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Nicole N. Aljoe on Legal Discourse and Testimony in Early West Indian Slave Narratives

In Advocacy, American History, Arts & Letters, Civil Procedure, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Laws of Slavery, Literary Theory & Criticism, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Rhetoric, Slavery, The West Indies on July 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Nicole N. Aljoe has published an intriguing article in Volume 46 (issue no. 2) of Early American Literature (2011), which is published by the University of North Carolina Press.  The article is titled “‘Going to Law’: Legal Discourse and Testimony in Early West Indian Slave Narratives.”  It is available here on Project Muse.  The abstract is below:

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. Indeed, slaves in the West Indies participated in the courts systems as plaintiffs as well as defendants more frequently than previously thought. 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.

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