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Linda Colley, Captives: Extract

In this extract Colley outlines the case of Joseph Wall, governor of a slaving station in west Africa, whose views on racial equality did not fit at all into our general expectations of the period.

Joseph Wall was hanged at Newgate on 28 January 1802. As he climbed the scaffold, his clothes were as elegantly understated as ever; and even without them, his six foot four inches of height would have proclaimed an affluent, unfailingly well nourished existence. Himself a former lieutenant-colonel in the East India Company, Wall had married the daughter of a Scottish peer. That money and position were perishing on a site normally given over to executing the underprivileged was, however, less remarkable than the size and behaviour of the crowd on this occasion. It took Wall twenty minutes to die, but the 60,000 spectators in front of Newgate prison and spilling over into the surrounding streets, many of them in red or blue uniforms, did not react with the usual voyeuristic pity, faintings and cries of shame. They howled in triumph and applauded. Yet Wall had been no standard bugbear, no child murderer, no killer or ravisher of helpless females. His chief victim had been a tough army sergeant, while his real crime had been to lay bare some of the more paradoxical captivities and costs involved in the expansion and exercise of British Empire.1
Twenty years earlier, Wall had been governor of Goree, a slave-trading base on the west coast of Africa seized by the British in the Seven Years’ War. Lethal for so many blacks, the place also killed the majority of whites who were dispatched there. Wall ran the risk of its climate, microbes, and brutality, only because by this stage a reputation for violent temper, sexual scandal and duelling to the death debarred him from more eligible imperial postings. Goree’s British garrison was made up of ‘regiments in disgrace for mutiny, deserting … or some such cause’, hard men with no alternatives and no future. On the penultimate day of Wall’s governorship, sixty of these troops advanced on his quarters, demanding arrears of pay that they claimed were due to them. Wall’s response was to arrest five of the ringleaders and, without a trial, order them 800 lashes apiece.
Three of the men, including a Sergeant Benjamin Armstrong, were ‘whipped, not with the ordinary instrument, but with ropes; not by the ordinary persons, but by black slaves’. The blacks in question, who spoke no English, had been assembled specially, and that day in July 1782 they took turns ‘inflicting 25 lashes, till the number of 800 had been inflicted’ on each soldier. ‘Lay on you black bastards,’ Wall called out repeatedly, and pointlessly, as he supervised the punishment, ‘or else I will lay upon you!’ Long before the end of his own ordeal, Armstrong was shitting and pissing blood, and choking as it flooded his lungs. The garrison’s assistant surgeon who watched the man die over the next four days noted with interest that what was left of his back was almost ‘as black as a new hat’.
After this episode, Wall went into hiding on the Continent, only returning to London at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He seems to have believed that with the passage of time, the distractions of the Napoleonic wars, and his wife’s titled relations, he would be able to secure a pardon. As the Privy Council quickly resolved, this was out of the question.

Linda Colley Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1815 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002) pp 328-330



1 The following paragraphs are based on The Trial of Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Wall (1802); and Genuine and Impartial Memoirs of the life of Governor Wall (1802).

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