"Incorrigible Runaways": Enslaved People's Mobility and the Courts in Mid-19th-Century Jamaica

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM
State Ballroom (Palmer House Hilton)
Michael Becker, Duke University
In the extant Jamaican slave court records, running away is the offense of which enslaved people are most frequently accused. This high frequency of citations coincides with a similarly high conviction rate, with punishments ranging from short periods of hard labor in the workhouse to transportation off the island for life. And, while many of these cases involve extended absence from a plantation of unspecified type, others invoke travel across numerous parishes and even efforts to appropriate canoes or small boats to seek sanctuary on another island. The severity of punishments issued to offenders suggests the Jamaican colonial state placed a high priority on regulating the mobility of enslaved people; however, the continued frequency of such cases suggests that this severity had but limited impact on enslaved people’s interest and willingness to risk running away.

While Caribbean historians have written extensively about marronage, especially in the Jamaican context, few have made use of court records as a means to discuss this phenomenon. Further, few have explicitly considered the impact of transformations in slave codes and abolitionist political pressures on the rate, frequency, and duration of marronage. Through a quantitative and qualitative study of extant slave court records, this paper asks: how did the rising strength of the abolitionist movement and eventually the impending dawn of emancipation impact the number and conviction rate for cases of marronage? When and why did marronage cases appear before slave courts, as opposed to being dealt with through private punishment by overseers or plantation owners? And, in the small percentage of cases where enslaved people were not found guilty, what was the operative factor in establishing their innocence?

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