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.

Although Marsh seems to have regarded the marriage as a comedown, Crisp came from an established family of merchants trading in Barcelona, Hamburg, Genoa, and Scotland. A man of his standing would have been expected to look for a wife with more prestige and wealth than Marsh, who brought no dowry. That he had earlier sought her hand suggests that he could afford to forgo an infusion of capital and had feelings for her that she never gave positive signs of reciprocating. During the following decade, despite the hazards of war—or because of them—he engaged with his partners in high-risk, high-profit trading whose returns were boosted by smuggling contraband wine, brandy, and silk handkerchiefs into England. The flush times ended when three of Crisp’s grain vessels were lost, not to the high seas but to a tangle of red tape in Genoa, which brought down his other maritime ventures. When the newspapers announced his bankruptcy in March 1767, it came as no surprise.

Bankruptcy was a disaster for his wife’s social ambitions. But Uncle George helped cushion their downfall, having introduced Crisp to the powerful Earl of Egmont. The two became close friends, suggesting that Crisp had personal appeal that Elizabeth never acknowledged. When the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763, and England acquired East Florida, Egmont and Crisp floated schemes to found a settlement there. Even as his trading ventures collapsed, Crisp was marking a map of Florida with the names of Upper Crisp, Lower Crisp, and Lake Crisp. In 1769, however, facing imprisonment for debt, he fled in the opposite direction. He sailed for India, deserting his family.

Beset by relatives who had disapproved of her extravagance and social pretensions, Marsh showed her initiative by belatedly writing up her Moroccan captivity. To induce a publisher to take it, she solicited subscriptions from the elevated circle of friends she and Crisp had acquired. While in no way a literary masterwork, The Female Captive was still the first writing in English on Morocco. It was also, in Colley’s reading, “explicitly an assertion of exceptionality”—and exceptionality was the theme of what remained of Marsh’s life.

Proceeds in hand, she sailed for India on a Royal Navy ship, reuniting with her husband in 1771, thus joining the next wave of Britons who, as Defoe delicately put it, were “oblig’d to seek their Re-establishment abroad.” Comfortably ensconced, Crisp was pulling the strings he always discovered among boyhood chums, family connections, and mercantile and government cronies. He applied his trading skills to exporting Indian textiles and his political connections to obtain a lucrative administrative post. Their son was consigned to a merchant in Persia, who promised to give him the requisite language and business skills to make his own way in the world. Their daughter was farmed out to her grandfather Milbourne. Such separations, however painful, were common in the eighteenth century. Mr. and Mrs. James Crisp lived in considerable luxury in the city of Dhaka—big koi in the small pond of English and European expatriates.

Marsh must have sensed that the rules of respectability prevailing in white, Protestant London were now open to rewriting. Captives makes the point that the passengers and crew hauled by force off European ships were dragged across a line into societies where they had to rethink social laws and customs:

Virtually all British captives… were compelled by the nature of their predicament to re-examine—and often question for the first time—conventional wisdoms about nationality, race, religion, allegiance, appropriate modes of behaviour, and the location of power.6

Marsh’s report of her Moroccan sojourn stresses her rejection of Muslim faith and mores, but the experience had shown her that the world did not begin and end with London and Portsmouth, or their outlier communities of Menorca and Gibraltar. As in Morocco, so in India, she crossed a line. Within their tiny cosseted enclaves she and other Britons might affirm old standards of behavior, but somehow the standards operated differently.

How differently is evident in an adventure that Marsh documented in her only surviving journal. After less than three years in Dhaka, Marsh boarded a riverboat for Calcutta, 380 miles to the southwest. There she took passage on the Goodwill, a supply ship leased to the Royal Navy, launching herself on an excursion of nearly one thousand miles to Madras, pausing for fun and refreshment at every sizable town. Returning north the same way, she left the Goodwill at Ganjam for a hazardous overland trek of 370 miles to Calcutta. After being absent for eighteen months she returned to her husband.

It has been said that adventure is discomfort recollected at leisure. Discomfort there must have been, in the oppressive heat, abrasive dust, and strange surroundings, but Marsh surmounted them all, leaving us a cheerful account. While she jotted down many details of native life, they in no way demonstrate intellectual curiosity or acumen. Colley reminds us that long-distance travel is not a modern invention. What makes Marsh’s peregrinations exceptional is her choice of traveling companion and the reception they got.

George Smith was a commissioned officer in the East India Company’s army. Marsh calls him her cousin, but the kinship is doubtful. At one point they lived for weeks in a house he owned, to every appearance a wedded pair. People must have assumed that she was sleeping with him, but their sexual entanglement seems not to have been held against them. Shortly after they embarked at Calcutta, their ship came up with the Royal Navy squadron in the Bay of Bengal. Marsh was soon giving tea to the officers in her “very comfortable, excellent” cabin on the Goodwill. As the couple proceeded down the coast to Madras and back again, they made frequent stops at ports and inland towns. At Masulipatam, she bragged, “my tea table was the resort of all the sensible and polite, and crowded every evening.” East India Company officials at Ganjam gave a ball in Marsh’s honor, which she opened with a minuet.

Some of this attention was owing to her Marsh relatives. The naval officers she entertained “were well acquainted with most of my family,” who had achieved a solid reputation for their services to the fleet. But another reason for her celebrity must have been the sheer size of her entourage. She and Smith were conveyed virtually everywhere in separate palanquins, each carried by four slaves. Even after dismissing most of their “coolies” the Marsh-and-Smith road show raised a lot of dust. Their armed escort and retainers numbered sixty. Anyone traveling in such style deserved respectful attention.

Had James Crisp done so well that he could treat his wife and her paramour to an eighteen-month extravaganza? Why would he? And just who in the world was George Smith, with his common name and vague antecedents? If he was big enough to pay the bill, or high enough in the company’s favor to warrant such an expenditure, why does he not figure more prominently in the archives that Colley has combed for every trace of Marsh? She suggests that Marsh’s friend Richard Smith, a former commander in chief of the East India Company army but probably no kin to George, may have supplied the guards.

Whoever footed the bill, the episode gave Marsh a taste of the grand life she yearned for. Presiding at balls in her honor and making entrances at lavish picnics were distinctions she could never have dreamed of back home. If the Marshes thought themselves destined for something special, this must have been it for Elizabeth, who had not distinguished herself other than as a ransomed abductee. And that experience was one she had felt constrained to present to the world anonymously. As Colley observes:

For the daughter of a shipwright, who was compromised in different ways by her past, these were ravishingly flattering experiences, and the portions of her diary devoted to them are dizzy with exultation.

How could this passage to India have rewritten the rules of respectability to make Marsh’s journey triumphal rather than sordid? Those who welcomed the travelers were not opulent heathens. The hospitality and friendship, the tokens of “condescension” as it was then called, were extended by expatriate English men and women and others who aped their genteel ways. They were people who would have been dressing for dinner, attending services on Sundays, riding blooded horses, or painting watercolors of fabulous scenes in an India that had few resident white civilians of the middling and upper classes. Unlike the colonists of North America, they lived among the natives, but they saw themselves as proudly British. What made them play up to a woman who “had incontestably passed outside the conventions of proper female behaviour that pertained in her lifetime and after”?

In Captives Colley assessed the grave risks that the expansion of the British Empire posed for its ordinary members. Elizabeth Marsh’s odyssey suggests some of the opportunities it opened. Showing off a lover would have been unthinkable in England. That in India it brought her the esteem accorded persons of rank suggests what the empire offered to social climbers. Back home it was only those at the top who could flout the rules of respectability. In the mid-eighteenth century, as Colley observed in an earlier book, it was “possible for high-ranking politicians like Viscount Bolingbroke or Robert Walpole or the Earl of Sandwich to flaunt the fact that they were keeping mistresses and to be blithely unconcerned about newspapers and cartoons publicizing it.”7 Sandwich, as it happens, became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1763. He was thus not only George Marsh’s boss but, as an earl, however dissolute, vastly his social superior.

Nobility seldom graced the overseas empire by settling there, although scions of great clans might cut a figure as royal governors or military commanders, as Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, did in India a generation later. Geographical features might carry their names (e.g., the Sandwich, later the Hawaiian, Islands), but they themselves tended to stay away, much as James Crisp’s patron projected a Florida settlement without bearing a hand in its development. In their absence, what counted was not birth but rather wealth.

In British America big planters and rich merchants occupied the top of the social ladder. Many of them quietly broke the rules of respectability. Did Thomas Jefferson suffer loss of prestige from his relationship with Sally Hemings? Does Marsh’s escapade show that apparent wealth conferred an exemption from the rules that governed the behavior of whites in India? The would-be genteel upbringing and schooling that Colley dismisses as “an ironic counterfeit” seems to have passed for hard currency on the far side of the world. In the meantime England was changing in the direction of more stringent standards of acceptable behavior. Lydia Bennet’s elopement with a raffish officer in Pride and Prejudice (1813) gave her mother the vapors and brought her entire family to the brink of social ruin.

Marsh’s success is evident not only in the welcome afforded her and Smith but also in the fact that her adultery seems not to have been held against her thereafter. She lived with Crisp again, but when he died in 1779, she was in England. Uncle George smoothed the way there, and back again to India. His widowed niece settled near Calcutta, where she presided over the nuptials of her daughter to an Irish adventurer of dubious character but ample fortune. After a painful surgical operation Marsh died in 1785, too soon to glory in her son-in-law’s ascension to a baronetcy.

What are we to make of the woman that Colley has sensitively depicted? Elizabeth Marsh was not one of those “neglected” figures that historians are always rescuing from obscurity. She was not a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. She was a woman who made the most of the cards dealt her, attaching herself to some of the rising men in the world of British trade and naval power. In world history Marsh was a witness without insight into what she witnessed. While Great Britain was gathering in all those pink bits, she was traveling as supercargo. She stands, with a host of other Britons, as a counterpoint to the American colonists, who could not put up with an empire run by the likes of the Earl of Sandwich.

Marsh was no rebel, no reformer, and no aspirant to heroism. For her, as for George Marsh, the powers of the earl—and of the other noble lords who ran George III’s government so badly—were a given. So, too, were the rules of respectability that she skirted. But within what was given, she made her life her own. She was a survivor. Her life exhibited the self-respect, and self-regard, that surviving requires. While self-respect was driving Americans out of the empire, Marsh was nourishing her own within its embrace. How she did it, as Colley shows here, tells us something about the people of the island that for so long ruled two fifths of the world.

This Issue

September 27, 2007