In Christopher Hitchens's review, 'True Brits' (Book World, Jan. 12), the Jamestown settlement in Virginia was mistakenly characterized as 'abandoned.' That settlement survived, albeit amid great adversity; the failed New World settlement in question was Sir Walter Raleigh's 'Lost Colony' on Roanoke Island, off the coast of present-day North Carolina. (Published 1/19/03)
By Linda Colley
Pantheon. 464 pp. $27.50
IN CHURCHILL'S SHADOW
Confronting the Past
In Modern Britain
By David Cannadine
Oxford Univ. 386 pp. $30
Life in the Colley-Cannadine home, to judge from the acknowledgments in each of these books, must be as intense as any academic partnership since that of the venerable historians of the British working class, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Colley and Cannadine prefer a division of labor to the Webbs' joint bylines, but both authors make "without whom" billings and cooings to one another, and it's charming to picture them as they set off in the mornings, one to anatomize the fluctuations of the British class system and the other to scrutinize the ambiguities of the British Empire. Rather sweetly, one of them sometimes leaves with the other's briefcase, so that Prof. Cannadine found himself intruding, with his last book, Ornamentalism, on Prof. Colley's preferred turf. One likes to imagine the erudite reconciliations that occur when they meet again for a donnish dinner at their very own High Table.
In her own most recent book, Britons, Linda Colley outlined the invention of the British nation, under the external pressure of war with France, and under a German monarchy, as it gradually fused English, Scottish, Welsh and even Irish identities into one. This insular version of E pluribus unum was the engine for making a great maritime empire, and its special anthem was James Thomson's 1740 effusion "Rule Britannia." The famous refrain of this song is: "Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!"
The most obvious irony of that ditty has long been obvious to everyone: The British were right to have an uneasy aversion to slavery because their triangular Atlantic trade, which made the fortunes of cities such as Liverpool and Bristol, was a critical element in their command of the seas. But the waves of certain regions were by no means under British sway, and many an English crew was taken captive along the Barbary Coast, and put to work under an alien sun, and in the service of the strange religion of Islam.
In this brilliantly illuminating study, Colley shows how the stories of British captives helped to shape the literature, politics and public opinion of the time. Defoe's Crusoe, you will remember, was a slave in North Africa before he became a castaway. Swift's Gulliver was likewise a hostage at least once, and it helps in understanding the whole process if we imagine the British Empire as an attempt by Lilliput to subjugate Brobdingnag. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the relatively small population of a modest North Sea archipelago achieved dominion over much of North America, India, Africa, the Caribbean and Australia.
But we forget how tenuous that hold must have seemed to those who exerted it. And, when they forgot it, there were always the plaintive narratives of captives to remind them. The Jamestown settlement in Virginia had to be abandoned, after all, and nobody really knows what became of the handful of colonists. Much less celebrated (indeed much less known) is the brief period, during the reign of Charles II, when the British held the Moroccan seaport of Tangier. Ideally positioned to oversee the straits of Gibraltar, and thus access to both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Tangier was heavily fortified and expensively underwritten. But in 1684, only seven years after the fortifications were completed, they had to be destroyed as part of a headlong retreat. From then on, it was the Sultan's writ that ran along that coast, and the British wisely concentrated on what they did best: making islands such as Cyprus and Malta into citadels like their own storm-lashed home.
Only later did they acquire the nerve to encroach upon an established Muslim empire, in Mughal India, and to occupy swaths of its interior. Once again, it was the heartbreaking stories of the white male and female captives, during the Indian "mutiny" of 1857 and later during the struggle for Afghanistan, that galvanized emotions on the home front. The very idea of an Englishman, let alone an Englishwoman, in such circumstances was apt to arouse the hottest and tenderest feeling concerning otherwise repressed subjects such as sex and coercion. But Colley, who shows a distinct inclination toward contemporary all-right opinions on multiculturalism, does not overlook ironies when they occur at her own expense. The agitation against the "un-Christian" practice of slavery and hostage-taking, she points out, ultimately led to an agitation against the more widespread practice of enslavement by, rather than of, white Christians. These things evidently take time.
David Cannadine is actually presenting us with a selection of essays rather than a meditation on the Churchill legacy, but he justifies the notion by a shrewd choice of subjects that do, indeed, mark the passing of the Churchillian epoch. I did not know that the British "National Trust," which is now consecrated mainly to the preservation of the English country house, had begun as a sort of "left-green" late-Victorian outfit dedicated to the protection of the environment. One is reminded yet again that a huge number of "Britons" were never all that certain about the Industrial Revolution or the Empire. Nowadays, the National Trust is part of a huge quasi-industry, dedicated to marketing the splendors and miseries of British history as an exercise in "heritage" tourism. How Churchill, who was actually born in the 18th-century Vanbrugh palace of Blenheim, would have growled at that.
And how likely it is that his growls would be ignored. In an excellent analysis of his political rhetoric, Cannadine shows how often the old boy was rightly written off as a demagogue and an alarmist. (He took a long time to persuade people that he was right about Hitler, because he had spent so much hot air denouncing Gandhi as no better.) And it's always nice to be reminded of Churchill's own left-radical phase, as when he replied to Lord Curzon -- who had said that "all civilization has been the work of aristocracies" -- by saying that "the upkeep of aristocracies has been the hard work of all civilizations."
Elsewhere in this enjoyable assemblage are solid background essays on the Chamberlain dynasty, and two particularly clever pieces on the contrasting careers and works of Ian Fleming and Noel Coward. The two men, who ended up as neighbors in Jamaican tax exile, could hardly have been more unlike one another. But their writings disclosed an astonishing similarity in trying to project Britishness, and British influence, beyond the close of Empire.
The person who more than any other tried to revive Churchillism, to arrest British decline, and to invoke past glories was Margaret Thatcher. I have a feeling that she is not adored in the Colley-Cannadine home. But this industrious couple has nonetheless done her some oblique honor, by its attachment to the reading of a great past and, to all appearances, by an attachment to family values as well. *
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a professor of liberal studies at the New School in New York. He is the author of "Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies." His most recent book is "Why Orwell Matters."