The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History 
by Linda Colley.
HarperPress, 363 pp., £25, June 2007, 978 0 00 719218 2
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In the 1680s, Port Royal in Jamaica was a new sort of town. A deep-water port, it lay at the end of a nine-mile sand and gravel spit sheltering Kingston harbour. It was a merchant enclave and a pirate enclave, well situated for running contraband and raids against Spanish territories, and more ships docked there in a year than in all the ports of New England. Onto its 50 acres were crammed slaves, seamen, craftsmen and clerks, their wives and their families, together with the ‘crue of vile strumpets and common prostratures’ you find in any port. There were some seven thousand inhabitants. The more prosperous of them lived in brick-built houses, some four storeys high, and imported Chinese ceramics to civilise their dwellings.

The earthquake struck on 7 June 1692, just before noon. It rearranged the geology, splitting the rocks, turning mountains to lakes, and engulfing two-thirds of the town. On that day and subsequently, five thousand of the inhabitants died. This will teach the Europeans, said the moralising Abbé Raynal, not to trust to the solidity of a world that can quickly ‘slip out of their rapacious hands’. Rebuilding attempts were hampered by fire and hurricanes.

Earthquakes and their effects are an image to keep in mind when reading Linda Colley’s recent work. What we call, in Eurocentric fashion, the ‘Lisbon earthquake’ of 1755 killed over 100,000 people in the Iberian peninsula and Morocco, and caused tsunamis in the west of Ireland and in Barbados. Her 2002 book, Captives, traces the histories of some of the early British travellers taken prisoner by Moors, Afghans, American Indians and others, and in it she shows how the seismic shock of imperialist intent ripples out from its epicentre, subverting custom with the shock of the new, violently throwing together races and belief systems, sending a tremor through individual lives, wrecking certainties, reorganising identities.

Elizabeth Marsh was one of those shaken by the times she lived through, her personal ‘ordeal’ intimately connected with global forces beyond the grasp of any individual then living. Conceived in Port Royal, born in Portsmouth, she ‘travelled further and more dangerously by sea and in four continents than any female contemporary for whom records survive’. Her father was Milbourne Marsh, a carpenter from an English family whose fortunes were connected to the sea. When he landed in Port Royal in 1732, the settlement had been rebuilt on more modest lines, with a small dockyard, but the big trade – especially in slaves – had gone to Kingston. All the same, if a young man could survive the three-month passage and live through the initial period of vulnerability to infectious disease, he could thrive provided he had skills, and Milbourne was in demand for the fitting out and repairing of Royal Navy ships, sailing with them through the region to do running repairs. In port, he met Elizabeth Evans, whose husband was a fellow shipwright. As a sideline Evans kept a drink shop, and had a wherry which he crewed and hired out to the Royal Navy. He had at least nine slaves; perhaps he provided a glimpse of the status to which the younger man could aspire. The women slaves, stripped of their African names, were called after classical figures. The men, in a twist of vicious nostalgia, were named after English ports. When Evans died, Milbourne married his wife, and inherited Plymouth, Gosport and Bristol, together with the tables and spittoon.

Who was Elizabeth Evans? Her maiden name was the surname of a family of island planters. Their legitimate daughter would not have married a man like Evans, so was she perhaps a mulatto, with a white planter for a father and a black African mother? Though Milbourne’s family were good at documenting themselves, she seems to have slipped through their net. Her memorial tablet in a church in Kent described her simply as ‘a good Christian wife and mother’. One of the many things we do not know about her, and her daughter Elizabeth Marsh, is the shade of their skin. But we know a child was conceived about the time of her parents’ marriage, and that by the time the subject of this book was born, in 1735, they were lodged just outside the naval dockyard in Portsmouth. Besides its importance to the Royal Navy, Portsmouth was a busy garrison town and depot of the East India Company, its streets multicoloured and polyglot. Between here and Chatham and ships at sea, where his family sometimes travelled with him, Milbourne made a steady living till Elizabeth was in her late teens; then, a family contact transformed their prospects.

Milbourne’s family were dogged, long-lived and enterprising, and are themselves a study in social and geographical mobility. His brother George Marsh rose from a humble navy clerkship to occupy the position once held by Samuel Pepys. In 1755 he secured for Milbourne a senior administrative post at the port of Mahón in Minorca. It was a huge rise in status and income. Once on the island, Elizabeth could call herself, as later she would, ‘the daughter of a gentleman’. It was almost fifty years since the British had seized the strategically important island from the Spanish, and the population were largely Catalan-speaking Catholics, with a sprinkling of Jews and Orthodox Christians. Elizabeth had joined the elite, the four thousand-strong British community. She began to acquire accomplishments. She took riding lessons and music lessons. Her father had already taught her arithmetic and book-keeping, and she had learned some French during childhood visits to an aunt who had married a Huguenot baker and lived in Spitalfields. Now she picked up some Catalan. She became engaged to an officer whose wealth, prospects and social status would have brought her, Colley says, ‘to within touching distance of Britain’s governing class’. But there was not much time for romance. The outbreak of the Seven Years War brought the threat of French invasion, and led to Milbourne’s hurried transfer to Gibraltar. Gibraltar was also under threat; if Franco-Spanish forces blockaded it, there was nowhere for the garrison to go. Colley believes it was Elizabeth’s own idea to leave her family and set sail for London, via Lisbon. She travelled on an unarmed merchantman called the Ann, which became separated from its convoy in fog. The vessel was boarded, and Elizabeth found herself, like the heroine of a romance, kidnapped by corsairs. Later, when she was in financial straits, she would sit down and write the romance herself: The Female Captive, published anonymously, 1769.

Linda Colley first met Elizabeth Marsh in the Moroccan phase of her life, when she was researching Captives. But when she began to follow the web of Marsh’s connections, archives linked her to ‘Spain, Italy, the Shetlands, Central America, coastal China, New South Wales, Java, Persia, the Philippines and more’. The British Empire was made as much by clerks as by seamen and soldiers, with the pen as much as with the sword. Elizabeth Marsh’s life is the life of a single flitting creature caught in the net of diplomatic communiqués, ships’ logs, diaries, family documents, and Colley stresses that it is the modern form of global connectivity – the internet – that enabled her to follow each archival thread and pull them together for her reader, in a book that is immensely detailed but immaculately organised. Colley’s great asset, besides the ease of her style, is her sweep and range of reference, her ability to contextualise for the reader and expose the broader issues that lie behind particular events. When Elizabeth Marsh found herself a prisoner, dragged on an overland trail to Marrakech, sometimes in danger of dehydration and sometimes of drowning, her great project was to emerge not just alive but with virginity and reputation intact. In Marsh’s era, Colley tells us in Captives, fear of alien sexuality constellated around male rape. While Muslim armies were able to penetrate Europe, the sexuality of the East was seen as forceful, aggressive, threatening to men; indeed, it was suggested by some writers that the need for Christian captives was fed by the East’s underpopulation, which arose from the fact that its inhabitants preferred sodomy. Only when the Turks ceased periodic incursions into eastern Europe did the nature of the monstering change. The East then became effete, a realm which concentrated less on power and more on sensual pleasure: bring on the dancing girls.

But Elizabeth’s alarm – she was the only woman among the captives from the Ann – must have been increased by her own lack of context for her ordeal. Colley estimates that between the late 16th century and the end of the 18th more than 1.25 million people were seized by ships operating out of Ottoman and North African ports, and an uncounted number were taken on land and vanished into Ottoman territory. Men sometimes returned to the West to tell their tale, but women’s fates were largely unknown. There are exceptions, of course. Readers of the late Lesley Blanch’s lushly unreconstructed chronicle The Wilder Shores of Love will remember Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, cousin of the Empress Josephine, who in 1784 was taken by an Algerian ship in the Bay of Biscay and vanished into the seraglio at Constantinople. We know about Aimée because she became the mother of a sultan. Elizabeth Marsh was keen to avoid any such career opportunity. It was decided that she would be safer if she pretended to be married to James Crisp, the leader of the Ann party, a merchant who had, before her officer fiancé came along, taken an interest in her in Minorca.

Colley gives an incisive portrait of the acting sultan of Morocco, the young Sidi Muhammad, who was the next in the long line of men whose decisions would shape Marsh’s life. Ambitious, scholarly, cultured, he was conscious of the universal role of Islam, and keen to benefit his barren country by widening (and policing, for tax purposes) trading contacts with the West. When Marsh entered the royal palace, she passed through formal gardens which were being redesigned by a company of Danish gardeners. The sight can hardly have consoled her. Nor can the cup of tea the sultan offered in place of the traditional coffee. Trembling under her feet were the aftershocks of the Lisbon earthquake, reminding her of the noise of ‘a carriage going speedily over a rough pavement’. In the palace, a French slave boy acted as an interpreter; another slave, she wrote later,

brought a great collection of rarities, which were the produce of different nations, and shewed them to me. I greatly admired everything I saw, which pleased the Prince exceedingly; and he told me, by means of the interpreter, that he did not doubt of my preferring, in time, the palace to the confined way of life I was then in; that I might always depend on his favour and protection; and that the curiosities I had seen should be my own property.

It is clear that the sultan did not believe in the reality of her marriage to James Crisp, but he took her refusal calmly, and she was perhaps, Colley suggests, a little shaken by her own attraction to the elegant figure with his two yards of muslin train and ‘pink satin vest, buttoned with diamonds’. From the first the prisoners had been allowed to pass on messages through European merchants, but they had hit a rocky patch in Anglo-Moroccan relations, and it was three months before negotiations ended and the sorry party from the Ann boarded the Portland, a 50-gun warship, whose captain, while flying a flag of truce, had carried out martial exercises each day in sight of shore. Back in Gibraltar, Crisp offered to make the marriage a real one. She accepted. Perhaps she feared no one else would have her. The officer fiancé had melted gracefully away. She knew her story; she had conducted herself with all the firmness and propriety that could be expected of a Christian gentlewoman. But others might be working on a more torrid version.

Colley is severe on James Crisp. He did indeed lose his money twice over, but not by mere fecklessness. He was over-ambitious no doubt, and, like all the people in this book, carried along on global currents he could neither recognise nor predict. His place of birth is uncertain – it was somewhere in the Iberian peninsula or perhaps in the Balearics. He was a member of a merchant dynasty. An ancestor, born in 1599, had traded in ivory, redwood, sugar and slaves, establishing on his estate in Hammersmith a manufactory for glass and ceramic beads with which to dazzle his bartering partners in West Africa. Another forebear was a factor for the East India Company and was the first English merchant to visit Taiwan. Crisp himself would go on to trade in tea and textiles, liquor and fish, in almost anything that could be traded, legitimately or as contraband, and his contacts were worldwide. Elizabeth Marsh was by no means the merchant princess he should have married, so something blinded him to the pecuniary disadvantages: was he simply kind and honourable, or was he infatuated? We do not know. Elizabeth never speaks of love. She settled in London as a married woman, in a handy if unfashionable Bishopsgate house, and between them the Crisps spent a lot of money. They were, Colley says, ‘young, divided, self-inventing individuals with something to prove’, and though they were hardy and experienced travellers they were not experienced in London society. There were two children, Burrish and Elizabeth Maria. A fashionable man-midwife was retained, and twice over Elizabeth Marsh sustained the ordeal. But uncle George Marsh looked on and foresaw disaster. He described Elizabeth as ‘a handsome and very engaging woman with great abilities’, but added that she ate too much. Bankruptcy came in March 1767. It was, Elizabeth thought, a worse ordeal than any she had sustained in Morocco. Soon after this she took up her pen.

It was an era when many women were travelling and many women were writing, but it was women of little fortune, and needy widows, Colley tells us, who were willing to go into print. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish letters had been published only posthumously, in 1763. Six years later Elizabeth published anonymously, but this did not give her privacy much protection, as her friends raised a subscription to finance the publication. So they would know the details of her ordeal – or what she chose to tell. The idea was that she would appear as much like Richardson’s Pamela as possible. Innocence – not her native toughness, grit and resourcefulness – is her main weapon. The Elizabeth Marsh of the narrative introduces pious glosses, calls on Providence, faints and weeps. All the same, Colley says, The Female Captive is ‘strange, awkwardly written, and even shocking’. Copies were snapped up and vanished into private libraries. She was writing for a market.

So too is Colley. Elizabeth Marsh is fascinating but hard to find. She was ‘addicted to writing’ but none of her letters survives. Her agency in her own life is often unclear, and inevitably she gets lost from time to time as the author pursues the family story. There is a natural desire to make the most of every shred of evidence, a need to interpret, perhaps over-interpret. The book illustrates not just the value and attractions of picking up the broken trails of women in history, but also the immense difficulty of doing so. Marsh’s father Milbourne, her uncle George, her husband James, would have made easier subjects, evidence of each of them backed by a mass of documentation, but such books would not have the same Waterstone’s appeal, nor presumably the same academic cachet, adding, as they would, to the chronicles of dead white males. Throughout, Colley must insist on Marsh’s status as outsider, as migrant, as perhaps a person of mixed race, so that she falls into all the categories that qualify her for contemporary concern. She must be shown to be a creature of dichotomy and paradox. This is not a criticism, just an observation. What makes Colley’s approach viable is that Marsh does seem to have made some strikingly peculiar decisions in the years after Crisp’s bankruptcy, as if she were insisting on her oddity, not trying to disguise it. The normal English lady did not do what Marsh did next.

In the wake of some failed land annexation schemes in Florida, Crisp set sail for India to repair his fortunes. Elizabeth followed, in the fast and copper-bottomed Dolphin. (In this book, ships are as important as human beings, and Colley never fails to give them their individual character.) She was 35 years old when she disembarked in Madras. By the way there had been heavy seas, food had been rationed, crew members had been flogged. She was used to such sights, such ordeals. James Crisp obtained a post as a salt agent for the East India Company – the company had a salt monopoly. He was based in Dhaka, still a splendid Mughal city. It offered 230 mosques and 52 Hindu temples, but no Protestant church at all. It was a great centre for the cotton trade, and sidelines in textiles were a constant tempation to Crisp: he was an entrepreneur, used to making and breaking his own rules. But for the moment the couple reinvented themselves again, as expatriates have always been able to do. Servants were cheap and they had plenty. Elizabeth would get around in a palanquin, with four native bearers, and four more in reserve. It had ‘bamboo tassels’. The couple acquired four fly-whisks made of peacock feathers. Crisp laid aside his wig and silk suits for loose local garments.

But Elizabeth was ill, ‘in a very languid state’ and with ‘much pain in my side’. There were then no hill stations to which she could withdraw for cool air and a restorative social round. She could have gone to Calcutta for a change of scene, but she embarked on a stranger journey. For 18 months she travelled overland along the Subcontinent’s eastern coastline, in the company of a ‘cousin’, a Captain George Smith. Elizabeth’s relations could be found all over the world, but Colley suggests that ‘George Smith’ was a pseudonym. Her emotional contract with her husband was broken, though she continued to keep an eye out for business opportunities and to write down things that might interest him, for this time she kept a journal, and into it went notes on natural resources and trade, as well as records of balls and card parties. European women were scarce; the company’s social network was wide; everywhere she went she was entertained – fêted, she implies – though her journey had no official purpose. She recovered her health. She subsisted on a ready supply of Madeira, tea and flat British spa water. She danced into the small hours in rooms where the dance floor had to be sprayed with water regularly so that it would not crack in the heat. For part of the time she based herself at Ellore, a military settlement three hundred miles from Madras, in the house of her ‘cousin’: what could be more proper? When travelling, she moved about under the protection of the company’s militia. Three slave girls attended her. Unlike other European women – and at the time there were only some two hundred in the whole of Bengal – Elizabeth was not frightened by the local people. There was never a time when her life had not been intertwined with the lives of people of different races, colours and religions. She was curious, also ignorant, calling all religious sites ‘mosques’. She was intrepid, recording proudly in her journal that she was following routes which ‘no European lady had ever undertaken . . . before’. There was nothing to guide her but the light of her own surprised eyes. Were the few white women in the Subcontinent, Colley asks, held to a less rigid standard of sexual conduct than their sisters elsewhere? It is hard to tell. Marsh’s descendants may have censored her journal. Certainly, she let no romantic opportunity pass.

The tablecloth spread as usual on the grass, cold fowl and oysters were our repast – sung some songs, danced a reel, and again seated ourselves in our palanquins – the moon was clear, and the gentlemen preferred walking some miles at the side of my palanquin – we chatted the night away.

She was 40 years old now, very sure of her attractions, and determined to keep moving, the dashes which are her typical punctuation themselves witness to a writer who never comes to rest. Meanwhile, where were her children? Elizabeth Maria, aged six, had come out to India with her on the Dolphin, but had quickly been bundled back home, to be given a genteel education under the benevolent eye of Milbourne Marsh, now back in Chatham. Her son, Burrish, had travelled to India unescorted at the age of nine, and when the ship docked was found ‘almost destroyed with vermin and filth’. He was then entrusted to a merchant whose name we do not know, who took him into Persia to learn the language. This would prove a huge asset to him when he in turn sought employment with the East India Company. Burrish was a good son to Elizabeth; what he thought of her version of mothering can only be imagined, but perhaps he did not find it so extraordinary, in view of his wider family’s exploits. Again and again, Colley’s reader is struck by the absence of fear in her actors and their contemporaries: or perhaps the absence of evidence of it. Whatever personal trauma they experienced, they suppressed it, and wiped it from the record; how could they be homesick, when home was always the next ship’s cabin? No wonder they were such brutes, as colonialists, as slave-traders, these company men and navy men and soldiers of the king. Empathy would have been maladaptive. They were aliens in a world of aliens, concentrated on brute economics, on keeping their souls within their skin, and if they garnished imperialism with Christian sentiments those sentiments had no more real claim on them than traditional notions of feminine timidity had on Elizabeth when she negotiated with the sultan. Piety is applied later, like a varnish. Day by day, cynicism flourished. Spelling out the supremacy of free-trade principles over the needs of hungry humans, James Crisp had written: ‘The reasonable because the real price of everything is what it will sell for.’

Elizabeth rejoined her husband in late July 1776, just a couple of weeks after the American Declaration of Independence. The Revolutionary War, embroiling as it did the countries of Europe and affecting trade globally, would play its part in the declining fortunes of James Crisp. We see the pattern in Colley’s book time and again; trade follows the flag, but nationalist dispute impedes mercantile freedom. Crisp had lost his agent’s fees after a succession of rows and misunderstandings with the East India Company. He had gone back into the textile trade, but died intestate late in 1779. In March 1780 his possessions went at auction: the silk suit and peacock fans, the bread-and-butter plates and Burrish’s baby clothes. No sentiment here. Milbourne had died earlier, in May 1779, aged 69, and during his final illness Elizabeth herself had gone back to England: one hopes out of family affection, but in any event to be sure that his will left provision for Elizabeth Maria, for if Milbourne’s money had come directly to her, it would have been swallowed up by her husband’s debts. Crisp was six months dead when she landed in Madras. Did she mourn the enterprising, mentally agile man who had stood by her when she emerged from the sultan’s shadow? We don’t know, because she had stopped writing. From now on her story can be patched together only through the accounts of others. Her ideas and emotions can only be guessed at.

Her ordeal was not over, for she still had one important task: to find a husband for 16-year-old Elizabeth Maria, who settled with her – if ‘settled’ is the word – in the town of Hooghly, a centre of opium production 25 miles outside Calcutta. Living was cheap and she planned her campaign from a small house paid for by Burrish. Elizabeth Maria landed George Shee, the son of a Catholic landowner in Mayo, and a connection of Edmund Burke. He was an East India Company man, able, ambitious and popular, and he would have been out of the Marshs’ reach, except that he was implicated, glancingly, in a sexual scandal, when a friend of his attempted to seduce the child-bride of a Franco-Swiss employee of the company. (The child-bride later became Mme de Talleyrand; the reader is not too surprised to learn it, being accustomed by now to Colley’s habit of teasing out every thread of her people’s lives.) Elizabeth Maria married Shee in August 1783. Soon afterwards, Elizabeth Marsh developed breast cancer. Early in 1785 she underwent a mastectomy, without anaesthetic. In the absence of any words from her subject, Colley draws on Fanny Burney’s account of what it was like to feel and hear, fully conscious, ‘the Knife rackling against the breastbone’.

Elizabeth Marsh survived the shock of surgery and the risk of infection. She died in late April 1785, aged 49, a grandmother: Elizabeth Maria had given birth to a son the year before the mastectomy. The whole of the known world had created her history. Linda Colley has brought to its telling a stamina and resilience that Elizabeth Marsh would surely have appreciated. Her book is a work of skewering historical precision and vast imaginative reach. Her approach reminds one a little of V.S. Naipaul’s in The Loss of El Dorado, an intense, deeply moving and often chilling epic in which he draws a great web of New World history tight around an obscure and poor young woman, Luisa Calderon, a mulatto girl of about fourteen, whose illegal torture in the jail at Port of Spain caused an international scandal at the turn of the 19th century. History has left Luisa speechless, except for the cries recorded at the time of her ordeal. She needed to be spoken for, and so did Elizabeth Marsh, whose own record was surely subject to censorship and self-censorship. Colley’s style of irreproachable clarity makes light work of the global complexities of her story. Her synthesis of the facts is masterly, and where evidence runs out, she writes with a proper caution about what she reads between the lines. Her book is both moving and profound. When Elizabeth Marsh died, her son composed an epitaph which, suppressing what had given her ordeal shape and meaning, made no mention of her travels or writings. Her gravestone in Calcutta has long since disappeared. But she has a monument now.

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