A Lost Institution in #VastEarlyAmerica

Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library under Creative Commons License

Slave courts pervaded colonial society. British settlers founded the first ones in Barbados in 1661 to judicially regulate enslaved Africans. By the mid-eighteenth century, this institution operated in nearly every British colony, and each individual parish or county had its own court. Manned by two to three Justices of the Peace along with a small group of elite planters, in this court the convicted possessed no right of appeal. From trying petty theft to executing accused murderers, these courts had absolute jurisdiction to try, convict, and execute alleged enslaved criminals. Once sentenced to die, court officials examined and evaluated enslaved people to compensate enslavers for their executed property. If the compensation amount did not suit the enslaver, they could petition to transport the slave out of the colony instead and sell them for a potentially higher price on the Atlantic market. The sentence of transportation allowed colonial authorities to reshuffle labor that was meant to be destroyed but was often too valuable to do so. In both the American South and the Caribbean islands, these courts remained in operation until emancipation in the nineteenth century.

Although this description sounds straightforward, uncovering the history of slave courts has not been. Despite their important role in regulating both slaveowner’s property rights as well as enslaved lives, this jurisdiction has not featured prominently in histories of slavery. This stark contrast between the historical prevalence of slave courts and the absence of historiographical discussion motivates me to produce work on them. Situating slave courts properly means connecting Caribbean courts, to those of the South, to those of the North utilizing Atlantic methodologies, insights from studies of racial capitalism, and building upon expanding notions of what constitutes Vast Early America. While they punished enslaved Africans locally, this interconnected network of slave courts transported enslaved convicts to the Atlantic slave market in order to build colonial wealth and infrastructure. Through colonial newspapers reporting enslaved trials from the Caribbean, and vice versa, white enslavers across the Atlantic built a shared legal and financial network out of differential court access and the commodification of Black bodies.

But a passion for archiving and a historiographical question are not the only requisites for a project on Black subjects. Working on slavery and the history of race in the British Atlantic requires emotional labor on the part of the historian and compassion for your subjects. When the records detail gruesome mutilation, abuse, and tyranny, it becomes our jobs to filter out the pain and produce a narrative. Reckoning with enslaved people’s pain, and their perseverance, drives me to push beyond the constraints of the archive to tell stories about Black experiences that were previously “unthinkable.”

My personal duty as a Black scholar committed to studying Black people encourages me to connect the past and the present. As COVID wreaked havoc on communities of color, it also helped bring the persistent legal inequities faced by historically marginalized groups to the attention of those outside of these communities for the first time. Therefore, both as a society and in the academy, we are primed to reconsider an institution like slave courts. The differential rights afforded Black and white defendants, the reimbursement given to enslavers for executed property, and the convict leasing system pioneered through exchanges of transported enslaved convicts between British colonies created the foundation for practices that were expanded and perfected in the antebellum and post-emancipation south. The  strange fruit produced by slave court trees helped bear mass incarceration, the use of prison labor for capitalist enrichment, and the violence of being Black in America.

If the archive of slave courts can only be pieced together through ruins and detritus, enslaved voices will be continuously difficult to access. But work in local archives, new methodologies, and tracing financial payments can help alleviate some of these pressures. My ancestors lived this history. Black scholars, including Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Saidiya Hartman, and Marisa Fuentes, have provided, and continue to provide, the tools to reckon with this history. The impetus is on me to continue this work and show Black girls born of the foster care system like myself that there is a place for their ideas, too, in #VastEarlyAmerica.

Geneva Smith is a PhD Candidate at Princeton University and a JD Candidate at Yale Law School. Her work examines race, law, and slavery in the British Atlantic. She can be reached at gajsmith@princeton.edu.

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