Through the stories of captives, Linda Colley found an alternative image of the British Empire that had itself been locked away, writes Karen Gold.
When the British historian Linda Colley met her Yale University colleague John Demos in a restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut, in the mid-1990s, she got more than just lunch. He was full of his new book, The Unredeemed Captive , a tale of an 18th-century Puritan clergyman's daughter who chose to make her life with the Native Americans who had snatched her.
For Colley it was a turning point. "John said: 'Captivity narratives are wonderful, but they're purely American sources' - and I remember thinking, why haven't I got sources like that? And then I thought, hang on. No way can colonial America have sources the British don't have, because they're basically the same culture."
So she went back to her office at Yale, logged into the British Library's online catalogue and tapped in the words "captivity" and "captives". "All this stuff started tumbling out. I thought: here's my point of entry. I wanted to write a history of empire that wasn't just about great imperial forces. Here were my individuals around whom I could build a rather different story."
She tells that story in Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 , tracking the rise of the British Empire across Africa, Asia and North America and over 250 years, up to its apparently unassailable peak.
Our traditional images of empire have been extrapolated, quite inaccurately, from that peak, she argues. "There's a temptation to push the high Victorian phase of the empire on which the sun never set back into the further past, and to assume that there was somehow always that degree of power and confidence, and the rise of the empire was an inexorable process that people were confident about. Of course they weren't. How could they conceivably have been?"
They certainly weren't when they read the ballads, poems, pamphlets and books that Britain's ransomed or returning captives published from the end of the 16th century. These blended exotic travelogue with emotional and sometimes prurient revelations. "The manner of the slavish usage suffered by the English in Barbary, written by one who by woeful experience endured the same," says Anon's 1695 account, which is held in the Bodleian Library. "A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the MahometansI with an Account of the Author's Being Taken Captive," says Joseph Pitt's 1704 bestseller.
Such authors painted a very different picture of how Britain was competing, often unsuccessfully, with other empires up to and beyond the end of the 18th century, Colley argues. Britain's conquests were at the expense not only of foreign conquered lands and peoples, but also of the poor English, Welsh, Irish and Scots who overwhelmingly comprised its settlers and armed forces.
Colley includes among her "captives" Britain's footsoldiers in India who, in 1835, were still flogged even while the governor-general of India argued that flogging was too barbaric a punishment for Indian soldiers. "He said he had to continue flogging white soldiers because they were working-class rubbish, unruly and trouble. The rawness of these experiences of empire may shock and disillusion some people," Colley says.
Yet they are a truthful reflection of "the uncertainty, the cock-ups, the areas of retreat that characterised the British abroad. It becomes much easier to understand the fall of the empire once you see it as almost always overstretched. It wasn't extraordinary that it crumbled. It was extraordinary that it came into existence at all."
We have sublimated this once-common story, but its traces remain in literature and cliche. The white slave trade was not a joke but a North African reality for 20,000 British captives. The first-person "writings" of Robinson Crusoe and Lemuel Gulliver are - though we would rarely think of them as such today - also captives' tales, Colley says. She was struck by this point when reading Beirut hostage John McCarthy's account of his captivity: "[He] at one stage says, 'Here I am, as if I am Robinson Crusoe on his raft.' It was the unconscious influence of much older stories about captivity coming through."
By stressing the trauma of the captive empire builders, and the instability of empire building, does she risk becoming an apologist for the empire itself? She rejects the suggestion briskly. "The violence of empire emerges on every page of the book. I don't in any way want to deny the nastiness of imperialism, but just to make us think more creatively about the different locales of power in different places at different times."
Nevertheless, she takes pains to unpick blanket condemnations of the empire builders. Early settlers who slaughtered Native Americans were simply using the standard methods of war as practised throughout 17th-century Europe. And where the North American colonists, fearful of captivity themselves, hacked their opponents to death, the 18th-century English court feted visiting Cherokee and Iroquois and painted their portraits posed "in the grand manner, against the background of a landscaped park, just as if they were members of the English nobility".
Moving between historical argument and historical colour is a style Colley developed in Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 , her last book, published in 1992. She finds writing hard, she says. She could not have finished Captives without a three-year Leverhulme professorship that brought her back from Yale to the London School of Economics and meant she had no teaching or administration commitments.
Her grand-sweep reputation is not the style she started with as a specialist in the 18th-century Tory Party. It was her move from Cambridge University (where she was the first female fellow of Christ's College) to Yale in 1982 that prompted her to change, she says. "In the US I was soon aware that unless I could approach British history in a broader, more outward-looking way, it would be difficult to find an audience."
Broadening geographically, she realised part way through the writing of Captives , meant she was imaginatively and historically at a loss. "When my captives said 'we were force marched from Marrakesh to Fez', I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know the terrain." So she went to Morocco. In Rabat, to her dismay, she found that the Souk el Ghezel, where white slaves were once "stripped, fingered and haggled over", was now a car park. But on the North African coast, pondering why the British Navy failed for so many years to exact deterrent punishment on the Barbary corsairs, she found some answers: "I stood on the cliff and saw the waves pounding in, and thought 'What chance would a wooden warship have of getting close enough to bombard the city?' Unless I had seen the power of the sea, I wouldn't have had the understanding to write about it."
Her travels brought home how contested tales of empire are. In Bangalore, India, she recalls "the immaculately polite guide who escorted me around... and with whom I argued ridiculously over how many sons of Tipu Sultan of Mysore were killed by the British in the 1790s - none in my history books; all of them in hers".
Yet history is still a glass in which one can see, if not the future, then at least the present. "In Europe since the war we have tended to assume that because our colonial empires have collapsed, and good riddance, empire is something that happened in the past."
She pauses, choosing her words carefully. She is, after all, returning to the US and a chair at Princeton University next year. Then she continues. "I don't think that's true. I think empire is a recurrent form of political organisation of power. We may be postcolonial, but we are not post-imperial. I think we all might be prudent to start thinking about empires as a way of understanding the world around us now."
Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 is published by Jonathan Cape, £20.00. Linda Colley's lecture at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature at 11.30am on October 16 is supported by The THES .