Review: Edward Rugemer, Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World

Today The Junto reviews Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World by Yale Associate Professor of African American Studies and History, Edward Rugemer. Stay tuned for a Q&A with the author tomorrow!

Historians have long argued that enslaved people’s resistance to bondage shaped the political economies, legal structures, and societies of the early Atlantic World. As a comparative history of slavery in Barbados, Jamaica, and South Carolina, Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance coheres around “the existential struggle between the master and the slave” that forms the core dialectic between control and resistance at the heart of slavery (1). Edward Rugemer places these slave societies in comparison because, as he argues, they developed out of the same legal genealogy rooted in seventeenth-century English imperial expansion but experienced the end of slavery in dramatically different ways. In just over three hundred pages, the book traces the dialectic between control and resistance in these societies “after an epic struggle of eight generations” (2). Rugemer’s approach combines a synthesis of a rich body of scholarship on the development of legal systems of bondage with strategic archival research. And, as the book demonstrates, the “combination of similarities and differences” between Jamaica and South Carolina yields “a novel approach to understanding the political dynamics of slave resistance and their relation to the law” (3).

The book begins in seventeenth-century Barbados, where English settlers first codified the status of enslaved people in 1636 and wrote extensive legislation on servitude and slavery less than thirty years later. Although Barbados was not the only English Caribbean colony experimenting with laws that reinforced slavery as an economic system—English residents on Saint Christopher and Antigua simultaneously legislated different aspects of slavery—the more comprehensive Barbadian laws of 1661 became the model for Jamaica and South Carolina. In his analysis of the adoption and adaption of Barbadian legal precedents in Jamaica and South Carolina, Rugemer skillfully centers the dialectic between control and resistance that created slightly different legal systems in both places. Over the course of the seventeenth century, he explains, the colonial assemblies incorporated “brutal slavery into the political economy of empire” but only after “a decades-long struggle fraught with blood, terror, and sweat” (74).

The middle of the book explores how the politics of slavery diverged in South Carolina and Jamaica during the early eighteenth century. Rugemer explains how geography, indigenous power, and crop selection created different systems of slavery in Jamaica and South Carolina, despite shared origins in Barbadian precedents. The majority of the chapters, however, focus on the enslaved resistance. For South Carolina, trade in enslaved Indian captives fostered a violent cycle of warfare that ended in “a cataclysm of violence that almost destroyed the colony” (75). The Yamasee War of 1715 ended the Indian slave trade out of South Carolina and, in conjunction with the Stono Rebellion of 1739, transformed the politics of slavery in the colony. South Carolina’s colonial assembly temporarily ended the importation of enslaved people from Africa through the transatlantic slave trade and banished free people of African descent from the colony. According to Rugemer, this “long process of legal refashioning” sought “to domesticate the slave system” in South Carolina. In contrast, the forty-year struggle in Jamaica between colonists and the autonomous communities of self-liberated Africans and their descendants, known as Maroons, shaped Jamaica’s slave society. During the eighteenth century, Jamaica’s colonial assembly “passed laws to raise temporary military forces and intensify internal surveillance” on the island in response to the Maroon Wars (120). In a well-written book, these chapters stand out for their clarity—Rugemer’s lucid explanation of the complicated Maroon Wars in Jamaica, for example, should be required reading in classes on slavery.

The book concludes with a meditation on the distinct reactions in Jamaica and South Carolina to the Age of Revolutions, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and, in Jamaica, the end of slavery. Whites in South Carolina and Jamaica responded to enslaved resistance and the rise in antislavery sentiment differently, depending on their relationship to the empire. As Rugemer explains, “Black resistance posed a threat that Carolinians felt they could contain on their own, but black resistance in Jamaica rendered the planters dependent on the military garrison provided by their imperial masters” (183). The relative political power of whites in the two societies diverged in this period. Delegates from South Carolina exerted significant influence at the Constitutional Convention and the spread of cotton reinforced slavery in the United States. At the same time, antislavery sentiment, bolstered by the Somerset decision in England, posed an effective challenge to Jamaican defenses of the institution of slavery.

Of course, Rugemer paints with a broad brush in order to provide a coherent comparative history of over two hundred years. While this makes the book highly readable, the relatively thin endnotes prevent the engagement with the historiography that specialists might desire. In one example, Rugemer transcribes the description of people of African descent in the 1661 Barbadian laws on slavery as: “‘a heathenish, brutish, and uncertain dangerous pride of people’” (32-3). Rugemer highlights he word “pride” in that sentence to build an argument that Barbadian legislators sought to place enslaved Africans as outside of the law through animalization. It’s an interesting argument that counters the way many historians of seventeenth-century English slave law normally transcribe the law’s preamble. Richard Dunn, Jenny Shaw, Susan Dwyer Amussen, among others, have all transcribed that word as “kinde” not “pride.”[1] The paleography of the Barbadian law is notoriously difficult (see below), and Rugemer is not alone in transcribing the word as “pride.” However, the endnotes lack an engagement with the wider debate about how the word should be transcribed, leaving the reader to assume that “pride” is generally the accepted transcription.

Rugemer’s argument that the word “pride” presented a rhetorical attempt at dehumanization on the part of Barbadian legislators engages with a dense historiography on slavery, race, and the law. He contends that Barbados provided a model for repressive legislation that depended on the supposed dehumanization of enslaved people. But, this is a contentious claim. As Walter Johnson has argued, the terror of repression in slave societies depended “upon the sentience of a suffering human object to produce the effect desire by their (all-too) human perpetrators.”[2] In other words, slave law was designed to manipulate human feelings and depended on a fundamental recognition of an enslaved person’s humanity. As someone deeply invested in these debates, I would have enjoyed a more direct engagement from Rugemer.

But, these are minor quibbles with a comprehensive survey of the tension between slave law and resistance over two hundred years. In the end, Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance is a rich, highly readable book that will doubtless become required reading at the graduate and undergraduate level.

[1] Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (University of North Carolina Press, 1972): 239, Susan Dwyer Amussen, Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700 (University of North Carolina Press, 2007): 337, and Jenny Shaw, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference (University of Georgia Press, 2013): 15.

[2] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History Vol. 37, No. 1 (Autumn, 2003): 116.


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