In This Review

Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1800
Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1800
By Linda Colley
Pantheon, 2003, 448 pp

The author of the best work on British national identity, Britons, Colley has now written an equally remarkable book that shows the other side of the coin: the British imperial experience as seen through the writings of British soldiers and civilians captured by their "native" enemies. She insists on the importance of Great Britain's "smallness" (geographic and economic), a trait that put great pressure on its limited armed forces but also aided Britain's imperial success by fueling extroversion, greed, and aggressiveness. At the same time, she points out, this empire had huge costs, including the very large numbers of British captives, which she documents along with their reactions to their foreign captors. The number of British captives was highest in North America, and it was no coincidence that the British became the most aware of the strains of empire there, especially when London had to try to maintain a balance between the demands of land-hungry settlers and the decent treatment of Native Americans. In India, meanwhile, British captives wrote letters that the Britons at home had no interest in publishing; it was feared that the treatment imposed on the captives could be viewed as "shame, degradation and terror." Another fascinating chapter looks at Afghanistan, comparing a nineteenth-century dispute over British captives there to the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1979-81. Both Britain and the United States were traumatized when a weak opponent "held their compatriots at mercy." Her conclusion emphasizes the insecurity caused by the discrepancy between Britain's size and its empire's reach, and the likelihood that in the twenty-first century "covert empire" might last far longer, "being in the main contiguous, land-based," and endowed with weapons of mass destruction.