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“Going to Law”: Legal Discourse and Testimony in Early West Indian Slave Narratives

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Part of the The New Urban Atlantic book series (NUA)

Abstract

Despite the fact that they had not proven consistently helpful in their quests for freedom, British West Indian slaves frequently consulted the courts to invoke the rule of law and pursue their rights. Several Caribbean historians have documented the fact that slaves in the West Indies participated in formal legal arenas almost from the initial days of colonization and claimed the courts as one of their own forums for resolving disputes and asserting rights, including those written into the various acts intended to ameliorate the conditions of the enslaved passed by Parliaments in England and its Caribbean colonies from 1788 onward.1 Although the British courts were certainly used by those in power to oppress the disenfranchised, slaves, women, children, and the poor, as well as to “legitimate [the] blatantly repressive regime” of slavery, they nevertheless provided a forum for those who did not write the laws in question to use the courts to ensure the legal protection of their “natural rights” (Lazarus-Black 1993: 154). Thus, in another of the seemingly endless paradoxes inherent to the British Imperial slave system, slaves—objects of property, yet human subjects—could, in certain situations, use the courts in the West Indies and in England on their own behalf, as legal agents to affirm their status as legal subjects deserving of the law’s unbiased protection, and judgment.

Keywords

Slave System Court System Slave Trade Slave Owner Legal Discourse 
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© Nicole N. Aljoe 2012

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