Skip to main content

The Freedom of Speech

Talk and Slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean World

The institution of slavery has always depended on enforcing the boundaries between slaveholders and the enslaved. As historical geographer Miles Ogborn reveals in The Freedom of Speech, across the Anglo-Caribbean world the fundamental distinction between freedom and bondage relied upon the violent policing of the spoken word. Offering a compelling new lens on transatlantic slavery, this book gathers rich historical data from Barbados, Jamaica, and Britain to delve into the complex relationships between voice, slavery, and empire. From the most quotidian encounters to formal rules of what counted as evidence in court, the battleground of slavery lay in who could speak and under what conditions. But, as Ogborn shows through keen attention to both the traces of talk and the silences in the archives, if enslavement as a legal status could be made by words, it could be unmade by them as well. A deft interrogation of the duality of domination, The Freedom of Speech offers a rich interpretation of oral cultures that both supported and constantly threatened to undermine the slave system.

336 pages | 23 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: Discoveries and Exploration, General History, Latin American History


"From oaths, proclamations and speeches, to conversations, sermons and incantations, The Freedom of Speech is concerned with the centrality of a variety of speech practices - what was said, how, where, by whom, how it was interpreted - to social relations in Britain’s most important Caribbean colonies. While many historians of the region have addressed the violence and alienation associated with linguistic imperialism, naming practices, coerced talk and forced silence, as well as the subversive opportunities associated with mockery, rumours and conspiratorial oath-making, none have examined the place of talk in Caribbean history with Miles Ogborn’s consistency and concentration."

Journal of Historical Geography

“Ogborn's The Freedom of Speech brilliantly explores the cultures of orality in the Caribbean. It provides a highly original and fascinating perspective on the world of the enslaved and of the slaveholders as well as on the study of slavery more generally.”

Gad Heuman, emeritus, University of Warwick

“In the beginning was the word, which made all things—or at least, in Ogborn’s telling, all the most important relations of power that define modern politics. His inspired examination of the intimacies of speech, liberty, and bondage in the British Caribbean announces a vital new departure for the study of slavery, its political geography, and its legacies. This book will change the way we hear the insistent chorus of voices that echo across generations of freedom struggle.”

Vincent Brown, author of Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War

“How were forms of freedom and bondage made through speech? Who could speak—when, where, and how? Ogborn’s powerful and original exploration considers the many kinds of talk—whether political, legal, botanical, or spiritual—of the colonizers, the abolitionists, and the enslaved in the Anglo-Caribbean. Speech, he convincingly demonstrates, needs attention: it is one of the dialogic practices at the heart of the making, remaking, and undoing of race and slavery.”

Catherine Hall, emerita, University College London

"Miles Ogborn’s new book highlights the importance of speech and speech practices in broadening our understanding of slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean and the Atlantic World. By examining how speech in sugar islands like Barbados and Jamaica was policed, attributed force, diminished, held accountable, and discredited, Ogborn delineates the oral cultures that made empire and slavery."


"This latest monograph by Miles Ogborn perfectly illustrates the current renaissance in research on the colonial Caribbean. . . . This particular original contribution to that effort provides a significan account of the fundamental role that speech played in the social relations between the enslavers and the enslaved over two centuries in the British colonies of Jamaica and Barbados. . . . Ogborn's masterful use of a vast array or primary sources—letters, accounts, ephemera, reports, herbals, and others—from Caribbean and British archives allow him to tease out words long since lost on the trade winds"

Andrew Sluyter | The AGG Review of Books

"This is an important book that will be essential reading in multiple fields."

New West Indian Guide

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Introduction: With One Little Blast of Their Mouths: Speech, Humanity, and Slavery
One: On Our Bare Word: Oath Taking, Evidence Giving, and the Law
Two: The Deliberative Voice: Politics, Speech, and Liberty
Three: Master, I Can Cure You: Talking Plants in the Sugar Islands
Four: They Must Be Talked to One to One: Speaking with the Spirits
Five: They Talk about Free: Abolition, Freedom, and the Politics of Speech
Last Words

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press