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Most slave codes were concerned with the rights and duties of free people in regards to enslaved people. Slave codes left a great deal unsaid, with much of the actual practice of slavery being a matter of traditions rather than formal law.
The primary colonial powers all had slightly different slave codes. French colonies, after 1685, had the Code Noir specifically for this purpose. The Spanish had some laws regarding slavery in Las Siete Partidas, a far older law that was not designed for the slave societies of the Americas. English colonies largely had their own local slave codes, mostly based on the codes of either the colonies of Barbados or Virginia..
In addition to the these national and state- or colony-level slave codes, there were city ordinances and other local restrictions regarding enslaved people.
Typical slave codes
There are many similarities between the various slave codes. The most common elements are:
- Movement Restrictions: Most regions required any slaves away from their plantations or outside of the cities they resided in to have a pass signed by their master. Many cities in the slave-states required slave-tags, small copper badges that enslaved people wore, to show that they were allowed to move about.
- Marriage Restrictions: Most places restricted the marriage rights of enslaved people, ostensibly to prevent them from trying to change masters by marrying into a family on another plantation. Marriage between people of different races was also usually restricted.
- Prohibitions on Gathering: Slave codes generally prevented large groups of enslaved people from gathering away from their plantations.
- Slave Patrols: In the slave-dependent portions of North America, varying degrees of legal authority backed patrols by plantation owners and other free whites to ensure that enslaved people were not free to move about at night, and to generally enforce the restrictions on slaves.
- Trade and Commerce by Slaves: Initially, most places gave enslaved people some land to work personally and allowed them to operate their own markets. As slavery became more profitable, slave codes restricting the rights of enslaved people to buy, sell, and produce goods were introduced. In some places, slave tags were required to be worn by enslaved people to prove that they were allowed to participate in certain types of work.
- Punishment and Killing of Slaves: Slave codes regulated how slaves could be punished, usually going so far as to apply no penalty for accidentally killing a slave while punishing them. Later laws began to apply restrictions on this, but slave-owners were still rarely punished for killing their slaves. Historian Lawrence M. Friedman wrote: "Ten Southern codes made it a crime to mistreat a slave.... Under the Louisiana Civil Code of 1825 (art. 192), if a master was ′convicted of cruel treatment,′ the judge could order the sale of the mistreated slave, presumably to a better master."
- Education Restrictions: Some codes made it illegal to teach slaves to read.
England's American colonies and the United States
There was no central English slave code; each colony developed its own code. In the British Thirteen Colonies, after their independence, the individual states ratified new constitutions, but their laws were generally a continuation of the laws those regions maintained prior to that point and their slave codes remaining unchanged.
The first comprehensive English slave code was established in Barbados, an island in the Caribbean, in 1661. Modifications of the Barbadian slave codes were put in place in the Colony of Jamaica in 1664, and were then greatly modified in 1684. The Jamaican codes of 1684 were copied by the Province of South Carolina in 1691. The South Carolina slave code served as the model for many other colonies in North America. In 1770, colony of Georgia adopted the South Carolina slave code, and Florida adopted the Georgia code.
Virginia's slave codes were made in parallel to those in Barbados, with individual laws starting in 1667 and a comprehensive slave code passed in 1705. The slave codes of the tobacco colonies (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia) were modeled on the Virginia code.
Slavery was restricted throughout the British Empire by the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which prevented trading slaves, but did not actually end slavery. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act ended slavery throughout the British Empire.
In the United States, there was a division between slave states in the South and free states in the north. At the start of the American Civil War, there were 34 states in the United States, 15 of which were slave states, all of which had slave codes. The 19 free states did not have slave codes, although they still had laws regarding slavery and enslaved people, covering such issues as how to handle slaves from slave-states, whether they were runaways or with their owners.
Slavery was not banned nationwide in the United States until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. Earlier national laws greatly restricting slavery in the United States were the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves on 1 January 1808, which made it a felony to import slaves from abroad, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required runaway enslaved people found in free states to be returned to their owners in the South.
French slave codes
The French colonies in North America were the only portion of the Americas to have an effective slave code applied from the center of the empire. King Louis XIV applied the Code Noir in 1685, and it was adopted by Saint-Domingue in 1687 and the French West Indies in 1687, French Guiana in 1704, Réunion in 1723, and Louisiana in 1724. It was never applied in Canada, which had very few slaves. The Code Noir was developed in part to combat the spread of Protestantism and thus focuses more on religious restrictions than other slave codes. The Code Noir was significantly updated in 1724.
The city of New Orleans in Louisiana developed slave codes under Spain, France, and the United States, due to Louisiana changing hands several times, resulting in a very complex set of slave codes. The needs of the locals were usually held in favor over any outside laws.
Spanish slave codes
In practice, the slave codes of the Spanish colonies were local laws, similar to those in other regions. There was an overarching slave-code, Las Siete Partidas, which granted many specific rights to the slaves in these regions, but there is little record of it actually being used to benefit the slaves in the Americas. Las Siete Partidas was compiled in the thirteenth century, long before the colonization of the new world, and its treatment of slavery was based on the Roman tradition. Frank Tannenbaum, an influential sociologist who wrote on the treatment of slaves in the Americas, treated the laws in Las Siete Partidas as an accurate reflection of treatment, but later scholarship has moved away from this viewpoint, arguing that the official laws in Las Siete Partidas did not reflect practices in the colonies.
An attempt to unify the Spanish slave codes, the Codigo Negro, was cancelled without ever going into effect because it was unpopular with the slave-owners in the Americas.
Specific slave codes
- Barbados slave codes
- Code Noir; French black code
- New York slave codes
- South Carolina slave codes
- Virginia slave codes of 1705
- Anti-literacy laws in the United States
- Atlantic slave trade
- Convict leasing
- Debt bondage
- Forced labor
- Human trafficking
- Indentured servants
- International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition
- Slave narrative
- Slave rebellion
- Slave Trade Acts
- Slave trade
- Slavery in Africa
- Slavery in Canada
- Slavery in the colonial United States
- Slavery in the United States
- Unfree labour
- Wage slavery
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- "A History to Remember by Rose Sanders - Education Rights / In Motion Magazine". www.inmotionmagazine.com. Retrieved 2018-12-17.
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- ..., Gaspar, David Barry. Geggus, David Patrick, 1949- (1997). A turbulent time : the French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean. Indiana University Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-0253332479. OCLC 468033260.
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- Slave Code for the District of Columbia
- Laws of the State of Alabama, 1833
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