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On Our Bare Word: Oath Taking, Evidence Giving, and the Law

On Our Bare Word: Oath Taking, Evidence Giving, and the Law

Chapter:
(p.35) One On Our Bare Word: Oath Taking, Evidence Giving, and the Law
Source:
The Freedom of Speech
Author(s):
Miles Ogborn
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226657714.003.0002

This chapter examines the forms of speech at work in the law. Using evidence from the laws of Barbados and Jamaica, it considers oath-taking and evidence-giving as particular forms of speech which bind utterances to those who enunciate them. The chapter establishes that both oath-taking and evidence-giving in court were part of the process of creating powerful white, male, free, propertied, and Protestant subjects – free-born Englishmen – whose word would be taken, and whose speech practices tied the British sugar islands into imperial and colonial legal structures. Yet, it also argues that there were many taking oaths on these islands, and that how they spoke undermined simple alignments of power, speech, and identity. The chapter examines West African forms of oath-taking (as in obeah) and evidence-giving, and their presence in a variety of quasi-legal practices among the enslaved; the need for the British to swear oaths with the Maroons in order to bring peace to Jamaica in 1739; the tellingly ambiguous position of Francis Williams, a free black slaveholder who could not have slave evidence heard against him; and how reforms to the rules on evidence were seen by slaveholders as threatening the whole basis of racialized slavery.

Keywords:   law, oaths, evidence, identity, obeah, Maroons, Francis Williams

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