Colonial power

Slave rights and Christian norms – Records of the Police Court

Toward the end of the 1700s, more and more enslaved laborers began to submit complaints to the authorities. Regarding, for instance, too little food. It happened that the enslaved laborers had their claims upheld. Some times because even though the planters had complied with the law, they had not observed contemporary Christian norms.
The plantations Montpellier and Two Friends.
Colored drawing by Frederik von Scholten depicting the plantations Montpellier and Two Friends. St. Croix, February 1846. Maritime Museum of Denmark, file no. 000034164.

Records from the Police Court in the Danish West Indies contain many examples of complaints from enslaved laborers against the planters. Not only do they tell the story about the legal system and the legislation but also about everyday life on the plantations and conditions among the enslaved.

Rights: Complaints about inadequate food rations

On July 7, 1817, a group of enslaved laborers went from the plantation The Sight on St. Croix to police chief Kofoed in Christiansted. They complained that their owner, Luke Codwise, had made them work too much and given them too little food. Two days later Governor-General Bentzon agreed with them that their owner had violated the rules. Codwise now received a severe order to follow the rules , ”… to treat his Negroes humanely, give them their required food and time enough to rest … ” and a prohibition on punishing the enslaved because they had complained.

Hidden rules

What was remarkable about the matter was that it was at all possible for the enslaved laborers to complain about inadequate food rations. The rule regarding how much food each adult enslaved person was in title to as a minimum was barely a month old (from June 13, 1817). In addition, it was not at all publicized, but was simply sent around as a closed circular to all planters and overseers. At that time, it was normal practice not to publicize the enslaved laborers’ rights to food, clothing and leisure time, and it had been that way since the 1770s.

Nevertheless, the enslaved at The Sight had become aware of their rights in one way or another. And in the following months, several groups of enslaved laborers from other plantations trooped up to the police chief’s office with complaints about inadequate food rations. In several cases it was found that the enslaved were right, and the owner was strongly reproved or fined for not having followed the rules.

Christian norms: Judith, John and their children

In September 1840, a case unfolded in Christiansted police court. It shows that enslaved laborers could also have their claims sustained by the authorities if a planter had violated the general Christian norms of that time but not any law. The case involved the enslaved laborer John from the Moravian Brethren’s plantation, who complained that overseer Thomas Lee at the plantation Mount Pellier would not allow him to see his wife Judith, who was an enslaved laborer at the plantation.

John and Judith had lived together in “natural marriage”, i.e., without being married, for approximately 13 years and had had 7 children. The reason for the punishment was that John had protested against the overseer’s punishment of one of their sons. The overseer did not care about that and therefore excluded John from the plantation.

Do not split a nuclear family

According to John, he had only been unhappy about his son being punished and had not been out to create a bad relationship with the overseer. Judith testified that the son might certainly have done something naughty, but she could not do without her husband because they had been together so many years.

Both the chief of police and the Governor-General strongly agreed that it was unreasonable to separate man and wife in that way. Especially because it prevented a father from seeing and spending time with his children. In other words, the overseer had not violated the enslaved laborers’ formal rights. But he had prevented them from living according to contemporary Christian norms for a good family life – namely, as a nuclear family with husband, wife and children.

The overseer was fined

Therefore the overseer was ordered not to deny John access to the plantation. He was also required to pay a fine and change his conduct if he did not want to expose himself in the future to serious penalties from the authorities.

Colored drawing by Frederik Christian Meley.
Section of map of the estate Bethlehem from 1779, showing “Bay Works”, the southernmost of the estate’s three parts. Note the houses of the enslaved, which have been constructed in rows up a hill, and behind the gardens, where they grew an important part of their food. Colored drawing by Frederik Christian Meley. National Museum of Denmark.