Of empire-building, discovering the Other, and going native: a thoughtful reappraisal of England’s centuries-long process of world conquest.
English literature offers two great, conflicting parables of that process, writes Colley (History/Princeton Univ.; Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837). The first is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, whose shipwrecked protagonist “uses force and guile to defeat incomers who are hostile, while firmly organizing those who defer to his authority”; the second is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, whose eponymous hero finds himself captured by unimpressed locals who “sell him like a commodity, turn him into a spectacle, and sexually abuse him.” Both parables are useful to keep in mind, Colley writes, in following the fortunes of the British warriors who carved out an overseas empire hundreds of times larger than their homeland and dominated a quarter of the world’s people. Many of them fell captive to the nations they set out to overwhelm, and much of England’s knowledge of those nations came from their accounts of being ransomed or escaping, through books and broadsides such as Joseph Pitts’s True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohammetans (1704). Colley combs through that library to chart Britons’ evolving view of their would-be subjects, and offers some interesting notes along the way; for instance, while discussing representative texts of the “Indian captivity narrative,” perhaps the earliest literary genre of European America, she volunteers that Britons’ relations with peoples throughout the world were “complex, mutually uncomprehending, but by no means automatically hostile,” a far more useful take than the usual good-versus-bad of postcolonial studies. Indeed, Colley writes, the most successful of the empire’s soldiers had the wisdom to acquire knowledge of the other, court “indigenous tolerance,” and even consent, and otherwise behave in un-Crusoe–like ways as they went about their business—behavior that counted as much as any weapon in coloring so much of the world map scarlet once upon a time.
A nuanced complement to the growing library of revisionist histories of empire.