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 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 Cádiz, 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.
Professor Robert C. Davis, an authority on the Muslim enslavement of Europeans and a source cited by Colley, estimates that only 3 to 4 percent of the European slaves were freed by being ransomed. Colley assumes that a much higher number of British were ransomed, and, while citing some evidence to the contrary, she takes a much more benign view of Muslim servitude than he does; she is more skeptical about the standard accounts of torture, overwork, and deprivation given by white slaves who were redeemed. Though there were some highly privileged slaves in the Barbary states, the same can be said of the Americas, and one must always be on guard against romanticized views of the various forms of pre-modern bondage that were never scrutinized by abolitionists.
Colley does acknowledge that all British slaves became commodities and could be sold, lent, inherited, or sexually exploited by their masters. An English galley slave, harshly whipped as he rowed under a blazing North African sun, might well have preferred picking cotton in nineteenth-century Georgia. The claims that the slavery of Muslims was benign and paternalistic closely resemble the mythology that was long prevalent in the American South, a mythology that is sharply contradicted by most of the narratives of former slaves that Colley discusses. Nevertheless, since the British government needed Barbary allies, the British may have been more successful in redeeming a higher percentage of captives than were nations that had a longer history of warfare with Islam and that were less successful in raising enormous sums for ransoming their larger numbers of white slaves.
Colley gives a fascinating account of the success of the English churches, politicians, and “local dynasts” in raising ransom money from virtually all sectors of society, even in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Barbary enslavement became the central symbol of oppression as redeemed captives were paraded through the crowded streets of London and taken to special thanksgiving services at St. Paul’s Cathedral. They often wore the filthy, tattered clothes from their enslavement, as well as chains and shackles. In 1680 a substantial part of the adult population of Tavistock, Devon,
clubbed together to raise over £16 for the captives…. Almost everybody gave something, from Lady Mary Howard who topped the list of donors with ten shillings, down to poor Elizabeth Harris who could only afford a single penny.
Colley stresses that these redemption ceremonies were “less spectacular and protracted” than their counterparts in Continental Europe, where the Catholic states joined the Mercedarian and Trinitarian Fathers in year-long public campaigns that began with the ransoming itself followed by the ceremonial escort of freed captives from North Africa to their homelands in France, Spain, or the Italian states. Because the British government’s attitude toward the Barbary states and the Ottoman Empire was more “ambivalent,” Colley points out, and the redeemed captives were not kept under official control, their voices reached the public “through a rich variety of unofficial media.” By 1740 James Thomson could capture a new defiant consensus with the unforgettable lines: “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!/Britons never will be slaves.”
Colley makes a brief but imaginative comparison between the strong public response to the plight and redemption of British captives and the much later but even stronger public support for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and the emancipation of British colonial slaves. She carefully refrains from drawing any causal connections. In Spain and France the fanfare and the enthusiasm over freeing fellow Catholics never led to popular movements to outlaw their own slave trading. Indeed, for a time some of the ransomed European slaves engaged in their own slaving raids against Muslims as a form of revenge. The spontaneous upsurge of antislavery movements that began in Britain in the late 1780s was truly unique. It drew on traditions of literature, poetry,4 drama, and especially religious developments that went back to the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century.
Ironically, Colley suggests that a dramatic increase in the Barbary capture of Englishmen in the early 1600s, occasioned by the Stuart kings’ new alliances with Catholic Spain and Portugal, the Muslims’ worst enemies, contributed to the growing public anger that led to the civil wars. In any event, it’s quite possible that the long example of Barbary enslavement of “innocent and ordinary people,” as a symbol of the ultimate form of oppression combined with the demonstration that enslavement was apparently a “rectifiable evil,” prepared Britons to “transfer” this sense of injustice to the otherwise alien black African captives.
As Colley moves on to North America, we’re reminded that John Smith, who was captured in Virginia by Powhatan’s Indians and then “rescued” by Pocahontas, had earlier been captured and sold as a slave by Ottoman Turks. Colley adds that many of the 400,000 English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish who crossed the Atlantic in the seventeenth century were familiar with the stories of their countrymen who had been seized by Muslims, stories that inevitably influenced the new genre of stories of capture by Indians. To maintain a sense of proportion, however, Colley compares the New England colonists’ massacre of hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children in 1637 with the slaughter of perhaps one third of the German civilian population in the contemporary Thirty Years’ War. She also shows that the Britons at home had little interest in stories of North American captivity, at least until the Seven Years’ War, which ended in 1763. That event marked a significant decline of the Ottoman and Mughal Empires as well as a dramatic expansion of the British Empire from the Caribbean and Canada to Bengal. By then thousands of British soldiers and colonists had been seized by American Indians, who were often fighting for the French. The accounts by former captives provided grisly details of torture, humiliation, executions, and even coerced cannibalism, thereby challenging earlier images of “noble savages of the woodlands.”
While Colley succeeds in conveying the complexity of the relations between Indians and whites, her book is weakest in her treatment of the American Revolution. She never mentions the large number of blacks who fought on the revolutionary side; and she reveals a strange prejudice against Vermont when she calls Ethan Allen “superbly bloody-minded as only Vermonters can be.” She seems unaware that in 1777 Vermont became the first region in human history to outlaw slavery by specific constitutional mandate.
Colley’s major theme in her chapters on India is that Britain had “an excess of overseas ambition married to a serious deficiency of domestic size.” Since Britain was so limited in its own population and since the mortality of British troops en route to India was comparable to that of African slaves on the Middle Passage, the growing empire was “run and garrisoned by Indians,” especially “sepoy” troops, many of whom were more loyal and disciplined than lower-class British soldiers in Afghanistan during the disastrous defeat of 1841–1842. They did not rebel until what was for the British the major “mutiny” of 1857 and 1858. Earlier, following Britain’s unexpected defeat in the American War of Independence, the East India Company was still able to enlist nearly 170,000 sepoys to fight for the British cause, and for their own subjection in India. Moreover, thousands of African slaves or former slaves wore the redcoats of West India regiments in order to fight the Napoleonic French and in effect preserve Britain’s slave colonies in the Caribbean.
The French, for their part, sponsored a Muslim warlord in the Indian province of Mysore, where by 1784 some 1,700 British-born captives found themselves imprisoned. Some of these soldiers described for their countrymen the effects of forcible circumcision on their manhood and their very identity. In the words of one ensign: “I lost with the foreskin of my yard all those benefits of a Christian and Englishman which were and ever shall be my greatest glory.”
Colley emphasizes that Britain’s imperial expansion between the 1770s and the 1840s was related to a succession of revolutions, including revolutions in technology and industrialization. The British government and ruling elites faced a turbulent and potentially rebellious lower class at home, a population explosion that disciples of Malthus viewed with alarm, and a continuing eruption and dissemination of subversive printed words that challenged traditions and authority. In regions like India, a disturbing number of military renegades and deserters, many of them Irish, adopted Indian dress, grew beards, and even settled down with Muslim or Hindu women. This background helps to explain why England continued to send to India so many working-class soldiers, whom Colley calls “captives in uniform.” They were looked upon, as one British private put it, “as the lowest class of animals, and only fit to be ruled with the cat o’ nine tails and the Provost Sergeant.” In Colley’s words, these agents of empire were burdened with
stinking, unsuitable red woollen uniforms in dingy barracks or insect-infested tents…. They were shipped abroad, often in foul conditions and sometimes against their will. They could be separated from their families, womenfolk and culture of origin for decades, often for ever. If judged disobedient or rebellious, they were likely to be flogged. If they tried to run away, they might be executed; and if they stayed and obeyed orders, they were apt to die prematurely anyway.
Until the 1840s, regular army troops usually remained in India, without a break, for as long as twenty years. And unlike America or Australia, India was not a colony in which soldiers could settle. Few were allowed to bring their wives from Britain, and bans on intermarriage encouraged Indian prostitution. Like slaves, British soldiers continued to be disciplined by the lash even after whipping was prohibited for Indian troops. Nevertheless, the East India Company attempted to use stories of the captivity of British soldiers by Indians as an antidote to late-eighteenth-century reports and cartoons of British soldiers engaged in rape, pillage, and uncontrolled atrocities. By Queen Victoria’s time, in the late 1830s, the lower-class brutes, rogues, and scum had been transformed into a caring Christian army and “our brave lads abroad” (as in Gunga Din).
In her conclusion, describing the oppression and supreme arrogance of Britain’s “inherently unnatural” empire, Colley sounds almost like a contemporary German or Russian looking back upon an age of horrors. Yet the evils of Britain’s past are somewhat mitigated by the sheer humanity of the captives’ narratives, by the suffering of such people as some 16,500 British and Indian troops and camp followers who were forced by Afghans to march the 116 miles from Kabul to Jalalabad in the bitter-cold winter of 1842 (most of them died), and by Colley’s tirelessly repeated theme of Britain’s smallness (in unmentioned contrast, one knows, to present-day America). Colley may overdo this emphasis on Britain’s size, especially when one thinks of Athens, Rome, Mecca and Medina, or Portugal. But Colley is no doubt correct when she asserts that
Queen Victoria was precisely emblematic of her empire. Statues of her (invariably much larger than life and raised high on pedestals) preside over town squares around the world, while her name remains linked even now with huge tracts of land and mighty natural phenomena. Yet the reality behind this global ubiquity and the calculated evocations of tremendous size was actually a dumpy woman less than five feet tall. Victoria the Great was also Victoria the small.
May 29, 2003
Admirably played by Sam Jaffe. ↩
Yale University Press, 1992. ↩
See my article “Slavery—White, Black, Muslim, Christian,” The New York Review, July 5, 2001, p. 51. ↩
The importance and tradition of antislavery poetry can now be seen in James G. Basker’s invaluable collection, Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery, 1660–1810 (Yale University Press, 2002). ↩