Accounting for Slave Courts

Geneva Smith, History

Wed, 11/11/2020 - 12:00pm
via Zoom
Event Category: 
Graduate Students

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LEGS, or "Law-Engaged Graduate Students," meets during the academic year to discuss a work in progress by one of our Graduate Associates. Academic papers, dissertation proposals, and dissertation chapters have been presented at these meetings, to an audience of fellow graduate students.

Abstract: "Slave courts existed in nearly every British colony and had the absolute jurisdiction to try, convict, and execute enslaved criminals. They were manned by two to three Justices of the Peace and a small group of elite planters. There was never a jury of enslaved Africans and no right of appeal. Once sentenced to die, enslaved persons were immediately examined and evaluated by court officials in order to compensate enslavers for their misbehaving property.

My article takes the slave courts of Jamaica, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to ask: how does our understanding of 18th-century Jamaica, and the British Atlantic more broadly, change when we account for slave courts? Analyzing vestry accounts as slave court records shows this jurisdiction’s strict adherence to procedure, revealing these courts as sites not merely for the haphazard punishment of enslaved peoples but for the careful regulation of private property. If the state was to intervene in the master-slave relationship, it had to be procedurally sound and legitimated through English courts. Compensation, and the colonial state’s involvement in financing slave courts, helped link fungibility with race, reinforce master’s property rights, and shaped how maroons and free people of color framed their demands for rights upon colonial assemblies.

This paper intentionally grounds itself in local sources, making it the first to integrate all of Jamaica’s remaining 18th-century slave court records and treat them as a serious object of study. My engagement with Jamaica as an archive as well as a geographic space shows how slave court procedures reflected many of the social tensions and trends identified by historians of slavery and the archival possibilities when one moves away from London and towards Spanish Town."