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A hostage is a person or entity which is held by one of two belligerent parties to the other or seized as security for the carrying out of an agreement, or as a preventive measure against war. However, in contemporary usage, it means someone who is seized by a criminal abductor in order to compel another party such as a relative, employer, law enforcement, or government to act, or refrain from acting, in a particular way, often under threat of serious physical harm to the hostage(s) after expiration of an ultimatum.
A person who seizes one or more hostages is known as a hostage-taker; if the hostages are present voluntarily, then the receiver is known as a host.
The English word “hostage” derives from French ostage, modern otage, from Late Latin obsidaticum (Medieval Latin ostaticum, ostagium), the state of being an obses (plural obsides), “hostage”, from Latin obsideō (“I haunt / frequent / blockade / besiege”), but an etymological connection was later supposed with Latin hostis (“stranger,” later “enemy”). This long history of political and military use indicates that political authorities or generals would legally agree to hand over one or usually several hostages in the custody of the other side, as guarantee of good faith in the observance of obligations. These obligations would be in the form of signing of a peace treaty, in the hands of the victor, or even exchange hostages as mutual assurance in cases such as an armistice. Major powers, such as Ancient Rome and the British who had colonial vassals, would especially receive many such political hostages, often offspring of the elite, even princes or princesses who were generally treated according to their rank and put to a subtle long-term use where they would be given an elitist education or possibly even a religious conversion. This would eventually influence them culturally and open the way for an amicable political line if they ascended to power after release.
This caused the element gīsl = “hostage” in many old Germanic personal names, and thus in placenames derived from personal names, for example Isleworth in west London (UK) from Old English Gīslheres wyrð (= “enclosure belonging to [a man called] Gīslhere”).
The practice of taking hostages is very ancient, and has been used constantly in negotiations with conquered nations, and in cases such as surrenders, armistices and the like, where the two belligerents depended for its proper carrying out on each other’s good faith. The Romans were accustomed to take the sons of tributary princes and educate them at Rome, thus holding a security for the continued loyalty of the conquered nation and also instilling a possible future ruler with ideas of Roman civilization. The practice was also commonplace in the Imperial Chinese tributary system, especially between the Han and Tang dynasties.
The practice continued through the early Middle Ages. The Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages got his epithet Noígiallach because, by taking nine petty kings hostage, he had subjected nine other principalities to his power.
This practice was also adopted in the early period of the British occupation of India, and by France in her relations with the Arab tribes in North Africa. The position of a hostage was that of a prisoner of war, to be retained till the negotiations or treaty obligations were carried out, and liable to punishment (in ancient times), and even to death, in case of treachery or refusal to fulfil the promises made.
The practice of taking hostages as security for the carrying out of a treaty between civilized states is now obsolete. The last occasion was at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), ending the War of the Austrian Succession, when two British peers, Henry Bowes Howard, 11th Earl of Suffolk, and Charles, 9th Baron Cathcart, were sent to France as hostages for the restitution of Cape Breton to France.
In France, after the revolution of Prairial (June 18, 1799), the so-called law of hostages was passed, to meet the royalist insurrection in La Vendée. Relatives of émigrés were taken from disturbed districts and imprisoned, and were liable to execution at any attempt to escape. Sequestration of their property and deportation from France followed on the murder of a republican, four to every such murder, with heavy fines on the whole body of hostages. The law only resulted in an increase in the insurrection. Napoleon in 1796 had used similar measures to deal with the insurrection in Lombardy (Correspondence de Napoléon I. i. 323, 327, quoted in Hall, International Law).
In later times the practice of official war hostages may be said to be confined to either securing the payment of enforced contributions or requisitions in an occupied territory and the obedience to regulations the occupying army may think fit to issue; or as a precautionary measure, to prevent illegitimate acts of war or violence by persons not members of the recognized military forces of the enemy.