Captivity narrative  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Captivity narratives are stories of people captured by "uncivilized" enemies. The narratives often include a theme of redemption by faith in the face of the threats and temptations of an alien way of life. Barbary captivity narratives, stories of Englishmen captured by Barbary pirates, were popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. As British colonists in North America became subject to capture, some published captivity narratives, which were popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the colonies.

The first American Barbary captivity narrative was by Abraham Browne (1655). The most popular was that of Captain James Riley, entitled An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Brig Commerce (1817).

American Indian captivity narratives, stories of men and, particularly, women of European descent who were captured by Native Americans, were popular in both America and Europe from the 17th century until the close of the United States frontier late in the 19th century. Mary Rowlandson's memoir A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson is a classic example of the genre.

Jonathan Dickinson's Journal, God's Protecting Providence ... (1699), an account by a Quaker of shipwreck survivors captured by Indians in Florida, has been described by the Cambridge History of English and American Literature as "in many respects the best of all the captivity tracts." American captivity narratives were often based on true events, but they frequently contained fictional elements as well. Some were entirely fictional, created because the stories were popular. One spurious captivity narrative was The Remarkable Adventures of Jackson Johonnet, of Massachusetts (Boston, 1793).

Ann Eliza Bleecker's epistolary novel, The History of Maria Kittle, first published in 1793, is considered the first known Captivity novel. It set the form for subsequent Indian Capture novels.

Because of the competition between the French and English in North America, colonists in New England were frequently taken captive by Indians. The Puritans tended to write narratives with negative images of the 'Indian' to show that the captivity was a warning from God concerning the state of the Puritans' souls, and that God was the only hope for redemption. As a result, historians treat captivity narratives with caution, and regard many of them more as folklore or ideology than historical accounts. But, contemporary historians such as Linda Colley and anthropologists such as Pauline Turner Strong have found the narratives useful in analyzing how the colonists constructed a Native American "other", as well as what the narratives reveal about the settlers' sense of themselves and their culture, and the experience of crossing the line to another. Colley studied the long history of English captivity in other cultures, both the Barbary pirate captives who preceded those in North America, and British captives in cultures such as India, after the North American experience.

The historian Frederick Turner, in his book Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness (1980), discusses the effect of some captivity narratives in which the white captive comes to prefer and eventually adopts a Native American way of life. In some cases, during prisoner exchanges the white captives had to be forced to return to their original cultures. Children who had assimilated to new families found it extremely painful to be torn from them, often after several years' captivity. Having assimilated, numerous adult and young captives chose to stay with American Indians and never returned to live in Anglo-American or European communities.

Original captivity narratives

Modern versions

  • In 1956 John Ford directed the film, The Searchers, a fictional captivity narrative starring John Wayne. This film was influential because of its multiple psychological layers, as well as John Wayne's taking on a different character than usual.
  • Cello-rock band Rasputina parodied captivity narratives in their song "My Captivity by Savages" from their 2004 album Frustration Plantation.
  • The song "Cannibal Buffet" from the 2007 album Ooky Spooky by Voltaire is a humorous take on captivity narratives.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Captivity narrative" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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