Burnard on Wilson, 'Bonds of Empire: The English Origins of Slave Law in South Carolina and British Plantation America, 1660–1783'

Lee B. Wilson
Trevor G. Burnard

Lee B. Wilson. Bonds of Empire: The English Origins of Slave Law in South Carolina and British Plantation America, 1660–1783. Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 288 pp. $59.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-49525-7.

Reviewed by Trevor G. Burnard (University of Hull) Published on H-Albion (March, 2022) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer Polytechnic)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57257

How slavery became entrenched into colonial American and British imperial life over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is an extremely important topic but the debates over it have become a little stale recently. Lots of ink, especially recently, has been spilled over how central slavery is to the making of American history and whether the people who founded the new nation of the United States came to see slavery as against its fundamental values, as expressed in the idea that all men are created equal. The standard view has been that slavery in colonial British America was a legal aberration, a pernicious innovation adopted by colonists against English law (there was no statutory law of slavery in England in contrast to Spain or to the French Code Noir). Slavery, in short, was wrong, un-British and colonists knew this to be the case. It was an easy step onward to portray slavery as practiced in the colonies as illegal under British law and eventually to view it as “peculiar” and an aberration to proper British legal practice.

Lee B. Wilson, in one of the most significant books written on British American slavery in the last twenty or so years, explodes this notion. England/Britain, she shows, cannot be left off the hook as easily as is still common in British popular and occasionally academic thought, as, first, being a country instinctively antislavery and, second, a place where slavery hardly existed. The latter notion is clearly wrong. There is lots of empirical evidence detailing African enslaved people in Britain. The former notion is one harder to dislodge. Indeed, one of the principal, and wrong, assumptions made in the 1619 Project of the New York Times is that slaveholders in places like Virginia by 1776 had come to realize that Britain was preparing to curtail slaveholders’ rights over their enslaved property and made a preemptive decision to declare for independence so that their commitment to slavery could be continued against British antislavery inclinations.

Wilson demonstrates that this idea that British understandings and laws about slavery were very different than in the colonies is erroneous. She argues, convincingly, that colonial slave law was an organic part of English law. When South Carolinian slaveholders and their counterparts in the West Indies, such as the historian and Jamaican planter Edward Long, argued that slavery was supported in British law and in legal practice everywhere in the empire they were absolutely right. As she demonstrates in close research into various sets of legal records in which she can trace legal practice, the laws and statutes governing slavery arose from legal practice more than they shaped such practice—“plantation slavery was yet another invidious manifestation of English law’s protean potential” (p. 5).

Wilson shows that chattel slavery existed in English law in multiple ways. She makes clear that it was a paramount legal concern not only in the colonies but in metropolitan Britain too, where judge after judge supported slave owners’ customary rights over their enslaved property. That slaves were property protected under law “insulated slave owners from contemplating the moral implications of owning human beings” and contributed substantially to the dehumanization of enslaved people (p. 5). “By treating Black people as things at law,” she insists, “colonists ... constructed a legal world in which slaves were not just like things, they were things. Through the act of categorization, they rendered factual what had been a mere supposition—that people of African descent were less than human” (p. 23). That enslaved people were things under law gave enslavers considerable latitude to deny the enslaved their humanity and by doing so kept the enslaved firmly under pernicious forms of control.

The most crucial chapter is her innovative first chapter on enslaved people in South Carolina (and Jamaica) as being chattel. Treating slaves as chattel, or as moveable property, not real estate, was a major innovation and a “momentous decision.” Colonists were “relatively free from royal oversight when it came to making determinations about the status of slaves” and chose to make “a conscious decision to treat slaves not just as property at law, but as chattel property.” By doing so, owners of enslaved people were endowed with “a certain bundle of rights that allowed them to dispose of that property with little hindrance” (p. 31). Wilson notes that “colonists exhibited the same dexterity in commanding enslaved people using the language of English property law as they did in manipulating the environment to suit the needs of rice agriculture” (p. 30).

It was not inevitable that colonists would adapt English property law so that enslaved people would be treated as personal property—able to be seized to repay debt, for example. Enslaved property was slotted into “an extant English legal framework, complete with forms and procedures that allowed [colonists] to maximize their value” (p. 61). Through property law, the practices of slavery in South Carolina and Jamaica, in which owners had immense power, including the ability to alienate chattel property without restraint, were solidified. She argues that the chattel principle formed an important constraint on slave agency—“forms as well as force policed freedom’s boundaries” (p. 20). It is a compelling argument and one that will make scholars pay more attention to law and to how English legal customs shaped slavery in real and lasting ways.

Wilson’s arguments are an important counter to ideas that see the development and protection of slavery in America and the United States as very much an American innovation, one little connected to the country’s British inheritance. In this telling, Britain is seen, incongruously in my opinion, as preparing to abolish slavery in the 1760s and 1770s with Mansfield’s 1772 decision in Somerset v. Steuart, a marker of Britain’s growing antislavery position. Thus, American revolutionaries in places like Virginia and South Carolina joined in rebellion as a preemptive strike against a potentially antislavery British empire. This argument betrays an ignorance of the reality of Atlantic slavery. It is impossible to see Britain in the 1760s as an antislavery nation (as it became from the 1780s, or after the American Revolution) when in 1760 it had put down with maximum violence a large slave rebellion in Jamaica. It makes no sense given how Britain killed enslaved rebels in ferocious and barbaric ways to argue, as some historians do, that Britain was a lukewarm supporter of planters and slavery in the British Atlantic. Wilson’s detailed treatment of slave law in colonial South Carolina reinforces a view of Britain before 1776 as overwhelmingly committed to the maintenance and indeed the expansion of slavery in its Atlantic colonies. Slavery was a thoroughly British institution. And the protection of slavery remained important to the British even during the American Revolution, when British antagonism to planter revolutionaries was only sometimes converted into sympathy with the enslaved property of Britain’s enemies.

Wilson’s final chapter is about how the British, especially the British army, dealt with enslaved people and with “slavery” as a problem rather than an opportunity in the early 1780s, during the British occupation of South Carolina. It is a chapter that fits a little uneasily with the rest of the book but it is also a tour de force of sustained scholarship. It provides a searching examination of British actions during this war. She argues that the British government and its army after occupying South Carolina from 1780 remembered its colonial precedents as a supporter of slavery and tried to uphold them as much as possible in the laws and customs it followed relating to slavery in wartime. What this adherence to old ways of doing things meant in practice was that the interests of the enslaved were considered only in relation to their owners, not according to what service they offered British forces. As Wilson contends, “the fate of the enslaved depended not upon a slave’s military service, but rather upon a master’s allegiance.” In short, the British thought of the enslaved as things, as they were under law, rather than as people, despite what enslaved people did to show their humanity. For the British, “enslaved people remained valuable commodities that could be used to offset economic losses, rather than individuals who might be entitled to their freedom” (p. 214).

Wilson’s book is beautifully written and modest in its ambitions. But it is a hugely important book. As noted in the summary on the back cover of the book, it “presents an account of slave law that is entirely new: one in which English law imbued plantation slavery with its staying power even as it insulated slave owners from contemplating the implications of owning human beings.” It outlines two things of great historiographical importance. The history of American slavery is incomplete without an appreciation of how it operated in practice in the crucially important colonial period. And American slavery has fundamentally British origins. Britain cannot divorce itself from the history of American slavery—a slavery it largely invented and an institution it upheld routinely and consistently for over two centuries. Whatever differences there were between Britain and the thirteen colonies that led to independence for the latter, those differences did not revolve around the position of chattel slavery.

Citation: Trevor G. Burnard. Review of Wilson, Lee B., Bonds of Empire: The English Origins of Slave Law in South Carolina and British Plantation America, 1660–1783. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. March, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57257

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