A Lost Institution in #VastEarlyAmerica

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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.

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Diasporic Politics and “What It Means to Write About Black Lives in #VastEarlyAmerica”

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Black life in vast early America was molded by a politic of survival that allowed diasporas to adapt, resist, and constitute new life in the violent colonial landscape. Torn from their natal homes, kith, and kin, diasporas recreated new means of belonging and community to avert the threat of social death amidst the changing colonial currents. Spanish Jamaica’s autonomous Afro-ladino communities exemplify the activation of Black survival politics during the Anglo-Spanish imperial contest for the island in the 1650s. The English invasion of 1655 collapsed Spanish colonial society and introduced an opportunity for the island’s Afro-ladinos to create isolated communities or Palenques in the interior hinterland. Some Palenques aided Spanish efforts to defend the island. The Guanaboa Valepalenque led by  Juan Lubolosided with the English, while many others sought to preserve their isolated autonomy. Significantly, Juan Lubolo’s alignment with the English undermined the Spanish defensive campaign, resulting in an English victory. That said, continued Afro-ladino resistance posed by other palenques contested English conquest and limited colonial expansion for another two decades. By the close of the seventeenth century, enslaved runaways drew on this contested geography and formed the island’s notable Windward and Leeward Maroon societies. The case of Jamaica’s seventeenth-century Afro-ladinos is an example of the dynamism of Black freedom practice and how such practices shaped the trajectories of vast early America’s colonial landscape.

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The Power and Importance of Narrating Stories of Black Life in #VastEarlyAmerica

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When I decided to major in history at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) nearly a decade ago, I never thought I would eventually contribute to historian Karin Wulf’s articulation of #VastEarlyAmerica via a forum like Insurrect!. I did know back then, though, that I did not want to study 20th century Black life like most of my classmates and professors. As an undergraduate student, I yearned to better understand the world we lived in. I gravitated to topics that assessed how Black people encountered violence, and the strategies Black women, men, and children used to resist and survive. History professors at FAMU like Darius Young taught me about why our role as Black storytellers is important to our people’s self-esteem and knowledge of self, while also connecting us to West African traditions of storytelling like that of the griot. Building on my growing base of knowledge, I applied my learning over nearly three years at multiple African American public history sites during my undergraduate and early graduate school training and education. Ultimately, my interest in researching the history of enslaved people and the institution of slavery came in Spring 2017 when I took a Comparative Slavery course at Simmons College (now University) taught by Jessica Parr. Although not on Parr’s syllabus, it was in her class that I learned about Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book, Never Caught. As Providence would have it, Dunbar would one day become my dissertation advisor. After purchasing my copy that semester, I distinctly remember laying on my couch in Boston and blurting out, “DAMN, I WANNA DO THIS!” And “THIS” meant writing about enslaved women that escaped slavery like Ona Judge. Judge, who absconded from President George Washington’s home in Philadelphia, remained “Never Caught” after settling in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the end of the eighteenth century. Suffice it to say, great storytelling can positively affect people’s lives! What 2021 has also shown us, though, is that great storytelling can result in incredible controversy. 

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