Despite the successful maneuvers of many runaways to escape slavery in the slaveholding South, considerable numbers did not make it and were apprehended by slave patrols, civilians, or watchmen. What happened to those among them who were subsequently not reclaimed by their legal owners? To answer this question, this paper focuses on the punishment and forced employment of runaway slaves by city and state authorities rather than by individual slaveholders. It follows enslaved southerners into workhouses, chain gains, and penitentiaries, thereby connecting different institutions within the nineteenth-century penal system. Exploring collaboration and clashes between slaveholders and the authorities, it will discuss how the forced employment of runaways fitted in with the broader understanding of Black labor and the restructuring of labor demands in the antebellum US South.
Historically, French Guiana was an anomaly in the French Americas, neither a settler colony nor an economically successful slave-based plantation colony like its wealthy Antillean counterparts. Sporadically governed, underpopulated, and generally neglected by the metropole, it was considered a backwater of the French empire. However, by the first decades of the nineteenth century, the punishment of fugitive slaves had become fundamental to how the colony of French Guiana conceptualized itself. The struggle between owner and state about who had the right to punish, and by what means, caused ferocious repercussions over who could claim sovereignty over slaves and their potential labor. The issue of flight came to signify the legal and political battle between settlers and the state. Indeed, the desire of the French state to control the terrain of French Guiana through the recapture—and punishment—of the enslaved echoes what would occur in the latter half of the nineteenth century as French Guiana became the world’s most notorious penal colony. This paper will explore these issues in nineteenth-century French Guiana through the fugitive figure of the enslaved and subsequently that of the runaway convict.
This special issue explores how enslaved workers of African descent were punished in the Americas. It studies punishment inside and beyond the criminal justice system, investigating its legitimation and implementation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Collectively, the articles address three main themes: the relationship between the enslaved, the slaveholders, and the state; the shifts in modalities of governance across space and time; and the entanglement of modes of punishment across geographies. This perspective illustrates the broader implications of punishment for issues of labor supply and labor control, and helps us understand how slavery was produced and reproduced in different, yet connected, regions of the Americas.
In June 1835, the Brazilian parliament promulgated a stringent law which punished enslaved persons convicted of assassinating their masters with capital punishment. Called the “law of necessity,” the regulation targeted the leaders of slave rebellions and established the death penalty as punishment against slave resistance. Research on the enforcement of the law demonstrated that while the regulation increased public hangings of the enslaved, overall fewer convict slaves were executed because of the law than had their sentences commuted to galé perpétua or a lifetime of penal servitude in public works. Analyzing slave petitions to commute death penalty sentences to penal servitude, this article intervenes in the debates on punishing the enslaved which connects labor history with the history of punishment. The research probes convicts’ understanding of the construction of Brazilian legal culture while analyzing the tensions between slave-owners and imperial authorities on punishing the enslaved.