The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh : How a Remarkable Woman Crossed Seas and Empires to Become Part of World History, Paperback Book

The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh : How a Remarkable Woman Crossed Seas and Empires to Become Part of World History Paperback

4.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


From the author of `Britons', the story of the exceptional life of the intrepid Elizabeth Marsh - an extraordinary woman of her time who was caught up in trade, imperialism, war, exploration, migration, growing maritime reach, and new ideas.

Linda Colley's new book breaks the boundaries between biography, family stories and global history.This is a book about a world in a life.

An individual lost to history, Elizabeth Marsh (1735-85) travelled farther, and was more intimately affected by developments across the globe, than the vast majority of men.

Conceived in Jamaica and possibly mixed-race, she was the first woman to publish in English on Morocco, and the first to carry out extensive overland explorations in eastern and southern India, journeying in each case in close companionship with an unmarried man.

She spent time in some of the world's biggest ports and naval bases, Portsmouth, Menorca, Gibraltar, London, Rio de Janeiro, Calcutta and the Cape.

She was damaged by the Seven Years War and the American Revolutionary War; and linked through her own migrations with voyages of circumnavigation, and as victim and owner, she was involved in three different systems of slavery.But hers is a broadly revealing, not simply an exceptional, life.

Marsh's links to the Royal Navy, the East India Company, empire and international trade made these experiences possible.

To this extent, her career illumines shifting patterns of British and Western power and overseas aggression.

The swift onset of globalization occurring in her lifetime also ensured that her progress, relationships and beliefs were repeatedly shaped and deflected by people and events beyond Europe.

While imperial players like Edmund Burke and Eyre Coote form a part of her story, so do African slave sailors, skilled Indian weavers and astronomers, ubiquitous Sephardi Jewish traders, and the great Moroccan Sultan, Sidi Muhammad, who schemed to entrap her.Many modern biographies remain constrained by a national framework, while global histories are generally impersonal.

By contrast, in this dazzling and original book, Linda Colley moves repeatedly and questioningly between vast geo-political transformations and the intricate detail of individual lives.

This is a global biography for our globalizing times.


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An individual's desire to migrate, John Berger has written, is often 'permeated by historical necessities of which neither he nor anybody he meets is aware'.Who was Elizabeth Marsh? A mid-eighteenth century woman, conceived in Jamaica, born in England, growing up in the Mediterranean, and as an adult voyaging (involuntarily) through Morocco, planning to emigrate to Florida, and finally ending up in India. In many ways an unusual life story, yet Colley manages to use her to illustrate the wider historical forces of the time, picking up many themes from this first age of globalisation which echo our own time: the world is shaped by networks of connections and commodity flows rather than state boundaries, there are overlapping personal identities, and fears about conspicuous consumption - even a banking crisis. (This comparison is lightly worn, though - the book is really about its own time and not ours, although it did make me think about the comparatively short historical timespan of a world made up of states, however formative that is to our current world view - since this is exactly the period where states were growing in power and the ability to control information, money and people, and this is one of the forces which comes up several times in the story.)The narrative zooms in and out of different levels very effectively. In one passage, narrating what happens after Elizabeth is kidnapped and taken to Marrakech, we hear they are to be kept as hostages until Britain agrees to establish a consul in Morocco. This draws back into the ruler Sidi Muhammad's foreign policy (to develop links with the rest of the world - he was the first Muslim ruler to acknowledge America's independence); the reasons for it (to develop commerce); and the reasons for that choice (demographic differences with other powers of the time such as China and India); what this represents about the globalisation of the era; and what this says about Sidi Muhammad himself (including his attitude to women, which brings us right back to Elizabeth). All in the space of two or three pages. There are many other asides where Colley adds very illuminating context and background to things that I was already aware of - just why cotton was so important to the world economy, for example, or the importance of minor social ritual to Britons in India.There were occasional moments when I felt that Colley was squeezing too much into this book, but for the most part, it was very well done: clear, readable and thought-provoking. What about Elizabeth herself? The sources covering her life are scattered and leave some gaps - indeed, one of the smaller themes of the book is how individual lives end up in the archives. After the kidnapping, Elizabeth's (male) companions petition the powerful to come to their assistance. "Elizabeth Marsh by contrast has no contacts with powerful males at this stage of her life, and so writes only to her parents. Consequently her letters, unlike most of the others, do not survive."But fortunately, Elizabeth told her own story twice - in a book about her experience of being kidnapped, and another about her peregrinations around India. She did this despite the social pressure against it: one writer of the time had commented "It's very unnatural to love those {women} who ... are of a bold, impudent deportment ... Courage in that sex is to me as disgustful as effeminacy in men". But Elizabeth was forced into it by financial pressures (another interesting thing about this narrative is that it covers the 'precariat' rather than the wealthy, and particularly how they navigated the world by appealing to and developing links with men of power). Fascinating, and highly recommended.