SAN DIEGO, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- In "Captives," Linda Colley has written a fascinating narrative, backed by extensive research, that gives us a look at the big picture as well as intriguing glimpses into the life of the "little" people.
We are familiar with captivity narratives, especially that of white people captured by Native Americans, the most famous being that of Mary Rowlandson or Africans such as Frederick Douglass. But who ever heard of Britons held in slavery in Barbary?
Yet countless men and women from the British Isles (England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales) were captured and held in slavery by corsairs from the North African coast. Barbary, as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya were then known, was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, much larger in terms of land and population than the tiny kingdom of England, or even the Great Britain it eventually became.
Colley quotes an English soldier and diplomat who once said, "The maxim believed by the common people of this country, 'That one Englishman is equal to two foreigners' . . . may . . . be useful in some cases, but it is . . . devoid of truth."
The dangers faced in the Mediterranean by British shipping forced them to reassess their preconceived notions of "nationality, race, religion, allegiance, appropriate modes of behavior, and the location of power."
The simple fact was that England was, and still is, a very small country in terms of land and population, and the idea that "Britannia rules the waves," and that "Britons never will be slaves," as James Thomson (who wrote "Rule Britannia" in 1740) proclaimed, was simply not true.
Colley's book covers the years between 1600 and 1850, and examines official records, diaries, letters, ballads, novels, sermons and popular art. She notes that the word "Barbary" immediately brought to mind black Muslims, and that the connotation was that they were all "barbarians" as opposed to white, Christian, civilized Britons. (Imagine the captives' surprise when they realized that the Arabs and Turks considered them "barbarians" because of their color, dress and religion.)
Nor was that only a popular notion, for it was an opinion reinforced by European rulers. "Not for the last time, Western powers were more ready to condemn aggression on the part of Muslim forces, than acknowledge the parallels existing between it and their own actions."
Colley points out throughout her book the parallels existing, not only between "them" and "us," but also between then and now, and how a better knowledge of Islam and the Arab world has not done that much to change Western perspectives.
"I have already drawn an analogy between early modern perceptions of the Barbary corsairs, and Western perceptions of terrorism today. There are other analogies. Barbary corsairing resembled modern terrorism in that it was at once so diffuse and so rooted a phenomenon that even substantial naval and military force for a time won only temporary advantages against it. Indeed, and again like terrorism today, the corsairs were able to turn some of the very sources of Western power to their own advantage."
It would seem that history does repeat itself, and that we never learn anything from it.
And just like today's allies and enemies, pacts and allegiances are sometimes murky and fluctuating. As Colley points out, the Mediterranean was the theater of much crossings and collaborations between governments as well as individuals. North Africa and the Ottoman world were valued outlets for trade, and the Barbary Coast was essential to Britain's dreams of expansion. It provided valuable provisioning for Gibraltar and Minorca, and so the British government did not let the captivity issue sour those relationships. They were careful to nurture the entente between Britain, Barbary, and the Ottoman Empire, and often, left the ransoming of British nationals to the Anglican Church.
The church was, of course, concerned with returning British men and women to their country and their family, but also most concerned with saving their souls. It was feared that extended exposure to Islam would contaminate their souls and damn them forever. And indeed, there are numerous instances of Europeans who converted to Islam, either under duress to avoid death or torture, or out of conviction.
Many Europeans realized that their notions of Barbary and Islam were erroneous, and were agreeably surprised by their first encounter with the dread enemy. Of course, they ran the risk of falling into the power of cruel owners and overseers but, in general, they lived more diverse and much freer lives than the majority of plantation slaves in the American south and the Caribbean.
Slaves in Barbary could set up businesses -- mostly shops and taverns -- they could be ransomed and return home, and they were often allowed to practice their own religion, all things that black slaves in the Caribbean and the American south could never look forward to.
There is an ironic story of slave traders, Anglo-Jamaican merchants called Nash and Parker. Late in the 17th century, as they sailed home to England "their fortunes swollen by exploiting one kind of slave economy, they were captured by Moroccan corsairs and became slaves in their turn in Tetouan." As Colley recounts, they went on to learn Arabic and local business practices, and chose to stay on after their freedom had been purchased. They set up a trading house in Tetouan that flourished into the 18th century.
Another captive, Thomas Pellow, was captured when he was 11 years old, and spent the next 23 years in Morocco. He wrote an account of his adventures and hardships, and tells of his escape and return home. But he found it increasingly hard to adapt to life in England and found solace by visiting the Moroccan ambassador in London!
Colley also examines the political and social conditions that led to captivity in North America and India. While captives in Barbary were mostly seamen and sometimes their passengers, held in slavery, but eventually ransomed, in North America, whole families of settlers were captured as well as men at arms. The men were often tortured and killed, mostly as part of Native American religious rituals to placate their own dead, but the women and children were useful additions to the tribe. The women were mostly young and fertile and could increase the population, while children could easily adapt and become members of the tribe.
In India, on the other hand, the great majority of captives were soldiers, and the length of their captivity sometimes exceeded a dozen years. In both cases, North America and India, the distance from the homeland made both interest in their fate, and interference by the government, more difficult and less forthcoming.
With European conflicts and civil unrest at home, the British had to admit that "in any conflict between national and imperial imperatives, the former had to come first." It was no use sending troops and money abroad to control a shaky empire, if stability and safety at home were in jeopardy.
Just as in Barbary, the perception of the "savages" was varied and conflicting. Their color, culture, and religion rendered them automatically inferior to the British, but the very fact that they were able to capture and enslave so many British men and women made them formidable foes. Also, once in their power, the captives were able to examine these alien cultures up close and learn to appreciate certain aspects, sometimes to the detriment of their own. As in Barbary, some of the ransomed victims opted to stay with their captors, thus validating the fears of the Anglican Church that they would turn "native."
Colley who has taught at Cambridge and Yale, and will be teaching at Princeton this year, is a distinguished historian who could not ignore the parallels with current events.
The epilogue contains a paragraph on Afghanistan that, I believe, deserves to be quoted in its entirety.
"The new intruders (the British) were a classic case in point. They were not, they insisted, at war with the Afghan people themselves, though thousands still died in the fighting, and from its disruption of food supplies and shelter. Nor, the intruders claimed -- with a large measure of truth in this case -- did they seed any permanent, large-scale annexation of Afghan territory. Their quarrel was with the current rulers of Kabul who threatened their own interests and security. Once a coup d'état had been forced, and new and better men governed securely at Kabul, the invaders would retreat back from whence they had come, well pleased. And so -- initially -- it came to pass: and the ease and speed with which the revolution was apparently effected only strengthened the invaders' belief that it was popular with the Afghan people at large."
As the French would say, "sans commentaire."
The end of this adventure is the well-known and documented defeat and massacre of the men, women and children of the British cantonment. Many of them were taken captive, some to be sold as slaves in the Kabul markets, a few to disappear in mountain villages, and some to survive and be rescued. One of the most captivating novels on this subject is "The Mulberry Empire" by Philip Hensher, recently reviewed by United Press International.
Although Colley's book is essentially concerned with the years 1600-1850, her epilogue touches on the after effects, and warns of new modes of imperialism. The American Reinhold Niebuhr said in 1931, "We are the first empire of the world to establish our sway without legions. Our legions are dollars." And Colley comments, "The dollar rules still: but now there are legions too."
("Captives" by Linda Colley, (Pantheon, 379 pages, $27.50.)