Her staid Uncle George is a more sympathetic figure, whose generosity (and regard for the family name) frequently rescued Marsh from difficulties. He became one of the links to the larger world that Colley emphasizes throughout the book. In fact, he provides much of the documentation of her life.

Colley draws no lessons from Marsh’s difficulties, but constantly invokes developments in diplomacy, warfare, commerce, and technology to explain why and how her tribulations reveal “a woman in world history.” By making these connections she tells us a good deal about the course of empire. Without them, Marsh’s life, while full of incident, would not add up to much. Marsh herself seems to have been oblivious to the larger significance of the great events of her time—the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution.

Her adventures began in 1755 when she was twenty. By then Uncle George, at thirty-two, had acquired enough bureaucratic muscle to have her father posted as naval officer of the port of Mahon on the Mediterranean island of Menorca. To Menorca the family followed, just as England’s Seven Years’ War with France (1756–1763) was beginning. Milbourne had started consolidating the island’s defenses when the navy abruptly ordered him to nearby Gibraltar to take up the larger duties of master shipwright of the fortress.

As Milbourne’s daughter, Elizabeth would have been a person of some consequence within the naval world of Gibraltar. Yet after barely two months she daringly decided to return to England. Moreover, instead of lingering while her father wangled a berth for her on a navy ship, she took passage on the merchant vessel Ann, commanded by James Crisp, a Menorcan acquaintance. Barbary pirates easily captured the unarmed Ann two weeks into the voyage. Thus in August of 1756, a month shy of twenty-one, Marsh found herself on a mule, plodding toward Marrakech for an audience with Sidi Muhammed, the sultan of Morocco, and facing the prospect of entering his harem.

Marsh did not tell what happened next until thirteen years later, and then under the goad of financial desperation. The Female Captive explained that she and Crisp pretended to be married. They reckoned that the sultan would not immure a married woman in his seraglio when he could populate it with youthful virgins. For his part, the sultan was described by the British ambassador as “a man of great quickness of parts and discernment,” but also known for his “excess in women in which he confines himself within no bounds.” When he interviewed Marsh he showed her an unlooked-for respect. For her part, she declared, “I was not indifferent to him.” She rejected his advances, if advances there were, as if it were actually in her power to deny him, and similarly disdained efforts to convert her to Islam. Or so she said in her memoir.

It was in the sultan’s power to keep Marsh and Crisp as mere slaves, the fate of most captives. But infidels who looked as though they were worth it could be held for a ransom that surpassed their sale value as slaves. After protracted negotiations Sidi Muhammed was able to secure trading privileges, admittedly small, and sundry naval stores in exchange for them and their shipmates. He permitted a fifty-gun man-of-war to anchor off Sla to embark Marsh, Crisp, and the Ann‘s crew. By December they were back in Gibraltar, doubtless the objects of wonder concerning their deliverance from a fate that, in many minds, was worse than death.

Marsh now had to ruminate on whether she had, for survival’s sake, broken the bounds of respectability. Sailing without a chaperone had already grazed the limits. Pretending to be Crisp’s wife clearly passed them, even as a charade, in its implied physical and emotional intimacy. The ruse could scarcely be kept a secret from the good folk of Gibraltar, for the two had talked their shipmates into calling them Mr. and Mrs. Crisp.

Crisp, it turns out, had actually proposed marriage before Marsh’s ill-advised departure. Elizabeth had rejected him, or her parents had. They had betrothed her to the heir of a Scots naval dynasty, Henry John Phillips, who would take the name Towry when he inherited. Alliance with the Towrys would have elevated the Marshes to a higher sphere of navy politics and administration. After her captivity and the ensuing blot on her reputation, Phillips withdrew his suit. The greatest opportunity of Marsh’s life fled with him: she was not to be the lady wife of a gallant post captain. So she had to be grateful when Crisp offered to make their feigned marriage a fact, retrieving some measure of respectability. They were formally wed in November 1757.

  1. 1

    Dampier introduced the word to the English language, with numerous others he coined. See Diana and Michael Preston, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind (Walker, 2004), p. 243.

  2. 2

    Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Around the World: First to the South-Seas, thence to the East-Indies and Homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. Begun in 1708 and Finish’d in 1711 (London: A. Bell and B. Lintot, 1712).

  3. 3

    Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, with an introduction by Virginia Woolf (Modern Library, 2002), p. 25.

  4. 4

    Woolf’s introduction to Moll Flanders, p. xiv.

  5. 5

    Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600–1850 (Pantheon, 2002).

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