Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


William and Mary Quarterly

3d ser., 70, no. 3 July 2013


The Development of Mastery and Race in the
Comprehensive Slave Codes of the Greater Caribbean
during the Seventeenth Century

By Edward B. Rugemer

Beginning in the 1640s, English colonists in Barbados established a violent and profitable political economy based on European indentured labor, African slavery, and the export of sugar. Barbados became a model for the ambitious colonists who settled both Jamaica and South Carolina. Essential to the political work of establishing economies based on slavery was the codification of law to govern the ordering of slaves. In 1661 the Barbados House of Assembly passed two separate comprehensive labor codes aimed at better controlling their unruly labor force; one act governed “Christian Servants,” the other act governed “Negro” slaves. These acts codified racial distinction as a tool of mastery and served as a template for both Jamaica and South Carolina. But the history of legal borrowing among these colonies did not unfold as we have hitherto understood it. Jamaica copied its slave code from Barbados in 1664. In 1684 the Jamaica House of Assembly passed a new slave code with significant innovations, which South Carolina copied in 1691. Examining the processes of legal borrowing and innovation from 1661 to 1696 across the greater Caribbean colonies of Barbados, Jamaica, and South Carolina, I argue that this legal history allows us to better understand the development of race as a concept, as well as the practices of slave mastery that these colonial assemblies sought to forge.

Sinning Property and the Legal Transformation
of Abominable Sex in Early Bermuda

By Heather Miyano Kopelson

Many women of color stood before Bermuda’s court on charges of unlawful sex during the seventeenth century. But beginning in the 1690s, they disappeared from such prosecutions. This disappearance had more to do with changing relations of church and state than with either an overall decline of religion or a turn against the notion that people of color could be Christians in favor of the belief that they were merely property. Bermuda’s prohibitions of extramarital sex, unlike those of most other English colonies, continued not to differentiate by racial or religious labels until the 1723 Act against Bastardy decreed that white women convicted of interracial sex could no longer escape corporal punishment by paying a fine. Neither case law nor the 1723 act described interracial sex as more of a defilement than other kinds of unlawful sex. The 1723 law did not use religious distinctions to define racial categories, an omission that implicitly recognized the Christianity of Bermudians of color. Long familiarity between white Bermudians and those they enslaved may not have mitigated the corrosive effects of categorizing other humans as property, but it does seem to have removed the debate about whether Africans and Indians—or at least those particular Africans and Indians who were Bermudian—could be Christians.

Massacre, Mardi Gras, and Torture
in Early New Orleans

By Sophie White

The earliest known Mardi Gras masquerade in New Orleans dates to 1730. Forming part of his “Relation du Voyage de la Louisiane ou Nouv.lle France,” Marc-Antoine Caillot’s account of hedonistic cross-gender disguises was an unexpected narrative twist, for it was book-ended by events surrounding the 1729 uprising in which the Natchez Indians captured, tortured, and killed colonists and freed their African slaves. The narrative begins with the arrival in New Orleans of denuded survivors, then moves to the masquerade, before ending with an account of the ritual stripping, torture, cannibalism, and killing of a powerful Natchez woman captive. Tunica allies had captured her, and they engineered her torture on the square frame within the town. Most galling for Caillot was the fact that the French survivors of the uprising then imitated, and even outdid, Indian torture methods and anthropophagy practices, raising questions about the risks of Catholic French men and women becoming Indian. Caillot’s topsy-turvy masquerade allowed him to play with the implications, for colonists, of misrule rituals that created only temporary inversions of identity, and to signal that the metamorphosis of the French into Indians was reversible and controllable. When the Mardi Gras participants reverted to normative roles and apparel following Lent, the effect was to reaffirm and strengthen the status quo, in the same way that the colonial disorder and the gendered disruption caused by the Natchez uprising would also be reversed.

Sources and Interpretations

Child Labor and Schooling in
Late Eighteenth-Century New England:
One Boy’s Account

By Carole Shammas

Just how much the colonial American economy depended on the labor of white children remains an open question, especially for the later eighteenth century, which most historians of education consider a period of increased schooling. The diary of Quincy Thaxter, the twelve-year-old younger son of an affluent Hingham farmer, local official, and Harvard graduate, offers insight into his work regime and that of neighborhood youth as well as information on his attendance at the nearby school. The diary suggests that boys aged ten to fifteen constituted about one-fifth of the local agricultural labor force. Though Massachusetts led the British colonies in its enthusiasm for education and Quincy’s father could have afforded to hire a worker in place of his son, he did not. Even in well-off rural New England households with a dedication to learning, more importance was placed on farm tasks than on regularized schooling or the timely acquisition of the penmanship, spelling, and grammatical skills required of anyone keeping accounts or performing official duties in the community. The nature of eighteenth-century classroom pedagogy may have had something to do with the desultory attitude toward formal instruction

The Testimony of Thomás de la Torre, a Spanish Slave

By Alejandra Dubcovsky

The testimony of Thomás de la Torre, a Spanish slave who participated in Florida’s 1686 attack against South Carolina, unfolds as a swashbuckling tale of pirates, spies, deadly storms, and a reluctant hero who overcame all obstacles. La Torre’s actions and choices took place in the context of the growing Indian slave trade, the intensifying Anglo-Spanish rivalry, and the rise of African slavery in the colonial Southeast. A product of these changes, La Torre was also an agent of his destiny. In his year-long journey, he both seized opportunities and molded to pressures, successfully traversing among Spanish, English, Dutch, French, and Indian spaces. La Torre, ever mindful that the audience of his testimony consisted of the very Spanish officials who could enslave or liberate him, had to reconcile his self-professed loyalty to the Spaniards with the ardent autonomy of his actions. In a testimony riddled with tensions, La Torre depicted himself as confident, always knowledgeable, prepared, and capable of expanding the parameters of the colonial Southeast.