Recovering the Voice of Subalterns

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Option 1: To what degree can we recover the voices of empires’ subalterns?

Is it possible to recover the voices of the Subaltern; a non elite person or group, especially in colonial societies (OU, Block 3&4 glossary, 2009, p.354) when these people were largely illiterate and the primary reason we hear from them at all is when they find themselves in circumstances which automatically make us question whether a true interpretation of their experiences can be found. The sources available to us such as autobiographies, court records, art and many more are useful in gaining a perspective of what life could have been like for the subaltern and yet with each source we must consider how much of the subalterns true voice is heard and how much the colonial circumstance has interfered with its credibility. To answer this question we will look at three different groups of subalterns; African slaves, Eastern prostitutes in Singapore and Kenyan natives.

Lacking the opportunity and the means to do so we have few sources from your typical slave other than slave autobiographies such as those by Olaudah Equiano or William Grimes, which although useful in examining the individuals experience, they aren’t necessarily typical. To be in a position where he has the contacts and ability to be published he is already an exceptional case. (Unit 12, 2009, p.180) A man who has managed to achieve his freedom and become accustomed to a ‘white’ way of living which cannot help to have influenced his views means we must hesitate before comparing his lot too closely to that of the typical field slave. (Unit 12, 2009, p.182) While we may come closer to the truth by focusing on the passages which detail his own time as a field slave we must also bear in mind that the horrors of what life was like for slaves was laid on thick as this text was used partly as propaganda in the abolition movement. (Unit 12, 2009, p.185) This extract is typical of the content of these texts. ‘After he had received 500 lashes, or more, they washed his back with salt water, and whipped it in, as well as rubbed it with a rag; and then directly sent him to work.’ (Carretta, 1996, Primary Source 12.1, p.1)

Other sources we have come from plantation records such as the excellent examples from Worthy Park. These records tell us much about the rotation in slaves’ lives with reference to what tasks they would be expected to carry out and how these would change over their life as exhaustion and illness claimed an often premature death. (Unit 12, 2009, p.173) These records are invaluable sources in explaining the slaves’ day to day existence but they fail to tell us how the slaves felt about their lot. While again not the words of the slaves themselves slave owner Thomas Thistlewood’s diary was a private account of his dealings and not expected to be read and so we can take its contents fairly literally. Thistlewood recounts in his diary his relationship with a female slave called Phibbah who became his long term mistress and indeed managed to own a certain amount of power and influence through her position. (Unit 12, 2009, p.189) Again Phibbah was probably an exceptional case but Thistlewoods account also shows us a comparative figure in Phibbah’s friend Sally who was not so fortunate. ‘Hugh Wilson, ... frequently beat his mistress, Miss Sally,....Thistlewood recalls Sally receiving three beatings between 1775 and1781. Worse still the fate of Sappho , the mulatto mistress of Thistlewood’s friend, ....., who “beat etc his Wife sadly” so that Sappho died.’ (Burnard, 2004, secondary source 12.7, p.5) These entries tell us a little about the ambition of these women to better their circumstance by any means possible speaking of a determination to survive.

Yamakawa Saki or ‘Osaki’ is a great example of a subaltern story using another source method; that or oral history. Osaki was a Japanese prostitute working in Singapore whose story is told through Yamazaki Tomoko. (Unit...
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