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“Two negroes hanged,” John Gabriel Stedman wrote in his Suriname journal for March 9, 1776, and then two days later, among his purchases of“soap, wine, tobacco, [and] rum” and his dinners with an elderly widow, he records, “A negro’s foot cut off.”1 Stedman expanded on these events in the later Narrative of his years as a Dutch–Scottish soldier fighting against the Suriname Maroons: And now, this being the period of the [court] sessions, another Negro’s leg was cut off for sculking from a task to which he was unable, while two more were condemned to be hang’d for running away altogether. The heroic behavior of one of these men deserves particularly to be quotted, he beg’d only to be heard for a few moments, which, being granted, he proceeded thus––

“I was born in Africa, where defending my prince during an engagement, I was made a captive, and sold for a slave by my own countrimen. One of your countrimen, who is now to be my judge, became then my purchaser, in whose service I was treated so cruelly by his overseer that I deserted and joined the rebels in the woods . . .”

To which his former master, who as he observed was now one of his judges, made the following laconick reply, “Rascal, that is not what we want to know. But the torture this moment shall make you confess crimes as black as yourself, as well as those of your hateful accomplices.” To which the Negroe, who now swel’d in every vain with rage [replied, holding up his hands], “Massera, the verry tigers have trembled for these hands . . .and dare you think to threaten me with your wretched instrument? No, despise the greatest tortures you can now invent, as much as I do the pitiful wrech who is going to inflict them.” Saying which, he threw himself down on the rack, where amidst the most excruci ating tortures he remained with a smile and without they were able to make him utter a syllable. Nor did he ever speak again till he ended his unhappy days at the gallows.2

Stedman’s heroic runaway slave is given the sentimental expression so appreciated by English readers of his day, including an elevated translation of the lively Creole (Neger Engelsche, or Sranan as it is now called) that the African would actually have spoken before his judges.3 But Stedman did witness the event (he visited the man with the mutilated limb a few days later4) and his account includes some of the features of criminal justice that would be important for Suriname slaves in the eighteenth century: the link between judges and slave owners, the use of an extreme form of torture, the imposition of the death penalty for running away, and the memory of Africa.


Figure 1. A runaway slave being executed on
the rack in 1776. Source: John Gabriel
Stedman, Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition
against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam
(London: J. Johnson, 1796), vol. 2, facing
p. 296.

In this article I describe the varieties of criminal justice experienced by slaves in Suriname in the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, both those endured under their masters and the colonial government, and that which they created themselves on their plantations. I am addressing here certain gaps in the history of slavery in those centuries and also in the history of criminal law and prosecution. Studies of slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean, immensely rich as they have been, have described the disciplinary regimes on plantations and the harsh punishments meted out for revolt.5 The various law codes governing the status of slaves, their conduct, and the conduct of their owners toward them have been examined, Elsa Goveia’s West Indian Slave Laws of the 18th Century (1970) being the pioneering venture.6 But the whole cluster of activities considered as “crime” in regard to slavery, their detection, and their punishment—including the slaves’ own efforts at policing—have been little treated as such. Therefore, my intention in “Judges, Masters, Diviners” is to expand for Suriname the paths opened by Philip J. Schwarz in regard to slaves and the criminal law in Virginia; by Mindie Lazarus-Black in regard to slave laws, slave courts, and slave resistance in Antigua and elsewhere in the British Caribbean; and by Diana Paton in regard to the affirmation of masters’ power in the slave courts of Jamaica.7 As for the African past, innovative studies have unearthed continuities from or transformations of African beliefs and practices in the realms of slave healing, religion, and agriculture.8 I will go on here to suggest possible carry-overs or creolization in detecting, judging and punishing crime. Memory will play a role in my account: memories from the African societies from which slaves had been wrenched and memories of slave experience bequeathed to future generations.

Historians of European criminal law and prosecution have rarely made the crime and punishment of slaves in the colonies part of their story, even though most settlers and plantation owners and their law codes were European. Studies of the early modern Netherlands have taught us much about the experience of working people and the poor in the criminal courts there and about the reform of criminal law and public execution in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but have not extended themselves to comparison with the busy Dutch slave world.9 Cross-cultural reviews of colonial law tend to pick up the account in the nineteenth century where the “creating a docile, disciplined labor force” by imperial governments is discussed primarily in terms of “groups released from the control of masters, owners or chiefs.” With a longer historical perspective, Lauren Benton has incorporated polities with slave systems into her Law and Colonial Cultures, and they add much to her analysis of “legal pluralism.” 10 I hope “Judges, Masters, Diviners” will provide an example helpful for her approach and also suggest further ways to think about relations between the practice of criminal law in the slave colonies and in Europe during the early modern period.

Founded initially as an English settlement, Suriname had passed to the Dutch after the 1667 Treaty of Breda and was eventually owned by the chartered Society of Suriname, the Society’s shares being divided between the West India Company, the city of Amsterdam, and the well-born Sommelsdijck family. Under the sovereignty of the States-General, the “exalted” Directors of the Society oversaw the colony’s activities from the Netherlands, appointing the governor and sending him directives on the Dutch boats that plied the Atlantic during the sailing season.11

Around 1700, some 700 people of European origin were living in the town of Paramaribo and the plantations along the Suriname, Commewijne, and Cottica Rivers: Dutch, Portuguese Jews, Huguenots from France and the Netherlands and other places where they had taken refuge after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and English men and women who stayed on from the initial settlement. Some 8,500 people from Africa were producing sugar as slaves on the plantations, and already, approximately 1,000 more Africans had escaped to the rain forests to live as Maroons, sharing that space with indigenous Caribs, Arawaks and Wayanas.

By the 1780s, the European population had increased to approximately 2,000–3,000 persons, with Swedes, Germans, and Swiss added to the mix and with Portuguese and German Jews representing approximately a third of the settlers. To the sugar so arduously produced on the plantations had been added coffee, chocolate, cotton, and timber. The slave population raising these crops had multiplied sixfold to more than 50,000 people, and now some 5,000 Maroons were living in forest villages, divided into three tribes with their own kings and headmen.12

Although the word “criolo”—that is, born locally—was appearing more often next to a slave’s name on the plantation inventories after the middle of the eighteenth century, the majority of slaves were still born in Africa. From 1730 to 1780, more than 124,000 persons were transported to Suriname on the slave boats.13 Some had been brought up in the Central African kingdoms in Angola and the Kongo, where the Bantu Kikongo languages were spoken, others in the Akan and Asante kingdoms of the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana). Many more had come from the Slave Coast, that is, from the polities of the Gbe-speaking peoples along the Bight of Benin (in present-day Benin, Togo), such as the coastal kingdoms of Arda and Hueda and the powerful inland kingdom of Dahomey. Others yet were Yoruba-speakers from the ancient kingdom of Oyo and elsewhere west of the Niger River. Although some children were on board and survived the Middle Passage, most of the people crammed into the slave decks were in the preferred age range of fifteen to thirty-five.14

Let us first consider the notions of crime, its detection, and its punishment, which these Africans brought with them to Suriname—as well as we can know them from late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sojourners and slavers among the farmers, merchants, fishermen, and warriors of the coastal kingdoms of west Africa. Our sources will be the memoirs and accounts of men such as Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi, Capuchin missionary to the kingdoms of Kongo and Angola in the mid-seventeenth century; Willem Bosman, factor for the Dutch West India Company on the Gold and Slave Coasts for fourteen years in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and Ludewig Ferdinand Rømer, factor for the Danish West India and Guinea Company on the Gold Coast in the 1740s; William Snelgrave, who began as a young sailor on his father’s slaver in 1704 and then captained his own English slave boat on into the 1730s, and the surgeon John Atkins, who served on an English slave ship in the early 1720s; Olaudah Equiano, who lived as a boy among Igbo-speaking villagers in what is now southeastern Nigeria in the late 1740s and early 1750s until he was kidnapped and forced to endure the Middle Passage as a slave; and the Moravian Brother Christian Oldendorp, who in the late 1760s interviewed slaves on Saint Croix and other Danish islands about their African past.15

The actions named as “crimes” were murder, poisoning, witchcraft, theft, adultery (a serious crime in these polygynous societies), kidnapping, and major physical injury. “Trivial crimes” included beating someone, especially a young man beating another, and reviling another person, a troubling act in kingdoms where mutual deference and politeness were required in even a brief encounter. In some places lying could be punished as an offense.16

Along the whole range of the Guinea Coast and inland kingdoms, the gods were always drawn upon for divination and detection—not the high god who ruled more distantly over all, but one of the pantheon of responsive lesser gods, the voudun or orisha, who ruled realms of the sea or the air, were embodied in a special kind of tree or snake, or were more intimately connected to an ancestral spirit. The diviner’s rod or “fetish” as the Europeans called it, encapsulated the god’s presence, often a wooden rod filled with earth, oil, bones, feathers, hair, or other objects imbued with divine aura.

Seers/diviners were called in at the earliest stages of crime detection, including when the victim and others were unsure who had been the perpetrator. An Akan diviner could conjure the power of a god into some food or drink and leave it in place where it would entrap a thief whose identity was unknown. Death was usually assumed to be “unnatural,” that is, to have a source in some human or divine agency, and the dead person was asked to assist in uncovering it. To catch an unknown poisoner, as Olaudah Equiano remembered from his Igbo village, the diviner ordered the corpse to be carried toward the grave, whereupon instantly the bearers were compelled to run to a house in which the poisoner lived. In upper Guinea, among the Mende and Temne peoples of the Sierra Leone region, the bearers questioned the corpse about a possible witch or poisoner responsible for his or her death and were impelled toward a special bough if they hit upon a suspicious name.17 Meanwhile in the kingdom of Akim along the Gold Coast, an accuser alerted the village drummer to assemble the inhabitants and made his or her charge in public.18

Once accused of a crime—for example, theft, murder, adultery, poisoning, kidnapping—a person who wanted to establish his or her innocence had to go through a test with the diviner. The rite was sometimes witnessed by only the accusers and kin of the accused, other times it was enacted before many spectators. Three major ordeals were used. One combined oath-taking with imbibing a special drink or sometimes food. In an Akan polity along the Gold Coast, the accused took a drink before the diviner’s sacred rod, was smeared with supernaturally powerful ingredients, and then called on the god for death in various horrible ways if he or she was guilty. In the Kongo region, the nganga (the priest–diviner) prepared the drink of “purification” or “purging” from the red bark of an ordinarily poisonous tree; he then intoned before the gods and those present that an in  nocent person would drink it and remain well.19 A second ordeal used heat to test the flesh of the accused. In Kongo, the diviner put a rock in a pot of boiling water, which the suspect had to remove; along the Sierra Leone River, the diviner might add a special bark to the boiling water to make it stronger; in a region of the Gold Coast, a cowrie shell had to be retrieved from a pot of boiling oil. If the person was guilty, the arm would become ulcerated.20 Yet a third ordeal put to test the suspect’s tongue. In the kingdom of Benin, the diviner passed a cock’s quill through the tongue of the accused; among the Akan on the Gold Coast, the diviner might use a sewing needle. Easy removal demonstrated innocence.21

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