Elizabeth Marsh was conceived in Port Royal, Jamaica, was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1735 and died in India in 1785. Between these dates she lived a remarkably diverse life of travel, adventure, romance and danger. In a class-ridden society where upward social mobility was more than difficult, she climbed the ladder to gentlefolk status. She succeeded against daunting adversities. She married off her daughter, a girl without any fortune, to a rich Irishman who became a baronet.
The author of this biography, Linda Colley, a distinguished British historian now teaching at Princeton University, has titled this book “The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh.” The “ordeal” is debatable, although Marsh surely survived a number of difficult and frightening experiences. How she did this, and lived to write about it, is the subject of this book.
Elizabeth’s father, Milbourne Marsh, was a ship’s carpenter in the British navy. A lot was required of a Royal Navy ship’s carpenter. Actually, he was not a manual laborer. Millbourne Marsh was a warrant officer who had to be literate and mathematically competent. He was also very ambitious, as was the rest of his family.
In 1755, when Elizabeth was 19, Milbourne Marsh’s brother, a navy clerk who eventually rose to hold Samuel Pepys’ job, got him appointed to a senior administrative post at the British base of Port Mahon, Minorca. His family went with him. It was a fabulous career break in terms of position and income. His working-class daughter converted herself into being, as she claimed, “the daughter of a gentleman.” She even became engaged to a Royal Navy officer of considerable social status.
But the Seven Years War began in 1756. Milbourne and his family were transferred to Gibraltar, which was subsequently threatened by a French invasion. Elizabeth, then only 20, became determined to flee to England. On the voyage, the tiny merchant ship carrying her — the lone female — was boarded by Moroccan corsairs and Elizabeth found herself the captive and slave to the 35-year-old Sultan Sidi Muhammad, who had her brought to him in his palace in Marrakech.
Young, Christian, female captives of Islamic rulers in this period were customarily flung into the seraglio, from which they were selected for the ruler’s bed. Elizabeth was determined to preserve her virginity, a very valuable asset for a young, unmarried woman in the 18th century. So, despite having found the Sultan attractive and interesting, and despite having to reject a proffered selection of jewels, Elizabeth protested to the Sultan that she was actually a married woman, the wife of James Crisp, a merchant who happened to be a fellow captive.
The ruse worked. For religious reasons the Sultan permitted her to be ransomed and, going aboard a Royal Navy warship together with James Crisp, also ransomed, she was taken to Gibraltar where, within a month, they married and took ship for London.
James Crisp, with his brother Samuel, owned a sizeable export business. The British economy was expanding enormously, more than that of any other nation. The Crisps were aggressive businessmen specializing in trade with a half-dozen European ports. James spoke a number of European languages. In short order they were not just prosperous, they were rich. Elizabeth bore two children. The Crisps lived large — very large.
But soon they paid for their extravagances. Three Crisp Brothers’ vessels loaded with flour were seized with scant compensation at Genoa by a city government attempting to ameliorate a local grain shortage. Next, James Crisp became involved in a land development scheme in Florida. It failed, and James suddenly became bankrupt. He fled to India to escape creditors and make a new fortune. His family, destitute, was left in London.
Elizabeth, now 35 and dependent on the generosity of her family, had to do something. So this almost-uneducated womanwrote a book about her experiences as the captive slave of he Sultan of Morocco. “The Female Captive” appeared in 1769, was well received by critics and sold out its first printing.
In the meantime, James Crisp had obtained a position with the East India Company, which then ruled India under a franchise from the British crown. He had achieved modest financial success. In 1770 Elizabeth (a casual mother) left her children behind and sailed aboard a Royal Navy frigate for India. Caught in an immense storm, the ship was blown westward to Rio de Janeiro but eventually delivered Elizabeth to her husband in Bengal.
Her marriage to James Crisp was clearly failing. Elizabeth complained of her health and to recover set out on a leisurely 18-month Indian journey in her palanquin, escorted by a troop of native soldiers, a large housekeeping entourage and three female slaves as personal servants. There was also a certain Captain George Smith, whom she referred to as her “cousin” but who was more probably a lover.
Back in Bengal, Elizabeth sailed for England from where, after a two-year absence, she returned bringing her daughter. James Crisp had died in the meantime, so Elizabeth devoted her time to marrying off the 19-year-old daughter. She succeeded brilliantly. In 1783, the girl married a rich Irishman who soon was elevated to the peerage.
Only shortly after the marriage, Elizabeth noticed “a violent cancer” developing in one of her breasts. She traveled to Calcutta, secured the services of an English surgeon and had a mastectomy without, of course, anesthetic. Ms. Colley gives a horrifying description of this operation, in which, as a relative wrote, “she suffered excruciating pain.” Elizabeth survived but died a year later at age 49. She was buried in Calcutta. Her grave cannot now be found.
It’s probably true, as Ms. Colley maintains, that “Elizabeth Marsh traveled further and more dangerously by sea than any female contemporary for whom records survive.” Only self-educated, she displayed singular courage, determination, ambition and personal resoucefulness in what Ms. Colley describes as her “ordeal” through life.
She lived in a remarkable period in British history, when that nation developed a rapidly expanding overseas trade together with the largest navy and merchant marine in the world. She was able to take the fullest advantage of this.
“The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh” is an uncommon tale about a woman, uncommon for her time, who took charge of her life — and succeeded.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.