Spanning a long literary history, from 1742 to 1934, this essay argues for the military epaulette as an important material signifier through which the arbitrary nature of rank and colonial authority was revealed and challenged. This essay connects the anxieties attending the introduction of epaulettes in newly nationalized European armies to the historical and rhetorical impact of such uniforms on depictions of so-called Black chiefs, including Toussaint Louverture, Lamour Derance, and Nat Turner. In the context of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century slave revolts and imperial and colonial war fronts, this otherwise semiotic feature of the military uniform was a catalyst for a particular kind of confrontation over authority of signification in the tug-of-war between rank and race. This essay tracks a consistent rhetoric of violence and ridicule in these confrontations as they appear in histories, novels, and plays. In the work of Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, William Wells Brown, and Martin Delany, attempts to read epaulettes produce a violent form of colonial desire that is only permitted when couched in the rhetoric of ridicule and the ridiculous. The essay’s final pages turn to the first half of the twentieth century, when the still violent stakes of subverting the uniform persist through an ambivalence stemming from the literal and figural “costuming” of the Black chief.

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