Colonial power

The slaves’ own words – Records of the Police Court

According to the current legislation, the enslaved laborers did not have many rights. But some dared nevertheless to complain to the chief of police about poor treatment – for example, if they were starving or were forced to work when they were sick. Many complaints were rejected by the chief of police, but he investigated some cases more closely.
Records of the Police Court 1835-1849 (The Danish National Archives).

The Records of the Police Court regarding the cases that the chief of police investigated in detail provide an insight into the legal system in the islands. They are an entirely unique source material because the enslaved laborers, who otherwise very rarely left written testimony, get to speak here.

The enslaved laborers submitted complaints

Formally, enslaved individuals had no opportunity to start legal actions in the courts. But toward the end of the 1700s, more and more enslaved began to submit complaints to the police chief. The number of complaints rose markedly up until the emancipation in 1848. It was only the fewest enslaved laborers who could read or write. Therefore, their complaints were submitted orally to the chief of police. When the chief of police rejected the complaint, the enslaved were simply sent back to the plantations, where they were punished. When the case was investigated more closely, witnesses were called – enslaved laborers as well as freemen.

Hannahs complaint about administrator N. Jürgensen

A typical example of a complaint from an enslaved laborer is Hannah’s complaint against the administrator N. Jürgensen in November 1833. Hannah belonged to the plantation Rust up Twist, a sugar plantation on St. Croix. Hannah was born on the plantation and belonged to the Moravian congregation. She did not know herself how old she was, but she was deemed by the court to be about thirty years old.

Hannah complained about the fact that the administrator at Rust up Twist had refused to let her be admitted to the infirmary when she was sick. The plantation’s own doctor had declared that nothing was wrong with her, and the administrator therefore had her whipped instead. Hannah pointed out that the doctor on the plantation always declared the enslaved laborers healthy, including when they actually were sick.

Hannah further related that: “After she had as reported received a Flogging and was put to Work, she came down with a Fever again, but […] dared not report this, and ran away therefore at the time the Gang (the working shift) was eating Dinner and was free from Work.” After this she kept herself hidden among the sugar canes in the field for a few days and then went to the police in Christiansted to complain.

After Hannah had submitted her complaint, the black overseer who had flogged her was interviewed, among others, and the administrator which she complained about. They gave their version of the circumstances. The police court inquiry was concluded and the case was sent to the Governor-General. What happened further in the case is not reported in the Records of the Police Court.