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Judges, Masters, Diviners: Slaves’ Experience of Criminal Justice in Colonial Suriname


“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.” 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, I 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 excruciating 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.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Natalie Zemon Davis , “Creole languages and their uses: the example of colonial Suriname,” Historical Research 82 (2009): 268–84

Diana Paton , “Punishment, Crime, and the Bodies of Slaves in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” Journal of Social History 34 (2001): 923–54

Sally Engle Merry , “Colonial and Postcolonial Law,” in Blackwell Companion to Law and Society, ed. Austin Sarat (Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 569–88

Jan Vansina , “Confinement in Angola's Past,” in A History of Prison and Confinement in Africa, ed. Florence Bernault (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003)

Mario Klarer , “Humanitarian Pornography: John Gabriel Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796),” New Literary History 36 (2005): 559–87

Margot van den Berg and Jacques Arends , “Court Records as a Source of Authentic Early Sranan,” in Creoles, Contact and Language Change: Linguistics and Social Implications, eds. G. Escure and A. Schwegler (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publications, 2004)

Pieter Spierenburg , “From Amsterdam to Auburn: An Explanation for the Rise of the Prison in Seventeenth-Century Holland and Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of Social History 20 (1987): 442–48

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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