Captives: The Story of Britain's Pursuit of Empire and How Its Soldiers and Civilians Were Held Captive by the Dream of Global Supremacy
By Linda Colley
Pantheon Books
438 pp.; $27

In mid-February The New York Times reported that three Americans captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia "could be held as war booty." It seems that the guerrillas want to trade politicians and policemen they are holding captive for fellow rebels being held in Colombian prisons and, the Times continues, the Americans offer "potentially valuable leverage."

The survivors among the Japanese citizens kidnapped years ago by North Korea (many of whom remain unaccounted for) can probably feel these American captives' pain. As Princeton University professor Linda Colley points out in this outstanding book, nations, armies, pirates, and rogue regimes have long taken captives for various reasons—to hold them for ransom, to make slaves of them, to gain a sense of power over enemies, to compensate for losses in war, to acquire information.

Everyone knows that Europeans enslaved Africans in the early modern period. Fewer know that Africans, too, enslaved Africans, as did Arabs. I suspect even fewer know that Arabs—"Barbary pirates"—"Turks"—enslaved Europeans. But early modern Britons—"English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish men, women and children," among others—knew better. They knew, for instance, that if they ventured toward the Straits of Gibraltar they had a decent chance of being captured and becoming a North African's slave. But, then again, one needn't have ventured far: "Among nineteen women redeemed from Algiers in 1646, were two, Ellen Hawkins and Joan Brabrook, who had been seized fifteen years before from Baltimore, County Cork."

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