An Empire of Captives:

Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850. By Linda Colley. New York:
Anchor Books, 2002. Illustrations, Appendix, Notes, Bibliography, and Index. Pp.
xv, 425.

In 1780, an officer of the East India Company held captive by Tipu Sultan of Mysore wrote in his diary: “Terribly alarmed this morning for our foreskins” (289). Three decades later, the Duke of Wellington characterized Britain’s imperial ambitions as resembling “an oak planted in a flower-pot” (10). Linda Colley frames her new book Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 (2002) around the anxieties that are exposed in these two statements. She explains how the disproportion between Britain’s small geographic and demographic size and its imperial ambitions in North Africa, North America, and Asia resulted in anxieties over the empire’s viability and identity. These anxieties, Colley contends, were even more real and pressing in the imperial periphery where the demographic and geographic overstretch exposed the bodies of English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish men, women, and children to captivity and their identities to subversion and transformation. By using the narratives of these captives as a touchstone, Colley offers a reappraisal of Britain’s imperial experience that is rich in detail, uncovers new linkages between the imperial metropole and periphery, and explores the Empire’s changing identity between 1600 and 1850.

Colley bases her book on a textual and contextual interpretation of the published and unpublished narratives of more than one hundred British captives. Her approach to these sources is balanced and prudent. “Like virtually every other source material historians ransack,” Colley explains, “these are not writings that can be swallowed whole, but they can – and should – be sampled and sieved” (93). However, she is more optimistic than others about the historical value of sources that emerge out of cross-cultural encounters. In contrast to the Orientalist school of thought1 , Colley rejects the notion “that sifting for accuracy in such texts is a fruitless enterprise, or that these and other European writings on encounters with non-Europeans are revealing only about the observers and writers, and never the observed” (93). This does not mean that Colley discredits the idea that power relations lie at the core of the production and dissemination of knowledge. On the contrary, she acknowledges that economic and military power had a crucial effect on how Britons processed information about the “other”, themselves, and the world. However, she also argues that a mere textual (discursive) interpretation would be insufficient to bring out the complexity of the historical experience. “Captivity narratives are fractured, composite sources,” she explains, “but it is inappropriate – indeed it is something of a cop-out – to analyse them textually but not contextually” (93). By drawing on her extensive experience with the subject, time period, and secondary literature, Colley has little difficulty in providing this context. Indeed, she dedicates at least a chapter in every part of her book to familiarize the reader with the time and place before she explores the meaning of captivity and captivity narratives.

Colley advances a convincing argument. She contends that the pre-Victorian Empire was hampered by a fundamental contradiction: While the relative scarcity of domestic raw materials and commercial possibilities inspired Britons to overcome their “physical insularity” and satisfy their “restlessness and greed” overseas, Britain’s demographic smallness and the lack of significant technological advantages continuously limited its (military) capacity to enforce its imperial designs without reverses, failures, casualties, and captives (10). However, although a considerable imbalance between resources and ambitions persisted throughout this period, Colley contends that British power and confidence gradually increased through internal consolidation, global political and economic developments, and new theories and ideologies. This rise in global power, she argues, produced comparative changes in British identity and in how Britons saw the world and the imperial “other.” It is to her credit as a historian that Colley demonstrates convincingly how this transformation in British power and identity can be explored from the bottom up in the narratives of British captives. “These were never simply stories about individuals under stress,” Colley points out, “but commentaries on, and by-products of changing power relations over time” (98).

In this sense, her decision to start Captives with Britain’s attempt to construct a Mediterranean empire in the seventeenth century is appropriate. Not only does she draw attention to a neglected geographical region of the British Empire with this approach, but she also stresses Britain’s relative weakness vis-à-vis Islamic powers in that period and how this weakness shaped Britons’ conception of themselves and others. Colley contends that North Africa’s “white slavery” called into question Britain’s commercial, religious, and national identity and revealed tensions in the metropolitan discourse about race, class, and gender (117). This form of slavery also complicated how Britons viewed the “other” and defied “the construction or reinforcement of ‘a binary division between captive and captor…based on cultural, national, or racial difference’” (117). Thus, similar to her previous book Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (1995), Captives reiterates the thesis that empire-building was not a one-way street that merely involved exporting metropolitan concepts, categories, ideologies, and identities to the colonies. Rather, Colley subscribes to the tenets of New Imperial history by emphasizing the connections between empire building at the core and the periphery and portraying imperial culture as the hybrid product of cultural exchanges between the metropole and the colonies. Indeed, like other scholars2 , Colley suggests that metropolitan ideas about race, class, gender, and the “other” were defined through the imperial experience, emerged to a significant extent out of the cross-cultural encounters on the colonial frontier, and depended on the relative power of the participants.

For British colonists in North America this power was initially reduced by the long distance from the metropole, by the absence of technological advantages, and by their numerical inferiority vis-à-vis the indigenous population. Consequently, Colley explains, British settlers initially engaged the native population on terms of equality (142). In contrast to North Africa’s “white slavery,” however, Indian captivity posed a more substantial threat to Britons’ identity and forced captives to affirm their British identity more deliberately (146). It is in this context, Colley argues, that ideas about Englishness and Britishness, nationhood and Protestantism became important themes in captivity narratives and thereby emerged as markers of a nascent British (imperial) identity (151). Thus, Colley does not treat British identity as a given. Rather, she draws attention to the importance of physical proximity to the “other” for self-identification and of the threat of cultural subversion in the construction of a more rigid British identity in this period.

In addition, Colley successfully uses Indian captivities to problematize colonial knowledge systems and discourse about the “other.” She points to the contradiction that was inherent in a colonial knowledge system that described natives as savages and barbarians while, at the same time, using them as military allies and auxiliaries. It is to Colley’s credit that she draws attention to the often neglected role of British soldiers in this process. As a mere handful of scholars before her3, Colley shows that soldiers, as the cutting edge of empire, were especially prone to constructing these contradictions and exploiting them for their own ends. Indeed, she correctly argues that the characterization of Native Americans as “barbarians, predators and monsters” placed the latter outside humanity and civilization, enabling some British soldiers to indulge their genocidal impulses and kill native women and children indiscriminately (185). However, Colley also correctly emphasizes that not all British soldiers were “invariably antipathetic to Indians” (186). Instead, some viewed them as friends and as victims and thereby complicated the perceptions of Native Americans on both sides of the Atlantic (186-88).


Finally, Colley uses the North American experience to explore early fault lines in the transatlantic relationship between the periphery and the metropole. She argues that until the end of the Seven Years’ War, metropolitan Britons showed little interest in the fate of Indian captives or in their native captors (153, 161). By contrasting the different perception of Indian captives on either side of the Atlantic, Colley thus throws doubts on the existence of a unified British identity prior to 1750.
The loss of the thirteen colonies in 1783 put an end to North America as the primary locus for constructing a British Empire and imperial identity. As Britain’s attention shifted to India, its imperial attitudes underwent a distinct transformation: away from weakness and embarrassments towards confidence and aggression. It is once again to Colley’s credit that she recognizes the centrality of the military establishment in the construction of a more assertive imperial culture after 1790. In so doing, she alerts to what Douglas M. Peers has called “the crucial role played by the army and its central position in the make-up of the evolving colonial state.”4 Indeed, while most scholars focus on settlers, administrators, and missionaries, Colley acknowledges the fact that British soldiers provided by far the largest number of participants in Britain’s imperial project in India, often ending up as captives or renegades in the power of Indian and Afghan rulers. It was the anxiety over the loyalty of these troops and the purity of their identity that partly inspired Britons to re-envision their soldiers in more positive terms (344-5). The subsequent military reforms coincided with other changes—industrialization, the publication of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), the Act of Union with Ireland in1800, and the defeat of Napoleon in 1815—and resulted in a more self-assured imperial culture toward the middle of the nineteenth-century (309-310). Not coincidentally, the captivity narratives in this period reveal “a tougher, profoundly military imperial style, and the emergence too of a more self-conscious and confident national and imperial culture…” (277).

Given this transformation, Colley’s argument that the essential contradiction of Britain’s Empire—insufficient manpower for its unlimited imperial ambitions—persisted beyond 1850 and continued to provoke anxieties over the empire’s viability and identity must be qualified (374). It is certainly true that Britons expended time and energy on developing elaborate ideologies—racism and martial race theories, Indirect Rule and tribalization—that justified and facilitated the rule of the few over the many. However, after the middle of the nineteenth century this new imperial consciousness also acquired the technological and ideological means—steam-powered gun boats and Maxim guns, telegraphs and social Darwinism—to engage in more aggressive expansionism and interventionism. As Philippa Levine put it, the period after 1850 became “the age of high morals” and “an age of rapacity.”5 The track record of British imperial expansion is testimony to this New Imperialist culture: Oudh in 1856, Egypt in 1882, Burma in 1885, and Africa in the 1890s. Admittedly, the British still experienced reverses and suffered captives—the Mutiny in 1857, Isandwlana and Afghanistan in 1879, Majuba Hill in 1881, and General Gordon’s defeat at Khartoum in 1884—but these were increasingly viewed as aberrations to Britain’s imperial destiny and may no longer reveal, as Colley claims, the same anxieties over their own identity. Perhaps the best proof for this change in mentalité is that after 1850, in contrast to earlier periods, British captives could indeed expect to be saved as the British expedition to Abyssinia in 1867 illustrates.6

However, this observation should not detract from the fact that Captives is above all a successful attempt to explore the British Empire from the bottom up. And Linda Colley deserves to be applauded for her ability to use a relatively neglected body of primary sources to reexamine the nature of British Empire, explore the connections between metropole and periphery, and reveal the Empire’s changing identity between 1600 and 1850. These contributions combined with the book’s richness in detail and the nice illustrations will ensure its appeal to a wide audience.

Jochen S. Arndt, University of Illinois at Chicago



1. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978); Gyan Prakash, “Writing Post Orientalist Histories of the Third World,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 32 (2) (April, 1990), 383-408.

2. Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper, “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda,” Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in Bourgeois World, eds. Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 1-56.

3. Peter Way, “The Cutting Edge of Culture: British Soldiers Encounter Native Americans in the French and Indian War,” Empire and the Others, 125; C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 113.

4. Douglas M. Peers, Between Mars and Mammon: Colonial Armies and the Garrison State in Early Nineteenth-Century India (New York: Tauris, 1995), 7.

5. Philippa Levine, The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset (Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2007), 76.

6. Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books [2002] 2004), 145.