BARBADOS

Barbados Slave Code
(1661 – 1667)

Side-by-Side Transcription

In 1661, Barbados became the first English colony to pass a comprehensive slave code.  Below is the best version of it we have.  The problem is that the only versions of it that survive date to 1667, when it had already been amended twice: this version was transcribed and sent by members of the Council. The passage of the act was quite peculiar.

About

This is a transcription of the earliest copy of the 1661 Barbados Slave Codes. The first code passed in 1661 does not seem to have survived. The 1667 version reflects amendments to the law between 1661 and 1667. 

This Barbados law was the first to set up a comprehensive separate slave code, one that influenced virtually all other English colonies. It set  out the organization of labor and society on the island and codifies racialized slavery. At the same time, they passed a servant code that gave servants more privileges (though still many disabilities).  Among the 23 clauses listed, the code sets particular requirements for slaveowners to follow in treating their enslaved property, creates punishments for planters who harbor others slaveowners’ “negroes,’ and empowers the government to search property for runaway slaves and to compensate slaveowners for lost property.

The Barbados Slave Code of 1667 is relatively rare and difficult to access. Only two manuscript copies are in existence—one at TNA (the UK National Archives at Kew) and the other at the Huntington Library. The  manuscript copy at the Barbados National Archives is written in an early 20th c. hand and is transcribed from records in what was then called the PRO (Public Record Office, London) and is now the TNA, or from this copy. We’ve been able to find only one printed publication in an anthology of primary sources from 2001 (Slavery edited by Engerman, Drescher, and Paquette), but the version included in that anthology is only partial and excerpted. Other editions rely on the printed copy of the law (post 1700) which by then was heavily amended to reflect the many revisions of the Barbados code between 1661 and 1700. Such amendments were made silently, since these editions of published colonial laws were aimed at practicing lawyers. That was just how it was done.

By making publicly available photos of the manuscript and transcription, we hope to enable more scholars and the public to examine and interpret this important document in its entirety.

Important comparisons and information can be drawn by putting this document in conversation not only with the two versions from different archives, but also with other materials in our collection (some still to be posted!), such as the Royal African Company documents, the Jamaica Slave Code, and other such documents.

Further Reading
  • Edward B. Rugemer, “The Development of Mastery and Race in the Comprehensive Slave Codes of the Greater Caribbean during the Seventeenth Century.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 3 (2013): 429–58. https://doi.org/10.5309/willmaryquar.70.3.0429.
  • Bradley J. Nicholson, “Legal Borrowing and the Origins of Slave Law in the British Colonies,” American Journal of Legal History 38, no. 1 (January 1994): 38-54.
  • Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (Chapel Hill, NC: Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 1972).
  • Jerome S. Handler, “Custom and law: The status of enslaved Africans in seventeenth-century Barbados,” Slavery & Abolition 37:2, 233-255, DOI: 10.1080/0144039X.2015.1123436.
Sources
Other Information

Note that some abbreviations have been extended. Square brackets indicate likely readings where the document is damaged or illegible.

Subject: Colonial Law
Source: National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew
Date: 1667
Contributor: Slavery, Law, and Power Project
Format: Handwritten document
Language: English
Type: Manuscript
Identifier: CO 30/2/16-26, PRO, NA

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Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire (December 5, 2022) Barbados Side-by-Side Transcription. Retrieved from https://slaverylawpower.org/barbados-side-by-side/.
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See the full manuscript

An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes

Whereas heretofore many good Lawes and ordinances have been made for

the governing [and] regulateing and ordering the Negroes, Slaves in this Isle

& sundry punishments appointed to many their misdemeanors, crimes and offences 

which yet have not met the effect hath been desired and might have reasonably been

reasonably expected had the Masters of Families and other the Inhabitants

of this Isle been soe carefull of their obedience and complyance with the said

Lawes as they ought to have beene. And these former Lawes being in many

clauses imperfect, and not fully comprehending the true Constitution of this

Government in relation of their Slaves their Negroes, an heathenish, brutish, and

an uncertaine dangerous kind of people, to whom if surely in any thing we

may extend the legislative power given us of provisionary Lawes, for the

benefit and good of this plantation, not being contradictory to the Lawes

of England, there being in all the body of that Law, noe tract to guide us

where to walke, nor any rule sett us, how to governe such Slaves, yet we

well know by the right rule of reason, and order, we are not to leave them to

the arbitrary, cruel, and outrageous wills of every evil disposed person, but

soe farr to protect them as we doe many other goods and Chattels, and alsoe

somewhat further as being created Men, though without the knowledge of God

in the world, we have therefore upon mature and serious Consideracion of

the premises thought good to renewe and revive whatsoever we have found

An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes [Ctd.]

necessary, and usefull in the former Lawes of the […]

Governing and ordering Negroes, and to add thereunto such further Lawes and ordinances, as

at this time we thinke absolutely needful for the publique safety and may prove

in the future behovefull to the peace and utility of this Isle by this Act

repealing and dissolving all other former Laws made concerning the said

Negroes and for the time to come.    

CLAUSE 1:

Be it enacted published and declared and it is by the President, Councill, and

Assembly of this Isle and by authority of the same enacted, ordained, & published

that no Master, Mistress, Commander, or Overseer of any family within this Island

shall give their Negroes leave on Sabbath days, holy days or at any other

time to go out of their plantations except such Negroes as usually wait upon

them at home and abroad, and them with a ticket under his Master, Mistress,

Commander, or Overseers’ hand, the said Ticket specifying the time of his or her,

coming from the plantation and the time allowed for his or her returne &

noe other Negroes except upon necessary business, and then to send a

Christian or Negroes’ Overseer along with them with a ticket as aforesaid upon

forfeiting for every Negroe so limited to go abroad 500 pounds of Muscavado sugar,

half the said five to the Informer and the other half to the publique

Treasury; And if any Master, Mistress, Commander or Overseer of any plantation

shall finde any Negro or Negroes at any time in their plantation without a Ticket

and business from his said Master and not apprehend them or endeavor so to

doe and having apprehended them and shall not punish them by a moderate

whipping, shall forfeit 500 pounds of the like sugar to be disposed off as aforesaid, the said

penalty to be recovered before some Justice of the Peace of that precinct

where such default shall be made who is hereby authorized and upon Complaint

made to examine upon oath to heare and determine the same and by Warrant

under his hand directed to the Constable to cause such penalty to be levied

as in case of servants wages is appointed.

EARLY ACCESS:  Transcription is under editorial review and may contain errors.
Please do not cite or otherwise reproduce without permission.