Empire of the wretches

November 15, 2002

Gordon Johnson takes a guilt-free look at oddities of imperialism.

Reviewing Sir John Malcolm's Life of Clive in 1840, Macaulay lamented the lack of knowledge or interest that most Britons had in their empire. While "every schoolboy" knew who imprisoned Montezuma and who strangled Atahualpa, "even among English gentlemen of highly cultivated minds" it was doubtful whether one in ten could tell who won the battle of Buxar or perpetrated the massacre of Patna, and the history of Britain's remarkable empire remained "to most readers, not only insipid, but positively distasteful".

Linda Colley's book takes a not-dissimilar starting point: the British have been peculiarly reluctant to face up to their imperial history, either to understand it or to take responsibility for it. Crude stereotypes of an inexorable rise of power accompanied by economic exploitation, arrogance and white racial supremacy are the images of empire most frequently conjured up in these anxious and guilt-ridden days, although there remains an undertow of nostalgia for a lost supremacy and simpler times when it was perfectly all right to shoot tigers. So it is good that so formidable and public a historian should turn her mind to this important and neglected aspect of our past.

And there is much to be thankful for in this book. First, the powerful reminder that there is something very odd about Britain's empire since the resources of Britain itself were always so puny in relation to the empire it acquired and controlled. Covering, at its greatest extent, a quarter of the landmass of the globe and including under its sway a quarter of the population of the world, the British Empire was run from a small state situated off the coast of north-west Europe. Great Britain would fit twice over in Texas, and even Madagascar is bigger. Empire was always, therefore, an overstretching and perilous undertaking; there was nothing certain about it other than its implausibility and the inevitability of its decline.

Then Colley points out that decisions made by the English government about expansion and the disposition of such small resources as were available for the purpose are also rather strange. Throughout the first part of the period under study, it was the Mediterranean region that loomed largest. Tangier, coming to the English crown by way of Catherine of Braganza's dowry, absorbed large monies and numbers of men, eventually to no avail and to no lasting advantage to England. Before 1750, however, there were more British troops in Gibraltar and Menorca than in the whole of North America; and it was the diversion in 1781 of part of the American fleet to duty in the Mediterranean that left Yorktown to its fate. But, of course, the huge Catholic states of France and Spain were the countries that really had to be watched if Protestant England was to feel secure in its more parochial imperialism over the British Isles.

Colley's account of affairs in North America in the late 18th century amply demonstrates the complexity of any British imperialism and the virtual impossibility of categorising at all sensibly in this period of flux who was friend and who was foe, who the conqueror and who the subjugated. This part of the book is full of interesting facts. I had no idea that five times more people fled the US after 1782 than were refugees from France after 1789, though I am not sure what to make of the information.

Colley is critical of accounts of empire that focus on white male elites, since those who built empire and maintained it were a motley crew from every class, creed and nation. In their imperial enterprises, the British always depended on non-British allies: foreign soldiers, sailors, merchants, bankers and labourers of every colour and complexion created empire. Britain's military might, when not a bluff, comprised huge armies recruited in the field of empire itself - Indians outnumbered soldiers of British origin by more than ten to one for most years of the Raj; wars in North America were fought not only against those who lived there before the British migrations but with them alongside as well. Moreover, even within the more strictly British cohorts of empire, most participants were poor and oppressed and alienated, and included many women and children. Colley argues that the history of British imperialism has to be brought back into British domestic history if sense is to be made of either. She is right: for too long, historians of Britain have ignored the existence of empire, while historians of empire, at least in recent times, have studied the colonies as if the metropolis did not exist.

Colley's arguments stressing the fundamental weakness of Britain's imperial position (by contrast, say, to the great land-based empires in China, India and the Middle East), and the strategic, economic and political exposure that resulted from possession of territories on which, literally, the sun never set, are not entirely new. A persistent theme in the chronicles of the British Empire, from the very earliest times, has been the paradox inherent in a group of European offshore islands laying claim to, and in some case populating, vast and distant areas of the globe. Nor is she the first historian to point out that all empires have been successful only to the extent to which they have found support within the societies the invader raided and exploited; and all have rested ultimately on political and cultural accommodations with the ruled. Once those compacts break down, empires go into irreversible decline.

Not unexpectedly, in setting out her case, Colley does not follow Macaulay in a march to the political high ground, nor is there much discussion of any virtue of empire. Given that her theme is the smallness of Britain and the folly of its imperialism, what better way to give it a new twist than by looking at the lot of those Britons who suffered in the cause of British expansion - those driven by desperation to seek employment overseas and who became captives in the process. And it is striking just how many Britons were bodily seized: thousands upon thousands of them during the period under study. Seamen from countries in North Africa took prisoners for ransom or slaves, sometimes even snatching them from the coast of Cornwall and Ireland. Men, women and children were captured by hostile peoples in North America, often killed or forced to a grim alternative of beginning life anew in alien societies. States in India, most famously the Mysore of the modernising rulers Haidar Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, took prisoners on a large scale and held them sometimes for decades. This was traumatic for those captured and unsettling for the imperial society from which they came. Their experiences were recorded in books, pamphlets, sermons and ballads, some of which had a huge impact on the popular imagination. More obscure records hold details about individuals seeking compensation or rehabilitation after their ordeal.

By looking at Britain's empire from the perspective of these victims, Colley can bring forward new source materials that plausibly give voice to those previously unheard. She can offer not just a revisionist view of empire that is in keeping with the temper of our own times, but, as academic jargon has it, a more "nuanced" one as well. While we are not allowed to forget the fundamental wickedness of (western) imperialism, Colley also shows it was not only about black and white, it was much more complicated and subtle in its reality. The trouble is that she does not really pull together the argument in a totally convincing way. Despite the intrinsic interest of much of her material and her forceful way of presenting it, there is a disconnection between her use of evidence about captives and the larger arguments she is trying to mount about the British Empire, only partly concealed by the rather hectoring tone of some of the discussion (the book began life as popular lectures). At one level she writes about specific issues to do with captivity and with what follows from that state. Here she trespasses beyond the historical and into literary and theoretical fields, where no evidence is sound, all truth is relative, and credit is given more to the destruction of ideas than building them up. Even then she shrinks from full-blooded use of her source materials, and the impression left is of a rather rapid survey of records that might yield a richer historical harvest if analysed more closely in both their content and context.

More serious, it requires quite an effort to see how all this adds up to a bold new analysis of empire itself. Perhaps the source material so "privileged" in this book is too poor or perversely eccentric to make the point alone: one cannot help but feel that it is being asked to take more than it can bear. Empires may be violent, arbitrary and exploitative, but they are also dependent and vulnerable. And when they break under strain, the result is often no less violent, arbitrary and exploitative for most of their peoples. You do not have to be a captive to realise this, or to feel anxiety and insecurity, even from a position of material and military strength: the weak have powerful weapons too. Imperialism takes many forms. To be effective, the exercise of power does not even require formal structures - the cocked hats and ritual display - nor does the dismantling of such structures mean an end to the rough game of power and control. To understand this, historians need to look more carefully at the major changes that shift relationships between peoples at home and abroad: a return to the more conventional (and harder) historical study of economy and politics, class and culture. Then, perhaps, a more balanced judgement can be reached. Empires create as well as destroy. An imperial order can allow diverse peoples, economies and cultures to interact fruitfully with each other - even civilise each other. Empires, for all their flaws, have contained social and ethnic division and conflict, and have produced the most creative outbursts of art and literature. And there is much to be learnt from that.

Gordon Johnson is president, Wolfson College, Cambridge, and editor, Modern Asian Studies .

Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850

Author - Linda Colley
ISBN - 0 224 05925 4
Publisher - Cape
Price - £20.00
Pages - 438

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments