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

Recent historical scholarship has increasingly focused on looking at ‘history from below’ to recover voices from the past that have largely been ignored in grand historical narratives. This interest in illiterate groups has encouraged historians to explore a wider variety of sources, in order to recover the ‘history of ordinary people’s lives, and to some extent from their perspective, preferably including their [own] words’ (Hack, 2009, p.275). Such approaches have been applied to recovering the voices of empires’ subalterns; the voices of non-elite individuals or groups in colonial societies.

While such endeavours are rather ambitious and promising, there are certain challenges and methodological issues involved in the associated archival research and interpretation of historical sources. Records on the subaltern are few, and often mediated through the literate, potentially creating a bias. However, these sources can provide insights into the lives of ordinary people, through their interactions with the literate, but need to be treated with caution as they can be rather selective, and only include events seen as worthy of record. These sources need be read ‘against the grain’ to uncover unwitting testimony. This essay will consider the available sources which can be utilised in exploring the history of slaves in the West Indies and prostitutes in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Singapore. These two subaltern groups were mostly illiterate and did not record their own lives, but entered historical records ‘when someone wanted to appreciate, castigate, count, regulate, cure, pathologize, warn about, rescue, eliminate or deploy them as a symbol in a larger social panorama’ (Hack, p.276). An exploration of these sources can provide insights into the daily lives of empires’ subalterns and convey some idea of their contemporary perspectives.

Recreating Atlantic Slaves’ Experiences

Historians differ in their approach to subaltern studies and have utilised a Variety of sources and methods in their research. Michal Craton has used slave listings for the plantation, Worthy Park in Jamaica between the period 1787 and 1838, to reconstruct the everyday lives of its slaves. Craton was able to discern a pattern of their working lives depending on their age and gender, from these listings. Used alongside other records, he outlined the daily activities of these slaves, but was unable to include the slaves’ own perspectives. He did however create a simple biography of one slave named ‘Gamesome’. This biography portrayed a rather general experience of a female slave in Worthy Park, while he claimed that it ‘can stand as typical of the fate of most surviving Africans’ (Craton, 1978, p.1). However, with the use of these records Craton was able to include information that was relevant to her as an individual; she had children, had run away, and was recaptured. By using birth and death records he also found that all her children had died before her.

Another source that can potentially provide further information, contributing to Craton’s portrayal of Atlantic slave life, is the diary of Thomas Thistlewood. Written by a European overseer and slave owner, Thistlewood included interactions with his slaves in his diary, and as a private document did not omit details that would otherwise seem shameful, such as torturous punishments and his sexual exploitation of female slaves. Trevor Burnard has used this diary to reconstruct the lives of some of Thistlewood’s slaves, providing a greater understanding of the slave-master relationship. Yet even still, such a source still has certain limitations, as it can safely be assumed that Thistlewood only included information and events he himself thought important enough to record, or information the slaves chose to reveal to him. A reconstruction of the life of a slave named ‘Lincoln’, highlights the complexity of the slave experience. Lincoln was useful to his master, giving him some influence and control over his life, as Thistlewood said, Lincoln ‘threatened if I insisted on fish that he would run away’ (Burnard, 2004, p.3). This demonstrates how some slaves may have had greater agency than others to be able to reply to their master in such a way. Although such sources do not give much of a subaltern perspective, they do provide some idea of the diversity of experiences in empires.

In order to retrieve the slave’s perspective, it would seem that we need to access the voice of the slave through their own words. However, such sources, like slave autobiographies, also need to be treated with caution. Slaves that lived and worked on plantations were mostly illiterate and so could not make their own records, while the slave autobiographies we do have are almost all by freed slaves. These records would have been written after years away from slavery, and such memories could be selective, as authors may have only included memories thought important enough to recollect and share in the context of their contemporary circumstances. These memories would be affected by later events and ideas that would impact the content of the autobiography. Olaudah Equiano was one of these slaves who bought his freedom and later settled in London in the 1780s, lobbying against slavery (King, 2009, p.181). Equiano gives us an insight into his slave experience during the last three years of his enslavement. He talks of the punishments he witnessed, the overseers’ cruelty and the bad living conditions of the slaves. He also includes some experiences of the slave community, when he discusses how the slaves ‘still retain most of their native customs’ (Equiano, 1789, p.5). Although such a source can be useful in providing further information on the life of a slave, we need to note that he does not describe any punishments inflicted on himself, and a lot of what he narrates is second hand testimony. Also as an advocate of anti-slavery Equiano may have exaggerated or decided to show slavery at its worst.

A comparison with other autobiographies and slaves’ narratives can help confirm such activities. The runaway slave narrative of William Grimes confirms common slave punishments as described by both Thistlewood and Equiano, and provides an individual slave perspective. Grimes gives an account of his early life and how he came to be in his situation. He includes the people he came across, and their feelings as well as his own towards them. There are instances of betrayal, love and friendship between slaves, conveyed through his narrative. He expresses his sadness at leaving his mother, his hate of deceitful slaves and cruel overseers, and his love for a woman. This document is rather useful in that it conveys a more personal reflection of not only slave experience, but also human relations and the emotions they bring up. With the use of a range of sources, from slave listings, diaries and autobiographies, we can begin to piece together a simple understanding of the slave experience and to some degree gain access to their own perspectives.

Subaltern Prostitutes in Colonial Societies

In Singapore we can piece together the lives of another group of empires’ subalterns, the Japanese prostitute. A karayuki-san was a Japanese female that went abroad in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in service or as a prostitute. Yamazaki Tomoko lived with a former Karayuki-san called ‘Osaki’. Yamazaki recorded Osaki’s life and experience as a prostitute in Singapore through oral history. Yamazaki described how these young females came into the sex trade, and the push and pull factors of prostitution in Singapore. These girls went as maids pulled by the prospect of earnings and pushed by factors such as poverty and family breakdowns. A Boss Tarozo came and told them ‘If you go to work abroad, everyday is like a festival … you can eat as much white rice as you want’ (Yamazaki, 1972, p.7). Such persuasion would encourage many in poverty to leave their homes for a better life. These sources, like those on Atlantic slaves, give some insight into the master-slave relations between the prostitutes and the brothel owners, as a similar relationship of subjection and servitude is relevant in this context.

Although Yamazaki provides access to the actual voice of a non-elite individual, the source is also fraught with methodological issues. The oral source is mediated through a literate person and so may have been edited by the author. In addition, through the interview process, the interviewer’s questions may have shaped or influenced the interviewee’s responses. The interviewer and interviewee relationship can also reveal the extent to which the interviewee would be willing to divulge certain information, particularly personal or humiliating memories. Like the autobiography, oral testimony is a collection of memories and so can be selective, as later attitudes and events can impact their recollection. Social structures, such as class and race, can also shape events, experiences and perspectives, and so we need to take account of these divisions and intersections within such groupings. A comparison of this oral testimony with other oral sources and documents concerning the same issues and events, can provide further insights.

Legal sources are a particular useful source in this instance. Coroner’s reports can give further details on the lives of these prostitutes, yet these also have their limitations. What we can discern from these are certain patterns in the life of the prostitute. These reports include records of dates, places, people involved, and the circumstances of death of the prostitute in question. Some were killed, some died of disease and others through drug use, but they all confirm the dangers of work in prostitution. James Francis Warren has used such reports to build something of a picture of the life of prostitutes in Singapore. He has identified that from the coroner’s reports we can see that their lives were characterised by ‘debt, disease, violence and usually premature death’ (Hack, p.286). But we cannot accept this as the fate of all prostitutes, as we can see from the life of Osaki that their fates could be variable. Warren has successfully used prosopography, by taking details from the coroner’s reports and other sources such as demographic documents, to put together a collective history of prostitutes.

There are still methodological issues involved in the use of such sources, as we can ask how far these reports were the actual views of the prostitutes. They were asked questions by officials and under such circumstances may have hid or omitted certain details. Also they do not convey any feelings or a complete perspective of these individuals. As with other interviews we need to try to identify how far their answers were shaped by the questions asked by officials. Another, rather odd source for historical research, available to us are graves. The Japanese cemetery in Singapore was founded by three brothel owners. These graves give us a sense of how the people in this business felt toward each other. The brothel owners felt some sense of relation to the prostitutes and some sense of obligation to look after their colleagues even after death.


There are a complex range of sources available to us to gain insights into the lives of illiterate groups and recover to some extent the voices of empires’ subalterns. In the case of the slave experience there are ways to overcome the problems of recovering the voices of an illiterate group. Although the sources we have available to us may be limited to what information they can provide on the subaltern perspective, we can recover, to some degree, the voice of some slaves through official records, diaries and autobiographies. We have seen that the slave experience varied for many, depending on their age, gender, health and work role. Prostitutes in Singapore also had their voices recorded through oral history, official and unofficial records and prosopography. By reading such sources ‘against the grain’ we are able to recover their voices and recreate their forgotten story. But as with all of these sources they need to be treated with caution. Documents recorded years after the events described, can be influenced by events and attitudes that have developed overtime, even in the mind and life of the person describing the events. Even documents recorded not long after the event in question may have some inbuilt biases. As historians we need to consider the context of their production to be able to identify such biases and interpret them in a cautious manner. All of these sources have shown that although subalterns shared some common experiences, a complexity of experiences existed within empire that was influenced by gender, race and class. All these sources need careful reading and an application of the right analytical tools in order to give us a clearer voice of empires’ subalterns.

*This paper was written during my undergraduate studies, and thus reflects an aspect of historical research training, history undergraduates are grounded in.


Primary Sources

Equiano, O. (1995 [1789]) The Interesting Narrative And Other Writings (ed. V. Carretta), New York, Penguin Books, pp. 104–9, 110, 171–2

Grimes, W. (1825) The Runaway Slave, New York, pp. iii, 5, 8–14, available online at

Hall, D. (1989) In Miserable Slavery, Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750–86, Basingstoke, Macmillan

Singapore Coroners’ reports, Singapore National Archives

Yamazaki Tomoko (1999 [1972]) Sandakan Brothel No. 8: an episode in the history of lower-class Japanese women, translated by Karen Colligan-Taylor, Armonk, New York, M.E. Sharpe, pp. 45–55

Secondary Sources

Blackburn, K (2007) ‘Heritage Site, War Memorial and Tourist Stop: The Japanese Cemetery of Singapore, 1891–2005’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 80, part 1, no. 292, pp. 18–24

Burnard, T. (2004) Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World, Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, pp. 194–207

Craton, M. (1978) Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, pp. 203–6

Hack, K. (2009) ‘Unit 15: Sex and Empire’ in A326 Block 4, How were empires experienced?, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

King, P. (2009) ‘Unit 12: Reconstructing the slave experience in the British empire 1700-1815’ in A326 Block 4, How were empires experienced?, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Warren, J.F. (1993) Ah Ku and Karayuki-san: Prostitution in Singapore 1870–1940, Singapore, Oxford University Press, pp. 341–6

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