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Linda Colley (2003), Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850, London: Pimlico

This is the third of a series of book reviews in which we ask an academic and a student to review the same work. Suggestions of books to review are welcome.

Linda Colley (2003), Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850, London: Pimlico, 438pp
ISBN: 978-0-7126-6528-5 (paperback)


Review by Lucy Mayblin, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick

In the follow-up to her highly acclaimed book Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, Linda Colley presents us with an unfamiliar tale of empire. Hers is a history of failure, embarrassment and humiliation as much as it is of dazzling success in the field of global domination. Colley's point is that if a state whose home territory is a small island in northwestern Europe is to control colonies totalling three-quarters of the world's population, there must be mistakes and failures along the way. Using the captive narrative as her primary evidence base, Colley combines 'the large-scale, panoramic and global, with the small-scale, the individual, and the particular' (p.17). This is a fresh perspective on a well-researched topic and provides a welcome retelling in a fluid and compelling manner.

The book is divided into three main sections dealing with the Mediterranean region, India and America respectively. Each section contains a selection of captive narratives and untold histories which do what all good histories should do: make the reader take a second look at the past. What is particularly interesting about the book is less the previously untold stories of individual captives, and more the fact of bringing attention to previously silenced histories around British failure in the process of empire-building. These are stories which appear to have been thus far erased from the grand narrative of British history. For example, the loss of Tangiers in 1684 was a farcical affair in which decades of effort and not insignificant funds were ultimately wasted in building a military breakwater which was doomed to failure and finally destroyed as the British retreated. The defeat in Pollilur in India in 1780 involved an entire army being killed or captured. Colley writes of how the real scale of captivity was less important than the power of rumour surrounding its extent, deepening 'the humiliation of an unsatisfactory imperial war and fostered hatred and apprehension of an insidious, too-efficient non-Western enemy' (p. 276).

Through complicating the story and problematising the representation of the British Empire as a slick operation, an unbeatable global force to be reckoned with, Colley undermines the rhetoric of success without disavowing the very real power which the country exerted. Indeed, the author is keen to point out that she does not wish to downplay the horrors committed under the British flag, nor the enduring legacies of empire worldwide. Nevertheless, if success is a theme, it primarily appears in the hands of those usually cast as the powerless natives. Indeed, the copious examples of captives adopting the local religion, clothing and culture, not to mention the slaughter and imprisonment of British forces by the very people that they were intending to dominate, are refreshing.

This is a popular non-fiction book as much as it is an academic text and as such will appeal to a wide audience. It is less a text to dip into for specific topic information and more a sustained argument worth reading from cover to cover. Students of the British Empire across the humanities and social sciences will enjoy the book, particularly those studying at higher levels.


Review by Erin Smith, School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS), Monash University

Images of the British Empire paint a picture of opulence and grandeur, of dashing military men and fragile English beauties transplanted to exotic but dangerous locales far from England's shores. In her book Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, Linda Colley dismisses this romantic fiction and replaces it with the narrative of ordinary Britons, both men and women, soldiers and civilians, held captive as Britain' s path to empire slowly took shape. Linda Colley's empire is one fraught with danger; captives travel the world in a perpetual state of peril, and few live to tell their tale. The backdrop for these personal accounts is a Britain imbued with 'an excess of overseas ambition married to a serious deficiency of domestic size' (p. 245).

In keeping with this excess of ambition and deficiency of size, Colley reminds the reader of the diminutive nature of Britain in relation to North Africa, North America and India. She notes that by the early 20thcentury 'Britain's authority stretched over a global empire 125 times larger than its own islands' (p. 6). Her writing style infers an almost 'incredulity' of the scope of the British Empire at its height, while examining both the sacrifice of ordinary Britons and the accommodating nature of the countries in which colonies were established in the early decades of expansion.

In many scholarly accounts of the British Empire, women appear as secondary to the central events of history, as whores or highborn partners to the main protagonists. Linda Colley's inclusion of the female narrative is of particular interest and an important addition. Empire was not exclusively a male dominion, but built on the sacrifice of both men and women. This particular addition of women as central to the captivity narrative and the construction of empire is one of the book's strengths; it provides the reader with a new prism through which to view empire-building.

Colley's book is divided into three parts; the first covers the British in North Africa, the second North America, and the third the British in India. One of the book's major strengths is the challenge of taking an alternative approach to the traditional stories of the British Empire. Rather than focusing on the narrative of grand historical figures, Colley gives voice to the ordinary soldiers and civilians, men and women, whose lives were irrevocably changed by their captivity experience. It is perhaps this voice of the regular person that one can relate to today. These detainees were not aristocracy, noblemen or noblewomen; the majority came from the lowest ranks in society and it is here that Colley has given the reader the opportunity to relate to these characters. These stories are often relegated to a line or two in many scholarly works but Linda Colley has given over the bulk of her evidence to voice of the common man and woman.

Colley not only provides an insight into the British in the early modern period, but also a highly informative and entertaining account by ordinary, everyday British men and women attempting to make sense of an utterly strange and frightening new environment. In addition, the author provides the reader with some understanding of the people and cultures the British encountered.

Captives: Britain, Empire and the World is a fascinating look at the precarious nature of empire building and the hazards inherent in constructing and maintaining dominion over vast regions of land and people far from the seat of power. It is also the story of how ordinary people play a role in empire building and it shows that without the sacrifice of so many everyday lives the British would never have been able to hold sway over one fifth of the global population. This book is a pleasure to read and is accessible to the historical sociologist, historian, anthropologist, and, indeed, anyone with an interest in the early modern period and the creation of the British Empire.


To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Mayblin, L. OR Smith, E. (2012), Linda Colley (2003), 'Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 5, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.