English Colonial Law on Slavery and Indentured Servitude

(Spelling and a bit of wording modernized by James Couture) – 2017-18

Original Source: William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619, (New York: R & W & G. Bartow, 1823). VOLUMES I and II.

MARCH 18th 1642-3 – CHARLES 1st. ACT XXII. 1: 254.

WHEREAS there are many loitering runaways in the colony who very often absent themselves from their master’s service, And sometimes in two or three months cannot be found, whereby their masters have a hard time in finding them, And many times even lose their year’s labor before they find them, Be it therefore enacted and confirmed that all runaways that shall absent themselves from their master’s service shall be held responsible to make satisfaction by service at the end of their times by being indentured double the time of service for which they ran away, And in some cases more if the commissioners for the place appointed shall find it necessary and convenient. And if  such runaways shall be found to escape a second time or more (if it shall be duly proved against them) that then they shall be branded in the cheek with the letter R. and pass under the statute of incorrigible rogues, Provided that where any servants shall have just cause of complaint against their masters or mistresses by harsh or unchristianlike usage or otherwise for want of diet, or convenient necessaries that then it shall be lawful for any such servant or servants to flee to the next commissioner to make his or their complaint, And if the commissioner shall find by good and sufficient proofs, that the servant’s complaint is fair, The said commissioner is hereby required to give order for the warning of any such master or mistress before the commissioners in the county courts, where the matter in dispute shall be decided as they in their discretion shall think fit, And that care be taken that no such servant or servants be misused by their masters or mistresses, where they shall find the cause of complaint to be fair. Be it further also enacted that if any servant running away as said previously shall carry either gun, powder, and shot, And leave either all or any of them with the Indians, And being thereof lawfully convicted shall suffer death as in case of felony.


MARCH 1642-3 – ACT XXVI, 1:257.

WHEREAS many controversies have risen between masters and servants being brought into the colony without indentures or contracts to testify their agreements whereby both masters and servants have been often biased, Be it therefore enacted and confirmed for prevention of future controversies of the like nature, that such servants as shall be imported having no indentures or covenants either men or women if they be above twenty year old to serve four year, if they shall be above twelve and under twenty to serve five years, And if under twelve to serve seven years.


March 1660-1 – Charles II, ACT XXII, 2:26.

English running away with negroes.

BE it enacted That in case any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes who are incapable of paying for their crime by addition of time, Be it enacted that the English running away in company with them shall serve for the time of the said negroes’ absence as they are to do for their own by a former act.

December 14th 1662 – Charles II, 2:170, Act XII.

Negro womens’ children to serve according to the condition of the mother.

WHEREAS some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held slaves or free only according to the condition of the mother, And that if any Christian shall commit fornication with a negro man or woman, he or she so offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act.


September 19th 1667 – Charles II, ACT III, 2:260.

An act declaring that baptism of slaves does not exempt them from slavery.

WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made partakers of the blessed sacrament of baptism, should by virtue of their baptism be made free; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom; that many masters, freed from this doubt, may more carefully seek the propagation of Christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or older slaves if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.


October 21st 1669 – Charles II, 2:270, Act I.

An act about the casual killing of slaves.

WHEREAS the only law in force for the punishment of disobedient servants resisting their master, mistress, or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negroes, nor the stubbornness of many of them by other than violent means put down, Be it enacted and declared by this grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or others by his master’s order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be counted as a felony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be free from being bothered, since it cannot be assumed that premeditated malice (which alone makes murder felony) should induce any man to destroy his own property.


October 4th 1705 – Anne, Chap XXIII, 3.333.

An act declaring the Negro, Mulatto, and Indian slaves within this dominion, to be real estate.

I. FOR the better settling and preservation of property and inherited estates within this land,

II. Be it enacted, by the governor, council and burgesses [representatives] of this present general assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same; That from and after the passing of this act, all negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves, in all courts, and other places, within this land, shall be held, taken, and judged, to be real estate (land and not just generic property;) and shall descend unto the heirs and widows of persons departing this life, according to the manner and custom of land of inheritance.

[Tricky legal section cut – James Couture

IV. Provided also, That all such slaves shall be considered collateral for the payment of debts, and may be taken like other property may be.

[multiple cut sections – James Couture]

X. Provided, and be it enacted, That when any person dies without a will, leaving several children, in that case all the slaves of such person, (except the widow’s dower, which is to be first set apart) shall be inventoried and appraised; and the value thereof shall be equally divided amongst all the children; and the several proportions, according to such valuation and appraising, shall be paid by the heir (to whom the said slaves shall descend, by virtue of this act) to all the other children. And thereupon, it shall and may be lawful for the other children and their agents or administrators, as the case shall be, to sue using the common law, against the primary heir for the recovery of their respective proportions.


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