What Were the Barbados Slave Codes?

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The Barbados Slave Codes were laws set up by the British to justify the practice of slavery and legalize the planters' inhumane treatment of their slaves. Under these codes, the slaves had the status of farm animals or chattel and had no human rights.

A few decades after the British first settled in Barbados in 1627, sugar became the export that powered the economy. At first, thousands of indentured Irish prisoners worked the plantations. Later, the planters turned to slaves brought over from West Africa as a cheaper source of labor. From 1627 to 1807, almost 400,000 Africans crossed the sea to work the plantations, as the high mortality rate made a constant flow of new slaves necessary.

The Barbados Slave Codes allowed the planters to control the slaves by any means they felt necessary without repercussion. Though the codes were meant to benefit both sides, on the slaves' part the only positive aspect of the code was a guarantee of a change of clothing once a year. The planters, on the other hand, had the authority to beat, whip, brand, maim, mutilate, burn or kill a slave with no risk of punishment. Slaves had none of the rights guaranteed any person under English common law.

The Barbados Slave Codes were the first laws implemented in a slave colony for the benefit of slave owners, but other colonies followed the example. Soon similar slave codes, adapted to local circumstances, were passed in Jamaica, Antigua and South Carolina.