Oak in a Flowerpot

Anthony Pagden

  • Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850 by Linda Colley
    Cape, 438 pp, £20.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 224 05925 4

Tangier, 1684. A motley group of soldiers scrambles over the ruins of a town, burying beneath the rubble newly minted coins that bear the image of Charles II. This least remembered of the outposts of the fledgling British Empire is nearing its end. For more than a decade it had been a thriving commercial port, in which Charles, who had acquired it in 1661 when he married Catherine of Braganza, his Portuguese wife, had invested heavily – a considerably larger sum, as its last governor remarked, than he had spent on all his other overseas possessions put together. Along with Bombay, also part of the unhappy Catherine’s dowry, it marked the furthest limit of what Charles had conceived to be his imperium, the latest, and soon to be greatest, mercantile power in the world.

But Tangier was too far from home for the overstretched resources of the English Crown to maintain for long, no matter how much money was poured into it. By 1680, Moroccan armies had seized three of the colony’s five forts. Four years later, it was abandoned, destroyed by the same people who had built it. The coins they left behind them in the sand expressed the hope that ‘many centuries hence when other memory of it shall be lost, [they] may declare to succeeding ages that [this] place was once a member of the British Empire.’ Within a few days of this final appeal to posterity, the remaining settlers would be either dead or enslaved, the captives of Moulay Ismaïl, the Alaouite Sultan of Morocco. It is with the fate of these captives, and the thousands of others like them throughout the whole extent of the British Empire during the first 250 years of its history, that Linda Colley’s new book is concerned.

Stories of captivity, almost always of Europeans at the hands of indigenous peoples, have for long been a staple of North American historiography. The materials are rich, and they offer extraordinary, often unsettling glimpses into the daily experience of the colonial process. But although North American colonists were by no means the only Europeans to be seized by their would-be victims, very little attention has been given to the tales of abduction and captivity from Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean. As always in the early history of the British Empire, America is treated as if it were wholly exceptional. Yet, in this, as in so many other respects, it was not. America was only one part of an ever-expanding imperium many of whose servants had done their bit, and experienced captivity, in different places within it. Even the man who was to become the most famous of the early English captives in America, John Smith, who had been ‘rescued’ from the Algonquin chief, Powhatan, by his daughter Pocahontas (playing Medea to Smith’s Jason), had first been captured by the Turks and sold as a slave in Istanbul. The continuity of the stories of the Empire from the eastern Mediterranean to the Americas is inescapable. No one region can be understood in isolation from the rest. Nor, as Colley stresses, can the history of the metropolis be understood apart from the history of its vast, straggling, diverse overseas possessions.

Captives tells of some remarkable people, and some remarkable incidents. Joseph Pitts, for instance, a young seaman from Exeter, was captured, aged 15, in Algiers in 1678 and became the first Englishman to make the journey to Mecca and return, long before Richard Burton’s celebrated voyage in 1853. Pitts converted to Islam, as so many in his situation did, and although he remained a slave until 1693, when he managed to escape, he seems to have been treated well and to have formed a largely favourable view of his captors and their religion. His story, with its descriptions of the sweet taste of good camel meat, the bright sashes of the whores in Cairo, the whorls of henna decorating the hands and feet of Berber women, became something of a bestseller when it was published in 1704.

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