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Linda Colley, Captives: Commentary

What Happens in this Passage?

Joseph Wall, a well-connected former colonial governor, was hanged at Newgate in 1802 amid scenes of rejoicing. He had put down a mutiny with unusual brutality, using Africans to administer severe floggings to the mutineers. He fled to the Continent but was arrested on his return to England, despite his family connections and the passage of twenty years.

Commentary

Colley is at pains to stress here that Wall was a man of high social standing, in order to stress that even this could not save him from the anger and opprobrium of his countrymen, at all levels of society. She begins with the hanging and with the crowds apparently heartless response: she stresses that usually a long drawn-out death would elicit sympathy but that this did not happen in his case. This all helps to arouse the reader’s curiosity: who is this man? What had he done to cause him to be so hated? She then disposes of a few possibilities: he is neither a burglar nor a child murderer nor a rapist and his main victim does not sound a likely victim at all, a tough army sergeant. She then makes it clear that Wall was no innocent: he was only posted to a tough place like Goree because his bad temper and conduct made him unsuitable to be posted anywhere else. What she does say explicitly, but leaves to the reader to infer, is the actual reason for Wall’s execution. We know that savage flogging was commonplace in the army and navy at the time and that it was not unknown for men to die from it; we may also be aware that mutiny carried the death sentence anyway. The clue comes when Colley reveals, through quotation from a contemporary account of the case, that what caused the anger was the use of rope rather than a standard whip and the fact that the flogging was administered by African slaves. This offers an intriguing reversal of the usual picture of the west African slave coast, in which Africans are whipped by their captors; the image is made more striking by Wall’s quoted encouragement to the Africans. We can therefore infer that it was this inversion of the usual racial hierarchy, rather than the flogging itself, which set opinion in Britain so firmly against Governor Wall. Thus Colley has taken an obscure incident and presented it to the reader as a paradigm for Britain’s whole imperial experience.

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