Enslaved children: Order and punishment

When enslaved children had been directly or indirectly involved in a crime, they ended up in the records of the Police Court. In fact, it is one of the few types of records that provide a glimpse of the enslaved children’s lives on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. Mind you, a very gloomy picture of how brutally the colonial power also treated enslaved children.
Drawing of the police station in Christiansfort.
The police station in Christiansfort, 1872. Facade, floor plan and cross section of Christiansfort in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, drawn by William A. Thulstrup, 1872. Danish National Archives, Rentekammeret (“Chamber of Revenue”), archive no. 303, Kort og tegninger (“Maps and drawings”) 1600-1920, map no. 337.518.

The laws in the Danish West Indies, and particularly the slave laws, were built on physical punishment. In Denmark, physical punishments were also used both in the home and in the court system at that time. But the violence toward the enslaved laborers was of greater force and extent. However, the court system did punish the enslaved children more mildly than the adults because of their age. Enslaved individuals were considered children until the age of 12-16. Throughout the slave period, a change occurred in the laws and behavior, so the punishments gradually became less brutal.

The following are three examples of cases that involved enslaved children.

Fistfight: Naughty Sam

In May 1814, the approximately eight-year-old enslaved boy Sam from the plantation Cotton Valley on St. Croix was interrogated by the police in Christiansted. The reason was that Sam had gotten into a fistfight with the younger enslaved boy Bob while they were both eating. Sam had been told to stop but had answered back. Therefore the elderly enslaved woman Molly, who made their food, had given Sam a slap. He was so angered by this, that he threw food and shouted swear words at her. Molly’s adult son, Abraham, heard that and was offended on his mother’s behalf. Therefore he caught Sam and gave him three blows with a thick piece of rope as punishment.

The episode now came to the attention of Sam’s father, Ned. He was a Driver, i.e. foreman, for the enslaved laborers’ gang on the neighboring plantation Solitude. The matter now developed into a fistfight between Ned, Abraham and other enslaved laborers from the two plantations, and therefore the entire story ended up in court in Christiansted.

The case of Sam shows that enslaved children could come up with fighting, answering back and shouting swear words, exactly like other children. But the punishment in the world of the enslaved came quicker and was hard. However, it was not all the same to the enslaved parents how their children were punished. Or by whom and for what. They wanted to decide that themselves, and therefore father Ned could not accept that his son was punished by Abraham.

Theft: Peter and Mr. Hage’s money

In April 1802, the twelve-year-old enslaved boy Peter was brought to Christiansted police station together with his stepfather, the free Afro-Caribbean John Benjamin. The accusation was that Peter had stolen money from his owner, Government Commissioner Jens Friedenreich Hage, and given it to the stepfather. Peter explained that the stepfather had asked him to do it. In return, John had promised Peter a cock for cockfighting. Even though Peter said that he had never stolen anything before, he had done what the stepfather said and so had also gotten a gamecock.

When the theft was discovered, the stepfather had said to Peter that he must not say who he had given the money to. Peter had struggled to stay quiet, but when the police beat him the third time during the interrogation, he told the truth. John continued to deny having received the money.

The case of Peter shows that enslaved children could easily get in a squeeze between their parents’ and owners’ authority. Peter chose to be loyal to his stepfather, even though the stepfather apparently did nothing to protect Peter in return. The case also demonstrates the brutal interrogation methods of the police, which also applied to enslaved children.

Running away: Johan and the furious Mrs. Beverhoudt

In December 1800, the wife of bookkeeper Beverhoudt was interviewed by the police in Christiansted. She had had her enslaved boy, Johan, punished in a way that even then exceeded the limit for abuse. Johan had run away several times from Beverhoudt’s house on Kompagnigade (Company Street). Perhaps to visit his mother, who sat imprisoned in the town’s fort. But when he ran off one day and hid, Mrs. Beverhoudt became furious.

She had him captured, hung up by the arms and beat him twice with a “cow-skin”, i.e., a short cow whip of braided leather. Then she gave an order that her enslaved woman, Anna Lena, was to continue the punishment with the whip while she watched. That continued for over a half an hour. The sound of the screams and the blows caused Mrs. Beverhoudt’s daughter, Maria, to go over there to ask her mother to stop and forgive Johan.

But according to the nearly same age Maria, she became so terrified at the bloody scene that she could not say anything and instead had to send an enslaved laborer with her request. Then the whipping stopped. But when Johan continued to scream, Mrs. Beverhoudt first struck him on the mouth with the shaft of a kitchen knife and then twice in the head with a clothing iron.

The punishment of Johan was uncommonly harsh, and therefore the case ended up with the police. Johan fortunately survived, and therefore the case ended with Mrs. Beverhoudt being reprimanded by the chief of police and having to pay a fine. The case demonstrates the nearly unlimited right slave owners had to treat their enslaved laborers as it suited them – even if the enslaved were children.