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Harsh Laws and Regulations of Negro Slaves in Colonial Times

ROM the planting of the colony of Virginia at Jamestown, and that of Massachusetts, at Plymouth, until long after the War of Revolution, and the independence of the thirteen original colonies, Virginia was an undisputed leader among her sister commonwealths. She supplied more statesmen and more great soldiers than any other colony or state. She also took first rank in formulating laws and regulations suited to the new conditions.

Thus we find that the "Old Dominion"-as she was later familiarly and affectionately called-enacted more laws concerning the Negro slave-trade, and the regulation of slaves, than any other state. At least this appears to be true from such documentary evidence as has been preserved. Possibly it is only apparent, because of the high regard of the other colonies for the acts of the early House of Burgesses, and later legislation by Virginia's General Assembly. Certain it is that the other colonies looked up to her as a kind of mother and leader in this Negro question, as in all others.

Up to the year 1662 the white settlers in the colony of Virginia were virtually a law unto themselves as regards their Negro chattels, for they had no statutory laws on the subject and English law of the day prescribed that no Christian could be held as a slave, and English courts discouraged, in every pos

sible way, a system so obviously contrary to natural rights.

At the time of the settlement of Jamestown slavery was rapidly disappearing in England by individual emancipation. However there was no English law expressly forbidding slavery of non-Christians in the colonies.

We may easily imagine the rough treatment that the early black people received in this and other settlements, for the white emigrants were not all English gentlemen, nor were they all religious enthusiasts, as some seem to suppose. But even if they had been as we have said elsewhere-the customs of the times combined with the well-nigh universal human failing of selfish greed would have afforded the poor devils scant mercy.

The imported African savages and their descendants virtually had no rights in any of the early colonies; the master was free to do with them as he pleased; he could force them to work, chastise them, use them for the gratification of his animal passions, and even murder them, at his own individual choice and caprice. They were in the truest sense chattels, and, for the most part, so remained to the end of slavery. Under such freedom of action on the part of the masters, their treatment was very bad. There were, of course, in Virginia, as elsewhere, certain noble men and women who made the condition of their slaves ideal;-so far as the term can be applied to an immoral practice-and in many instances they were greatly humored and spoiled; but this was the rare exception, and even in these instances it more frequently applied only to certain favorite houseservants, and not to the far more numerous class of men and women who tilled the soil under taskmasters and overseers-field-hands as they were called.

The first acts of the Virginia legislature to define and regulate slavery were not for the betterment of the condition of these humble people; they perhaps made their treatment more cruel and inhuman. We get our best views of the attitude of the dominant class towards their human chattels from the general tenor of these early laws.

It was at a session of the Virginia legislature in December, 1662, that the first attempt was made to give a legislative basis to the system of hereditary slavery. It was enacted that children should be held bond or free "according to the condition of the mother." Under this act it not infrequently happened that a master's illegitimate children were foreordained to the life and horrors of absolute slavery under their own father.

Virginia's next legislative enactment on the subject was in 1667. It provided that Negroes, though converted and baptised into Christianity, should not thereby become free. This was in direct opposition to English law, which declared that no Christian could be held as a slave; but the mother country showed no inclination to interfere.

At the same session it was also enacted that killing slaves by extremity of correction should not be esteemed felony, "since it cannot be presumed that prepense malice should induce any man to destroy his own estate." This unjust act was also contrary to English law.

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Since there were some good people who freed their slaves from time to time, the Virginia legislature now passed an act subjecting freed Negroes to complete civil disabilities.

Again in 1682 the code of Virginia-regarding slavery was augmented by the following additions: Slaves were denied the right to carry arms, either of

fensive or defensive, or to go off the plantation of their masters without a written pass, or to lift hand against a Christian even in self-defense. Runaways refusing to be apprehended might be lawfully killed.

In 1692 Virginia passed an act entitled "An act for suppressing outlying slaves," after setting forth in a preamble that "Many times Negroes, mulattoes, and other slaves unlawfully absent themselves from their masters' and mistresses' service, and lie hid, and lurk in obscure places, killing hogs, and committing other injuries to the inhabitants of the dominion," authorizes any two justices-one constituting a quorum-to issue their warrants to the sheriff for the arrest of any such outlying slaves. Whereupon the sheriff is to use the necessary force, and if such slaves resist, or run away, or refuse to surrender, they may be lawfully killed and destroyed "by guns, or any other way whatsoever," the master, in such cases, to receive from the public four thousand pounds of tobacco for the loss of his slave.*

It was not an unusual occurrence in Virginia for a poor, misused Negro, or mulatto-sometimes virtually white-to be driven to desperation and attempt to live the life of a recluse and marauder. This was more common perhaps among those slaves who were more than half white.

The author is himself a native Virginian and can testify of his own knowledge to the fact that some of these very light colored mulattoes, who for the most part have only such cultivation as they have acquired unaided, are men of magnificent Caucasic mental endowment. Under such circumstances it is

*Clauses included in quotation marks are the exact wording of extracts from the laws-much of the rest is taken directly from these laws but the exact language is not always closely followed.

easy to understand that his lot as a chattel was often beyond his power of endurance. Such men would sometimes conclude that they would rather take a long chance at eking out an existence as wild men in the forests, than be kicked and cuffed about by their masters, who were often their very nearest of blood relations, or, in many instances, human brutes, who violated every law of humanity in their treatment of Negro slaves. Here is a special act made to fit such a case:

About the year 1700 we find a Virginia act setting forth that "One Billy, a Negro slave to John Tittel, has several years unlawfully absented himself from his master's service, lying out, and lurking in obscure places, supposedly within the counties of James City, York, and Kent, devouring and destroying the stocks and crops, robbing the homes of, and committing and threatening other injuries to several of his majesty's good and liege people within this colony and dominion of Virginia, in contempt of the good laws thereof;" wherefore the said Billy is declared by the act guilty of a capital offense; and, "whosoever shall kill and destroy the said Negro slave Billy, and apprehend and deliver him to justice," is to be rewarded with a thousand pounds of tobacco; and of persons entertaining him, or trading and trucking with him, are declared guilty of felony; his master, if he be killed, to receive a compensation from the public of four thousand pounds of tobacco."

It is clearly discernible, from a careful consideration of these early statutes, that the whole social status of the times was so far removed from present conditions that it is difficult for us to imagine it. For instance, it was found necessary, as we shall presently show, to pass specific acts and impose penalties upon white women for having Negro children.

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