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The power of speech: orality, oaths and evidence in the British Atlantic world, 1650–1800

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Abstract

Compared with the attention paid to written texts, geographers and others have neglected the spoken word in its many forms, particularly in investigations of the power relations of colonialism and imperialism. This paper argues that considering orality as a series of embodied, situated enunciations, declarations and conversations can provide a basis for historical geographies of the spoken word that engage with representation as practice. Using evidence from the domain of law within the context of Britain’s plantation colonies in the Caribbean – particularly Barbados and Jamaica – this paper argues for the significance of the oral culture of empire. This was evident in the ways in which the power of speech – through the rules on oath-taking and evidence-giving – was part of the making of imperial and colonial identities and relationships dividing white and non-white, free and unfree, both within the spaces of plantation societies and in the broader British Atlantic world. The fragility of the identities and relationships made through the spoken word is also demonstrated through a series of moments when changes in the regulation of speech in courts of law were suggested and contested.

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