Article body

Captivating Subjects: Writing Confinement, Citizenship, & Nationhood in the Nineteenth Century addresses connections between the figure of the captive, a variety of carceral practices, and the Western nation state in the long nineteenth century. The Western states addressed are Britain and the United States, with Ireland and Russia as the focus of two other essays, and the carceral subjects are a suffragette, Russian serfs, a former slave, gentleman prisoners, a United Irishman, American captives of North African pirates and an English prison warden.

I give this detail at the outset because it points to the problems that the editors, Jason Haslam and Julia M. Wright, have set themselves. They are interested in the “ideological formations that inform and are in turn complicated by the figure of the captive in Western discourse,” rather than “material practices and print culture” which textualize that figure, and “in the ways in which captivity has aided the formation of both the modern nation state and its concomitant subjectivities” (4). Haslam and Wright argue that the Western nation emerges from this volume:

as an apparatus which must simultaneously guarantee the freedom of its citizens and the secure containment and/or exclusion of non-citizens. This double guarantee reveals the interdependence of the two: ideologically, terms of confinement arise from and reinforce notions of subjectivity which define the proper citizen; practically, the political and economic rights of the citizen rely on the use of penal servitude and slave labour. The captive thus does not belong to a sociey apart, loosed of historical and regional specificity, but is constituted by and, in crucial ways, constitutive of the modern Western state.


This is fascinating stuff. It takes us firmly into what Haslam and Wright call the “post-Foucauldian” era of carceral studies by theorizing beyond the limits that Foucault imposed in his groundbreaking work of the 1970s and 1980s. My reservations are about the breadth and scope of Haslam and Wright’s project. They open up a large field for investigation and ask some big questions, suggesting (quite rightly, in my mind) that this work might be part of “new genealogies of subjectivity, within the history not only of captivity but also of the modern nation state that is reliant upon it” (7). What they do not do, however, is offer enough geographical scope to convince me that they are investigating a “fairly coherent set of Western ideologies” (9). I was anticipating more continental European material, for instance, hoping to be educated on texts and events about which I have little knowledge, but which I imagine make suggestive connections with British and American material. I am guessing that the 1848 Revolutions and the Second and Third French Empires, for instance, offer a wealth of material, and these are merely two obvious examples.

Haslam and Wright also fail to fully incorporate two of the major incarcerated groups from the British and United States contexts: Australian convicts and African-American slaves. Australian convicts are briefly dealt with in the introduction in a way that does little justice to the complexity and breadth of the available material. The Atlantic slave trade is represented in Tess Chakkalakal’s essay about Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative which addresses the issue of Equiano’s ambiguous citizenship and “Englishness,” rather than reading him as an African-American prototype (87), and, briefly as a point of comparison, by John MacKay in his essay on Russian serf narratives. It almost goes without saying that work on American slave narratives is of such importance that contemporary carceral studies would not exist without it. Haslam and Wright acknowledge this point in their introduction and mention recent work that reads beyond the narratives themselves. They discuss Angela Y. Davis and Joy James, for example, who “have fleshed out the historical connection and similarities of praxis between the two ‘peculiar institutions’ of slavery and the modern prison” thus radically revising “the purpose of captivity” (5-6). Nonetheless, the absence in this collection of an essay that exemplifies this new direction is notable.

Work on the Australian material, by comparison, is much newer but is nevertheless of great significance. The antipodean penal colonies served a variety of key imperial roles (holding off French advancement in the South Pacific, for instance) quite aside from their obvious national, carceral role. Both the convicts and the Australian colonies were a tremendous presence in the British imagination, which is unsurprising considering that 163,000 convicts were transported between 1787 and 1868. And a large number of convicts found the wherewithall to write autobiographies, some of them addressing the very issues raised by Haslam and Wright. John Grant, for instance, transported in 1803, railed against his imprisonment whenever he had the opportunity, and in a “Birthday Ode for His Majesty, 1805” says:

The Magna Carta our forefathers rear’d

The brightest Jewel in the British Crown

Ye trample on! Tho Britons rule the waves,

Great George’s Subjects, Britons, here are Slaves.


John Knatchbull, a sailor from the Napoleonic Wars, was transported after falling on hard times in the post-war depression. He was one of many ex-servicemen from that conflict who found himself banished to Australia after thieving in order to survive. Knatchbull complains to the readers of his autobiography that:

The stream of the tide of affairs ran in full force against me, and for what? Because I was a British sailor, who kept their roof over their heads...And then, when with peace the nation was crowned, what? Why, ... [we sailors were] cast upon the world-wide onstage to roam, desolate and oppressed. Oh, my country, my heart bleeds for you. If this is freedom that is so boasted of Englishmen, let me be a slave in the West Indies.

Knatchbull 84

Knatchbull’s and Grant’s complaints were far from uncommon. Transportation apologists in both Britain and Australia had various strategic responses to these criticisms. One retort was that some individuals committed crimes in order to be transported because it was seen as an easy form of migration (there is no proof whatosoever of this claim, despite it being repeated by a number of eminent figures in the legal and parliamentary worlds) (Radzinowicz 5: 475-6).

This tug and pull between migration and transportation was one of the main notes of this particular colonial relationship, and helps illustrate how key the Australian convicts and the Australian colonies were to British national identity in the long nineteenth century. And since both Britain and the United States figure so strongly in Haslam and Wright’s collection, the shadowy presence of the convicts and of African-American slaves is obvious.

Perhaps I am a little churlish in pinpointing these particular absences; none of us enjoys seeing our own areas of interest ignored or downplayed. My concerns, however, are driven by the difficulties that beset all essay collections. What I detect here is a disjuncture between what the editors claim for their collection and the ability of the materials they have collected to sustain their claims. This problem is by no means peculiar to Haslam and Wright, and is certainly driven to a large measure by the pressures of the academic publishing market. The question I am asking is whether we can in principle accept that a collection of essays is a loose baggy monster, somewhat unboned but fascinating in its disjointedness, or whether we will continue to insist that every piece of academic work is tremendously purposeful, with all of its important connections to big issues explained. In this case, Haslam and Wright could have sought material from a broader geographical range as well as material on convicts and African-American slaves which would have more adequately buttressed their claims, or they could have saved their excellent introductory material for a more sustained study of their own, leaving this collection with an introduction which demanded less of it. I, for one, would be delighted to read a book-length investigation by them.

As they stand, however, I read these essays with pleasure and interest. Haslam’s piece on Lady Constance Lytton is a useful investigation of the complex intersection of class and gender in the figure of the imprisoned suffragette. John MacKay’s polished reading of some obscure Russian serf narratives is a pleasure to read. Chakkalakal illuminates the fundamental hybridicity of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative. Frank Lauterbach’s and Monika Fludernik’s separate essays on literate convicts and the textualization of Victorian prisons remind us of how writing about incarceration speaks in relation to socially sanctioned texts and broader conceptions of class and identity. Wright’s piece on the United Irishman Charles Teeling’s Personal Narrative follows from Lauterbach and Fluternik and addresses another national identity at play in Victorian Britain. She aptly illustrates how closely incarceration, rebellion and writing were tied for the Irish in this period. Jennifer Costello Brezina’s work on American captives of Barbary pirates is an incursion into little-known material about which there are fascinating implications. Finally, Christine Marlin’s essay on the prison inspector Major Arthur Griffiths is an important reminder that incarceration is experienced and interpreted from both sides of the bars.