Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

When Britain's subjects were subjected

Captives, Linda Colley, Pantheon: 438 pp., $27.50

February 16, 2003|Paul Kennedy | Paul Kennedy is the Dilworth professor of history at Yale University and the author or editor of 15 books, including "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers."

There is a study to be written about intellectuals who undergo steady metamorphoses, who begin in one field and then change their areas of inquiry, broaden their questions and approaches, move from the narrow works of their youth to bolder theses that examine the world in a more original way and continually surprise you with their newest area of exploration. A nice case in point would be Linda Colley, successively professor of history at Yale, then at the London School of Economics and now heading to Princeton.

Colley's early training in history was under the formidable Jack Plumb at Cambridge University, and her work focused upon the relatively narrow subject of the Tory Party in mid-18th century Britain, a study in political history scarcely intended to get on the bestseller lists.

But she then devoted herself for a decade or so to researching and writing her major work, "Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837" (1992), which is perhaps the single most insightful book about how a modern people's national consciousness and sense of identity evolved. Here she explained how a precarious British state, coming out of a century of civil and religious strife, had become the best-balanced, most coherent power in the world by the time Horatio Nelson and Lord Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte. Even the loss of the American Colonies did not, essentially, upset that balance. Her book cast its gaze upon the whole nation: local pamphleteers, sermonizers in Essex pulpits, debates in the House of Commons, the change among the Scots from Jacobite rebels to the most successful "British" imperialists of the lot. Amazingly bold, multifaceted and deserving of its various prizes, "Britons" left the reader wondering what Colley would write as her next big project. Would it be, as some thought, a study of the ambitions and mentalities of British policymakers (the so-called Official Mind) in the pre-Victorian era? Or, perhaps, of the politics and culture of slow Imperial decline? Or of "British-ness" in general, on which issues she attracts the attention of none less than British Prime Minister Tony Blair?

Well, it was none of the above. The new book, "Captives," is another dramatic change of course, a study that is simultaneously quirky, brilliant and original. It returns us from "large" history, as the distinguished Harvard historian David S. Landes likes to call it, to something more special and focused. The British edition of this book keeps the subtitle simple but vague: "Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850." In the U.S., the "reading lines" on the cover underneath the title are far more confusing: "The story of Britain's pursuit of empire and how its soldiers and civilians were held captive by the dream of global supremacy, 1600-1850." How silly. Colley's theme is the exact opposite, and it is useful to explain why.

British and American editions have on the cover a graphic but small detail of John Vanderlyn's painting "The Murder of Jane McCrea," a close-to-pornographic oil painting of a young Scotswoman about to be scalped and slaughtered by two dreadfully terrifying, muscular, half-naked Indians in 1777. (The full portrait is included in the text, but the clever designer of the dust-jacket has simply extracted that segment of the painting that shows a strong, dark-colored male hand grasping a delicate, white, female wrist. The white person is a prisoner, held against her will. A captive. But she is about as far from someone captivated by "the dream of global supremacy" as the two dogs lying at my feet as I write this review.

At the initial level, Colley's subject is quite simple. Here we have an exhaustive study of the surprisingly large number (tens of thousands) of British men and women who fell prisoner in those various parts of the world -- Tangier, the Barbary Coast, Egypt, North America, India -- that were the object of London's trading and imperial ambitions between the early 17th and mid-19th centuries. Because many of these captives were later ransomed or recaptured, and because there was an immense interest among the London, Edinburgh and Dublin publishers to print their reminiscences after their return, a colossal amount of anecdotal data remains, forming the basis of Colley's book. And this is made more colorful by her decision to visit the places of capture, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar to nose around Tangier, exploring and describing the ruined fortresses of Mysore and so on.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|