New Books | Freedom and the politics of speech

Historical geographer Miles Ogborn argues that the distinction between freedom and bondage in slavery across the Anglo-Carribean world relied upon policing the spoken word.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from The Freedom of Speech: Talk and Slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean World (The University of Chicago Press, 2019) by Miles Ogborn.

They talk about free: Abolition, freedom and the politics of speech 

The Jamaican slaveholder and novelist Matthew “Monk” Lewis recorded in his Journal of a West Indian Proprietor (1834) for March 1816 that a conspiracy had been discovered at Black River when a funeral conversation was overheard by an overseer hidden behind a hedge. The plot involved 250 people, a “Black ascertained to have stolen over into the island from St Domingo, and a brown Anabaptist missionary”. They had elected a “King of the Eboes” and intended to massacre all the whites on the island at Christmas. The plot discovered, evidence was given at the king’s trial that the words to a song had been found on his person, and that he had sung it at the funeral feast, with others chanting the chorus: “Oh me good friend, Mr Wilberforce, make we free! God Almighty thank ye! God Almighty thank ye! God Almighty, make we free! Buckra in this country no make we free: What Negro for to do? What Negro for to do? Take force by force! Take force by force!” Chorus: “To be sure! To be sure! To be sure!”

Lewis mocked the “King of the Eboes” for the failure of the revolt and hinted at the dangers posed by dissenting missionaries and the inter island movements of Haitian revolutionaries. His story invoked the political and religious voices raised against the Jamaican plantocracy and tied them, through the song’s lyrics and the name of William Wilberforce, to those who spoke out in Britain for the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of the enslaved. 

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Although the relationship between speech and antislavery is the focus of this chapter, these concerns – within both the movements to abolish the slave trade and to emancipate the enslaved, and in the ways in which the enslaved sought to free themselves – have been foreshadowed from the beginning of this book. They are there in the “insolent words” heard by Madam Sharp, which led to the execution of the “old Negro man” in Barbados in 1683, and in the knowledge that Edward Long’s History of Jamaica, and its considerations of who could speak, was a response to the antislavery activity of the early 1770s. Indeed, these matters are an important part of all the intervening chapters. The consideration of slave evidence as part of the reform of slavery, as suggested by Joshua Steele in 1789, was a crucial question throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries as both abolitionists and imperial reformers sought to bring slavery under the rule of law. Indeed, political battles over this issue, and any other reforms that were interpreted by the islands’ legislative assemblies as limits on their deliberative power, were understood within the framing of political talk hammered out over the previous century of debates on the freedom of speech. Indeed, as this chapter will also show, the nature of political talk among the enslaved remained a crucial matter in the early 19th century as it became entwined with abolitionist discourse. More broadly, the questioning of the future of the “civil government” of the sugar islands, a questioning of the organisation, if not always the existence, of slavery, was played out through forms of speech in natural history, as Thomas Dancer’s oratorical work in the botanic gardens in 1790 attests, and in religion, as the battles over speech between clergymen, missionaries, planters and the enslaved testify. 

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However, instead of knitting all these threads together, this chapter engages directly with the ways in which it was possible to speak in favour of what Manisha Sinha calls “the slave’s cause”: abolition of the slave trade and freedom for the enslaved. How were abolition and freedom talked about and what difference did that make? While there is important previous work among the vast literature on abolition concerning how those who spoke out against slavery and the slave trade spoke, it has tended to concentrate on set-piece presentations – parliamentary speeches and abolitionist sermons, for example – and on the rhetoric of abolition as a component of a wider discourse of antislavery. However, taking seriously the range of voices raised against slavery, the modes and contexts in which they spoke and the variable evidence we have of those speech acts – that is, dealing with abolition on the asymmetrical common ground of speech set out in this book’s introduction – requires more attention to speech practices, and oral cultures broadly conceived, than to discursive structures and rhetorical work, although questions of practice, form and content can never be completely separated. Pursuing this emphasis on speech practices, the chapter works through three distinct, but related, inquiries into orality and antislavery: first, how the voice of the enslaved was represented in the abolitionist and proslavery literature of the late 18th century; second, how questions of class, race and gender shaped the speech practices of abolitionist debate and activism during the attempt to build a mass movement in the late 18th century; and third, how the abolition and antislavery movements in Britain intersected with the political talk of the enslaved in the Caribbean during the conspiracies and revolts of the early 19th century. Taken together, these inquiries show that examining the oral culture of antislavery can add significantly to the rethinking of abolitionist activism that has already encompassed print culture, visual culture and material culture. Such an examination also opens the possibility to understand abolitionist politics on the same ground as the antislavery activities of the enslaved themselves. 

The slave’s two voices 

The questions of racial difference and the unity, or otherwise, of humanity at the heart of the debate over abolition made speech as important an issue in the 1780s and 1790s as it had been for Long in the early 1770s. In his 1784 abolitionist Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, James Ramsay argued that “before we proceed to claim the rights of society, and of a common religion for Africans we must first put them in possession of that humanity, which is pertinaciously disputed with them”. He questioned David Hume’s assertion of innate racial difference and argued that “as far as I can judge, there is no difference between the intellects of whites and Blacks, but such as circumstances and education naturally produce”. He admitted that there might be some superficial physical differences – in hair texture, nose shapes and skin colour – “But their tongues are as musical, their hands as elegant and apt, their limbs as neatly turned, and their bodies as well formed for strength and activity as those of the white race.” One abolitionist clergyman even argued, drawing on Volney’s reading of Herodotus, that since the Egyptians were “actually Negroes”, then we “owe [them] our arts, sciences, and even the very use of speech”. 

Instead, for Ramsay, differences between people were a product of “Sacred history” and contingent circumstances. He argued that humanity was originally unified, but that God, at “the confusion of Babel”, then “divided them into families and languages, giving to each distinctive features and a separate speech”. This divine action set social groups on divergent paths but also promised “the ultimate reunion of mankind”. Differences in capacity could not simply be lined up along racial lines. So Ramsay argued, against Long, that although Francis Williams’s “verses bear no great marks of genius”, an argument based on innate intellectual inferiority would have to show that “every white man bred [at the same university] . . . has outstripped him”. In turn, Ramsay heard forms of speech among the enslaved as evidence of both their intellect and the repressive influence of slavery on them. Drawing on his experience in the Caribbean, he argued that “Negroes are capable of learning anything that requires attention and correctness of manner. They have powers of description and mimickry that would not have disgraced the talent of our modern Aristophanes”. Yet slavery suppressed these talents so that “a depth of cunning that enables them to over-reach, conceal, deceive, is the only province of the mind left for them, as slaves, to occupy”. As a magistrate he had “heard examinations and defences of culprits, that for quibbling, subterfuges and subtilty, would have done credit to the abilities of an attorney, most notoriously conversant in the villainous tricks of his profession”. 

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Ramsay’s view supported a vision of slavery’s future similar to that of Beilby Porteus, the bishop of London. Enslaved men should be “objects of civil government”, and as such, Ramsay contended, they should be protected by the law and encouraged to marry, have families and tend their own small properties. Such “civil privileges” would, Ramsay argued, “go hand in hand” with religious instruction, with “the union of liberty and religion both advancing slowly together, without any abrupt or violent change in the condition of the slaves themselves”. Like Porteus, Ramsay admired what he saw as the French practice in relation to “new Negroes” whereby “with the first rudiments of a new language, they draw in the precepts of a religion that mixes itself with every mode of common life”, as opposed to the situation where “foreigners are said to learn English, by the oaths and imprecations with which our tongue abounds”. However, such visions of slavery’s future, and the place of speech within it, could leave slavery and the slave trade in place. For example, an anonymously authored pamphlet from a member of the “Society of Universal Goodwill” in Norwich argued, in 1788, that “this race of men, only wants a proper education and instruction, to answer every good purpose in society”. The place to start was the way they spoke. If “new Negroes and children” were “taught to speak the English language, with propriety, fluency and correctness” rather than the “almost unintelligible jargon, of native and half English words, placed and used without regard to grammar or pronunciation”, and which was dangerously shared by slave and slaveholder alike, then “every future proceeding would be rendered easy and pleasant”. 

It is unsurprising that when Ramsay represented the words of the enslaved in his Essay, describing moments of fine sentiment, honour and self-sacrifice, he portrayed them as men speaking standard English. This portrayal was common to most of the sentimental literature of abolition, in prose and poetry. For example, William Cowper’s The Negro’s Complaint, first published in 1788, was, when republished to encourage readers to boycott slave-grown produce, accompanied with the instruction that readers should “place themselves in the same position” through a poem that offered “a simple and pathetic delineation of what may naturally be supposed to pass, at times, through the mind of the enslaved Negro”. This was acknowledged as an imagined moment of speech, but one that, in the act of identification, carried the truth with it: “However incapable he may be just in such a manner to speak the sentiments of his mind, yet, from his condition and circumstances, we may easily imagine that similar with the following he, as a mere percipient being, must frequently feel.” Cowper’s “Negro” then speaks a clear poetic English, evoking the sympathy of the reader via sentimental identification uninterrupted by barriers of language and difference. The same effect might be achieved by evoking the sighs, groans and cries of the enslaved, along with their tears. 

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However, questions of race, language and difference could not be so simply dealt with in abolitionist attempts to ensure that the “cruelties of the slave trade” were no longer “talked of … with an indifference, common to other commercial considerations”. If, as well as sharing a common humanity that should invoke sympathy, enslaved Africans also needed to be represented as requiring moral guidance, education and conversion to Christianity, then that needed representing too. This tension is well captured by an abolitionist artifact that combined speech, script and print into something that, like Cowper’s poem, might be circulated to engage those who read, saw and discussed it in relation to the boycott of slave-grown produce. Probably created by the Quaker printer James Phillips, whose presses produced vast numbers of abolitionist tracts, including those incorporating Josiah Wedgewood’s famous “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” emblem, the printed side echoes that emblem through a simulacrum of a trade card on which the enslaved subject speaks a poetic language of “mis’ry”, sentiment and sympathy in a supplicant appeal based on a common brotherhood with those who could provide relief from “oppression”. Yet, in manuscript, and probably in Phillips’s hand, there is an alternative text for “the figure as annexed” that used the voice of “Mungo” to appeal to the reader or listener. Here, the authenticating and heartfelt accents of an imagined creole speaker calls on these male smokers and drinkers to “tink how poor Mungo toil – poor Mungo bleed!” They are asked, in the accents of a racialised difference, to pledge themselves to the cause of this victimised husband and father, and by implication his family, and to “seize de glass, and say ‘Be Mungo free!’” 

The question of the slave’s two voices, and how they might be deployed, demonstrates above all else the complex and contested cultural politics of speech and the debate over abolition and freedom, showing the matters of race and gender were crucial in shaping the meanings of voice within both pro- and antislavery arguments.

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