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Review: The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh

April 6, 2009

The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History by Linda Colley, 363 pp. Pantheon Books

To understand history, one must go beyond the charts of trade, the dates and names of wars and other events, for history is the story of the people who lived it, even and especially when these people were not the politically powerful individuals who we too often think of as being the only ones to make history. For this reason, the story of Elizabeth Marsh makes powerful reading for anyone interested in trade, colonialism, and transnationalism in the eighteenth century.

Conceived in Jamaica and born in England, Elizabeth Marsh traveled as an adolescent to Menorca and Gibraltar as her family followed her navy-carpenter father’s career. When she persuaded her parents to allow her to travel back to England without them, the ship carrying her was captured, and she was held prisoner in imperial Morocco, an experience she later wrote about in The Female Captive, which was published semi-anonymously. (Indeed, it was in the course of researching a book on Britons enslaved overseas that author Colley first learned of Elizabeth Marsh.) Later, she followed her bankrupt merchant husband to Dakha, where he worked for the East India Company, and then made her own overland progress across the Indian subcontinent.

Though I wish the author had more directly addressed how it is that people like Elizabeth Marsh actually create history through the accumulation of their choices, the key strength of The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh is in the way Linda Colley connects the individual story with the broader sweep of history and examines the forces that helped shaped it. She writes, for example, of how the mutual dependence of imperial Morocco and imperial Britain impacted the shape of Marsh’s captivity and how the ability of white British women to hire local women as domestic help contributed to the former gaining wider freedoms in India than they might have had at home.

This, however, also points to a major limitation of the story: a book that focuses on an imperial citizen will necessarily marginalize the people of the colonized nations. We never learn, for instance, the name of a single one of the servants Elizabeth Marsh who carried her on her overland progress in India. This is not an indictment of Colley so much as a reflection of the limits of what was recorded by Marsh herself, as well as by other sources. Indeed, Colley points out the absence of names in Marsh’s diaries and makes explicit other biases inherent in the records available to her.

For more information on women travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries, visit Wilder Shores at http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/special/wildershores/

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