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Captives: Britain, empire and the world 1600-1850

Linda Colley
Random House (26 September 2002)

This is a book about forgotten people and the paradoxes of empire.

Ranging over a quarter of a millennium and four continents, Captives uncovers the lives, deaths and autobiographical writings of a vital but forgotten constituency: those tens of thousands of men and women who took part in Britain's rise to imperial pre-eminence, but who got caught. Here are the experiences of Sarah Shade, a camp follower imprisoned alongside defeated British legions in Southern India; of Joseph Pitts, white slave and pilgrim to Mecca; of Florentia Sale, captive and diarist in Afghanistan; of individuals who crossed the cultural divide and switched identity, like the Irishman George Thomas; and of others who were dragged across but made it back, like the onetime Chippewa warrior, John Rutherford.

Linda Colley uses these tales of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary ordeals to investigate empire's meanings and constraints, exploring what these captivities reveal about changing levels of British weakness and strength, and what they show about non-European attitudes to the British as well as vice versa. She discusses how British attitudes to Islam and slavery, on the one hand, and to American Revolutionaries and race on the other, look different once the captive's perspective is admitted. And she demonstrates how these individual overseas captivities were linked to a more fundamental constraint: Britain's own varieties of smallness. Illustrated throughout, and evocatively written, Captives is both a powerful and original reappraisal of the biggest empire of the past, and a meditation on the significance and survivals of empire now.

Linda Colley has taught and written history on both sides of the Atlantic. Formerly Richard M Colgate Professor of History at Yale University, she is currently School Professor of History and Leverhulme Personal Research Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. A Fellow of the British Academy, and a regular commentator on current events as well as past cultures, her last book, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992) won the Wolfson Prize and provoked a major debate on national identities in Britain and elsewhere. Her previous books are In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party 1714-1760 (1982) and Namier (1989).

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