Elizabeth Marsh, Female Captive

by Jessica Brain

In 1756, Elizabeth Marsh was captured by Barbary pirates and published her experiences in her book, “The Female Captive: A Narrative of Fact Which Happened in Barbary in the Year 1756, Written by Herself”. The book recounted the story of her experiences as a captive in a precarious and dangerous situation, and reflected on the threat of sexual violence and her bid to survive by whatever means possible.

Elizabeth Marsh’s story begins in Jamaica, where her father was working as a carpenter for the Royal Navy. Her parents then returned to Portsmouth, England, where Elizabeth was born in 1735.

Initially spending her youth in Portsmouth with her younger siblings, the influence of her uncle would be most important as he provided for the education of his niece and nephews. Her uncle, who held a good position in the Navy Office, would also go on to secure his brother a desirable position in Menorca.

Now happily stationed on the island, the imminent outbreak of conflict between Britain and France forced the family to be moved to a garrison in Gibraltar for their own safety.

Not long afterwards, Elizabeth embarked on a solo voyage back to England to reunite with her fiancé, whom she had met in Gibraltar. However her ship soon found itself in dangerous territory.

As the ship was to receive protection from the naval warship Gosport, the journey was not expected to be hazardous, however not long after its departure from Gibraltar, the warship deserted the vessel leaving the ship vulnerable to attack.

On 8th August 1756, the vessel found itself in difficulty.

Elizabeth documents this doomed voyage, describing vividly the moment the Moroccan pirates came into sight:
“it was thought more prudent to wait for them than, by trying to escape, run a risk of being put to death if they should attack us, for they were well armed and very numerous.”

The Moroccan corsair had a crew of around 150 men and 20 guns.

Seized by pirates, the ship was then taken to the Moroccan city of Salé, located in the north-west of the country.

Christians in Slavery. G. A. Jackson: Algiers – Being a complete picture of the Barbary States. London 1817.

On arrival to Morocco, the fate which awaited her as a solo female traveller became clear. With the prospect of becoming a sexual slave in the harem of the ruler, Sidi Muhammad, Elizabeth feigned a marriage to a fellow passenger, James Crisp who according to her narrative was travelling on board as a merchant.

For four months, Elizabeth Marsh made it her mission to survive by whatever means possible, including firmly resisting the sexual harassment she was subjected to by the Prince who wanted her as his concubine.

Within her account that was published a decade after her release, Elizabeth reveals how she resisted the advances of the Prince on numerous occasions, flatly turning down sexual favours that were requested and making it clear that she favoured starvation and death over any such fate as a member of his harem.

Elizabeth was navigating a difficult and complex cultural situation whereby the social acceptance of slavery and harems at this time in Arab culture, meant her position as a white female captive was particularly precarious.

Moreover, the awareness of these practises in the European world came only from male narratives. Elizabeth Marsh’s account was significant for its female insight and perspective into the harsh realities of sexual threats to women who travelled unaccompanied at this time.

That being said, Marsh’s status as a female captive also lead her to experience notably different living conditions compared to her male compatriots. Whilst her enslavement was punctuated by sexual threats, the men were forced into demanding physical labour and poor conditions to which, as a woman, she was not subjected.

Her tasks were never as severe as her male counterparts and as a female captive she occupied a unique and sometimes antithetical position, relying on her chaste innocence at times whilst in other situations, asserting her entitlements as a female.

Elizabeth used any tactic to avoid the harshest realities of her captivity whilst also treading a fine line, aware constantly of the dangers faced.

After four months of captivity, peace talks between Morocco and Britain resumed and thankfully brought her ordeal to an end.

Elizabeth and her fellow captives including James Crisp, left Morocco. With their freedom now restored, the return to normality was a difficult transition to make.

Now out of captivity, Elizabeth owed a great debt to James Crisp. With the influence of her parents, Elizabeth returned home to England and married Crisp.

Her married life initially appeared happy and prosperous, producing two children, a son and daughter, whilst living in comfortable settings in a townhouse. This however was not destined to last for Crisp supplicated most of his income from smuggling and when this failed, he became bankrupt.

With a desperate need to raise funds and find employment, he set sail for India in 1769 to work for the East India Company in Bengal.

Elizabeth followed closely behind, journeying to India with their daughter but leaving her son with her parents who had by now settled comfortably at a Navy Office house in Chatham.

Elizabeth and her husband then decided to send their daughter back to England to be with her parents, leaving the child to make the journey alone. Meanwhile, they sent for their son Burrish who was also forced to travel unaccompanied and was said to have arrived in India infested and lucky to have survived.

Almost as soon as he arrived, he was entrusted to a Persian merchant who had taken a shine to the young boy, who subsequently took him to Persia.

By the age of twelve he was fluent in Persian which would prove very useful as this was the language of commerce.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth could not disguise the impact her captivity had had on her and throughout her life she displayed symptoms of what we now understand to be post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her emotional detachment from those around her, loneliness and soul searching would demonstrate how her experience in Morocco had had more of a psychological impact than a physical one.

For Elizabeth, the publication of her accounts of captivity would prove to be both therapeutic and confronting, whilst also proving to be a necessary source of income when her husband Crisp proved unable to support them financially.

The book was published with an anonymous writer who was later revealed to be Elizabeth Marsh herself. Despite the initial scrutiny she faced when telling her story back in England, the book became very successful.

The belief at the time was that a woman would have been easily lured by the mysterious exoticism of the Orient and would most likely have lost her most important commodity, her chastity. Elizabeth Marsh’s record turned these notions on their head.

Meanwhile, after successfully recounting her story, her desire for freedom and her adventurous spirit got the better of her. She left Crisp, who was now languishing in financial ruin in India, and planned another journey, defining the next chapter of her life.

Always willing to defy convention she spent eighteen months away from her family at the age of forty travelling through East India in a palanquin.

She did not complete this journey alone as she was accompanied by George Smith, a young officer said to be her cousin. They subsequently embarked on this adventure which proved to be incredibly enjoyable as she was well-received along her travels, attending dinners and banquets, as well as visiting local monuments of which she knew very little but was interested nonetheless.

By 1777, after completing her East Indian journey she set sail for England to reunite with her daughter, who had grown up to be well educated. She had been lucky enough to have been taken under the wing of her avuncular uncle, George Marsh, who had made sure she was well taken care of whilst her parents were abroad.

On her return, Elizabeth insisted that her father’s money should be left to her daughter so as to avoid Crisp getting his hands on her family’s money. Now together with her daughter for the first time in years, they embarked on a voyage together back to India in order to be reunited with Burrish. Crisp had died in India whilst Elizabeth was overseas.

Elizabeth Marsh died in India in 1785 and was buried in Calcutta cemetery, leaving behind a rich historical source in her personal account of her sufferings at the hands of Moroccan pirates.

Her compelling narrative paints a portrait of a complex woman who led a bohemian and adventurous lifestyle, strong in the face of adversity, but also tormented by melancholy and loneliness.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

Published: May 19th, 2021.

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