Slavery is not a passé subject, it is a form of human bondage that has its roots in ancient history. ‘Chattel’ slavery was barbarous, and it originated with the Barbados Slave Code of 1661. This Historyplex post discusses the purpose and significance of this slave code.
Emancipation Day is celebrated on the first day of August to mark the abolition of slavery in Barbados. It dates back to the slave uprising on the island, called the “Rebellion of 1816”, which was led by a slave named Bussa.
For the British monarchy, expanding the empire and establishing colonies all around the world was a prime objective, especially colonizing sugar plantation rich areas that would certainly profit the British economy. To many of the British settlers in the 1600s, enslaving Africans was acceptable on the basis that they were non-Christians. As their numbers increased in Virginia and Maryland, colonies there soon began a history of demarcation in the name of race, which developed into a set of laws for the Africans, known as ‘slave code’. This code not only legalized slavery, but also allowed masters to carry out barbarous atrocities on the slaves.
The origin of this code was Barbados, an island abundant in sugar plantations, and to reap benefits from these so-called ‘plantation economies’ the Barbados Slave Code of 1661 was established. Given below are its salient features:
A Brief History
❒ From 300 CE to 1200 CE, Barbados was inhabited by the Arawak Indians. The Carib Indians from Venezuela invaded the island and drove off the Arawak Indians, claiming the island. When the first European settlers arrived, the Carib Indians also left the island, thereby ending all signs of Amerindian life by the early 1500s.
❒ In 1536, Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos halted in Barbados en route to Brazil, and named the island ‘Los Barbados’. Even though the island was known to the Portuguese and Spanish, the British would claim it their own in 1625, and thus, begin a history of slavery on the island.
❒ The first English settlement was set up as a proprietary colony and was financed by Sir William Courten, a London merchant who owned the claim to Barbados and several other islands. Thus, the first colonists were, in reality, tenants and a substantial amount of their profits was reverted to Courten and his company. On May 14, 1625, the first English ship, captained by John Powell along with his crew and 10 slaves, arrived and claimed the uninhabited island for England . On February 17, 1627, his brother, Captain Henry Powell touched down with a party of 80 settlers and 10 African slaves, they established the first European settlement called ‘Jamestown’ on the western coast, which is now known as ‘Holetown’.
❒ The slaves imported into Barbados came from various tribes, like the Eboes, Paw-paws and Igbo, of the forest regions of West Africa. They arrived via slave trade forts on the African west coast, such forts were known as the Axim and El Mina. After being swapped for trinkets, the slaves were shipped to the Caribbean and sold to plantation owners. In 1636, a law declared that all slaves brought into Barbados, whether African or Amerindian, were to be enslaved for life, which later extended to include their offspring.
❒ In 1642, the sugar revolution took over when the Dutch introduced sugarcane farming. By the mid 1600s sugarcane plantations were developing and exporting sugar, appealing wealthy landlords with political associations. As the cost of white labor rose in England, more slaves were imported from West Africa, particularly the Gold Coast, and more black slaves arrived in Barbados. The main groups of slaves imported were from Ibibio, Yoruba, Lgbo and Efik, as well as Asante, Fante, Ga and Fon tribes. By the mid 1600s, there were an estimated 5,600 black African slaves in Barbados, and by the early 1800s, over 385,000. By the 1700s, Barbados was one of the leaders in the slave trade from the European colonies.
❒ African slaves were referred to as ‘black gold’, and they were the obvious choice as they were strong, and Africa lay closer to Europe than the Caribbean. Slave ships traveled faster aided by the ‘trade winds’ blowing towards the west, and hence, the slaves were chained and cramped into filthy ships to be sold into permanent slavery.
Significance and Impact on American Colonies
❒ As the import of slaves increased, the African population outnumbered the white population, thus causing paranoia and concern among the plantation owners against an onset of revolt. This led each colony to pass a series of laws restraining the slaves behavior, which came to be known as ‘Slave Code’.
❒ The Barbados Slave Code of 1661 was the first code to be passed in the Caribbean island among the English colonies. Subsequently, these codes were applied in the American English colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina.
❒ Though these slavery codes received legalized status and were supposed to protect the working rights of the slaves, but in contrast, they proved beneficial for the plantation owners and masters. Under the provision of the law, the masters were to provide one set of clothing to the slaves every year, which consisted of a coarse material to be used as clothing. In reality, the masters lent out harsh punishments to the slaves for minor mistakes, which included mutilation of body parts, burning the face or burning them alive, public flogging, sexual harassment, starvation, and forced conversions to Christianity.
❒ They were subjected to ‘Chattel Slavery’, the word chattel is equivalent to cattle, which means that the master has total ownership of his slaves, and they were treated worse than animals at the hands of their masters.
❒ Slaves were not allowed to own any property, nor assemble or form groups without the presence of their master. They were subjected to special curfews after working hours and prohibited from traveling, in the fear that they would run away. In courts, slave never received pardon even if they were innocent, or never allowed to witness or testify against a white man’s crime.
❒ A similar impact was seen in the English American colonies, Virginia legalized slavery in 1661. In 1662, a law was passed ensuring that children born to black mothers would also be regarded as slaves in spite of being fathered by white men. Maryland legalized slavery in 1663, and passed a law punishing marriages between a white women and slaves, stating that the woman who married a slave would serve her husband’s master, and their children would directly inherit the slave status.
❒ In 1664, slavery was legalized in New York and New Jersey. In 1667, Virginia enacted a law that ordained baptism was not a means to free themselves. A 1676 law prohibited free black citizens from employing white servants. Virginia passed two consecutive acts in 1682 that mixed Native Americans and Africans into one class as “Negroes and other slaves.”
❒ A 1669 law adjudged that if a slave passed away while protesting his master, the master could not be accused of felony. A 1680 law imposed twenty lashes on any “negro or other slave” who chose to carry a weapon, or traveled without the master’s or mistress’s written permission. In some cases, the laws were quite specific, such as pig stealing was punished by nailing the thief’s severed ears to a pillory post.
❒ They were directly given death penalty for lesser crimes such as ruining ‘any stack of rice, corn, or other grain’ or setting fire to ‘any tar kiln, barrels of pitch, tar, turpentine or rosin.’ Slaves were used both as verifiability for borrowing money, and also as assets in the requital of debts. Creditors had first claim on slaves in settlement of debts; slaves who had been freed could be re-enslaved if necessary, to conciliate their late master’s debts.
❒ These series of inhuman laws passed one after another in succession to the Barbados Slave Code of 1661 slowly gave way to revolts by the captured slaves in the Caribbean island. Slavery was abolished in Barbados in 1834, which was followed by a 4-year apprenticeship period throughout which free men carried on working a 45-hour week without pay, in substitute for dwelling in tiny huts provided by the plantation owners.
Freedom from slavery was finally realized in 1838, at the conclusion of the apprenticeship period, when over 70,000 Barbadians of African descent celebrated on the streets singing and dancing to Barbados folk songs.