The story of Britain's pursuit of empire and how its soldiers and civilians were held captive by the dream of global supremacy.

~ Introduction
~ Mediterranean: Confronting Islam
~ America: War and a New World
~ India: The Tiger and the Sword
~ Epilogue
~ Beyond the Book


The scale of the disparity between Britain's massive imperial pretensions on the one hand and its modest domestic size and resources on the other was remarkable. By the early 20th century, the Dutch empire was perhaps 50 times bigger than the Netherlands, while the French colonies were some 18 times the size of France itself. Britain's authority, however, was stretched over a global empire 125 times larger than its own islands.

Britain's limited population and its inhabitants' objections to maintaining large standing armies, provided for a further respect in which this was an empire challenged by smallness. The size of Britain's own armed forces never remotely kept pace with its global interventions. This was true even at sea. And although by 1700 the Royal Navy was the most powerful in the world, it never possessed enough ships both to protect Britain itself from European enemies, and simultaneously to preside in strength over the world's oceans. In 1715, when Britain already claimed authority over some half a million men and women in North America, plus large parrts of the West Indies, coastal settlements in India and vital outposts in the Mediterranean, its army is estimated to have been no bigger than the king of Sardinia's.

Even at the height of its imperial power, Britain's military and naval resources would have appeared negligible if set against the bristling overseas garrisons and staggering oceanic naval presence currently possessed by the United States.

These limits in military manpower might not have mattered had Britain commanded throughout the sort of easy and invariable technological supremacy still sometimes attributed to early modern Western empires, but it did not. At sea, to be sure, the major European powers had established a marked lead over other regions of the world by 1600. On land, however, it was a different matter. Part of the excitement and sentimentality with which Britons and other Europeans reacted to Captain James Cook's encounters with Pacific islanders in the 1770s may well have been due to a graitified recognition that here were societies whose weaponry was indeed indisputably primitive in quality. By contrast, in parts of North Africa, in North America and above all in Asia, British intruders in this period had regularly to confront peoples whose weapons were similar to their own, and occasionally better. Land warfare remained conspicuously low-tech, and there was no necessary gulf between Western and non-Western armaments. As late as 1799, guns, cannon and ammunition together accounted for less than 5% of Britain's land warfare budget. The rest went on horses, carts, uniforms, swords, knives, pikes and soldiers' pay.

Britain's military vulnerability may have aided in some respects its imperial drive. Self-consciously small, increasingly rich, and confronted with European enemies that were often bigger and militarily more formidable than themselves, the British were frequently on edge, constantly fearful themselves of being invaded, necessarily alert and ready for a fight.
Small is vulnerable, small is aggressive.

The sea, the one commodity apart from coal and sheep they had around them in abundance, allowed the British to compensate for sparsity of numbers by sheer mobility and ubiquity.

It is these mixed consequences of Britain's smallness - its cohesiveness, restless extroversion, busy commerce and aggression on the one hand, and its demographic, military and resource inadequacies on the other - that account in part for the very large numbers of real-life Crusoes and Gullivers seized in regions outside Europe after 1600.

Those wanting to understand the histories - and the present - of large parts of Africa, or Asia, or America, or indeed the Caribbean and the Pacific regions, need to reassess the complex roles once played in them by the British, and see the latter clearly for what they actually were, in their real diversity and limited dimensions, as distinct from how they wished to appear then, and from what they are still stereotypically viewed as being now.



Never before in its history had the English state, as distinct from private investors and trading companies within it, devoted so much effort and thought, and above all so much money to a colonial enterprise outside Europe. The surviving accounts, which are incomplete, suggest that in the 1660s Tangiers cost on average £75,000 each year. Cutting down its military garrison and establishing a civilian administration failed to reduce the drain on the Crown. Altogether this North African episode appears to have sucked in close to 2 million pounds, a substansially greater sum than Charles II spent on his other overseas outposts, or on all his garrisons on home territory put together.

The entire Tangier episode appears strange in the light of conventional and current narratives of empire, so much so, that it is usually left out of them altogether. Despite its drama and importance at the time, the unprecedented amounts of state money poured in, only one major book has ever been written about Tangier's rise and fall as 17th century England's most elaborate and expensive extra-European colony... it is a powerful demonstration of just how effectively Britain's sporadic imperial disasters and retreats were expunged from the historical record and from national and even international memory.

During the siege of 1680, Irish Catholic soldiers and officers defending one of Tangier's forts on behalf of the King of England were obliged to call out instructions to each other in the Gaelic language, so as to avoid being understood by some English Protestant renegades who were serving with the Moroccan forces outside the gates.

Tangier demonstrates, as would many later emergencies and disasters, the risks and dangers that England and later Britain could incur in combining overseas territorial ambitions with inadequate military manpower and parsimonious funding. It illustrates how the business of empire sometimes laid real as well as metaphorical chains on the activists directly involved, especially, but not uniquely, poor whites. Tangier was the spectre at the imperial feats, a grim and embarrassing reminder of how difficult, in practical terms, sustaining empire at this early stage could be for Britons, and conversely of just how much effort, adjustment and expense would be required if a greater measure of success was to be achieved in the future.

It reminds us that - for the British - there were paths not taken, interludes of retreat, sporadic failures and significant limits, as well as formidable and indisputable exertions of power and that those who made this empire were always diverse and sometimes at odds with each other.


Throughout the 17th century and in the early 1700s, England's (and subsequently Britain's) most widely known and controversial contacts with Islamic cultures were with the so-called Barbary powers, Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunisia, the last three all regencies or military provinces of the Ottoman empire. Between 1600 and the early 1640s, corsairs operating from these North African territories seized more than 800 English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish trading vessels in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, confiscating their cargoes, and taking their crews and passengers into captivity. Some 12,000 English subjects may have been captured over these decades, and in most cases subsequently enslaved for life in North Africa and elsewhere in the Ottoman empire.

At one level, Barbary appaled because its corsairs converted the sea from an emblem of commerce, freedom, power and proud British identity, into a source of menace and potential slavery. The corsairs also provoked fear because - like Tangier - they brought Britain into sharp and intitially disadvantageous contact with the power and politics of Islam.

It was partly Barbary depredations - on ships, cargoes, lives and domestic coastlines - that prompted James I's successor, Charles I, to levy ship money so controversially on his subjects in order to raise additional revenue for his failing navy. By the same token, the massive damage that Barbary corsairs inflicted on lives and commerce after 1603 helps to account for growing popular alienation from and disillusionment with the Stuart kings. To this extent, the power of the Crescent - so often left out of British history entirely - helped to provoke the civil wars that tore England and its adjacent countries apart after 1642.

Britain's notorious role as a dealer in black slaves before 1807 has understandably diverted attention from its own inhabitants' earlier and very different exposure to the threat of slavery.
Although the Ottoman and North African trade in both black and white slaves existed over a longer period than the transtlantic slave trade - and was at times comparable in scale - far less is currently known about it, and about the kinds of slavery and forcible confinement operating in these zones for centuries.

By 1670 - though probably not before - the number of black slaves being shipped out annually from West Africa by British and other white traders was indisputably in excess of the total number of Europeans seized each year by Barbary and Ottoman corsairs. Moreover, white corsair victims were increasibly allowed a hope of redemption and return, as black slaves shipped across the Atlantic in this period never were.

Before 1730, at least, the face of slavery - as far as Britons and other Europeans were concerned - was sometimes white.

Barbary corsairs were highly effective predators who succeeded over the centuries in extorting very large amounts of ransom and protection money from virtually all Western European governments.
Because so much imperial history is conceptualised in a manichean fashion so as to emphasise opposition and antagonism - whether it be the rise of racial conflict, or the growing divergence between the West and the rest - it is easy to overlook the parallel stories of deals and compromises constantly going on between European and non-European cultures.

In 1781, the British effectively gave up Yorktown to its besiegers by dispatching a crucial segment of their fleet from its American station to Gibraltar which was also grievously besieged at this time by the French and the Spanish. This decision makes no sense if we adopt present-day perspectives on the absolute centrality of America. It makes perfect sense if we remember how vital the British viewed the Mediterranean in strategic, imperial and commercial terms. These same imperatives made it indispensable for the British to maintain some kind of constructive engagement with Barbary.


A young man from the North Country goes to sea, is captured by 'Turkish pirates' and flung into prison. There he is visited by the governor's beautiful daughter. She helps him escape, and in certain versions of the story, follows him to England, where he abandons his local, Christian fiancee for this 'Turkish' bride, who brings with her a jewelled belt worth more than all the wealth of Northumberland. At one level these persistently popular verses give a North African twist to the Western's world recurrent Pocahontas fantasy: a European male in peril is resuced by an influential non-European female who promptly falls in love with him and comes over to his society. Yet to read the 'Lord Bateman' ballad only in this fashion is to miss important complexities. It is the white man who is initially vulnerable, and the 'Turkish' female who possesses superior power, initiative and wealth. The white man crosses boundaries for her, ultimately abandoning a woman of his own kind for her sake.

Something that we will see evidence of again and again: the centrality of linguistic capacity to captives' chances of survival. How easily they could be disoriented and entrapped by not understanding the language of their captors, and conversely how captivity itself might lead to new langage skills and consequently to an enhanced capacity to survive and even prosper.


Cosmopolitanism, in the sense of an informed appreciation of rival religious and political systems, and a beliefe in their equal worth, was not a characteristic of any society anywhere in the early modern world. Popular and polite responses to Islam in Britian were often visceral and derogatory, but this sort of deep-rooted, almost instinctive prejudice was not a monopoly of Europeans, nor did the British themselves deploy it only against non-Europeans. The Muslim peoples of the Mediterranean exhibited a very similar verbal, written and symbolic disdain and contempt for Western Christians.

Western European Christians and their Muslim neighbours in the Mediterranean were not just alike in often being ignorant, suspicious and contemptuous of each other: they were also equally chauvinist towards their own rival co-religionists.

Early modern Britons, like the rest of mankind, had no way of foreseeing the future. Indeed, they were far more likely than we are today to assume that things would continue much as they had done in the past. Self-evidently, they had no way of knowing in 1600, or in 1750, that by 1850 they would rule on paper so many millions of Muslim men and women. So when previous generations contemplated Islamic powers in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, it was rarely with any sense of manifest destiny or expectation of imperial dominance.

Ibn Khaldun, the great Tunisian scholar of the 14th century, wrote in his masterpiece, 'Muqaddimah', of his distaste for the two extremes of skin colour as he saw them, those with black skin, and those whom a cold climate had bleached to whiteness. This kind of prejudice against very dark and very pale skin seems to have persisted in North African societies at least into the 19th century, and to have existed at different social levels. Joseph Pitt, the young Exeter seaman who was enslaved in Algiers between 1678 and 1693, was told by one of his captors that pink people of his sort resembled pigs, quintessentially unclean animals.

For most Barbary captives, limited expectations at home might inflect how they reacted to issues of difference abroad, not least because white captives in North Africa, like black slaves in North America, were sometimes confronted with the phenomenon of the good master.



To begin with, relations between English incomers in mainland North America and its indigenous peoples were complex, mutually uncomprehending, but by no means automatically hostile. The earliest settlers in Virginia and New England were necessarily dependent on local Indians for food and advice on how to grow it, and for guidance on survival techniques in a new land. They were also initially small in number by comparison with their Indian neighbours. Even in 1630, there were probably fewer than 10,000 English men and women scattered along the eastern shores of North America. There would have been no way for Indians to forsee that the original homeland of these sparse, disruptive and hairy intruders would be any more populous.

Since they themselves were initially so small in number, and Native Americans had to be taken seriously, the English reacted to them as they nearly always did to overseas people. They did not simply 'other' them, but rather looked for an invented points of similarity and contact. They took note of the rituals and ornate possessions surrounding sachems or chiefs, and concluded that these individuals must be 'kings' or 'queens' or aristocratic hunter-warriors.

Whites who were seized in North America had to confront the possibility - to a greater degree than in the other zones of empire examined in this book - that they or their children might be coerced or coaxed into becoming something else.

The various North American provinces were not places of work and warfare merely: they were settlement colonies. So captivity here regularly engulfed whole families, all age-groups, and large numbers of women as well as men.

As John Elliott famously demonstrated, although the Spanish, Portuguese, French and English invasions of the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries are in retrospect seminal episodes in global history, at the time many ordinary Europeans back home remained largely indifferent to these events. Specific crises in North American could, to be sure, fire up British interest for a while. But for most of the times, London's newspapers and book press devoted little sustained coverage to settler experiences in America.

From the very beginning, the role of the state in England's North American empire had been slender and ennabling rather than interventionist. In some contrast to the Spanish monarchy's hands-on colonial policy in South America, England's rulers, in David Armitage's words, led 'from behind and allowed private enterprise to bear the burdens of conquest and settlement'. One aspect of this cheap and indirect version of empire, was that London displayed only erratic enthusiasm for substabsial military investment in its transatlantic colonies.

It is suggestive that the British and their American settlers called post-1689 wars that involved them both by different names. The latter named them after the reigning British monarch, thereby affirming their ties across the Atlantic. People in Britain, by contrast, came to label these wars by reference to the European world that still dominated their thinking. For them, what happened between 1701 and 1713 was not Queen Anne's War, but the War of Spanish Succession. For Britons at home at this stage, Europe and its environs remained the essential cockpit and testing ground, Europe was that had to matter most. By mid-century, this was beginning to change. With large numbers of their own kind now flooding over to America - not to settle, but to fight and hopefully to conquer and return  - this vast territory and all its complex dangers came to seem to Britons at home infinitely more real and absorbing.

To the rulers of the British state, desperate as always for additional manpower, Indian warriors seemed less an unmitigated menace than potential armed auxilliaries in the business of empire. Gripped and confined by their own smallness, the British in their imperial phase sought out allies, all kinds of allies, everywhere. They could not afford to do otherwise.

Because they were limited in number, dependent psychologically and in many other ways on the 'mother country', and threatened by French power in Canada and to a lesser extent the Spanish in the South, Britain's American colonists tended to view European rivalries as involving them as well.

The politicians sitting tight and safe in London might be inclined to view Native Americans as potential, subaltern manpower, but Britain's white settlers in America were more likely to see them as obstacles, peoples to be feared, or despised, and, as time went on, impatiently swept aside.


Before 1750, the major European powers and their overseas settlers had rarely viewed empire as something of which people of their sort, Christian, Western and white, were uniquely capable. After 1760, however, both the Ottoman and the Mughal empires came to be viewed in the West as weakening as never before, while commentary on China also became less awed and respectful. It was as if the extraordinary global range of the Seven Years War, and the radical transformations it affected, revealed to Western states in a new way just what their fleets, manpower and precocious national cohesion might accomplish - if only they so willed. By the time the war ended in 1763, the British empire - as Britons now began calling all the lands they laid claim to in a way not customary before - was five times larger than it had been a century earlier.

During the Seven Years War, desertions from among the lower ranks of British regiments based in North America to various indigenous communities proved so numerous that any redcoat discovered living alongside Indians and claiming to have been captured, risked being court martialled unless he could somehow prove that he really had been forced to cross the culture line against his will.

As far as ordinary Britons at home were concerned, the much greater awareness, bequeathed to them by the Seven Years War and its writings, that individual whites sometimes chose to live with Native Americans and were made welcome by them, proved a revelation. For such conjunctures confirmed that Indians were not simply monstrous others. Some Indians at least were manifestly capable of inspiring intense loyalty and attachment amond individual whites, and of feeling affection for them in return.

In just a hundred years, Anglo colonists in North America had risen from being a 100th of England's own current population, to being a fifth of its population; and, by 1770, the ratio of American colonists to English men and women had shrunk yet again, to a mere one to three.

The majority of these transatlantic emigrants, as the politicians in London took trouble to establish, were young men under 30, the very age and sex cohort upon which the agriculture, industry, army and navy of Britain itself most depended.


Witness Mel Gibon's film "The Patriot", with its ranks of red-coated automata, commanded by glittering, malign British officers, confronting scruffy, ill-supplied but sternly virtuous American citizen soldiers. This is the potent legend of the American revolution: the battlefield reality was something else.

Whether British or American, they had to deal with opponents whose skin colour and clothing was often the same as their own, and who might well speak the same language, worhsip the same Protestant God, react and think for much of the time in very similar ways. So the imaginary wall that normally descends in war brutally separating one side from the other proved in this one sometimes markedly unstable. Men and women would glance at those who were in name and in fact their enemies, and find themselves staring at a mirror.

Since suffering and cruelty, like captives, were never the preserve of just one side in this war, why were American Revolutionaries abke to make so much better capital out of these things than their opponents? Britain had lost not just the Thirteen American colonies, but also the propaganda war. In part this was because the Revolutionaries  tried harder - since they knew they had to.

Committed Loyalists, it is estimated, comprised at least one fifth of the white population of the Colonies, and may have come close at times to making up a third. Even among the ranks of the Revolutionaries themselves there were many who found it hard to regard Great Britain unambiguously as a foreign power. This was why Congress and Revolutionary activists devoted so much energy throughout the war to making capital out of captivity stories and other real and invented British atrocities. They needed to construct a firm, unyielding wall between themselves and their opponents, to persuade their own supporters, as well as the uncommitted and as many Loyalists as they could, that the British were cruel and therefore alien.

For political reasons, the British simply could not counter this kind of assault. They could not properly retaliate in kind to Revolutionary atrocity accusations because of the nature of their war aims. The British military and political elites did not - and could not - want to stir up a thoroughgoing hate campaign against Americans, because their whole purpose in fighting this war was to keep as many of the latter as possible contained within the empire. They knew that they were 'but an island' and that therefore they could never retain their vast American empire by military means alone. They did not have sufficient manpower; they would never have sufficient manpower. They needed, as always in their imperial projects, the support at some level of substansial numbers of the people they sought to rule.
British commanders and politicians were never able to make up their minds whether to seek to conciliate and go softly with those they deemed American rebels, or let loose the dogs of war against them as against any other enemy.

The stereotypical view of British forces in the American Revolutionary War is markedly inadequate. British army units in North America after 1775 sucked in Loyalists from different backgrounds and in a medley of uniforms, large numbers of Germans and other European immigrants, and a great many accompanying women. In addition, and of necessity, they operated over the years in alliance with substansial though always shifting numbers of people who were not white. To a degree, this was also true of their opponents. At least 5000 free blacks are known to have fought in the Revolutionary ranks, as did some indigenous warriors. But there was no comparison between the two sides in point of numbers of non-white auxiliaries. As was often the case, their own manpower limits - that fundmantel captivity that never let them go - compelled the British into a kind of military multiculturalism.

Nor was it just blacks and Indians who decided that rule from distant London would be better for their sectional interests than a new independent America dominated by a highly self-conscious, fast-multiplying white Protestant majority. So too did other nervous minority groupings, Dutch and German immigrants who spoke only their cradle tongue and not English, French-speaking Huguenots in New Rochelle, Gaelic-speaking Highland Scottish settlers: all of these people, almost without exception, opted staunchly for the Loyalist side after 1775. In many ways, support for Britain in the American Revolution was made up of a coalition of different minorities. This was on reason why it lost, but it was also one more demonstration of how empire, so often assumed now to be necessarily racist in operation and ethos, could sometimes by conspicuously polyethnic in quality and policy, because it had to be.
The fact that so many blacks and so many Native Americans had sided with the British during the Revolutionary war only made it easier for the new Republic to define citizenship in a way that excluded both of these groups completely.

For the British, the imperial consequences of the lost Revolutionary War were both traumatic and formative. Defeat in the war was a matter of bitter humiliation and of persisent anxieties being, apparently, proved right. Those who had argued that Britain was simply too small to sustain a substansial overseas empire successfully had, it seemed, been amply vindicated. And to a degree, this was a lesson the British never entirely forgot. Never again would they attempt to tax a major overseas colony directly from Westminster. Never again would they risk a really protracted full-scale war on several fronts - as distinct from long guerrila campaigns - in the desperate hope of keeping hold of a segment of their empire determined to be free. To this extent, one might argue that successful American Revolution in the 18th century helps to explain why the British submitted to such rapid decolonisation in the 20th century. They had been taught by bitter experience to recognise their logistical and warlike limits.
In other respects too, the American Revolution offered lessons on the strains and pains of empire. It showed the men in London, what Australia and New Zealand would only confirm in the 19th century: the extreme difficulties involved in an imperial power like Britain holding a balance between its land-hungry white settlers on the one hand, and half-way decent treatment of indigenous peoples on the other.



In the 18th century and after, many who made the passage to India did not survive long enough to reproduce themselves at all. Of the 645 white male civilians who worked for the East India Company in Bengal between 1707 and 1775 (just 645!) close to 60% are known to have died there, often in the early years of their appointment. Even at the end of the century, one in four British soldiers stationed in India perished every year.

The official intention was never that substansial numbers of Britons should settle there and reproduce themselves by sexual congress with their own kind.

Only a minority of high-level Company servants were able to do what Edmund Burke accused them all of doing: make vast, illicit profits in the subcontinent and return triumphantly to Britain as millionaire nabobs. The majority of Britons in India at this stage made limited fortunes or nothing at all, and simply did not surive long enough to go home.

Beause their numbers in the Indian subcontinent were so modest and subject to severe attrition, the British always understood on some level that they could never satisfactorily and durably capture it, and that on their own they could not even try. India was too far away, too big, too complex and much too populous.

In the Mediterranean region, and in North America, capture by non-Europeans usually signified foe the British settlers, soldiers, sailors, voyagers and traders involved, a sudden, traumatic exposure to alien customs, alien cultures, alien food, alien language and alien dress, and occasionally to cross-racial sex. In India, however, Britons were so thinly distributed and so dependent on the local populations, that who stayed here more than a short time usually had some experience of these things anyway. Consequently, captivity here was often less of a cultural shock than in other zones of overseas enterprise, especially when the victims involved were poor whites.

The half-century after the Battle of Buxar in 1764, that won them Bengal, would witness unprecedented levels of British military violence, much of it carried out - as in India - by 'condottieri' of a sort, hard men with swords and guns and ships, fiercely on the make and often operating substansially out of reach of London and its control.


In retrospect, it seems clear that Britain's expulsion from the Thirteen Colonies allowed it to concentrate with more devastating effect in imperial projects in India and elsewhere. But most Britons at the time failed to anticipate that this would be the case.

As both leading Company administrators and politicians in London realised, the smallness of the British presence in India meant that ultimately its power rested less on capital, or on force simply, than on opinion and imagination, on an idea of invulnerability sustained by sporadic bouts of efficient and succesful violence on its part. Britain had to be seen to win in India, because, bluntly, they coult not afford to be seen often to be losing.

Few in Britain in the 1780s could feel certain that the military and imperial setbacks they had experienced in India and in other parts of the globe were reversible. Endurance in defeat only becomes something that nations can celebrate once they have regained a measure of confidence and success. Thus returning Vietnam veterans only became personae gratae in the United States once its capacity for global intervention and dominion had been effectively reasserted.

Teetering on the verge of unprecedented global intervention, the British then - rather like Americans now - needed to be persuaded that they were not only a military superpower, but also a virtuous, striving and devoted people. Successful military machismo and conquests were never enough. Indeed, given the long tradition in Britain of suspicion of standing armies, military machismo by itself could prove immensely unpopular, as the outcry over the Anantpur massacre and other reputed Company excesses in the 1780s demonstrated. Redcoats let loose upon forts, towns and villages in the Indian subcontinent, like those those who had ranged themselves against American rebels after 1775, could not be certain of winning support back in Britain just because they were redcoats. They had first to be viewed as good men, and consequently as incapable of bad deeds. The rewriting of Mysore captivity ordeals from the 1780s onwards was one of the ways in which - very much with official sponsorship - the British military overseas was repackaged for improved domestic consumption.

British imperial warriors in this new and revised vision became not just gentlemen, but strangely gentle, at least with each other. This highly effective formula of focusing attention on the emotional and moral development of Westerners caught up in extra-European conflicts has persisted to this day and has long since ceased to be confined to the British. Just think of how many Hollywood films of the Vietnam War, even some critical ones, confine the Vietnamese themselves to the role of extras while placing at their centre the bravery, torment and emotional struggles of all-American heroes.

It was vital, as far as the British were concerned, to evolve a way of writing about imperial warfare in which sporadic failures and disasters could be represented as being themselves a form of heroic virtue, moral improvement and patriotic service - a victory of sorts.

Had an opinion poll been conducted in the 1780s many Britons, perhaps the majority, would have predicted that the 19th century could not possibly be their century. They had peaked, and were now on the way down. In much the same way, but with far less cause, many Americans in the 1980s believed that losing the Vietnam War had demonstrated that their empire too had peaked.

It was the very smallness of Britain's island dimensions that acted simultaneously as a spur to overseas empire, and as a persistent handicap in the process of achieving it.


Thomas Malthus's book changed the terms of contemporary argument. Before this, Britons had often been fearful that their country possessed too few people. After the publication of "An Essay on the Principle of Population", however, most came to believe that Britain's population was expanding at an accelerating, even uncontrollable, rate. The challenge now appeared to be too many people, a revolutionary shift in perception that would be crucial to Britain's growing involvement and investment in empire in the 19th century.

Two other developments contributed to this rising confidence that Britain was now a big enough power for overseas diffusion and destiny: the retention of Ireland and the defeat of Napoleonic France. The year of Malthus's masterwork, 1798, saw a revolt by thousands of Protestant as well as Catholic Irishmen against rule from London. It was bloodily suppressedm and in 1800 an Act of Union brought Ireland into the United Kingdom. Irish manpower, growing at a fster rate even than Britain's own, was now secure, or so it seemed, within the imperial arsenal. This was vital because, without Irishmen, the rampant growth of Britain's empire at thi sstage would scarcely have been possible. By the 1830s they made up over 40% of its legions. Before the Famine, more than half of all white soldiers in India were Irish.

If even a bare majority of Catholic Irishmen in British uniform had rebelled, imperial enterprise in India and elsewhere might have foundered, since their numbers by this stage were so great. All that said, it seems likely that the long tradition, dating back to the Reformation, of Irishmen selling their swords to other powers, including Spain, France, Portugal, the Italian states and Russia, allowed Irish soldiers who did change sides in colonial locations to inhabit their roles with greater fluency and conviction.
Stress is often laid now on how aggressive Europeans were in the past in relation to other continents. Yet this indictment, understandable though it may be, obscures what has always been in fact the prime focus of European aggression. In every century during the first and second millenium - with only one conspicuous exception - Europeans have devoted more energy to hating, fighting and invading each other, than to hating, fighting and invading peoples outside Europe. The solitary, partial exception before 2000 to this pattern of obsessive intra-European warfare was the 100 years' comparative peace between the European powers from Waterloo to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Boy-warriors were not unusual among British forces in India. Almost one in three of the East India Company's recruits in 1779 was sixteen or under. The thin red line was not just anorexic. At certain times, and in certain locations, it was adolescent.

Until the 1840s, regular army soldiers commonly remained in India for up to 20 years without a break. In the 1830s, white soldiers in Bombay were than twice as likely to die as soldiers based in Britain. Before mid-century, few private soldiers and NCOs in India could hope to live long enough to fulfil their term of service and return to Britain. Yet these men were not allowed to make India their home either. India was not a colony, and whites were discouraged by the Company from settling there. British soldiers were discouraged from marriage. They might be free to use the 'lal bazar', the regimental brothel. They were only occasionally free to marry Indian women and to have such alliances recognised by the British authorities. Soldiers' Indian wives and widows received no financial allowance whatsoever. Indian wives were not allowed to accompany soldiers that were sent back to Britain, and nor where any Eurasian children they might have.

Both the Company and London were concerned about the rising 'half caste population of India', by this stage at 20,000 larger than the total number of British civilians based there. The 1810s and 1820s had witnessed successful creole and mixed-race revolutions in South America against Spanish and Portuguese imperial dominion.

British empire in India could never outlast the period of sepoy obedience. But since many Britons in positions of authority idealised the sepoy, they believed - as of course they had to - that a kind of perfect, enduring chemistry could be created between an expert and valiant British officer class and a noble, numerous but ultimately tractable Indian sepoy army. In this chemistry, the mass of ordinary British soldiers in India were seen as having little to do.

For a small nation like Britain, engaged now in global empire on a scale that was unprecedented in history, numbers mattered and not just race.

East India Company and British authorities treated Indian sepoys in some respects (and still more India's landed, mercantile and princely elites) more benevolently and respectfully than they did their own white working-class soldiers, because they could not afford to do otherwise.

The improved living standards of the imperial soldiery evident by the end of the period covered by this book, 1850, owed much to the buoyancy of Britain's economy at this stage, which so transformed the welfare of its own domestic working classes. The British state began to care for its servicemen more, not just because it wanted to, but also because it had no choice. The armed services had to be made more attractive, because civilian blue-collar job opportunities were rising, as was the rate of working-class emigration from the United Kingdom. The Irish Famine of 1845-9 only confirmed this trend. Together with the waves of Irish emigration that followed, this severely reduced - without ever eradicating - those bevies of Irish recruits, Catholic as well as Protestant, on which the imperial armed forces in India and elsewhere had previously been so dependent.

All of which goes to underline what I have argued throughout this book: namely, that the history of Britain and the histories of its various overseas ventures cannot be adequately approached separately. For good, and for ill, they were interlinked.


Before 1850, and in terms of land warfare, a technology gap between highly organised Western states and the rest could not always be relied upon and - even when present - sometimes turned out not to be decisive. The British emphatically possessed superior artillery at Kabul in 1841, but this was cancelled out by the Afghans' better rifles, and the fact that the latter were often more accurate shots.
Adaptability in the face of other cultures was never confined merely to Britons taken captive. The cliche that Britons overseas clung to their peculiar, parochial habits ('mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun', etc) needs examining carefully and sceptically, like every other cliche, in the light of all, and not just some of the evidence. Always sparse in number, the British would scarcely have been able - or wanted - to attempt empire on the scale that they did, or be the avid emigrants that they remain today, had not some of them possessed in fact a markedly chameleon tendency.

As in other regions of the world, events in Afghanistan rarely revealed a clean and umambiguous gulf between Muslims on the one hand and British imperialists on the other. When the British invaded in 1838, they do so in alliance with an exiled Muslim ruler, and with the military support of other Muslims.
Britain, and what is now the United States, have long possessed an influential culture of captivity in common. This transatlantic culture of captivity arguably also points to a certain shared isolationism and insularity. Rather like the United States is now, Britain in its imperial phase was at once a power with vast global interests and influence, and simultaneously an often inwardly obsessed society whose citizens in general cared little for much of the time about events beyond their own borders. Overseas captivity crises and narratives of different kinds mattered over the centuries as far as imperial Britain was concerned - as they continue to matter in America - in part because of their bridging of the global on the one hand and the national and local on the other. It might be possible to disregard the outside world in normal circumstances, but not when Britons (or Americans) were dramatically caught fast or suffering there.

Britain's imperium was peculiarly conditional upon circumstances beyond its control and auxiliaries outside itself. Much of its territory and influence were owing to the decline of the great eastern empires, and the weakening of the Spanish and Portuguese empires, processed that Britain had sometimes assited but scarcely initiated.

British imperium depended on those it ruled in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, North America and Europe not developing the sort of fierce nationalist ideologies that the British themselves had forged so precociously.

Of necessity, the so-called British empire had always been a cross-cultural enterprise in fact, relying in the Mediterranean upon the assistance of North African Islamic powers, drawing on various Native Americans for vital information and military support. But in regard to imperial manpower and the money to pay them Britain's dependence upon india was on an altogether different scale. To a very considerable degree, it was the Company's Indian troops - and Indian taxpayers - who supplied Britain with 'the rod of order, the shield of defence and the sword for further advance' that it wielded not just in the subcontinent itself, but increasingly as well in other parts of Asia, in the Middle East and in Africa.
One of my purposes in "Captives" has been to demonstrate how wide and diverse the impress of empire was: how it affected Britain's economy, material life and politics, of course, but also how it impinged on public and provate writings, religious and secular culture, polite and plebian art, and of all sectors of society. Empire was never just the business of gentlemanly capitalists, of the politically influential, and the imperially grand and famous. As in every other part of the world, empire's impact on Britain and Ireland was disproportionately felt by the unimportant and the poor, by the soldiers and sailors, by voluntary and involuntary emigrants and settlers, by small traders and fishermen, by multidudinous women and very many children.

There are those who argue with the utmost sincerity that were the British to remind themselves of their empire it would only further incite the racism inextinguishably associated with it. But this argument seems to me not so much wrong, as overly simple and pessimistic. Empire, as this book has sought to show, was never a monchrome, predictable entity. British imperialists sometimes espoused what we would now regard as fiercely racist ideologies. But the practicalities of running a huge multi-ethnic global construct where they, the British, were so much in the minority, meant that these ideologies were always compromised and qualified in practice. For the British to familiarise themselves now with the racial mix and the ethnic messiness of their one-time empire, as well as its intolerance, might be no bad thing. We should not assume that a past experience of global empire of itself makes racism inescapable in Britain. That way lies both complacency and despair.

No one likes to be invaded, but it is possible to exaggerate the power and the durable impact of these one-time colonisers, to make them seem more important and formidable than in fact they were.
The years between 1600 and 1850 saw a set of small islands acquiring astonishingly and at great cost the biggest global empire that the world has ever seen. The 20th century witnessed this empire, and its fellow European empire, become one with Nineveh and Tyre, and the emergence in their stead of new nations in every continent. One of the challenges of the 21st century will be establishing how we can monitor, balance and keep within bounds the vast, new multi-ethnic giants in our midst, that are both safer and more dangerous than the old maritime empires. Lest we fall captive.


"In this brilliantly illuminating study, Colley shows how the stories of British captives helped to shape the literature, politics and public opinion of the time. Defoe's Crusoe, you will remember, was a slave in North Africa before he became a castaway. Swift's Gulliver was likewise a hostage at least once, and it helps in understanding the whole process if we imagine the British Empire as an attempt by Lilliput to subjugate Brobdingnag. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the relatively small population of a modest North Sea archipelago achieved dominion over much of North America, India, Africa, the Caribbean and Australia."
        - Christopher Hitchens, from his review of "Captives" by Linda Colley, "Washington Post"

"The British Empire, as every pre-Second World War schoolboy knew, was a magnificent exercise in conquest leading to civilisation. The opposition of a few misguided natives was brushed aside and the grateful - or sometimes inexplicably ungrateful - inhabitants were brought the blessings of railways, cricket, English justice and, eventually, democracy. The British Empire, as that schoolboy's counterpart is probably being told today, was a monstrous capitalist conspiracy to enslave the undeveloped world and exploit its economic assets for the benefit of the City of London. Linda Colley eschews both these paradigms. Her technique is to sneak up on the Empire and catch it unawares. Her subjects are the imperialist victims, the empire builders who got trapped in the rubble of their own creation, the enslavers who were themselves enslaved. The captives of her title are those people who had the ill fortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and found themselves imprisoned by people to whom they usually felt immeasurably superior. Through study of such cases - their reactions to incarceration, the way their plight was viewed by their fellow citizens, their readiness to do a deal with their captors and sometimes even switch allegiance - she believes readers will see the Empire from a new angle and understand it in a way they could not do before."
        - Phillip Ziegler, "The Telegraph"

>> Read On >> More quotes on British History
>> Also by Linda Colley >> Britons: Forging the Nation

>> Return to Quotes index, or Site homepage.