- “Going to Law”Legal Discourse and Testimony in Early West Indian Slave Narratives
Apply to the magistrate on the very first instance of ill-usage, should any occur during my absence.—Matthew “Monk” Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor
Despite the fact that the courts had not proven consistently helpful in their quests for freedom, British West Indian slaves frequently consulted them in order to invoke the rule of law and pursue their rights. Several Caribbean historians have documented the ways in which slaves in the West Indies participated in formal legal arenas almost from the initial days of colonization and claimed the courts as one of their own forums for resolving disputes and asserting those few rights written into the various parliamentary acts intended to ameliorate the conditions of the enslaved and passed in England and its Caribbean colonies from 1788 onward.1 Indeed, slaves in the West Indies participated in the courts systems as plaintiffs as well as defendants more frequently than previously thought.2 And although the courts were certainly used by those in power to oppress slaves, women, children, and the poor, as well as to “legitimate [the] blatantly repressive regime” of slavery, they nevertheless provided a forum for those who did not write the laws in question to use the courts to ensure the legal protection of their “natural rights” (Lazarus-Black, “John Grant’s” 154). Thus, in another of the seemingly endless paradoxes inherent to the British imperial slave system, slaves—objects of property, yet human subjects—could, in certain situations, use the courts in the West Indies and in England on their own behalf, as legal agents to affirm their status as legal subjects deserving of the law’s unbiased protection, and judgment.
In using the courts—or “going to law,” to use the eighteenth-century phrase3—to protect their assets and the rights that had been granted them under the various amelioration acts, British West Indian slaves were enacting and putting into practice the political argument that abolitionists had [End Page 351] begun making in the mid-eighteenth century: if all men were born equal, then slavery was a violation of the natural rights of man.4 During the early eighteenth century in Britain, philosophical ideas of “natural rights” proliferated. John Locke, in particular, argued that all men were born with “a plain and natural right to life, liberty, and estate,” or property (Locke 259). Rousseau’s notion of the social contract held that it was the purpose of government and laws to uphold these natural rights. And although natural rights were independent of legal rights and so could not be surrendered or taken away by law, these natural rights created the foundation for good government and its system of laws. Indeed, the recourse to law against authority was frequently framed as an appeal to universal moral truth.5 The conflation of natural rights with legal rights proved very persuasive and beginning with Morgan Godwyn’s Negro’s and Indians Advocate, Suing for their Admission Into the Church (1680), British and West Indian abolitionists would draw heavily upon its rhetoric in challenging the institution of slavery.6
Influenced by the legal cast of early British abolitionism and grounded in the extreme litigiousness of the West Indies, slaves on the British colonial plantation islands were more likely than their counterparts in the United States to “go to law,” or actively participate in a variety of ways with the judicial system.7 This willingness to go to law is a distinctive feature of three slave narratives from the British West Indies, The History of Mary Prince (1831), Negro Slavery as Described by a Negro: Being the Narrative of Ashton Warner, a Native of St. Vincent (1831), and A Narrative of Events since the First of August, 1834, by James Williams, an Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica (1837). These narratives highlight the centrality of legal discourse within the early (pre-1838) abolitionist movement and appropriate legal language and imagery in ways unique to the early British colonial legal system as distinct from the US legal system. Although, like their counterparts from the United States, slave narratives from the British West...