When we remember such events as the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and consider current reports on the “detainees” at Guantánamo 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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.