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Linda Colley, Captives: Language and Sources

Language

Probably the most striking aspect of Colley’s use of language in this extract is the unexpectedly frank description of the effects of the flogging. She might have used more decorous words like ‘urinating’ and ‘excreting’ but this could have served to disguise the appalling nature of the torment Armstrong went through; this use of the vernacular in an academic account adds to its impact. Elsewhere, Colley’s use of language is more subtle but it serves to entice the reader towards her interpretation. There is a disapproval in her description of Wall’s ‘affluent, unfailingly well-nourished existence’; her sympathies are clear in the description of Newgate prison as ‘a site normally given over to executing the underprivileged’ – note the choice of adjective where the word ‘criminal’ might have been expected; while the crowd itself displays hypocritical ‘voyeuristic pity’. The point underlying the incident she focuses on is ‘to lay bare some of the more paradoxical captivities and costs involved in the expansion and exercise of British Empire’, where slaves whip their guards and the jailers are as much captives as those they guard. Notice that she speaks of ‘British Empire’ in an abstract sense, rather than ‘the British Empire’; it suggests that Empire was existed in the mind as well as in its more concrete political sense.

Sources

Colley tells us in her footnote that she is drawing on two contemporary accounts of the case, one a description of the trial and the other based on Wall’s own memoirs. For the most part she simply draws the facts of the case form these accounts and presents them to us in her own words and structure, but she does add touches of her own gloss to bring out more clearly the implications of the text. Goree’s garrison, for example, is described as made up of ‘regiments in disgrace for mutiny, deserting … or some such cause’. This would have conveyed a fairly clear picture to the original readers, but Colley adds a rider for a modern readership, explaining that these were ‘hard men with no alternatives and no future’; this also helps the reader get a good picture of the confrontation and its brutal aftermath.


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