Custom and law: The status of enslaved Africans in seventeenth-century Barbados

2016 (Jerome S. Handler) “Custom and law: The status of enslaved Africans in seventeenth-century Barbados.” Slavery & Abolition 37: 233-255.

The island of Barbados provides an ideal case study to explore the beginnings of slavery and definitions of slave status in England’s early American colonies. Africans and Europeans confronted each other earlier and on a larger scale in Barbados than in any other English colony. By tracing the development of slavery from the colony’s settlement in 1627 this article argues that the legitimization or legalization of African slavery and the status of slaves were established in custom long before any slave laws were passed. Focus is on slave status as a point of analysis, implicitly defined by three major features: chattel property, lifetime (or permanent) servitude, and inheritance of slave condition from an enslaved mother. In examining the evidence for these features, the article contends they were part of the culture of the Euro-Atlantic world and English worldview by the time the island was settled. None of the features was ever defined in any law; rather, they were implicit in any Barbados law that mentioned slaves.

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