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The Slave Experience: Responses to Enslavement
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Original Documents Responses to Enslavement

Acts of the Commonwealth of Virginia
1642 and 1680
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Document Description
The 1642 Virginia act against runaways and the 1680 act against insurrection reflect the harsh punishments that awaited not only slaves who rebelled, but also slaves perceived as potential intransigents. When slaves sought to escape captivity by running away or fighting back, they faced a range of punishments including branding, lashing, and death. Although the 1642 act acknowledges that mistreatment at the hands of a master might inspire flight, it promises little support for the abused slave.

MARCH 1642-3
ACT XXII. 1: 254
CHARLES I, King of England

WHEREAS there are divers loytering runaways in the collony who very often absent themselves from their masters service, And sometimes in two or three monthes cannot be found, whereby their said masters are at great charge in finding them, And many times even to the losse of their year's labour before they be had, Be it therefore enacted and confirmed that all runaways that shall absent themselves from their said masters service shall be lyable to make satisfaction by service at the end of their tymes by indenture (vizt.) double the tyme of service soe neglected, And in some cases more if the comissioners for the place appointed shall find it requisite and convenient. And if such runnaways shall be found to transgresse the second time or oftener (if it shall be duely proved against them) that then they shall be branded in the cheek with the letter R. and passe under the statute of incorrigible rogues, Provided notwithstanding that where any servants shall have just cause of complaint against their masters or mistrises by harsh or unchristianlike usage or otherways for want of diet, or convenient necessaryes that then it shall be lawfull for any such servant or servants to repaire to the next comissioner to make his or their complaint, And if the said commissioner shall find by good and sufficient proofes, that the said servant's cause of complaint is just, The said comissioner is hereby required to give order for the warning of any such master or mistris before the comissioners in their seuerall county courts, where the matter in difference shall be decided as they in their discretions shall think fitt, And that care be had that no such servant or servants be misused by their masters or mistrises, where they shall find the cause of complaint to be just. Be it further also enacted that if any servant running away as aforesaid shall carrie either peice, powder and shott, And leave either all or any of them with the Indians, And being thereof lawfully convicted shall suffer death as in case of felony.

Act X, 2.481
Charles II

An act for preventing Negroes Insurrections. WHEREAS the frequent meeting of considerable numbers of negroe slaves under pretence of feasts and burialls is judged of dangerous consequence; for prevention whereof for the future, Bee it enacted by the kings most excellent majestie by and with the consent of the generall assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority aforesaid, that from and after the publication of this law, it shall not be lawfull for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himselfe with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defence or offence, nor to goe or depart from of his masters ground without a certificate from his master, mistris or overseer, and such permission not to be granted but upon perticuler and necessary occasions; and every negroe or slave soe offending not haveing a certificate as aforesaid shalbe sent to the next constable, who is hereby enjoyned and required to give the said negroe twenty lashes on his bare back well layd on, and soe sent home to his said master, mistris or overseer. And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall presume or lift up his hand in opposition against any christian, shall for every such offence, upon due proofe made thereof by the oath of the party before a magistrate, have and receive thirty lashed on his bare back well laid on. And it is hereby further enacted by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall absent himself from his masters service and lye hid and lurking in obscure places, comitting injuries to the inhabitants, and shall resist any person or persons that shalby any lawfull authority be imployed to apprehend and take the said negroe, that then in case of such resistance, it shalbe lawfull for such person or persons to kill the said negroe or slave soe lying out and resisting, and that this law be once every six months published at the respective county courts and parish churches within this colony.

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