Sat | Dec 2, 2023

Tracing British West Indian slavery laws

Published:Sunday | February 13, 2022 | 12:11 AM
Justine Collins
Justine Collins
Cover Tracing British West Indian Slavery Laws
Cover Tracing British West Indian Slavery Laws

In this edition of Reparation Conversations, a collaborative initiative between the Gleaner and the Centre for Reparation Research (CRR) at The University of the West Indies, Justine Collins (JC), speaks with Prof Verene Shepherd (VS), director of the CRR, to discuss her new book - Tracing British West Indian Slavery Laws: A Comparative Analysis of Legal Transplants. The book provides evidence of the ways in which colonisers used their own constructed laws to oppress black people in the Caribbean and North America and “legitimise” chattel enslavement.

VS: Before we get into the book, tell me, why Germany as the place to study for your PhD?

JC: Growing up in a small community in the south of the island, Grand Anse Valley, made me long to travel and see the world. Before finishing my A’ levels, I planned on reading for law in the UK. I did my undergraduate, Bar studies, and first master’s degrees there, but these changed my trajectory from wanting to practise law. I always enjoyed teaching and the research end of my studies. I, therefore, decided to get into academia. I was advised by a mentor to diversify my research and location, so I headed on a scholarship to Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan, and Sheffield, UK, for a joint MA degree in international politics and law. My Japanese supervisor advised me to apply to a Max Planck Institute in Germany, renowned for research. It was quite a journey, but it led me to where I needed to be.

VS: What is the book about?

JC: The book traces the movements of laws and peoples (both free and unfree) throughout the Atlantic world to show interconnectivities amongst the Americas, which were catalysed by the British colonial pursuits.

VS: Who should read this book?

JC: I would like anyone interested in Caribbean history to read this book. My target audience is university history students and researchers although I would really like secondary school students to have access to its content.

VS: How does your book differ from previous works on the law and slavery, e.g., by Elsa Goveia, Edward Rugemer, and David Gaspar?

JC: Goveia, Rugemer, and Gaspar all paved the way for, and influenced, my work. However, my work differs in timespan and scope from each. Goveia’s work focused on a snapshot comparison of the British, French, and Spanish slavery laws. Rugemer looked at the Barbadian slavery laws and the politicisation of resistance related to these, and Barry Gaspar’s focus was on the Leeward Islands’ slavery law and resistance. My research looked at the slavery laws throughout the English-speaking Caribbean and their influence on North America.

VS: The concept of “transplantation” is interesting. What were the legal antecedents of codified laws?

JC: The theory of transplantation shows, ultimately, movement, but with it, change and adaptation caused by that movement. Laws which moved from England to the West Indies to cover similar issues differed because they addressed a different society and locale.

Their legal antecedents were a mixture of what I refer to as “English societal laws”, which are a mixture of villenage laws (feudalism), which involve the ties between land, labour, and fealty to one’s “lord” as the enslaved were to colonisers; English property laws, which were used to categorise the enslaved as chattel (moveable inanimate thing) or real estate (fixed to the land); and police laws, vagrancy laws, and martial laws, which dealt with the control of movement of the enslaved.

VS: Did any of these laws serve the interests of the enslaved or just the purposes of the enslavers?

JC: The slavery codes only benefitted the enslavers within the English-speaking Caribbean. They were codified means of coercion and control. The codes within the French and Spanish Caribbean, on paper, benefitted the enslaved by allowing their marriages, thus encouraging family life, means for manumission, measures to ensure that they were not brutalised without just cause, and ability to be baptised. Were these “benevolent” laws implemented? That’s the question.

VS: Forced child labour laws also emerged out of the colonial era with the 1547 Vagrancy Act. How would you approach repairing the impact that these past laws have had on the human rights of the enslaved?

JC: The 1547 Vagrancy Act was a tool for legalised child labour as it justified the enslavement of children under the guise of apprenticeships said to relieve the burdens of poverty and homelessness. These sorts of laws also justified the continued forced labour of formerly enslaved children after emancipation. In terms of repairing past violence, the impact of these acts, their role, specifically on children, need to be highlighted and addressed in the conversation and movement concerning reparation.

VS: Would you say that the Slave Code, the Servant Code, and the Militia Act laid the foundations for the today’s racial inequality and racism?

JC: Yes. These laws helped promulgate racial divisions. I contend that race arguments were not yet sophisticated during the 1600s, therefore, the establishment of these laws was arguably its advent. This is because the codes demarcated who was white equated to ‘Christian”, and who was black equated to “enslaved”, “brutish”, and “volatile”. I believe they did lay the foundation or at least helped in perpetuating racist beliefs and fervours as words have meaning.

VS: A striking quote from your book is that “martial law was so dominant in early English colonisation of Jamaica that reports likened the island to a “great garrison or army” instead of a colony”. What would you view as the continued legacy from this law, and others like it, on Jamaica?

JC: That martial law existed since the beginning of Jamaica’s colonisation really explained some contemporary and past events and the island’s affair with the avid use of martial law in times of emergencies. The island was indeed always constantly ready for battle due to how the English conquered it from the Spanish and colonised it.

Formerly enslaved persons from Spanish rule joined with the Maroons, which set the tone for continued militarisation during the colonial period. Indeed, it signalled that the Jamaican propensity to rebel and fight the system was ever present and this dispersed throughout the Caribbean via maritime maroonage and maritime slavery.

The Vagrancy laws, masked as the Jamaican Town and Communities Act 1843, regulated use of urban spaces and is still law now. The initial purpose of such laws was to coerce labour from the formerly enslaved, post-emancipation, by instituting these laws that would lead to their arrest and forced peonage.

VS: Fascinating indeed! Thanks for speaking with me about Tracing British West Indian Slavery Laws. I hope it does well and catches the attention of reparation advocates on both sides of the Atlantic.

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