There is a study to be written about intellectuals who undergo steady metamorphoses, who begin in one field and then change their areas of inquiry, broaden their questions and approaches, move from the narrow works of their youth to bolder theses that examine the world in a more original way and continually surprise you with their newest area of exploration. A nice case in point would be Linda Colley, successively professor of history at Yale, then at the London School of Economics and now heading to Princeton.
Colley's early training in history was under the formidable Jack Plumb at Cambridge University, and her work focused upon the relatively narrow subject of the Tory Party in mid-18th century Britain, a study in political history scarcely intended to get on the bestseller lists.
But she then devoted herself for a decade or so to researching and writing her major work, "Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837" (1992), which is perhaps the single most insightful book about how a modern people's national consciousness and sense of identity evolved. Here she explained how a precarious British state, coming out of a century of civil and religious strife, had become the best-balanced, most coherent power in the world by the time Horatio Nelson and Lord Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte. Even the loss of the American Colonies did not, essentially, upset that balance. Her book cast its gaze upon the whole nation: local pamphleteers, sermonizers in Essex pulpits, debates in the House of Commons, the change among the Scots from Jacobite rebels to the most successful "British" imperialists of the lot. Amazingly bold, multifaceted and deserving of its various prizes, "Britons" left the reader wondering what Colley would write as her next big project. Would it be, as some thought, a study of the ambitions and mentalities of British policymakers (the so-called Official Mind) in the pre-Victorian era? Or, perhaps, of the politics and culture of slow Imperial decline? Or of "British-ness" in general, on which issues she attracts the attention of none less than British Prime Minister Tony Blair?
Well, it was none of the above. The new book, "Captives," is another dramatic change of course, a study that is simultaneously quirky, brilliant and original. It returns us from "large" history, as the distinguished Harvard historian David S. Landes likes to call it, to something more special and focused. The British edition of this book keeps the subtitle simple but vague: "Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850." In the U.S., the "reading lines" on the cover underneath the title are far more confusing: "The story of Britain's pursuit of empire and how its soldiers and civilians were held captive by the dream of global supremacy, 1600-1850." How silly. Colley's theme is the exact opposite, and it is useful to explain why.
British and American editions have on the cover a graphic but small detail of John Vanderlyn's painting "The Murder of Jane McCrea," a close-to-pornographic oil painting of a young Scotswoman about to be scalped and slaughtered by two dreadfully terrifying, muscular, half-naked Indians in 1777. (The full portrait is included in the text, but the clever designer of the dust-jacket has simply extracted that segment of the painting that shows a strong, dark-colored male hand grasping a delicate, white, female wrist. The white person is a prisoner, held against her will. A captive. But she is about as far from someone captivated by "the dream of global supremacy" as the two dogs lying at my feet as I write this review.
At the initial level, Colley's subject is quite simple. Here we have an exhaustive study of the surprisingly large number (tens of thousands) of British men and women who fell prisoner in those various parts of the world -- Tangier, the Barbary Coast, Egypt, North America, India -- that were the object of London's trading and imperial ambitions between the early 17th and mid-19th centuries. Because many of these captives were later ransomed or recaptured, and because there was an immense interest among the London, Edinburgh and Dublin publishers to print their reminiscences after their return, a colossal amount of anecdotal data remains, forming the basis of Colley's book. And this is made more colorful by her decision to visit the places of capture, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar to nose around Tangier, exploring and describing the ruined fortresses of Mysore and so on.
The theme is a slightly quirky, one but much of this is simply fun reading. Was it possible, for example, that when Mozart was composing his 1782 opera, "The Abduction From the Seraglio," he was acquainted with the widely circulated 1769 memoir of Englishwoman Elizabeth Marsh's "The Female Captive"? Was it not chilling to Enlightenment contemporaries to read the accounts of someone who was an Iroquois captive for 10 years, or who lingered in the notorious prisons of the formidable Tippu Tip of Mysore? No wonder this was a popular genre.
Many of these real tales are every bit as daring as the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, or Patrick O'Brian or Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe -- who in Sharpe's "Tiger" is thrown into Tippu Tip's prison in Seringapatam, India -- and tell us where those three wonderful adventure writers found their inspiration. The accounts of the British officers who were imprisoned in Mysore and repeatedly tried to escape read like something out of the World War II prisoner-of-war tale of escape, "The Colditz Story" -- there is much ingenuity, pluck and, usually, failure, recapture and death. There are also many tales of individuals who switched sides and changed identities, out of ambition or merely to save their lives. Colley recounts the wonderful story of that nimble Irish Catholic, the self-proclaimed "General" George Thomas, who, against all odds because of his heritage, rose in the ranks and then deserted the Royal Navy while in Madras, served various Indian rulers and then set out to create his own principality, over which he claimed lordship. Alas, like the adventurers in "The Man Who Would be King" -- and Rudyard Kipling would surely have known the legend about Thomas -- the bold enterprise soon crumbled, and the self-proclaimed ruler had to scurry back to British imperial protection.
But this multitude of case studies (accompanied by 74 wonderful illustrations) also becomes the stuff from which Colley offers a challenge to the traditional tale of Imperial Britain's rise, one that was established in Sir John Seeley's "The Expansion of England" (1883) and of which the present reviewer (in "The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery" in 1976 and elsewhere) has been no less an advocate.
It was a predictable tale of a Britain that, through rising economic prosperity, industrial preeminence, naval domination and geopolitical advantage, was more or less destined to rule the waves and acquire great colonies. Despite Seeley's quip that the Empire appeared to have been created "in a fit of absence of mind," this view stressed imperial purpose and global destiny. It was the "Rule Britannia" version of history.
Yet Colley's latest assemblage of narratives tells a different tale. It is about a rather small and polyglot British race -- English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, aggressive and inventive -- that pushes itself out across the world though in a thinly stretched and very vulnerable manner. But British expansionists were also aware of the many vulnerabilities, of the country's miniature population, of the risk of creating interests and placing troops at the far end of an imperial chain. And those who went abroad were acutely aware of the possibility of being taken captive by furious, exotic enemies, whether Barbary corsairs or fierce, scalping Indians or menacing rajahs.
The book begins with a sad account of the failed British effort to develop their colony at Tangier (complete with a giant harbor) between 1661 and 1684, and ends with the now much-better-known story of the disastrous retreat of the British army from Kabul in 1842. Both in North Africa and Afghanistan, Britons were turned into captives -- in the latter case, Lady Florentia Sale (wife of the British second-in-command in Kabul, Sir Robert Sale, who was also captured) later made a great deal of money on her bestseller, "A Journal of the First Afghan War" (1843), which was quoted in parliament and which even Queen Victoria read.
The point that Colley wants to press was not predetermined British expansion and strength but weakness, vulnerability and anxiety. Perhaps she goes too far in this contrarian direction, but she certainly has summoned a lot of evidence that the Empire in its earlier days was a lot more fragile than many of us have assumed. Wisely, she does not push the story beyond that early 1840s disaster. Within a short while, the British had acquired the steam-driven gunboat, the repeating rifle, the machine gun, the telegraph, which made the struggle between East and West, or North and South, a much more unbalanced game. But in the so-called "long eighteenth century," Colley's favorite stamping ground, the encounter between Britons and the rest of the world was evidently one that was fragile, uncertain and crumbling.