Iverson on Rugemer, 'Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World'

Edward B. Rugemer
Justin Iverson

Edward B. Rugemer. Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018. 400 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-98299-4

Reviewed by Justin Iverson (Northern Illinois University) Published on H-Atlantic (October, 2020) Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55531

Enslaved Resistance and the Rule of Law in the Early Atlantic World

In Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World, Edward B. Rugemer examines the laws that English enslavers passed to maintain their power in slave societies alongside the diverse acts by enslaved peoples that were the foundation of the imperial project. For Rugemer, not only was slavery “at war with the humanity of the people enslaved,” but the laws governing the slave society also ultimately reflect how slave societies functioned in the first place (p. 2). And while slave laws demonstrate how enslavers sought to control the enslaved, the laws themselves more importantly illustrate the pervasive and politically significant acts that enslaved peoples exhibited to resist the chattel system. Starting with the development of the brutal slave codes in Barbados in the early-mid seventeenth century to nineteenth-century emancipation in the United States, Rugemer provides a comparative approach of multiple slave societies in British North America and the Caribbean for nearly two centuries to better understand the profound roots of enslavement, resistance, and later abolition. Such a comparative approach offers new insight into the slave societies of Barbados, Jamaica, and South Carolina, which all emerged from the same historical moment and shared the same legal genealogy that developed during the expansion of England’s Atlantic empire in the seventeenth century. For example, Rugemer shows that while the planters of Jamaica lost their control to rebellious enslaved people and abolitionists in 1833, in South Carolina enslavers were able to preserve their mastery through racist proslavery arguments that protected the chattel principle until 1865. Slave insurrection and abolitionist rhetoric forced the British Parliament to pass an act to abolish slavery in 1833, but in South Carolina planters faced those same forces and asserted their constitutional right to protect slavery. In the United States, enslavers had constitutional backing to preserve slavery and political power against their abolitionist peers. On the other hand, Caribbean enslavers could not rely on the same legal theory to protect the slave system.

Specifically, chapter 1 discusses the early development of slave codes in Barbados during the seventeenth century. The early laws in the 1640s and 1650s treated White servants and African slaves in similar ways, but gradually they began to differentiate the laborers from each other. A 1652 Act to Restrain the Wandring of Servants and Negros meted out more severe punishments for runaway African slaves than their White servant counterparts. Laws in the 1660s further reinforced the difference between White laborers and Black slaves. For example, a 1661 Servant Act expanded the rights of servants, while simultaneously a 1661 Slave Act increased punishments and fines to regulate African slaves. The early laws of the Barbados Assembly thereby made a substantial contribution to the economy of slavery in the Anglo-Atlantic and provided a template for how enslavers throughout the British Atlantic transitioned to African peoples as a racialized forced labor.

Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate how the slave codes in Barbados were replicated in Jamaica and South Carolina, and throughout these chapters Rugemer does an excellent job of demonstrating how the British Atlantic world served as a conduit for the exchange of legal information and ideas that were critical to the development of slave codes in other slave societies. For example, the Jamaican House of Assembly adopted Barbadian slave codes in the 1660s despite the colony’s more nascent development than Barbados. Their decision to do so reflected their aspirations to achieve the wealth of Barbados sugar planters. Englishmen in Jamaica understood that they needed to viciously enforce sugar production and suppress African slaves who resisted their enslaved status. Barbadian law provided the groundwork for a profitable slave economy in Jamaica. Unlike the Caribbean, English enslavers in South Carolina initially relied on Native Americans as slave laborers and contended with the French and Spanish threats to the colony, all of which produced the Yamasee War (1715-17) that nearly wiped out the South Carolina colony. In response, English slavers transitioned from Indigenous labor to African labor and similarly looked to Barbados and Jamaica as a model, specifically adopting Jamaica’s 1684 Slave Act.

In the next chapter, Rugemer explores the militarization of Jamaica’s slave society in the early eighteenth century. He argues that Maroons, runaway enslaved people who created free autonomous communities in remote locations, ultimately helped Jamaican planters protect and strengthen slavery on the island. As experienced soldiers in West African warfare, Maroons posed a substantial threat to the slave system in Jamaica during the eighteenth century and repeatedly forced English authorities to bolster their military forces, build barracks, and at times sue for peace in order to protect the chattel system on the island. In this chapter, Rugemer joins a growing body of literature connecting developments in West African warfare to slave resistance in the Atlantic world and debates on creolization in the African diaspora. Rugemer shows how wars in the Gold Coast and Bight of Benin led to an expansion of the English slave trade as prisoners of war and captives were sold as slaves and brought to the English colonies. Some of these prisoners became slave rebels and Maroons, and Rugemer suggests that the captives from the Gold Coast began to see themselves as “Coromantees” by the 1730s in Jamaica. Their descendants who live in Maroon communities today still practice some of these burial and spiritual practices.

Meanwhile, chapter 5 examines how the American Revolution reshaped all of these slave societies. In Jamaica, British enslavers were wholly dependent on the Crown for military assistance due to being heavily outnumbered by the enslaved majority, which dictated the planters’ decisions to remain a part of the empire during the Revolutionary War and thereby protect chattel slavery. In South Carolina, though, independence instead provided American enslavers with a better opportunity to ensure their slave society, particularly as British officers routinely emancipated enslaved peoples in exchange for military service. Readers will note that Rugemer here enters the debate on the relationship between slavery and American independence, a dialogue that has existed for decades and has since been reinvigorated by the New York Times “1619 Project.”[1] In Rugemer’s view, the 1772 Somerset case did give antislavery ideas more political power in London and influenced an increase in antislavery rhetoric during the revolutionary period. However, Somerset’s influence on American planters was limited, and the case “did not contribute to the causes of the American Revolution. If it had, North Americans would have written a lot more than they did” (p. 210). In addition, British military policies during the Revolutionary War had “never” been an antislavery commitment on the part of Britain (p. 209).

In the last two chapters, Rugemer demonstrates how American slaveholders strengthened chattel slavery in the United States while Caribbean planters lost ground to abolition and emancipation in the British Empire. Whereas South Carolinians had codified slavery in the US Constitution in exchange for a guarantee that transatlantic slave trading would come to an end in the next twenty years, Jamaican planters were still dependent colonists of the broader empire who lacked the same kind of legal equality and influence in the metropolis. In the end, this dependence on empire weakened the slaveocracy of the British Caribbean and paved the way for abolition.

With all of that said, there is one area in which further discussion could have strengthened Rugemer’s work as a whole. While he emphasizes the interplay between Britain’s North American and Caribbean colonies and the development of slave laws that built upon each other, a greater analysis on how enslaved rebels reacted to these developments as they happened across the littoral would have provided a more balanced story between enslavers and the enslaved. Moreover, although Rugemer notes that slave rebelliousness was linked to the American and Haitian Revolutions, more work on how rebels informed each other’s movements would have greatly strengthened the dialectic between resistance and repression that shaped these slave societies and elevated rebelliousness as even more politically significant.

In the end, Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance is an excellent read, which will appeal to both specialized and broader audiences. Advanced undergraduate and graduate students will be introduced to details regarding slave resistance in the Anglo-Atlantic and to broader debates on the relationship between the American Revolution and slavery and the history of abolition. Specialists will note how Rugemer also dives into the more nuanced discussions of the emancipatory power of slave rebels, the connections of African warfare to enslaved resistance, and the process of creolization throughout the British Atlantic. As a result, Slave Law and Politics deserves high praise for its versatility and utility inside and outside the classroom.


[1]. Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written: Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True,” New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html.

Citation: Justin Iverson. Review of Rugemer, Edward B., Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55531

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.