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.

Not all the characters in Colley’s book were captives of foreign powers. Many were poor white underlings, caught up against their will or inclination in the steady expansion of the Empire. Take the case of Sarah Shade, an agricultural servant from Herefordshire who, in 1769, fled to India with her stepfather (who may also have been her lover). She found herself the only woman on board a ship carrying East India Company soldiers, to one of whom her stepfather tried to sell her ‘in a fit of inebriety’. On arriving in Madras, she was taken up by a young lieutenant, who, tiring of her, passed her on to one of his sergeants, who married her. On his death in the 1780s she married a corporal. ‘One notes,’ Colley wryly remarks, ‘her pitiless descent through the ranks of the Army as age, war and the Indian sun stole away her good looks.’ In the 1790s she returned to London, widowed for a second time, and supported herself by making vegetable curries. By the time she came to dictate her story in 1801, she had learnt how to read and speak several languages, but not how to write. She had been imprisoned with her first husband at Bangalore, wounded by a musket ball, slashed by a sabre and clawed by a tiger. She bore on her body the marks of the Empire which had held her captive for most of her adult life.

Sarah’s story and the stories of those like her say a lot about the conditions of life on the frontier, its precariousness, the particular difficulties for women trying to negotiate a place for themselves in a world even more male-governed than the one they had abandoned. Such tales do not belong in the familiar account of gleaming uniforms and national pride, racism and arrogance in which most histories of most empires trade. Captives, however, does a lot more than tell stories. In Colley’s words, it ‘deliberately combines the large-scale panoramic and the global with the small-scale individual and particular’. And while the small, the individual and the particular result in some fine portraits, it is on the global and the panoramic that Colley is at her most compelling and most original. The subtitle to this book conveys more of its intent than the title.

Colley’s narrative begins in Tangier and ends in Afghanistan. Both were places of British defeat, both lay on the outer rim of the Empire as it was in the mid 19th century. The Mediterranean in particular has for long been ignored by historians of the Empire, because its settlements were always small and scattered, and because empire-building there involved little of that contact with hapless indigenous peoples which has been the stuff of so much imperial story-telling. The ‘master-narrative’, as Colley says, has focused either on the place of the Empire in the history of the founding of the United States, or on the more dismal tale of its role in the creation of the ‘third world’ in Asia and Africa. Well into the late 18th century, however, the Mediterranean was, as one contemporary observer put it, ‘the greatest thoroughfare of commerce in the world’, and the British Empire had always been – at least in its self-representation – concerned overwhelmingly with trade. Hence Charles II’s abortive attempt to transform Tangier, in Pepys’s words, into the ‘most considerable place the King of England hath in the world’. Tangier is also crucial to Colley’s thesis, because it was in North Africa that the British came up against a great imperial power with which its more powerful rivals, France, Spain and Portugal, had been at war for centuries: Islam.

They had this same experience again in India. There, however, the once mighty Mughal Empire was already splintered and weakened before the East India Company began slowly to appropriate it from within. In the Mediterranean, by contrast, what the British encountered was the seemingly unstoppable power of the Ottoman Turks. Today, the worldwide defeat of Islam which occurred during the 18th and 19th centuries seems to have been inevitable. But when the Governor of Tangier, Lord Dartmouth, dismissed his men – and women – to their fate in 1684, it seemed that the whole of Christendom might within a few years be incorporated, as the Balkans already had been, into the Ottoman Empire. The struggle between Europe and the various Islamic states dominated the history of most of Southern and Central Europe until well into the 19th century, though the British and the Dutch were also closely involved. Colley is not exaggerating when she claims that it was the final decline of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, the collapse of the Mughal into a British puppet regime and the evident weakening of China that ‘revealed to the Western states in a new way just what their fleets, manpower and precocious national cohesion might accomplish’.

It is the conflict with Islam which underscores the main theme of this remarkable book: that during its formative years the Empire was always overextended, underfunded and undermanned, and that its growth and ultimate survival were always dependent on the co-operation of the peoples over which it ruled. This is why captivity narratives are so significant for Colley, for captives were ‘the underbelly of British imperium, and they set us free to explore another vision’. That vision is as far from the old schoolroom narrative of the rise and rise of the British Empire as it is from the post-colonial vision of rapacious merchant adventurers and overbearing racists stripping and slaughtering defenceless indigenous peoples. Colley knows better perhaps than most historians that the rise of the Empire was never either steady or inevitable. From narrow, modest beginnings it finally came, for a brief period at the end of the 19th century, to control, directly or indirectly, more than 14 million square miles, and a third of the inhabitants of the globe. But Britain itself is geographically smaller than Madagascar and was, in terms of the manpower it could command at any one time, far smaller than any of its major European rivals. In 1715, when the Empire embraced large areas of North America and the West Indies, coastal settlements in India and vital outposts in the Mediterranean, its Army was no larger than the King of Sardinia’s. Even by the end of Colley’s period, its home-produced forces were modest by comparison with those of France or Russia, or even Prussia. And these figures represent only the number of men available on paper. In reality, in particular in the tropics, in Asia and Africa, even these few were regularly incapacitated by unknown diseases against which Europeans had very little resistance. It has been calculated that some 20 per cent of the European troops employed by the East India Company were out of action at any given moment because of disease. Britain, one senior analyst wrote in 1800, resembled nothing so much as an ‘oak planted in a flowerpot’.

The extraordinary arrogance displayed by so many of the proconsuls, the much-touted claim that Britons were superior beings, stronger, more determined, more hard-working than any race on earth, struggled to make up for real deficiencies on the ground. If one Englishman was worth two foreigners, then Britain’s Armies were effectively twice their actual size. But as Colley says, ‘arrogance and jingoism’ had no power to modify the realities of global power relations. ‘The maxim beloved by the common people of this country,’ one imperial soldier wrote in 1815, ‘that one Englishman is equal to two foreigners . . . may . . . be useful in some cases . . . but it is devoid of truth.’ Captivity made this point all too clearly. Britons in this period could be, and frequently were, slaves. Between 1620 and the early 1640s some twelve thousand English subjects were captured on the coast of North Africa alone. Of course, England was not the only colonising power to lose people in this way. By far the largest number of captives taken by ‘Barbary pirates’ were Spanish, among them Cervantes, who made extensive literary capital out of his experience. But Spain had for centuries traded captives across the shifting frontiers with Islam. The British experience was more traumatic, partly because it was initially so unfamiliar, partly because it was far more widespread. Very few Spanish or Portuguese were captured in America (although Frenchmen were), but Britons were enslaved all the way from America to India.

By the end of the 19th century, new technologies – the repeating rifle, the Gatling gun, iron-clad steam ships, heavy artillery that could be rapidly transported from one field of combat to another – made up for the sheer shortage of numbers, much as airpower does today. The world Colley describes, however, was very different. Here there was no certainty of eventual relief, or subsequent reprisal, no high Victorian self-confidence, no stirring schoolboy lyrics to rally the ranks. This is an Empire which for all its bellicosity and determination was still struggling to create itself. It is an Empire that could survive only by relying heavily on the support of the peoples it had conquered or coerced. Like the slave populations of the ancient world, on which Greek and Roman grandeur had been built, most of these allies and auxiliaries surface only sporadically in the literature of Empire. ‘We might hear enough about what great and illustrious exploits were daily performed on that conspicuous theatre by Britons,’ Edmund Burke complained in 1784 with reference to India. ‘We never hear of any of the natives being actors.’

Yet in India, above all, it was these natives who upheld the Empire. The British exploited differences and ancient antagonisms between local rulers, and between Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, to gain what was always a precarious and unstable hegemony. Not only was India largely run and financed by Indians, it was also conquered and defended by Indians. Even at the battle of Plassey in 1757, which marked the beginning of what was to become the East India Company’s political ascendancy over the Mughal Empire, twice as many Indians as Europeans fought on the British side. In 1767 it was calculated that a mere 13 per cent of the Company’s rank and file troops in the Coromandel region were ‘European’, and many of these were not any variety of ‘British’, but German, Swiss, Portuguese, French, even American and Caribbean. Colley tells the story of a British officer who in the 1780s stumbled into a Company fort in South India which had long since been abandoned by its British garrison. The sepoys, who had remained at their posts because somehow the Company had continued to pay and supply them, gathered to look at him with some curiosity for they had not seen ‘a European for many years’.

What was true most strikingly of India was true also of Africa, and even America. In exploiting the rifts within indigenous societies, the British were, of course, adopting a strategy without which no empire, no matter its size, could have existed for very long. The strategy was, as Tacitus had said of the Roman world, to ‘divide and rule’. Imperium, however, involved, as the Romans had also discovered, more than the mere exploitation of local differences. It demanded that the conqueror offer the conquered something which other rulers, local or otherwise, could not offer. In America, and later in Southern Africa, where the native peoples could mount very little sustained resistance, and where what the Europeans were after was land, these alliances were often transitory. In India and Asia, in Central and Eastern Africa and in the Mediterranean, they were often prolonged and enduring. Today, when the notion of political consensus has become inseparable from the concept of the ‘nation’, it is often forgotten that, before the early 20th century, few peoples outside Europe, or indeed within, expected to be ruled by ‘their’ people. For Hindus in India, the indigenous, but originally Turkic, and sometimes persecutory, Muslim Mughals were hardly to be preferred to the equally alien, but generally secularist, British. The arrival of the British, according to Raja Ram Mohun Roy, the ‘Father’ of modern India, marked the passage to a ‘milder, more enlightened and more liberal’ form of government, one which, in his view, had granted Hindus far greater control over their lives than they had previously enjoyed.

No state before the mid 20th century could ever muster enough force to keep distant, alien populations in thrall against their will for very long. Even today, as the rapid collapse of the Soviet Empire has made plain, once the support of a crucial sector of the society has been withdrawn, the end of imperial rule cannot be far off. Empires recompose societies: they involve migrations, displacement and, inevitably, miscegenation. The British, like all empires, was poly-ethnic and was so, as Colley says, ‘because it had to be’. When independence arrives it is rarely an unmixed benefit for all. This was obviously true in Asia and Africa, regions with large, heterogeneous native populations, but it was true even in America, where the indigenes had been in retreat virtually from the beginning. Support for the British during the American Revolution came not only from Tory traditionalists, wedded to an outdated and unjust society, but also from a large number of now largely forgotten min0rities: American-Indians, escaped African slaves, Dutch and German immigrants, Catholics, French Huguenot refugees. Few of these had much hope of prosperity, or even survival, in a new society of nations lorded over by a ‘highly self-conscious fast-multiplying white Protestant minority’. The story of the American Revolution, even in these revisionist times, is still told as the story of the victory of a particular kind of political liberty – republican, democratic and market-driven – because that is the kind of politics which has triumphed in the modern world. In the enthusiasm for the very real benefits offered by the brand of democracy which began in 1787, most of us, historians in particular, have forgotten that it had its victims in the 18th century, just as it has today.

Captives is not a celebration of empire. Colley knows well the ‘devastating power and impact at particular times and places’ the British Empire had. Her book is rather an appeal for a greater understanding of the complexities which have been all but bleached out of the acrimonious debates between post-colonialists and traditional defenders of the Imperial past. To understand is not, however, to condone those aspects of the European empires that most of us today find abhorrent: their latent racism, their attempts to change or obliterate indigenous customs, methods of social organisation and beliefs in the interest of what was looked on, unquestioningly by most of those with power, as the superior cultures of Europe. Colley is conscious that even if it is no part of a historian’s job to point accusing fingers at the dead, the British have a lot to answer for. She is also sensitive, as any historian of empire must be, to the claim so often made by those in the ‘developing world’ that the attitudes and beliefs which sustained the European overseas empires have not so much disappeared with their passing, as been transmuted. What was once done in the name of religion is now carried out in the name of democracy and the market economy. Those who were once oppressed militarily are now oppressed economically.

But for all that, Colley is surely wrong in saying that although we live in a post-colonial world, ‘we do not yet live in a post-imperial world.’ If anything, the reverse is true. There are still areas of the globe which could be described as ‘colonies’. Some of them she mentions herself: parts of the Chinese Republic, for instance, Java, and areas of India. The Turkish republic of Cyprus is a colony, and so are Gibraltar, Ceuta and Melilla, Réunion and Tahiti. But since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, there are no true empires left. Granted, the United States, the most frequently cited candidate for empire-status, acquired much of its present territory through conquest, largely fraudulent purchase or migration, but the fact that, in Colley’s words, ‘it also possesses now a string of military bases across the globe, a paramount Navy, and an Air Force than can strike anywhere’ does not make it an empire, even the ‘empire of liberty’ of Thomas Jefferson’s reveries. For empires, as Colley repeatedly makes clear, are places of incorporation, places where differing cultures meet, and if it is always true that one culture inevitably triumphs politically over all others, it never emerges from the encounter unchanged. Empires, as she says here and has said elsewhere on numerous occasions, are experiences which shape all those caught up in them. Modern Britain is a creature of its Imperial past as, in their differing ways, are France, Spain, Portugal and Germany – not to mention more shaky recent creations such as Russia.

As these older empires fade away, so their histories have come more and more to seem the single most significant and shaping experience of our modern world. Captives is an invitation to think again about an old story too often told in the same old way; it is a challenge, a demand that we cast a more critical and far colder eye than we have been accustomed to over a part of our collective pasts which is still unravelling. It is a book which should alter the way in which the history not only of the British, but of all the European empires is written.