The Freedom of SpeechTalk and Slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean World

The Freedom of SpeechTalk and Slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean World

Miles Ogborn

Print publication date: 2020

ISBN: 9780226655925

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book asks what the act of talking meant in a society based on racialized slavery? The answer involves understanding the power of speech as central to eighteenth-century Europeans’ definitions of what it was to be human, and therefore to determining who could be enslaved and what it was to be free. Pursuing this across five substantive chapters, the book examines in detail the ways in which talk of many kinds – by slaveholders and the enslaved in Barbados, Jamaica, and across the Atlantic world – worked in practice within the law, politics, natural knowledge, spiritual beliefs, and the movements for abolition and emancipation. Evidence comes from a wide range of manuscript and print collections in the Caribbean, North America, and Britain to provide a close examination of forms of talk that demonstrates that attempts to control speech practices – such as oath taking in the courts, political debating in the colonial assemblies, and ways of calling upon supernatural powers (including both European religion and practices of obeah among the enslaved) – were vital to the power of slaveholders. Yet the fact that talk is always open, slippery, and ephemeral – and a powerful practice of the enslaved as well as the enslavers – meant that its various uses undermined as well as underpinned the system of slavery. Through this focus on talk the book develops a new theoretical basis for understanding the relationships between space, power, meaning, and performance in the understanding of imperial and global history and geography.