Slave Law in the Danish West Indies

The relationship between slaves and masters in the Danish West Indies was primarily played out and regulated by the routines and customs related to slave labour on plantations and in the towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted on St. Croix and Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. When such customary regulation was no longer sufficient, slave legislation was developed and mobilised against slaves.

In the Danish West Indies slave law drew on many different precedents and developments. It consisted of legislation issued in the West Indies, royal ordinances issued to the Danish West Indies by the King, and by Danish legislation proper. So slave law comprised the buddle of local ordinances, the so-called placards, that were issued by the governors general, Danish legislation, primarily the large law code Danske Lov (The Danish Law) of 1683, and royal ordinances issued for the West Indies specifically. Danske Lov’s chapter concerning “Title, Property and Debt” were mobilised in so far as slaves were considered as property. Yet, slavery was not recognized in metropolitan legislation. This fact did not bother legislators as the regulation of slaves in their capacity as people was effectively developed in the Danish West Indies. The legal basis for slavery appeared in 1733 in a harsh slave code issued by Governor Philip Gardelin. The code stated that slaves were similar to money, that is, they were like chattel. Moreover it stipulated a row of draconic punishments for crimes committed by slaves. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the 1733 slave code was the main legal framework mobilised in Danish West Indian courts against slaves.

In addition to the 1733 slave code, the placards regulated almost every aspect of the lives of Danish West Indian slaves, such as mobility, trade, partying, horseback-riding, rum consumption and gambling. In the period from 1755 to 1803, seventy-five placards directed at slaves were proclaimed. Many placards repeated the stipulations of earlier decrees with no or only few changes and were published by drummer and in local newspapers. Their main purpose seems to have been to remind police officers, white West Indians, and slaves of the rules pertaining to slaves. Indeed, their very number testifies to the laxity with which they were sometimes enforced. Nevertheless, they provided the chief of police with guidelines, when he used his discretionary powers to uphold social order in the islands. However, they were seldom mobilised by the Danish West Indian courts.
The legislation that tackled slaves as people was interwoven with legal developments outside the Danish West Indies. Indeed, the Danish West Indian and Guinea Company and later the Danish colonial state followed legal models developed by other colonial powers in the Caribbean and more widely in the Americas. In 1755, Governor General Christian Lebrecht von Pröck arrived to the islands with a slave code, drafted in Copenhagen, that was a close copy of the French Code Noir of 1685. This code was never proclaimed and hence not used against slaves. Likewise, in the 1780s, in a failed attempt at establishing a comprehensive slave code, Councillor of State Anton Wilhelm Lindeman quoted slave laws from New York, the British Leeward Islands, Martinique, Montserrat, St. Christopher, Jamaica, and the Spanish mainland. Indeed, he also referred to Swedish, Russian, and Austrian legal reforms, to Roman slave law, to Danske Lov and numerous Danish royal ordinances. Thus Danish West Indian slave legislation emerged in dialogue with the slave laws and legal traditions developed in the larger Atlantic world surrounding the Danish West Indies. Substantial Danish West Indian slave law, in other words, was not the result of a narrow Danish imperial endeavour. Rather it was genuinely Atlantic in nature.

The six examples of Danish West Indian slave law that are provided here trace Danish West Indian legal development from the harsh slave code and police regulations of the eighteenth century towards the ameliorative legislation published in the 1830s. Except the placard of May 1756, which illustrates the way police regulations were formulated, each piece of legislation is chosen because it was significant in the development of slaves’ legal position and their attainment of freedom in the Danish West Indies.

Gunvor Simonsen

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