Barbados Slave Code of 1661: the Legal Document That Classified African Slaves as Property

The small island country of Barbados was the birthplace of British slave society, it’s also the most ruthlessly colonized by Britain’s ruling elites. They made their fortunes from sugar produced by enslaved Africans and this great wealth secured Britain’s place as an imperial superpower.

As African slaves in Barbados grew greater in number — By 1660 there was near parity with 27,000 blacks and 26,000 whites —, there was a justifiable paranoia on the part of the white settlers that a violent rebellion could occur in the island if nothing is done. As a result of this fear, the colonial government of Barbados enacted a slave code as a way of legislatively controlling its black enslaved population. The code which restricted slaves’ behaviors were later known as the BARBADOS SLAVE CODE.

The Barbados Slave Code of 1661, officially titled as An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes, was a law passed by the Parliament of Barbados to provide a legal basis for slavery in the English colony of Barbados.

The Barbados Slave Code of 1661 which was officially titled as An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes, defined the way of life for slaves in the Caribbean island of Barbados. The Slave Code denied rights to slaves and allowed them to be classified as property instead of human beings.

The slave code which described black people as ‘an heathenish, brutish and an uncertaine, dangerous kinde of people’, apparently sought to “protect slaves” from cruel masters and masters from unruly slaves; but in practice, it provided extensive protections for masters, but not for slaves.

Barbados Slave Code of 1661: the Legal Document That Classified Black Slaves as Property

The law required masters to provide each slave with one set of clothing per year, but it set no standards for slaves’ diet, housing, or working conditions. It denied slaves, which it classified as property, even basic human rights guaranteed under common law, such as the right to life. It allowed the slaves’ owners to do entirely as they wished to their slaves for anything considered a misdemeanor, including mutilating them and burning them alive.

The document also passed Slave status to children through the mother, “All children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.”

Slaves also had few legal rights: in court their testimony was inadmissible in any litigation involving whites; they could make no contract, nor could they own property; even if attacked, they could not strike a white person.

There were numerous restrictions to enforce social control: slaves could not be away from their owner’s premises without permission; they could not assemble unless a white person was present; they could not own firearms and nor could they be taught to read or write.

Slave codes

Obedience to the slave codes was exacted in a variety of ways. Such punishments as whipping, branding, and imprisonment were commonly used.

For example, if a Black person was found guilty of hitting a white person, the code stipulated that they should be “severely whipped“, if it were his first offence.

“If any Negro or slave whatsoever shall offer any violence to any Christian by striking or any other form of violence, such Negro or slave shall for his or her first offence be severely whipped by the Constable.

For his second offence of that nature he shall be severely whipped, his nose slit, and be burned in some part of his face with a hot iron. And being brutish slaves, [they] deserve not, for the baseness of their condition, to be tried by the legal trial of twelve men of their peers, as the subjects of England are.

And it is further enacted and ordained that if any Negro or other slave under punishment by his master unfortunately shall suffer in life or member, which seldom happens, no person whatsoever shall be liable to any fine therefore.”

The Barbados slave code of 1661 was especially influential as it was the first comprehensive slave code ever written.

The Barbados slave code would later serve as the basis for the slave codes adopted in several other British colonies, including Jamaica (1664), South Carolina (1696), Georgia, and Antigua (1702). In other colonies where the codes are not an exact copy, such as the French code noir, the influence of the Barbadian codes can be traced throughout various provisions.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


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