Linda Colley (2002) speaks of the life of the common British soldier in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

In Captives (2002; listed as 2003 at the Toronto Public Library website), Linda Colley discusses the use of the whip as a means to maintain discipline in British soldiery at the height of Britain’s colonial expansion. Sometimes flogging resulted in the deaths of soldiers in the British army.

Colley, whose book is subtitled ‘The story of Britain’s pursuit of empire and how its soldiers and civilians were held captive by the dream of global supremacy, 1600-1850,’ describes the case of Governor Joseph Wall, who was hanged at Newgate Prison in London in 1802.

Twenty years earlier, Wall had been governor of Goree, a slave-trading base on the west coast of Africa seized by the British in the Seven Years War. On the day before the end of Wall’s governorship, sixty of the troops at the base “advanced on his quarters, demanding arrears in pay that they claimed were due to them. Wall’s response was to arrest five of the ringleaders and, without trial, order them 800 lashes apiece” (p. 329). Three of the men died.

In discussing the case, Colley notes that “Wall was found guilty not because three soldiers had been flogged to death, but because he had not allowed them a trial first:

“‘Had he called a drum head court martial, the same sentence might have been inflicted and the same consequences have ensued, with perfect immunity to himself’ [Letters from England, ed. Jack Simmons (Gloucester, 1984), p. 64); 1951 version of latter book is available at the Toronto Public Library]. Floggings in the British army (and navy) remained common after 1802, and may even have increased in absolute terms, especially in imperial locations” (p. 332).

From the 1750s,and especially from the 1790s, Britain’s population had been expanding, notes Colley, “but its population and armed forces still remained smaller than those of other leading European powers. In order, therefore, to intrude as decisively as possible into as many global zones as it did, the British state had to have recourse to extraordinary levels of determination and violence, not just with regard to European and non-European opponents, but also with regard to its own manpower. It is a commonplace that the classic era of Britain’s pioneering industrialisation, c. 1170-c. 1840, was characterised by a more ruhless and systematic treatment of labour at home. By the same token, the contemporaneous surge in Britain’s overseas empire was characterised by a more calculated, uncompromising and often brutal disciplining of its own white soldiery overseas” (pp. 342-343).


Also at this time, flogging of black slaves was a common practice in the British empire. Some commentators drew comparisons between the lot of black slaves and white soldiers.

Colley notes, with regard to flogging in the British army, that Seymour Drescher argues that “one of the consequences of growing agitation over black slavery after 1770 was that discussion of the treatment of working people became globalised in a new way. Growing awareness of the suffering of enslaved blacks in Britain’s colonies worked to illumine as well the plight of its own white multitudes, and not least the plight of its common soldiers and sailors” (p. 332).

The latter were increasingly represented, and increasingly saw themselves, “as being in some respects comparable to black slaves. The very vehemence with which spokesmen for the British state downplayed such comparisons testifies to their bite. The claim that a ‘British soldier [was] … in a worse state than an African slave’ was appalling, declared a government MP in 1812” (p. 332).

The reference to the year 1812 is apt.

Recently some middle school students asked me about the War of 1812. I explained it was a war that happened two hundred years ago, at a time when the Americans were seeking to take over Upper and Lower Canada. I explained that we owe thanks to the British for ensuring that we now live in Canada, instead of in the United States. They thought that was great. One remarked, “I like the British.”

It’s a commonplace among historians that Canadians by themselves would not have been able to resist the American attempt to occupy Upper and Lower Canada during the War of 1812.

The efforts of the British army, the Canadian militia, and First Nations warriors ensured that the war reached a conclusion that served the interests of Canada and the British empire.

Colley adds that the conditions under which soldiers served in the British army improved after 1830 in part as “an extension of domestic social, political, religious and economic changes overseas” (p. 344). One can also add that Upper Canada outlawed slavery some forty years before the rest of the British empire.


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