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Captives: The story of Britain's pursuit of empire and how its soldiers and civilians were held captive by the dream of global supremacy Hardcover – January 7, 2003

4.1 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Colley (Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837) brilliantly marshals an array of captivity narratives by everyday Britons captured by foreign powers to show the dizzying ethnic and cultural complexity of empire. She considers four zones of the British Empire-the Mediterranean, North America, India and Afghanistan-between the years 1600 and 1850. For reasons of size, population and geography, Britain couldn't run its empire alone. In India and the Mediterranean, for example, collaboration and accommodation with indigenous groups was the rule; most "British" troops in India were native-born sepoys. And over two and a half centuries, tens of thousands of Britons were taken captive by foreigners. In North America, settlers were seized by Native Americans; sailors were sold into slavery by Barbary (North African) corsairs. Colley describes how these captives handled painful encounters with the "other." To a surprising degree, she shows, captives learned to adapt to, and accommodate, a vastly different cultural milieu. Colley also provides an original account of the Revolutionary War, showing how captivity narratives became part of the propaganda war. In India, most British captives were soldiers taken in battle. These Indian narratives "served to personalize overseas and imperial events" to the larger British public. Colley, who in 2003 will become Shelby M.C. Davis professor of history at Princeton, makes a first-rate argument for her provocative thesis about the complex cross-cultural relations of empire, with lucid prose, exhaustive research and surprising insights from unexpected sources. This is highly recommended for those wishing a more nuanced, inclusive and less monolithic approach to the British empire. 74 illus.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

The story of the British Empire has often been told as a steady, irresistible rise. Colley, however, shows how complex and uncertain that rise really was by examining the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Britons taken captive in America, North Africa, and India between 1600 and 1850. Captives embodied the costs of empire and the possibility of failure. Many of them came from the lower classes—a reminder of the fact that those who built the imperial edifice were usually not its prime beneficiaries. Often, they spent years living in—and even accommodating themselves to—foreign cultures, underscoring the fact that the Empire always depended as much upon negotiation and collaboration with local peoples as upon sheer force. Colley's final, provocative suggestion is that it wasn't just the actual hostages who were held captive but, rather, all Britons who found themselves in empire's thrall.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (January 7, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375421521
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375421525
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,532,183 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
...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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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