by Linda Colley
438pp, Cape, £20
However embarrassed we may be by our former Raj heroes - those Havelocks and Napiers swaggering imperiously on their plinths in Trafalgar Square or staring portentously, ossified and khaki-clad, all the way up Whitehall - we still tend to think of them as rather manly men: the sort of outdoor types who would not flinch from a 500-mile route march in the midsummer tropical heat, and who would know what to do with a Gatling gun when faced with hordes of marauding Others. Yet according to Linda Colley's brilliant, subtle and important new book, Captives, there was a time when Indians looked on their would-be British rulers in a very different and much less flattering manner; when they thought of the British military as effeminate, indeed as little better than eunuchs.
Colley's thesis is that the unprecedented military success and world political and economic domination achieved by the Victorian British has blinded us to the smallness and vulnerability of Britain in the preceding two and a half centuries: after all, she points out, as late as 1715 the British army was no larger than that commanded by the king of Sardinia, while at the same period there were at least 20,000 British civilians enslaved in the Barbary sultanates of north Africa.
It is significant that this surprises us as much as it does: it is as if the Victorians colonised not just one quarter of the globe, but also, more permanently, our imaginations, to the exclusion of all other images of the British encounter and collision with the wider world, from the Elizabethan period onwards. Colley shows the extent to which tales of British weakness and defeat at the hands of sophisticated Muslim states in north Africa, the Middle East and India have been consciously edited out of the historical record.
So, for example, we remember our various military triumphs in and around Bombay but have performed a collective act of amnesia about another far more important colony gained at the same time (1661) - Tangier, part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, with its bowling greens, pubs and Anglican churches. It was once the pride of Britain's intended Mediterranean empire, but was humiliatingly lost to the Moroccans in 1684, despite unprecedented investment by the crown in its defences.
Hence also our failure to remember many other British military defeats and losses such as the catastrophic defeat of the armies of the East India Company by Tipu Sultan at Pollilur in 1780, only a few months before the equally disastrous surrender of Yorktown and the loss of America.
Pollilur led to the slaughter of an entire army and the capture of one in five of all the British soldiers in India. No fewer than 7,000 British men, along with an unknown number of women, were held captive by Tipu in his sophisticated fortress of Seringapatam. Of these more than 300 were circumcised and given Muslim names and clothes. Even more humiliatingly, several British regimental drummer boys were made to wear ghagra cholis and entertain the Mysore court as nautch girls.
At the end of 10 years' captivity, one of these prisoners, James Scurry, found that he had forgotten how to sit in a chair or use a knife and fork; his English was "broken and confused, having lost all its vernacular idiom", his skin had darkened to the "swarthy complexion of Negroes" and he found he actively disliked wearing European clothes. This was the ultimate colonial nightmare, and in its most unpalatable form: the captive preferring the ways of his captors, the coloniser colonised.
The image of the British defeat at Pollilur, painted on the walls of Tipu's summer palace at Seringapatam, is brilliantly interpreted by Colley as showing how Mysore's victors viewed the surrounded and defeated British at the moment the British defeat became certain: "The white soldiers all appear in uniform jackets of red, a colour associated in India with eunuchs and women," writes Colley. Moreover the British are "conspicuously and invariably clean shaven. Neatly side-burned, with doe-like eyes, raised eyebrows and pretty pink lips, they have been painted to look like girls, or at least creatures that are not fully male."
Colley is certainly on to something here: a few years later, another British soldier of the time, General Charles "Hindoo" Stuart, campaigned for British troops to be encouraged to grow extensive facial hair as otherwise their masculinity would not be taken seriously by their Indian enemies, noting that until he himself grew a beard, "mendicants supplicated me, for charity, by the appellation of Beeby Saheb [Great Lady], mistaking my sex from the smoothness of my face."
Captives is at once a human tale of the forgotten and marginal individuals - "common seamen and private soldiers, itinerants and exiles, convicts and assorted womenfolk" - involved in a succession of little-known British defeats and captivities, and a wider meditation on the character and diversity of Britain's incipient empire. Using the rich and revealing source of captivity narratives as a way of unlocking some of the central truths about British weakness, smallness and vulnerability, she shows how the British rise to world domination was neither smooth nor inevitable.
She also dramatically highlights the human cost of that expansion. The lives of ordinary British men and women were completely disrupted in the process of imperial adventures overseas: men like John Rutherford, captured in North America, who for a while became a Chippewa warrior; or Sarah Shade, an East India Company camp follower, who became one of Tipu's captives at Seringapatam.
Colley is especially good on those who after capture fell hopelessly under the spell of India or Islamic north Africa, and entered what in those days must have seemed like a parallel universe, responding to their travels and captivities with a profound alteration of the self, slowly shedding their Britishness and Christianity like an unwanted skin, and adopting Islamic dress, studying Islamic teachings and taking on the ways of the Moroccan or Mughal governing classes they would in time come to replace. In particular, she shows how many British captives converted to Islam in India and north Africa: both the Moroccans and the Mughals were able to field entire regiments of European renegade converts to Islam.
It is at this point perhaps that Colley's methodology limits her vision. By concentrating principally on captivity narratives (a genre much studied in American universities but relatively neglected in Europe) she misses the possibly more interesting point that until the mid-19th century many Europeans chose of their own free will to convert to Islam and take on eastern ways, without necessarily becoming captives first.
This had always been the case: as early as the mid-17th century, the English ambassador to the Ottoman Porte, Sir Thomas Shirley, complained about the large number of "roagues, & the skumme of people whyche are fledde to the Turke for succour & releyffe". The fact was, as Shirley pointed out in one of his dispatches, that the more time Englishmen spent in the east, the closer they moved to adopting the manners of the Muslims: "conuersation with infidelles doeth mutch corrupte," he wrote. "Many wylde youthes... in euerye 3 yeere that they staye in Turkye they loose one article of theyre faythe."
Islam overcame the English as much by its sophistication and power of attraction as by its power to seize and enslave. In 1606 even the English consul in Egypt, Benjamin Bishop, converted and promptly disappeared from public records. The same was true in Mughal India: within a few years of the East India Company establishing itself in Agra, the company's most senior official in India had to break the news of "ye damned apostacy of one of your servants, Josua Blackwelle", who had "privately conveighed himselfe to the Governor of ye citty, who, being prepaired, with the Qazi and others attended his comeing; before whome hee most wickedly and desperately renounced his Christian faith... and is irrecoverably lost".
Nor was it just Islam that lured the British out of their sola topees: "Hindoo" Stuart (he of the smooth cheeks) firmly believed he had become a Hindu (though it is technically impossible to convert to Hinduism) and took to travelling around the country with a team of Brahmins who used to attend his idols and dress his food, to the astonishment of at least one memsahib recently arrived from England: "There was here an Englishman, born and educated in a Christian land," wrote Elizabeth Fenton in her journal, "who has become the wretched and degraded partaker of this heathen worship, a General S- who has for some years adopted the habits and religion, if religion it be named, of these people; and he is generally believed to be in a sane mind."
Despite the occasional errors and inaccuracies, especially in the Indian section (there was, for example, no such person as the Begum Sumru Sardhana - Sardhana was the begum's capital, not her name), Captives is a major work: a complete reappraisal of a period, strikingly original in both theme and form, mixing narrative and fine descriptive prose with analysis in an entirely fresh and gripping way. It is at once clever and perceptive, making you look afresh at themes and subjects you took completely for granted. It will undoubtedly confirm Colley's reputation not only as one of the most exciting and original historians of her generation, but also one of the most interesting writers of non-fiction around.Source