Punishment, crime, and the bodies of slaves in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica

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Previous analyses of the punishment of slaves in the British colonies have concentrated on the period after 1780. This article uses the mid-eighteenth-century records of the slave court of the parish of St. Andrew, Jamaica, to analyze the crimes for which slaves were prosecuted and the judicial punishments they received. Prosecutions concentrated heavily on a few offences, especially theft and running away. Punishments were severe and were largely concerned with the slave’s body; they included death, flogging, transportation, and bodily mutilation. Some punishments made use of the cotton tree, which figured significantly in Afro-Jamaican cosmology, suggesting that the authorities were trying to harness or combat the power of obeah. The article compares the Jamaican slave court’s practice to that of British courts in the same period, as well as to the experience of slaves under other jurisdictions. The slave court enacted rituals that both dramatized and sustained power relations, but rather than representing the supposed common discipline of all to a single rule of law, as did the contemporary British spectacle of trial and punishment, the Jamaican court’s practice emphasized the difference between enslaved and free, valorizing the private penal power of the master under slavery.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)923-954
JournalJournal of Social History
Volume34
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2001

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