The following is a review of Gunvor Simonse’s “Slave Stories: Law, Representation and Gender in the Danish West Indies.” Aarhus University Press, 2017.
Today, our perceptions regarding crime and punishment of enslaved Africans and Afro-Caribbeans in the Americas are garnered through the popular media: novels, movies, and TV programs. Presently, however, numerous social history texts with ample illustrations and graphs are being offered for the scholar as well as the interested history buff from various sources, even academic presses.
University of Copenhagen researcher Gunvor Simonsen has delineated the specific elements of 50 selected years of enslavement in Christiansted, St. Croix. She is specifically interested in crime and punishment of the enslaved during the formative years of the colony, 1856-1805. She has spent countless hours in meticulously combing through the court records that are held at the Danish Rigsarkiv (National Archives). These are not part of the archives’ website.
She has concentrated on the early years of the town because she is interested in the carryover of lifestyle and household customs and traditions that are the base of the many disputes that arise through “natural marriages” in the Danish West Indies. At the same time, she is interested in the legal process as it cannot be a strictly European-based one but is required to consider the adaptations found in colonial life. By zoning in on the behavioral patterns within the institution of common law couplings, she follows disputes brought about by the system of slavery’s repression and lack of freedom, the economics of keeping a dual-person household, and depending upon the fidelity of both partners.
Simonsen’s research traces the disputes regarding everyday life brought before the lower courts. They may consist of domestic disputes, stealing of household goods, infidelity of the partners, and enduring sexual abuse from the master or the driver. All of which may escalate to sexual violence, rape, attempted murder, poisoning of a person, and running away. In these cases, the testimony by the defendant and the witnesses underscore the tensions of the highly charged nature of enslavement, putting pressure on every phase of life for Africans and Afro-Caribbeans.
During this period, there is no common perspective among the enslaved as many of them were born in Africa and have carried with them their traditions. At the same time, a generation of the creole Afro-Caribbeans have come of age. On the other side of the bench, the iron-clad foundation of the European judicial practice has had to yield to what Simonsen calls “the Atlantic legal system.”
In each chapter, Simonsen presents claims on a specific theme and matches cases during progressive years, demonstrating the change in the law over the selected 50-year period. What affects the change in the law is the representation of both sides. The attitude of the Danish judges moves from painting Negroes as a general group, in which stereotypical assumptions are made regarding race, status and gender. Enslaved women know that European men scan their bodies and make assumptions regarding their sexual behavior. In the court room, what they want the officials of the court to know is that as the defendants, they set out to describe themselves with a list of attributes which make them respectable in the eyes of court. Thus, the woman ensures that they relate to the judiciary their attendance at church, fidelity in natural marriage, and care of the home. They are feeling that they are making themselves “respectable to an audience that does not look at them in the same manner.” Being fairly proficient in English creole is an indicator that garnered the upper class’s attention.
Simonsen has examined the language of the testimony, that which is given primarily in English creole, is translated on the spot by the court reporter and written in the record in Danish Gothic handwriting and in Old World verbiage. She then translated and interpreted the cases according to the period in which they were written. Many may argue that there are far too many transitions in language to find veracity in the words, yet by the fact that there are numerous versions of the same cases, with the same language and same outcomes, insures her of their credibility.
There are many Sallys, Georges, and Marys who are seeking justice before the court and know what details are needed to represent themselves as God-fearing, respectable and hard-working individuals. They know that they have been deliberately wronged. Through the descriptions of their circumstances, they have been violently injured, and they sketch out for the reader their background as we learn of their home settings, post-workday lives, economic needs and dependence on their chosen partner. We learn of the sanctity of home, no matter how humble.
Directly from the mouths of the defendants and their witnesses, today’s Virgin Islanders, descendants, learn that the situations and circumstances did not remain static. The cases shown over progressive years demonstrate how the Atlantic legal system changed to adapt to the people in bondage under an oppressive regime. In court, their voices were raised, they stood up for themselves, and they portrayed themselves against a “devious, twisted, and cunning as well as a brutal and repressive” system of justice.
“Slave Stories” is an excellent volume for anyone desiring to flesh out the humanity of a people with their domestic life, its struggles and hardships under enslavement in the former Danish West Indies. The book is available through Amazon.com.
— Elizabeth Rezende, St. Croix, president of the Society of Virgin Islands Historians.