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South Carolina Slave Code

South Carolina Slave Code

The southern colonies relied on slave labor to cultivate the cash crops raised on large plantations. The first slave ships reached the colonies in the 1620s, and by the end of the century, the slave trade between West Africa and the southern colonies was thriving.

The social and legal relations between the English colonists and the African slaves were governed by racial beliefs and economics. Since the first meetings of West Africans and Europeans, Europeans had judged Africans to be their cultural inferiors. This belief shaped the slave codes that the colonies began to enact in the late seventeenth century. Africans were human chattel with no civil rights.

The South Carolina Slave Code of 1740 reflected concerns about controlling slaves. Section X authorized a white person to detain and examine any slave found outside a house or plantation who was not accompanied by a white person. Section XXXVI prohibited slaves from leaving their plantation, especially on Saturday nights, Sundays, and holidays. Slaves who violated the law could be subjected to a "moderate whipping." Section XLV prohibited white persons from teaching slaves to read and write.

Criminal behavior by slaves, especially actions directed against white persons, was severely punished under the code. Section IX provided that in the case of a capital crime, a slave must be brought to trial in a summary proceeding within three days of apprehension. Under section XVII, the killing of a white person by a slave was a capital crime, but section XXXVII treated a white person who killed a slave quite differently. Willfull murder of a slave was punished by a fine of 700 pounds. Killing a slave "on a sudden heat of passion" resulted in a fine of 350 pounds.

The code did recognize that slaves were entitled to a sufficient level of food, clothing, and shelter. Section XXXVIII permitted a complaint to be filed against a slave owner who was derelict in providing the necessities. A court could order the owner to provide relief to the slaves. Likewise, section XLIV authorized the fining of slave owners who worked their slaves more than fifteen hours a day during the hottest time of the year.

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