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“Captives is rich and unfailingly inquisitive about the anxieties of imperialism, the experiences of those who did [its] hard labour, and, above all, the vulnerability of empire.”
—John Mullan, Times Literary Supplement
Britain’s pursuit of empire seems an inexorable march across continents toward its ultimate—if temporary—global hegemony. But, as Linda Colley shows in this masterfully written book, Britain’s overseas enterprises were always constrained by its own limitations in size, population, and armed forces, and by divisions among its subjects—constraints and deficiencies that could make the dream of empire an ordeal even for its makers. Drawing on a wealth of captivity narratives by men and women of different social and ethnic backgrounds from the early seventeenth century to the Victorian era, Colley chronicles the complicated dynamic between invader and invaded.
Here are the stories of Sarah Shade, who was married to a succession of British military officers, attacked by tigers, and imprisoned by Indian ruler Tipu Sultan; Joseph Pitts, a white slave in Algiers from 1678 to 1693 and author of the first authentic—and very complimentary—English account of the pilgrimage to Mecca; and Florentia Sale, a captive in the Kabul insurrection of 1841 who used her time in confinement as an opportunity to interview military men for her memoir. There were also those who crossed the cultural divide and switched identities, like the Irishman George Thomas, a mercenary fighter for Indian rulers and failed dictator, and those who crossed but made it back, like John Rutherfurd, the onetime Chippewa warrior and Scot.
Colley uses these extraordinary tales to trace the changing boundaries of Britan’s pursuit of empire and its shifting attitudes toward Islam, slavery, race, and American revolutionaries.
“Brilliant and original. . . . Colley offers a challenge to the traditional tale of Imperial Britain’s rise.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Illuminating. . . . Colley shows how the stories of British captives helped shape the literature, politics and public opinion of the time.” —The Washington Post Book World