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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you know nothing about the British Empire...
...this would be a good book. But if you know more this book will be slightly disappointing. Welcome to Linda Colley's new book about the British Empire which looks at it through the unusual prism of captive narratives. Colley's new book is oddly similar to her last book, "Britons", having approximately the same number of pages (c.380), the same number of illustrations...
Published on January 9, 2003 by pnotley@hotmail.com

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13 of 25 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing political correctness
This is a disappointing book, long on Colley's opinions and very short on the details of captives' experiences. Anyone with conservative values will soon find her right-on political correctness starting to grate. For Colley, racism and sexism are the only unforgivable crimes. The British Empire can do no right and its enemies can do no wrong. These themes are rehearsed ad...
Published on June 30, 2008 by Keith Anderson


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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you know nothing about the British Empire..., January 9, 2003
By 
pnotley@hotmail.com (Edmonton, Alberta Canada) - See all my reviews
...this would be a good book. But if you know more this book will be slightly disappointing. Welcome to Linda Colley's new book about the British Empire which looks at it through the unusual prism of captive narratives. Colley's new book is oddly similar to her last book, "Britons", having approximately the same number of pages (c.380), the same number of illustrations (c.75-80), and the same number of notes. Colley's book is part of a particular British history genre. Following in the path of Simon Schama's "Citizens," these books are often lavishly illustrated and rely less on systematic research than amusing and telling anecdotes. Although the authors often have strong opinions, their interest lies less in their originality than at their ability to bring to the public an element of scholarly research that hitherto been overlooked. Similar authors include Orlando Figes, Niall Ferguson, and, in a pinch, Andrew Roberts.
Colley's book can be divided into three parts. First, she discusses the narratives of Britons captured by the Barbary and Algiers Corsairs in the 17th and 18th centuries. Second, she uses the narratives of those captured by Native Americans to highlight the relationship between the Britons and their American colonies. Thirdly, she looks at those Britons captive in India, either at the hand of rival kingdoms, or as soldiers captive in their own army. Throughout this book, Colley has a sharp turn of phrase ("The thin red [Imperial army] line was more accurately anorexic.) And she has an eye for fascinating detail. We learn that in the 1820s, two out of every five soldiers in Bermuda were whipped, and we are told about a particularly horrifying one in which the victim was whipped to death such that his back was "as black as a new hat." We learn that Irish soldiers in the 1680s in Algiers spoke in Gaelic to each other so that the English Protestants helping the besieging Moroccans wouldn't understand. We learn that not only did the British have campaigns for the benefit of the French prisoners they caught during the Seven years War, but the French held similar campaigns for the British prisoners they caught. We also get a sense of the continual expansion of the Empire. In the relatively quiet decade of the 1840s alone, Great Britain gobbled up New Zealand, Natal, the Punjab, and Hong Kong among other places.
Colley has two messages from her captivity narratives. First, there is the constant ambiguity of response. The British often could not help admitting the civilization of the Ottomans, the courage of the native Americans, and the resourcefulness of their Indian rivals. Many Britons admitted even more, and many crossed over to the other side, although the attempt to do so had their own difficulties and ambiguities. Colley constantly, indeed somewhat repetitively, argues that there was no monolithic racism. Secondly, she points out the constant vulnerabilities of the empire. Imperial overstretch was always a problem. Consider the example of the Barbary captives. Why would the British spend decades paying ransom for thousands of captives? The answer is that the Mediterranean was vital for British ambitions, and since the Spanish were not likely to subsidize their hold on Gibraltir, Muslim trade was vital for British provisions, and for the British hold on it. Similarly, British control of India required a tactful attitude towards its Native sepoys.
Much of this is interesting, and the chapter on British soldiers in India is very informative. But I have a number of reservations. (1) The constant use of illustrations shows a weakness in comparison with "Britons." There, Colley's discussion of national iconography was acute and informative. Here the illustrations are much less so. (2) Colley's arguments about racism, like those of her husband David Cannadine in "Ornamentalism," are based on a straw man. "There are those who argue, with the utmost sincerity, that were the British to remind themselves of their empire it would only further incite the racism inextinguishably associated with it." (376) Who are those people precisely? Post-colonial scholars, such as Barbara Fields, or Theodore Allen or David Roediger and others are well aware that racism has a history, and is not an invariable constant. David Brion Davis pointed out in the sixties that 18th century writers agreed that Africans did not live in a state of simple savagery. Yet Colley quotes none of these writers. (3) Colley's chapter on the American revolution is based on limited research. Allen Kulikoff is much more interesting on the viciousness of the war, and Colley does not even mention Bernard Bailyn, Edward Countryman, J.C.D. Clark, Gordon Wood and other scholars. (4) Finally, the constant emphasis on ambiguity and nuance tends to blur the fact that many indigenous populations were defeated, devastated, and in the case of Newfoundland and Tasmania, exterminated. Many of the subjects of the Ottoman and Mughal empires would fall under British rule. Some discussion of whether this was a good thing or a bad thing would be in order. And Empire and imperialist ideology did not only affect the Empire's subjects and citizens. Conquering the world would inspire other countries: Hitler was an admirer of the British empire.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Colley Borders On Captivating, January 7, 2003
By 
Bruce Loveitt (Ogdensburg, NY USA) - See all my reviews
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I love books that get you to reexamine your attitudes or to at least look at something familiar in a new way- and not just for the sake of "novelty", but because the author has something important to say. "Captives" is such a book. What more can be said about the British Empire? The answer turns out to be quite a bit. Ms. Colley takes a look at four areas: North Africa, North America, India and Afghanistan- and examines the "captivity experiences" of white Britishers...soldiers, East India Company representatives and their families, merchant seamen, etc. This alone would be fascinating, because it is a subject rarely dealt with. But in addition to the "human interest/storytelling" aspects of the book, Ms. Colley has some serious, scholarly points to make. One is that, for the period covered in this book, it was certainly never clear, not even to the British, that there was going to be a British Empire. Britain was geographically small, had a small population and therefore a small army, and technology wasn't yet so far advanced that the British could feel confident that their weapons were automatically going to win battles or intimidate people. Another point the author makes is that due to consistent manpower shortages, the British could never just rely on their own forces. They had to depend on local, native troops. This was most obviously true in India, but it was also true in North America. The British had no choice other than to use Native American warriors against the French during the Seven Year's War and Native Americans and Blacks against the "rebels" during the Revolutionary War. Since the British needed these "outside" forces it influenced the way these "outsiders" were perceived and treated. For example, while Americans of European ancestry would caricaturize Native Americans as "savages", the British, in paintings of the period, would tend to show Native Americans in a way which, they felt, made them look "civilized" i.e.-in European dress or they would give them somewhat European features or mannerisms. Politically speaking, the British had to be careful not to antagonize or alienate these "mercenary" forces. They needed them too much. So, for example,if Native American forces killed prisoners who had surrendered or scalped civilians, the British sometimes just had to look the other way. In India, the absolute necessity to rely on native Indian troops influenced the way the British saw these troops. Ms. Colley cites quotations showing the sepoys were seen to be abstemious, intelligent and reliable, while the common soldier from Britain was seen to be a drunken, thieving brute who had to be kept in line with the lash. This punishment was much more likely to be used on the soldier from Britain, by the way. If the sepoys mutineed or deserted, that would result in the loss of about 85% of the British forces. As far as North Africa went, since they needed to hold onto Gibraltar and Minorca, the British had to "cut a deal" with the Barbary states and pay protection money. Once again, they weren't powerful enough to do otherwise. In Afghanistan, in the 1840's, the British would have to make alliances with certain warlords in order to try to defeat other warlords. The Royal Navy couldn't help out in a landlocked country! And, in a parallel with the present, Ms. Colley shows that it's a lot easier to invade Afghanistan than it is to accomplish what you want to accomplish and to get out. As you can see by what I've been writing, Ms. Colley doesn't just deal with the actual, physical nature of captivity. (She does deal with that, in detail, also. There are numerous "captivity stories" based on published and unpublished diaries and manuscripts.) Much of the "restraint" is political (what policies are necessary and what actions are acceptable) or intellectual/emotional (needing "outsiders" affects the way you think or feel about them). Ms. Colley is far too intelligent and too good a scholar to ever present any simplistic conclusions about any of this material. For even though many people could look on Native Americans, Blacks and sepoys, etc. in a favorable light, there were many people in Britain (both civilians and in the military) who could look down on those they considered to be their "inferiors". Hence, while during treaty negotiations at the end of the American Revolution British representatives would make sure to bend over backwards to protect the rights of loyalists, Blacks and Native Americans would be ignored. And condescending, racist attitudes would certainly contribute to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. While some physical captives would "go native"- adopt native dress and learn native language, convert to Islam, take a native spouse, etc., others would never look on their captors, even after long periods of time and even if treated well, as anything other than "barbarians". As Ms. Colley points out, history is rarely just about the past. The lessons and nuances of the "captivity experiences" of 200-300 years ago are still being learnt and felt today. There are still plenty of examples of racism (a worldwide phenomenon...obviously not confined to Britain) but Ms. Colley also notes that Britain has the highest instance of interracial marriage in the world. So, perhaps we can all hope that familiarity sometimes breeds something much more positive than contempt.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Airbrushed from history . . . ", August 25, 2004
Once, i hoped for a truly comprehensive survey of the British Empire and its global impact. This excellent book is almost the response i wished for. Colley examines "a quarter of a millennium" in an overview of three stages of Britain's expansionist adventure. From the start, she reminds us, Britain's miniscule population and limited resources made it an unlikely candidate for global expansion. Contending with nations better prepared or more experienced in empire-building, the founding of the British Empire was typified by false starts and unlikely events. In using the accounts of prisoners - kidnappees, prisoners of war or other captives, Colley is able to point out how both public views and policies changed during the growth of the Empire. Most important, she argues, is the need to dispel notions that the empire was monolithic in concept or development.

Clearly organised and written with clarity and intensity, Colley opens her study with an example of glaring failure. How many remember Britain's occupation of Tangier on the west coast of Africa? The city was part of a queen's dowry in 1661, giving Britain a control point over the Mediterranean trade routes [Gibraltar came under British power in 1701]. With Spain, France and Italy, not to mention the Dutch, all expanding their sea-going commerce, Tangier was a key location. The British poured immense sums into Tangier to create a fortified city, but it was lost less than a generation later. Colley explains how relations with the "Barbary" states of North Africa drove British foreign policy for many years. Those relations included ongoing efforts to redeem captives taken by corsairs, swift vessels that even raided coastal areas of the British Isles.

Britain's next expansionist efforts were even less calculated - the settlement of North America. While religious and other dissident groups founded communities along the eastern shores of North America, Britain's policy toward them remained ambivalent. Unlike the mostly military Mediterranean and Indian ventures, Colley says, North America focussed on settlements. When captives were taken, they might thus be whole families, with a wide age range and including more women that would be the case elsewhere. Accounts of captivity, therefore, were different from Tangier. Men taken by the Barbary corsairs might adopt local dress, customs, language, even Islam. This blurred the image of Muslims as the Other - an identifiable enemy figure. In North America, as colonies expanded, the Native Americans became more demonised in tales of warfare and capture. Even so, she notes, the North American enterprise was "poly-ethnic", with many nationalities arriving and the use of favoured Native American tribes as allies.

Britain's Indian incursions, Colley points out, added new dimensions to imperial imagery. Severe defeats and sepoy [Indians acting for British rulers] uprisings forced reflection on colonial costs and eroded prestige. Captivity accounts expanded knowledge of the culture of the subcontinent, demonstrating how many aspects of Indian life might be adopted - even brought home to Britain. Yet, captive accounts are generally sparse or non-existent. The Mysore wars created a population of captive soldiers held in recessed dungeons, but not one account of their ordeal reached print in their lifetimes. By the era of Victorian Britain, tales of captive life were nearly "airbrushed from history".

Given the location of some of her areas of study force comparisons to modern situations. Afghanistan has been the subject of outsider invasion more than once. Each time, while declaring they intended "no war on the Afghan people", people died as the intruders sought to install unpopular leaders on them. Inevitably, the result was embarrassment for the invaders and incarceration of their troops and civilians. Thus, even at the end of the period of Colley's study, she notes that the British Empire was still being consolidated haltingly. Uniformity, never a well-defined condition of the enterprise, remained lacking. Defeats and losses through captivity brought criticism and demands for redemption of captives. It failed to halt the expansionist nature of British policy, however.

Colley's book opens a new phase in historiography. Her eloquent style keeps this book alive for the reader at all times. Those thinking history can only be "dry" when written by an academic are in for a pleasant shock in picking up this book. Well illustrated and containing a rich bibliography, students of empire will welcome this book on their shelves. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a new perspective, November 23, 2007
By 
D. Montano (Mena, Arkansas) - See all my reviews
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I very much enjoyed the book. It was, to me, a new perspective on England, the Empire and British influence in very different parts of the world. I was especially interested in the North American section, but since I enjoyed her writing style so much I forged ahead into the Asian section.

I found the book to be densely packed with ideas new to me and topics that generated my interest in learning more.

I recommend this book to those interested in American Revolutionary history as well as British history in general.
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5.0 out of 5 stars >> Captivity Narratives Bring to Life a Forgotten Era <<, July 16, 2014
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In Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850, Linda Colley exposes a perspective of the Imperial Britain that goes against traditional history. Although Britain experienced expansion at an unprecedented rate during the late 1600s until the mid-1800s, it had spread itself too thin across the globe. The British navy, its manpower, was unable to effectively control the vast number of territories claimed by the Britain. The money and physical presence was never fully effective at dominating the areas. Instead, these territories often influenced their colonist and government more than traditional historians care to admit.

In Captives, Colley divides her work into three parts. The first concentrates on Britain in the Mediterranean, a costly venture seldom mentioned in British Imperialism. The second third focuses on the relationship between the British and natives in North America and how the fear of captivity influenced those that colonized America for Britain. And India, the country whose rough relationship with Britain both made and destroyed careers.

While the history of African slavery in the West is immense, accounts of British slavery in the Eastern Hemisphere was seldom recorded and receives less research from both older and newer historians. Colley hides no biases as she uncovers a history that she argues is neglected. A history that exposes a dirty secret of the British Empire: that there is an imbalance in the records that exist between the West and the East. Colley suggests that the research is stifled largely because that during this time, it was legal for the English navy, therefore the English government, to enslave their own soldiers who forfeited military service. Slavery was an alternative to execution. Often, they were chained and forced to build fortification and treated like black-skinned folk.

In the Americas, traditional British history of the indigenous population is kept out of the records just as much as in American history. Initially, colonist were highly dependent on local natives, this faded as time brought advanced, steady agriculture and living conditions for the colonists. Oddly, Colley shows how the records reveal English thinking toward the natives as equal to European and not as soulless savages. It was a result of wartime on the North American continent that resulted in captives being taken by the natives, which led to a mingling between the two races. Threatened, the British government forbade their colonist for interacting and living too closely to the indigenous, for it threatened British control.

The super soldier of India, Sarah Shade, spun a new perspective on British Imperialism in 1750. Disguised as a soldier, her adventures and exotic writings sparked an appetite for all things India throughout England. By 1800, India had become the richest sector in the British Empire, having lost the American colonies several decades earlier. Out numbered in India and often out fought, Britain was able to achieve, through direct and indirect rule, power over all of India. Enabling Britain to become both the wealthiest country and free from the fear of captivity, which Colley argues was both real and an allusion.

Well-written and highly entertaining, Captivity sheds new light on a force of nature that changed the world. Using autobiographies, adventure stories, sermons, written accounts of public speeches, and the like, Colley brings to life the fragile truth of British colonization: that Britain was never in full control of her the vast lands she acquired. Its 438 pages captures the big picture of Britain’s expansion throughout the world as well personalizing the journeys of those who lived and died in strange new worlds.
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7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Cost of Empire, November 6, 2003
By 
Francis McInerney (Katonah, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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Colley makes it easy to understand why English is the world standard language today: a small population could only control as much as it did by co-opting vast numbers of people and this meant expending captives at a fairly high rate.
Their story is the story of the Empire at its bleeding edge.
Using captives to illuminate imperial expansion is a novel idea and well done.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captives: The Story of Britain's Pursuit of Empire 1600-1850, September 14, 2012
By 
Kim Burdick (NEWARK, DE, US) - See all my reviews
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"Captives: The Story of Britain's Pursuit of Empire," focuses on an area of scholarly research that has been overlooked for decades. This annotated collection of memoires of British people held prisoner in various corners of the colonial British Empire makes very intriguing reading.

By putting American captivity stories matter-of-factly into the larger and more holistic context of colonial Tangiers, India, Africa and Afghanistan, Colley gives us an appreciation of what it once meant to be part of Great Britain.

She sheds an important light on both human nature and the ambiguities of history. Some British people who were held captive wrote very succinct and straight-forward accounts about their experiences, others embellished their stories.

"Captives" is well-written, carefully footnoted, and even-handed. Colley writes clearly and rarely loses her focus. She has included many useful extracts and quotations from primary documents and enough context surrounding each, that the book flows nicely. Her writing is thoughtful, informative and never dry.

Two thumbs up for bringing this fresh perspective on colonization to the American table.

Kim Burdick
Stanton, Delaware
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captives: Britain, and the World 1600-1850, December 30, 2012
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This review is from: Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 (Paperback)
This was a great book from the stand point of History. The book opened my eyes too the whole world during this time period.
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13 of 25 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing political correctness, June 30, 2008
This review is from: Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 (Paperback)
This is a disappointing book, long on Colley's opinions and very short on the details of captives' experiences. Anyone with conservative values will soon find her right-on political correctness starting to grate. For Colley, racism and sexism are the only unforgivable crimes. The British Empire can do no right and its enemies can do no wrong. These themes are rehearsed ad nauseam on every page.

I made three pages of notes of things that annoyed me. Given the word limit here, a few examples will have to suffice. The charter of Tangiers in 1688 (p.28) earns her wrath because it "confined office-holding and voting in the colony to Christians and of course to men". This was 150 years before the Reform Act and well over 200 years before women got the vote! Her disapprobation is about as appropriate as condemning the ancient Greeks for pederasty. Times change, values change, and judging people who lived hundreds of years ago on early 21st century values is rather silly.

Moulay Ismail's renowned savagery and sadism are not mentioned. The worst Colley allows (p.36) is that he was "a brutally effective centraliser". She emphasises (p.110) how superior his palace at Meknes was to Versailles and Hampton Court, but then Versailles and Hampton Court were built by free men, not on the bones of thousands of Muslim slaves, which I think is a large point in their favour. She mentions Thomas Pellow's conversion to Islam, but fails to tell us that (at least according to Pellow) Moulay Ismail would have tortured him to death otherwise.

One particularly egregious example is her coverage of the Black Hole of Calcutta (pp.255-6). Holwell's account was exaggerated, and possibly 'only' fifty people died. The exaggeration makes it "an emotive piece of partly bogus imperial history". Colley even places quotation marks around the 'victims', as if they really deserved it because they were imperialist aggressors. Would it be acceptable to talk about the Jews of Rhodes, pulled out dead at Auschwitz after fourteen days in cattle trucks without water, as 'victims'? The Nazis too saw them as aggressors who deserved it.

Colley is clearly no great expert on military history. She makes much of the fact that British regiments were often understrength, but this has been a feature of most militaries over the centuries. Soviet infantry divisions in the latter part of WW2 were often woefully understrength, for example, despite the Soviet state's vast reserves of manpower, but they still beat the world's best army. Her characterisation of British soldiers as "captives in uniform" (page 311) makes little sense given the fact that British soldiers were volunteers, and thus less numerous but better quality than our continental competitors. She mentions the Navy's absolute domination of the seas only once, on page 367. Indeed, considering how often its badly-treated soldiers seemed to go over to the enemy, it is very difficult using the information she has included to understand how the largest Empire the world has ever seen managed to establish itself in the first place.

You have to wait until page 374 to find out what she really thinks about the British Empire, although she dresses it up as what "many people outside Britain" think: it was "about oppression, exploitation, violence, arrogance, slavery and racism...no less than an early Holocaust". So a nicely balanced view there then.

If you believe that the British Empire was a thoroughly bad thing from beginning to end with no redeeming features whatsoever, and that racism and sexism are two of the worst things in the world, then you will enjoy reading this book. If you don't like political correctness, you will find something to annoy you on almost every page. If you want to find out details of the experiences of British captives, you will learn considerably more by going directly to the primary sources such as the diary of Thomas Pellow.
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9 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Publishing Agendas?, March 13, 2004
This review is from: Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 (Paperback)
Colley takes what at first seems an interesting subject that fashionably appears to be "previously uncovered" or left "at the margins" of contemporary revisionist imperial historiography. She is a genuine historian with a legitimate interest and professional weight in the discipline. But if she claims to be at odds with or neutral when it comes to the contemporary political context and agendas in which her argument to look at what will always be interpreted as "white slavery", she is vastly naive. She most certainly is in danger of being complicit with empire revisionists only too happy to make the claim that "ours wasn't all that bad". Edward Said mentioned this in his review of Catherine Hall's "Civilising Subjects" in the London Review of Books just months before he past away.
Furthermore, the decision of the publishers to publish the paperback edition of "Captives" with a cover that is almost the spitting image of Routledge's new edition of Paul Gilroy's "There Ain't no Black in the Union Jack" is just baffling. Somebody knows what they're doing and I don't like it.
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Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850
Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 by Linda Colley (Paperback - January 6, 2004)
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