How the east was won

The British empire was built not simply on greed, cruelty and oppression - but on surprising exchang

On 8 August 1756, a British merchantman was lost at sea. The Seven Years War had recently begun and the Ann was escaping from the French siege of Minorca. Slipping through the French blockade via Gibraltar, which was expected to be attacked any day by the full force of the French Mediterranean fleet, the Ann lost the other ships in its convoy as well as its armed escort, the 44-gun Gosport, in bad seas and thick fog.

At 2pm the sailors saw "a sail to windward giving chase and half past seven came within pistol shot of us". It was not, as the crew initially thought, a French warship, but a Moroccan cruiser, from the Barbary Coast. The Ann was quickly boarded and the crew led off to captivity, first on the corsair ship, then at the port Sla (or Salé) and finally to the sultan's palace at Marrakesh.

Initially the captives were optimistic and believed that they would soon be released after the misunderstanding was sorted out. But relations between the Moroccans and the British were undergoing a period of tension and it was the Danish consul who was the first to realise what was actually going on: "The passengers (some merchants and a woman)," he wrote in his diary, have been "detained as slaves".

The woman was a remarkable figure named Elizabeth Marsh. Marsh's adventures in Morocco, and her ultimate release, appeared briefly in Linda Colley's last book, Captives. This was a stunningly revisionist study of Britain's imperial vulnerability, seen through the lens of the many surviving British captivity narratives of the time, such as that written by Marsh herself, The Female Captive.

Colley's thesis was that the unprecedented military success and world political and economic domination achieved by the Victorians have blinded historians to the smallness of the British empire in the preceding two and a half centuries: after all, she pointed out, as late as 1715 the British army was no larger than that commanded by the king of Sardinia, while at the same time there were at least 20,000 British civilians "detained", like Elizabeth Marsh, and enslaved in the Barbary sultanates of north Africa.

Using rich and revealing sources as a way of unlocking some of the forgotten truths about British weakness, Colley showed how Britain's rise to world domination was neither smooth nor inevitable. She also dramatically highlighted the human cost of that expansion - the lives of ordinary British men and women that were completely disrupted in the process of imperial adventures overseas: men such as John Rutherford, who was captured in North America and for a while became a Chippewa warrior; or women such as Sarah Shade, an East India Company camp follower who became one of Tipu's captives at Seringapatam.

Now Colley has taken her thesis forward. With some brilliant detective work, she has uncovered much more of Marsh's life. In California, Colley came across a handwritten journal recording her travels in India - all in the company of a dashing and unmarried officer, while her husband lingered with his failing business in the heat of Bengal. It all reads a little like the adventures of a non-fiction Becky Sharp. Other fragments of her life - family scrapbooks, journals and so forth - turned up in manuscript collections as widely scattered as Jamaica, Barcelona, Washington, London and Sydney.

The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh pieces the various accounts together to reveal an amazingly wide-ranging life, which demonstrates the surprisingly complex and globalised world of the 18th century: Marsh's life, writes Colley, is both "startlingly atypical and widely revealing . . . a world in a life and a life in the world". At times, Marsh mixed in the same circles as well-known figures in imperial politics such as Eyre Coote or Edmund Burke. At other times, her wanderings brought her into contact with Bengali weavers and astronomers, Sephardic Jewish traders and Indian salt farmers, smugglers from the Isle of Man, cabin boys from Portsmouth and slave traders from Jamaica.

For Marsh, it turns out, was conceived in Jamaica. Her father was a humble ship's carpenter, while her mother was quite probably mixed race, herself descended from slaves. On being released from Morocco, where the sultan used Marsh as a bargaining chip to attract a British consul and British trade, the former slave married a fellow captive, the merchant James Crisp, in Gibraltar, under pressure from her family, who believed that the nature of her captivity placed a question mark over her virtue. After settling in London, she was briefly "becalmed by marriage and childbirth", while her husband traded with Italy, South America and Asia, even dabbling in the salted cod trade centred on the Shetland Islands.

Soon tiring of northern climes, the couple planned to move to Florida, where they were involved in land speculation. In the event, however, bankruptcy sent them spinning off in the opposite direction, not west, but eastwards to India. While Crisp tried to set himself up as a merchant in Dhaka, Marsh travelled the country in a palanquin with her officer and presumed lover, making the most of the easygoing and mildly decadent social life of the East India Company, as well as its relatively fluid class categories. In the Calcutta novel Hartly House (1789), an Englishwoman of relatively humble origins remarks: "I am a sovereign princess here." In the same way, Marsh proudly records in her journal how, on her Indian travels, she "saw much company", and how the high society of the East India Company "parted with me in the most friendly manner possible".

Meanwhile, her family dispersed: Crisp died alone in Bengal, while one of her sons was sent off for "a considerable time" to live with "a Persian merchant", where he became fluent in Farsi by the age of 12. Marsh's daughter, meanwhile, was well educated in London, through the largesse of a successful uncle. There Elizabeth paid her a brief visit, calmly dodging French and Spanish warships and privateers that were again attacking British shipping, this time fighting in support of the newly independent United States.

It is an extraordinary story and, like its predecessor, Captives, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh is a remarkable book, mixing brilliant archival sleuthing, an intriguing narrative, perceptive analysis and fine descriptive prose. In the academic study of the history of empire, where super-specialisation is the norm and postcolonial theory is usually preferred to elegant prose, Colley is not quite unique, but she is certainly an unusual figure - and, like her subject, an enthusiastic boundary-crosser, ranging across continents every bit as promiscuously as did Marsh.

Throughout, Colley takes as much trouble with her writing as she does with her research: few other academic historians could even begin to pull off the wonderfully evocative pen- portraits she gives of Port Royal in Jamaica at the chilling climax of the slave trade, of Portsmouth at the height of British maritime power, or of the resurgent Morocco of the sultan Sidi Muhammad. Avoiding abstractions and theory, Colley emphasises the centrality of the human; and in the person of Elizabeth Marsh, the full human complexity of the early British empire comes alive, not as an impersonal and faceless historical force, but through the decisions made by a single ambitious and adventurous woman.

To understand how atypical Colley's work is, it is worth comparing The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh with another recent book on the globalised 18th century - The Scandal of Empire by the Columbia anthropologist Nicholas Dirks. Dirks's book concentrates on the impeachment of the first governor general of British India, Warren Hastings, for oppression, corruption and gross abuse of power. It, too, ranges between Britain and India; and although Dirks cannot write prose like Colley's and tends to avoid primary sources, it is a passionately engaged and engaging book.

But for Dirks, the moral issues are simple: the British empire is a terrible blot on world history, comparable to slavery and fascism; to be neutral or even balanced on the issue is to tolerate the intolerable, and even to become complicit in oppressive violence and tyranny. Colley takes a different and more nuanced approach. Her work is certainly no Niall Ferguson-like neo-imperial polemic, and yet she emphasises that categories such as race and domination and imperialism are not stable categories; instead they are malleable, changeable, porous. After all, Elizabeth Marsh was a descendant of slaves and a female captive, as well as a slave owner. The British were conquerors, but also at times the conquered. Empire and slaving were by no means British or even European monopolies.

Moreover, figures such as Elizabeth Marsh, who crossed both the globe and racial categories, were far from uncommon. While researching my book White Mughals, I came across many similar stories. There was, for example, William Palmer, whose first wife was a creole beauty he met in St Kitts, and whose second wife was a Mughal begum from Delhi. His children, of all religions and colours, lived with him at the British residency in Pune, where his beloved second wife befriended the Shia Muslim bride of the neighbouring British resident (or ambassador) at the court of Hyderabad, and where the two families discussed how to overcome the growing colour prejudice of the British, which began to worsen as the late 18th century gave way to the early 19th.

Then there was William Linnaeus Gardner, born on the banks of the Hudson to a prominent American loyalist family, who died on the banks of the Ganges, a retired soldier of fortune, happily married to a Shia begum of Cambay in Gujerat. Here is Gardner at the end of his life talking proudly of his multiracial family: "The begum and I, from 22 years constant contact, have smoothed off each other's asperities," he wrote to his cousin, "and now roll on peaceably and contentedly . . . My house is filled with brats, and the very thinking of them, from blue eyes and fair hair to ebony and wool makes me quite anxious to get back again . . . There's no accounting for taste but I have more relish in playing with the little brats than for the First Society in the World . . . New books, a garden, a spade, nobody to obey, pyjamas, grandchildren, tranquillity: this is the summit of happiness, not only in the east but the west too."

It is significant that all 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. For 30 years, the followers of Edward Said in postcolonial studies have tended to see imperial relations in terms of simple binaries: Orient and Occident, colonised and coloniser, oppressor and oppressed. In some ways, they stand in the same camp as Victorians such as Kipling in imagining that "east" and "west" are incompatible, discrete compartments.

Now, however, there is an increasing awareness that things were always more complex. The subaltern historian Gyan Prakash recently summarised the position taken by Colley and her fellow revisionists (one he strongly resists): "Forcibly or willingly, many Europeans crossed cultural borders. They shed European trousers for native pajamas, grew Hindu mustaches and Muslim beards, married local women and kept concubines and collected indigenous texts and artifacts. A human story of interest and immersion in other cultures, languages and artifacts - not mastery - underpinned British imperial expansion."

Colley is certainly not the only one blurring the edges in this manner. The American scholar Michael Fisher last year produced an extraordinary book, Counterflows to Colonialism, which showed, for example, how common it was before 1857 for the many Indian men who came to England in the 18th century to find themselves British wives, some from the top tier of British society. Shortly after his arrival in Ireland, for example, the Patna nobleman Sake Dean Mahomet eloped with - and later married - Jane Daly, from a prominent Anglo-Irish gentry family; in 1794 he confirmed his surprisingly prominent place in Cork society by publishing his Travels, the first book written in English by an Indian author, to which half of Ireland's gentry became subscribers.

Likewise, one of the most remarkable records of the Shia traditions of India was a two- volume work, Observations on the Mussulmauns of India, published in 1832 by Mrs Meer Hassan Ali, formerly Biddy Timms of Addiscombe in Surrey. After marrying Hassan Ali, the professor of Persian and Hindustani at the East India Company's Surrey military academy, Mrs Ali spent 12 years with her husband in Avadh. When she finally returned to England, she took up a post at the court of Princess Augusta, the sister of George III, convincingly demonstrating that marriage to a Muslim had not done any harm to her social position - on the contrary, it might even have enhanced it.

The 18th century was clearly an age of far greater interracial contact than the 19th, and political collaboration and friendships, financial and business partnerships, as well as marriages and love affairs, easily crossed the porous frontiers of religious difference: according to the evidence of the East India Company wills in the British Library, in the 1780s one in three British men in India left all his goods to an Indian woman, and it was almost as common for westerners to take on the customs and even the religions of India as the reverse.

Fisher shows that the proportion of Indian men in England marrying or cohabiting with British women was, if anything, even higher. Important work on boundary crossing has also been emerging from a new generation of south Asia scholars such as Durba Ghosh and Maya Jasanoff, whose new books (Sex and the Family in Colonial India: the Making of Empire and Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting on the Eastern Frontiers of the British Empire respectively) break original ground in the study of relationships between colonised and coloniser.

There are some flaws in Colley's work. In trying to resurrect a forgotten life like that of Elizabeth Marsh, Colley is swimming against the tide of the surviving documentation. Though she has Marsh's captivity narrative and Indian journal to work from, not one of Marsh's private letters has survived, and Colley has to struggle to recreate her resourceful and individualistic heroine's inner life. As a result, in places, Marsh is in danger of being overwhelmed by Colley's magnificent descriptions of the imperial setting in which Marsh lived.

Nevertheless, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh succeeds in recreating and presenting a life that is in some ways markedly modern - a woman wandering the globe between worlds and crossing categories as nonchalantly as she crossed continents. It is a remarkable story and the imaginative and original mode of telling it shows again that Colley is not only one of the most remarkable historians at work today, but also one of our most interesting writers of non-fiction in any category.

William Dalrymple's "The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857" is published by Bloomsbury