The paper proposed aims to analyze the slavery legislation born between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, the so-called Black Codes laws—enacted in all the greatest colonial powers of the Old Continent—which regulated life and transportation of slaves in the colonies. Spain, Portugal, England and France, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, created legislative codes dedicated to the slave’s management in the colonies, which regulated all aspects of their life: from religion to marriage, from cohabitation to imprisonment, from crimes to corporal punishment. Particularly widespread in the Caribbean colonies of the seventeenth century, these slave laws were soon in force in almost all American colonies of European monarchies, forming the legal basis on which the slave societies of the European empires were founded. In the wake of the Spanish, Portuguese, English and French slave codes, even states that had a marginal role in the process of overseas colonization enacted similar slave codes. It was the case, for example, of Denmark and Sweden that in the management of some of their ultramarine possessions adopted slave codes inspired by those of the greatest colonizing powers.
- overseas empires
- Atlantic slavery
- slave laws
- colonization process
Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, many European states tried to build their own overseas empire. The political, economic, social and anthropological implications of this long and complex process were innumerable. New lands were discovered and colonized, new systems of government were instituted, and new social models were created. Many of the institutions that had governed the societies of the Old World for centuries experienced substantial transformations, among which was slavery .
Before the period of European colonial expansion, it cannot be said that slavery was an unknown phenomenon in European society [2, 3, 4]. It was, however, an institution profoundly different from the one that gradually emerged in overseas colonies. Slaves were mainly employed as domestic servants or as laborers in artisan workshops, rarely as workforce in plantations or mines. The reduction to slavery, trafficking and exploitation of slave labor were certainly widespread practices throughout medieval Europe, but their importance—in demographic and socio-economic terms—was marginal when compared to that which Atlantic slavery would have.
Before the period of European colonial expansion, in very few regions throughout the old continent, the number of slaves exceeds 10% of the entire population. Rarely was the employment of slaves crucial in the development of European economy. In other words, keeping in mind the distinction drawn by Moses Finley, we could say that medieval Europe was a mosaic of state entities classifiable as slave-owning societies . In most of these realities, as we said, the institution of slavery was present and tolerated but not totally socially accepted. It was considered as a practice originated and perpetuated by historical contingencies (conflicts, wars of religion, pillages and raids), but it was in opposition to natural law and morally deplorable. Several medieval legislative bodies defined slavery in these very terms. In this Code, inspired by Roman law [4, 6, 7, 8], the slave was defined as “res”—an object subject to the will of his master—but his condition was considered unjust, a transitional phase toward the regaining of freedom. Also for this reason, many laws dedicated to the discipline of slavery appeared as veiled with humanity and aimed to protect the slave from masterly abuse. A clear example in this sense is represented by the
This concept of slavery was going to be completely transformed after the first phases of European expansion, between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Spain and Portugal crossed the columns of Hercules and began to colonize some islands in the Atlantic (Canary Islands, Madeira, São Tomé) [9, 10, 11]. The need to cultivate the conquered lands, together with the constant shortage of work force, made the recourse to slave labor almost indispensable. It was in these islands that the Atlantic plantation economy originated, an economic system that would be adopted by the majority of the European colonies in the New World.
The lucrative speculation arising from extensive agricultural colonization aroused the interest of nobles, bankers, investors, insurers, merchants and craftsmen, each of whom tried to carve out his own percentage of profit. Many invested in transport, others in the purchase of products to resale onto the European market, and some others began to invest in finding the element without which the whole system could hardly survive: the slaves. Within a few decades, the recruitment and exploitation of the slave labor force became a major political and economic question. The more the revenue from this activity increased, the more the number of plantations increased and, consequently, the demand for slaves that was necessary for cultivation. The enormous availability of latifundia in the Americas and the growing European demand for exotic products (sugar, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, indigo, etc.) did the rest. The Atlantic slave trade was in its germination phase, but its profit-oriented and inhuman logic was already a reality.
With the experience gained in Madeira, São Tomé and the Canary Islands, when the Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean and founded the first exploitation colonies in America, they were well aware that the land could be a source of income of great value, at least as much as gold, silver and gems. In fact, within a short time after their landing in the New World, the Spanish and the Portuguese attempted to replicate in their respective possessions the successful economic model experimented in the islands along the west coast of Africa. As a result, the number of slaves, first native and then African, in the Lusitanian and Spanish colonies grew steadily between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries [1, 10, 12, 13].
Already during the sixteenth century, in the imperial territories of Spain and Portugal, there were areas where slaves represented the majority of the population. In these settlements, a small number of colonists had to control an increasing number of enslaved people. The numerical disparity between free and subjugated forced the former to use, more and more often, the iron fist to maintain the control of the colonies. In such circumstances, violence and abuse were becoming a daily occurrence. This worsened the life of the slave, which was already a very painful one. He worked from dawn to dusk, and his daily life was marked by the sound of the scudiscus, which sometimes cut the air and snapped on his fatigued limbs, tearing him apart in body and spirit. This was, in the opinion of the colonists, the most effective way to properly exploit their land and their investments. Such harsh conditions frequently forced the slaves to disobey their masters, by escaping or revolting and killing their harassers . The fear of the slave revolts became, in a short time, a phobia with which the master class had to continuously live . These kinds of situations were uncommon throughout the Old Continent. The rebellions, the runaways, and the heinous crimes committed by the slaves were rare events in modern Europe societies.
In order to regulate this system, which aims to the brutal exploitation of the labor force, the ancient laws on slavery—contemplated in the medieval codes—turned out to be totally inadequate. There was then the need for more stringent provisions to regulate a new type of slavery, which was now emerging in the Atlantic. It was therefore in such contingencies that the need for a special legislation for slaves became more and more evident: a codification conceived to discipline every aspect of their existence: life, death, marriage, religion, movements, food, clothing and all the procedures and practices for the regaining of freedom [16, 17, 18]. These normative bodies, also known as Black Codes, would not be adopted exclusively in the colonial possessions of the Iberian powers. Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when slave trade became a global phenomenon and several European states took part in the colonization of America and Africa, each of these states would promulgate its own slave codes.
2. New slaves, new codes: slavery legislation in the Spanish and Portuguese empires
The Spaniards and the Portuguese were the protagonists of the first phase of the colonization of the New World. When they arrived in America, they immediately realized the potential of the conquered lands. The resources seemed never to end: silver, gold, precious stones, immense latifundia. The native populations were subdued with relative easiness, being enslaved. However, the enslavement of the natives did not bring the desired results to the Europeans. Their frail constitution did not make them a workforce capable of satisfying the conquerors: thousands of them were employed in mines and plantations and soon died of hardship and fatigue. Moreover, the Indians were particularly susceptible to the diseases brought by the Europeans: the smallpox epidemics alone were responsible for several hundred thousand deaths among the natives [12, 19, 20].
The high mortality rates among the Amerindians soon forced the colonists to look for an alternative workforce. The choice fell, after some initial hesitation, on the African slaves who had been employed with good results in the colonies that the Spanish and the Portuguese had created in the Canaries, Madeira and São Tomé.
In the Spanish Empire, the massive import of slaves from the Black Continent began in 1518, when Charles V granted the asiento de negro to the Flemish nobleman Laurent de Gouvenot and the Portuguese merchant Jorge de Portugal. As Elliot wrote, the signature of these contracts implied the definitive opening of the Spanish Empire to the Atlantic trade . The possessions of the Spanish Crown were soon filled with African slaves. In his
Between 1519 and 1521, there were several slave revolts on Santo Domingo [13, 15]. One of these occurred in the plantations owned by Viceroy Diego Colombo, the eldest son of the famous explorer, governor of the island. The slaves who rose on Christmas Day 1521 committed all sorts of heinous crimes, assaulting the owners’ property and murdering “todos los cristianos que pudiesen” . The rebels were almost immediately defeated and killed by the Spanish armies, but the ferocity with which they acted led Columbus to issue special regulations to control and discipline the black slaves who lived in the Dominican colony.
The ordinance that he promulgated on January 6, 1522, entitled
The eighteenth-century codes above mentioned, partly a result of Bourbon reformism , had the objective of drawing up a slave laws apparatus that would make it possible to improve the efficiency of the system of exploitation in the overseas colonies, imitating what had been done by another great colonizing power: France. The model was that of the French Black Codes promulgated in 1685 and 1724, which will be better discussed later. The eighteenth-century Iberian Codes tried to regulate slavery by making it “more human” and acceptable: the sovereignty of the master over the slave was largely limited and placed under the supervision of colonial and metropolitan governing bodies. The draconian punishments imparted to the slave were moderated, and some rights were granted to them (they had to be dressed, fed, and educated to the precepts of the Catholic religion and they could denounce any abuses suffered). The enactment of such measures provoked real upheavals in the colonial ruling classes: in the view of the slave owners, grant rights to the slaves could be very dangerous and could led to the destruction of the established system of exploitation, based essentially upon the abuse and social alienation of slave workforce [18, 20, 31, 37, 38].
An exception to this general trend is the
The precepts contained in the
The question of the master’s sovereignty is an important element to keep in mind in order to understand the phenomenon of slave legislation in European colonial possessions. Even if in some cases the authorities tried to interfere with the authority of the
When the slave trade, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, became a global phenomenon, almost all states with colonies in the New World adopted slave codes. Several of these were inspired by those already enacted in Spanish possessions during the sixteenth century. Portugal, for instance, during the period in which the Portuguese and Spanish crowns were united (1580–1640), adopted Spain laws into its own legislation .
The principles on slavery stated in the Philippine ordinances were very similar to those contained in the Spanish Codes issued between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: there were numerous articles aiming at sanctioning the prohibition of the possession of weapons, the restrictions on freedom of movement and, more generally, the absolute social alienation of the slave. In exchange of the full control on his own workforce, the Philippine ordinances required from the master a certain moderation in his behavior: he should not punish the slave in an unmotivated way, and he should not either torture or physically abuse him. Even if in the Code the slave was not considered as a human being but as a good, and as such had to be inventoried, the
These attempts to delimit the power of the masters had very little impact on overseas slave societies. As Batista and Zaffaroni wrote, reflecting on the Brazilian colonial reality, at a local level, there was a sort of “poder punitivo doméstico” [48, 49], essentially based upon the master’s arbitrariness. Batista and Zaffaroni’s consideration can be judged suitable not only for Brazil but also for all Lusitanian domains and, more generally, for all European ultramarine possessions where an economic system based upon the exploitation of slavery was created.
This failure to delimit the master’s arbitrariness had repercussions on the real effectiveness of the slave laws, which were—according to necessity—ignored, reinterpreted or deceived. For this reason, for example, the authorities—both metropolitan and colonial—were often forced to reaffirm, remodel and strengthen through specific measures some precepts that had already been widely stated in the issued Codes. Regarding the Portuguese colonial experience, this operation was carried out through the so-called
The provisions on slavery contained in the
What was said about the measures concerning the slave trade and transport can be extended to any other aspect that the slave legislation tried to regulate. Although the Philippine ordinances and the instructions given through the
3. The slave codes in British and French ultramarine possessions
Also other states that were involved in the colonization adopted, as anticipated, special codes for slavery. At first, this need became particularly urgent in the Caribbean colonies owned by England and France, where the sugar revolution—which took place in the mid-seventeenth century—brought a significant increase of the number of slaves deported in these domains [18, 57, 58, 59].
Regarding the British colonial experience, the creation of a large system of sugarcane plantations proved to be crucial for the emanation of the first exemplars of Black Codes . The circumstances in which English colonial authorities enacted the
When the colonization of Barbados began in the second decade of the seventeenth century, the economic system of the estate was based upon the cultivation and commercialization of tobacco, trying to emulate the economic model born in Virginia. In these early stages, the core of the workforce on the island was made up of indentured workers who were mainly recruited from the mother country . However, this plan of development failed to produce the expected results. The tobacco produced in Barbados could not compete in price and quality with the abundant Virginian production that already at the end of the 1630s had exhausted the demand of the London markets.
In these conditions, a large part of the plantations on the Caribbean island were then converted to cotton and indigo but without obtaining better results . In order to overcome a growing economic recession, several landowners in Barbados then decided to experiment the extensive culture of sugarcane. As the cultivation of sugarcane spread over the island, white workers were more frequently replaced by African slaves, considered more suitable to support the hard work necessary to exploit the “white gold” plantations. The censuses of Barbados in the 1650s were the last in which the white population was larger than the black population. Between 1652 and 1661, when the number of black slaves grew significantly within the colony, the African subjugates began to be perceived as a threat by the governing bodies of the island: because of the harsh conditions in which they lived, riots and disorders were feared. The creation of special rules for slavery, designed with the aim of maintaining public order in the colony, became a necessity at this point . It was for these reasons that the Barbadian Code was created . In the preamble of the Code, this latter need was clearly expressed by the legislators.
The authors of the legislative body pointed out that the various colonial governments that followed over the years had produced some good laws on slavery, but these regulations proved to be incomplete and incapable to deal with the new social conditions of the island. The ancient laws could not be applied to Atlantic slavery.
Like the other states that have been mentioned until now, England, at the time of the establishment of its ultramarine possessions, did not have a legal tradition in slave legislation. Notwithstanding this, the English who established in the first Atlantic colonies had within their legal background some jurisprudential categories that allowed them to organize the slave institution. Among these categories was the principle of absolute property. According to the Common Law, for the English colonizers, the slave was, to all intents and purposes, a patrimonial property and therefore could be used by their master as he or she wished [64, 65, 66].
The classification of the slave as a patrimonial good was in fact sanctioned in the first lines of the preamble of the
In short, the regulation of 1661 sanctioned almost all the prohibitions already present in the slave legislation discussed until now (prohibition to carry weapons, restrictions regarding the freedom of movement, etc.). However, unlike many of the slave codes promulgated by the other European powers, it did not provide any measure for the possible integration of the subjects within the society. There was a lack of clear regulations on slave liberation and religious life. With the exception of the master’s obligation to provide clothing to the slaves at least once a year, some of the fundamental rights of the slave that were recognized, at least formally, in the Spanish
The political and economic model established on Barbados was very successful, and the profits made from the sugar trade during the seventeenth century were enormous . In part, this exploit was attributed to the effectiveness of the slave legislation in force on the island [65, 66]. As a result, the
More than 20 years after the promulgation of the
Most of its provisions focused, as in the other examples of slave codes already mentioned, on questions of public order. To ensure security, the Louis regulation roughly imposed the well-known bans on the possession of weapons and on freedom of movement, which had already been widely discussed. Although punishments and deprivations are a fundamental part of the legislative body, this seems to open—more than other previous and contemporary exemplars—to the integration of African slaves in the French colonial society. The baptism and conversion of slaves to Catholicism, their participation in religious celebrations and their abstention from work on feast days were all measures conceived, maybe, with the intention of building a more cohesive and less conflictual colonial community.
One of the most innovative aspects of the Code was undoubtedly the various regulations protecting the slave workforce. The legislator seemed to have a clear idea of the poor condition in which the slaves lived: submitted to the master’s will, they could be killed, tortured or left to die of hunger and thirst. Being aware of what was happening in the colonies, the editors of the Edict tried to impose a limit on the authority of the masters, by placing it under the control of the state. For the Code, slaves were movable good, an extension of the legal personality of its owner, but the supreme government over them was a prerogative of the state authority.
The Louis regulations also contain provisions obliging the master to provide food and clothing for his slave workforce. By imposing such obligation, the legislators believed to reduce the percentage of slaves who die for hunger or who escape because of the lack of supplies.
Many of the measures enshrined in the 1685
The reasons behind the non-application of many of the precepts contained in the Edict were not only economic. There were also racial prejudices: the conviction that blacks were inferior to whites was quite widespread in the colonies. There is no law that had the power to change that belief . Hence, despite the expressed prohibition imposed by the royal legislation, the slaves continued to be mutilated, massacred, killed or left to starve. Their lives in the colonies continued for many decades to be marked by abuse and masterly arbitrariness, most frequently in the substantial indifference of the authorities. This situation will not change in a tangible way until the great revolution of Haiti [73, 74].
Despite resistance displayed by the ruling class and its limited application, the Code was nevertheless a fundamental model for all the French slave legislation enacted between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although it was created to regulate slavery in the Caribbean possessions of France, the
4. The slave codes in Denmark and Sweden
When the colonization process undertaken by European states was on the edge and involved a great number of actors, it was a common belief that adopting special slave codes would help to have more control over possessions, avoiding revolts in them. The prescriptions of the Codes, in the eyes of the colonial administrators, were useful to reduce the conflict between the slaves and the masters. At the same time, slave laws linked the slave to his condition of slavery almost in an inextricable way.
These provisions aimed to preserve public order, and therefore the system of exploitation built by the colonists, not only by disposing the deprivations of the liberties of enslaved individuals but also by justifying these deprivations on the pretext of the ethnic and cultural inferiority of the slaves. The clear purpose of the Codes was to protect small white communities from possible assaults by black multitudes. However, in order to do this, it was not enough to prohibit the use of weapons, but it was necessary to instill the principle of superiority of the white race. The whites were to be considered by Africans as untouchable individuals whose bodies and physical integrity could not be violated by a black hand. For this reason, in many Codes, even the intention to strike a white man could be punished severely. For the same reason, unions or marriages between whites and blacks, when not expressly forbidden, were seen as a contamination, a sort of perversion of the natural order of things .
The provisions concerning the physical protection of whites were often accompanied by precepts that tended to discourage or prohibit manifestations of the slave culture. Religious rites, dances and African customs were considered dangerous in the Codes, because they could upset white people and be a bond between the ranks of slaves present in the colonies. The subjugated could not have their own culture because it constituted a manifestation of human nature and the slaves were not considered men. Their role was to work, to serve the master and to submissively follow his orders. He existed in function of his master and for nothing else.
These were the key concepts that were laid down in all the major slave codes issued in the overseas colonies during the seventeenth century. These legal precepts were considered as the substratum necessary to ensure the functioning of an exploitation colony. Whatever was the size of its slave population, a slave society had to have laws that specifically dealt with slavery. This may help to understand why the instrument of the slave code was adopted even in small realities and by states that played a very marginal role in the process of colonization of the Americas.
Denmark, for example, after taking possession of the Virgin Islands (between the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth), adopted the so-called
Sweden too, in the colony of Saint-Barthélemy—bought by the French at the end of the eighteenth century in exchange of some commercial privileges in the port of Gothenburg—adopted its own slave code: the Code von Rosenstein (1787). Like the Danish one, the Swedish text was thus named because of its editor, Pehr Herman Von Rosenstein, governor of the island from 1787 to 1790 . It was a code inspired by French slave legislation, in particular by an ordinance on the treatment of slaves issued in Martinique in 1783. The legislative body was a kind of summary in which the tradition of European Slave laws was collected. In the norms established by Rosenstein, the African slaves were considered as treacherous and evil, not deserving to be considered human. They were not allowed to gather, to profess their beliefs, or even to ride a horse. The normative text configured itself as an instrument for the control of the entire black population: in fact, numerous articles were dedicated exclusively to the regulation of the life of the freed slaves. It was in this regard that we noted the only real innovation of the von Rosenstein Code compared to the French legislation to which, as we said, it is inspired.
The political and economic reasons that led to the creation of the slave codes are very clear. They were considered necessary to maintain public order in the colonies, avoiding the outbreak of riots and thus allowing the slave exploitation system to function more efficiently. In order to achieve these objectives, the codes could provide both strictly punitive rules, designed to create terror in the slave labor force, and paternalistic rules, designed to make the bitter life of the slave more bearable. The last-mentioned rules, however, should not be understood as a partial recognition of the slave’s rights: they represented only concessions made in order to prevent the inevitable outbreak of riots and unrest. In fact, very few masters were tried for breaking the rules laid down in the codes: the mistreatment and abuse committed against slaves remained a constant and the authorities did not show a marked perseverance in prosecuting these crimes. This indicates that, apart from formal recognition, the rights granted to slaves, except in rare cases, remained a political expedient rather than a reality. The aforementioned helps to understand why in the colonial daily life many of the prescriptions contained in the codes remained substantially inapplicable. The ruling class often judged the norms of the codes to be too permissive and paternalistic: they appreciated their punitive and persecutory measures, circumventing most of the laws that attempted to limit their sovereignty. Analyzing all these elements, it seems evident that the impact of slave codification on the administration of slave workforce was relatively marginal: the will of the master remained the only true law to which slaves should have obeyed. No law, in fact, would have succeeded in undermining, containing or reducing the master’s sovereignty. But the codes were not only a political instrument but also a cultural product of the slave society and are important because by studying them it is possible to analyze the characteristics of the discriminatory and segregationist system constituted in the European colonies of exploitation. One of the fundamental tasks of the codes was to try to eternalize the existing slave system, not only from an administrative and legal point of view but also from a cultural and moral point of view. It was above all in this latter perspective that the impact of the codes was significant: not only did the slave codes try to discipline the many aspects of the life of the slaves in the colonies but also contributed to further dehumanizing the African workforce. The whips, the mutilations and the draconian punitions contributed to invalidating in some way all the regulatory instruments that the same codes provided for the slave’s protection. Slaves had no human dignity according to the law and therefore, in the eyes of the landowner class—who was already not very disposed to tolerate external intrusions—they did not deserve to be safeguarded.
While the application of the codes was therefore sporadic and arbitrary, much more important was the cultural impact that the slavery laws had on the societies in which they were adopted. This impact conditioned the perception of the slave institution and became the foundation of the European exploitation colonies. The idea of slave as a factor of production, as an object, is deeply rooted in all the societies that adopted slave legislation. That is why the idea of the slave (and the African slave in particular) as an inferior human being resisted even after slavery was abolished. From this point of view, the slave legislation has certainly achieved one of the objectives it aimed to pursue: the perpetuation of the economic and cultural patterns that lie behind the slave system.
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