In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slave Codes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works on Legal Literature
  • Texts of Portuguese Codes
  • Texts of French Codes: Le Code Noir
  • European Codes in Context
  • Brazilian Colonial Slave Law and Portuguese Slave Codes
  • Louisiana and Southwest America
  • Local “Codes” in other Noncode Jurisdictions

Atlantic History Slave Codes
Sally Hadden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0169


The creation of legal codes dates back to antiquity, but the preference for continuing to use codes (as opposed to garden-variety legislation) was not uniform across the Atlantic World. As early as the Romans, there were codes that defined and restricted the rights of slaves. Remnants of those Roman codes may be found in all civil law descendant codes, namely, the Spanish (Las Siete Partidas and Recopilacións), Portuguese (Ordenações Filipinas), and French (Le Code Noir), each of which contains some provisions relating to slaves. The Enlightenment and increased legislative power explains the creation of so many codes during the early modern period, for the era of 1500–1750 generated many of them. The English, following common-law tradition, did not rely upon codes; statutes passed by legislatures and court decisions rendered by judges created a patchwork of slave law that a few scholars have argued created a de facto slave code; the laws were sometimes referred to as such by their makers. The transmission of any of these European codes or laws to the New World was patchy, with some colonies of the 1600s and 1700s enacting their own local ordinances and so-called codes in English colonies. Not only was transmission uneven, but also the creation of codes did not insure their enforcement on the ground, for the gap between publication and practice on the ground often meant that the law was honored more in the breach than the observance. For further information on slave law in the New World, consult the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles on Law and Slavery and Emancipation.

General Overviews

Hadden 2008 and Peabody 2011 are appropriate for the beginning researcher as introductions to the broad contours of the subject of slave law in the Atlantic context. Tannenbaum 1946 generated a new field of comparative slave history by contrasting the treatment of slaves under different legal codes and empires, setting off a controversy that has not abated (Hall 1996). Benton 2002 updates this history and subtly considers law’s broader role in the global context. The most recent studies to tackle Tannenbaum are de la Fuente 2004 and de la Fuente and Gross 2010. Watson 1989 has long argued that Roman law underpins the majority of slave law and codes used in the New World—even in English colonies—although this argument has been under attack by numerous scholars focused upon the power of particular settings.

  • Benton, Lauren. Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Adopts a broadly comparative view on legal systems operating in various colonial settings, but with special interest and attention to colonial Latin America.

  • de la Fuente, Alejandro. “Slave Law and Claims-Making in Cuba: The Tannenbaum Debate Revisited.” Law and History Review 22.2 (2004): 339–369.

    DOI: 10.2307/4141649

    Revisits the Tannenbaum thesis and agrees with many of its claims, although the author emphasizes overlooked elements of slave agency that qualify many of Tannenbaum’s assertions. Law may have granted greater moral agency, but humans made the law active on their behalf. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • de la Fuente, Alejandro, and Ariela J. Gross. “Comparative Studies of Law, Slavery and Race in the Americas.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 6 (2010): 1–41.

    Supports de la Fuente 2004 in urging greater attention to “law on the ground” (in courtrooms and other settings) to explore how slave codes were experienced in daily life. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hadden, Sally. “The Fragmented Laws of Slavery in the Colonial and Revolutionary Eras.” In The Cambridge History of Law in America. Vol. 1, Early America (1580–1815). Edited by Michael Grossberg and Christopher Tomlins, 253–287, 646–657. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Provides an overview of the slave laws of colonial America, comparing them across the mainland as well as to their Caribbean forerunners. Indicates in clear detail the differences between codes and statutes. Ample bibliography.

  • Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Social Control in Slave Plantation Societies: A Comparison of St. Domingue and Cuba. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

    Thorough, thoughtful review of the debate on Tannenbaum that then proceeds to contrast in detail two Caribbean islands from the French and Spanish legal regimes. Describes both codes and local laws necessary for any comparison that would attempt to cross imperial boundaries.

  • Peabody, Sue. “Slavery, Freedom, and the Law in the Atlantic World, 1420–1807.” In The Cambridge World History of Slavery. Vol. 3, AD 1420–AD 1804. Edited by David Eltis and Stanley L. Engerman, 594–630. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521840682

    Emphasis upon the Caribbean and Latin American slave regimes. The author’s expertise in French slave law and scholarship in the Caribbean setting is apparent.

  • Tannenbaum, Frank. Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas. New York: Knopf, 1946.

    Controversial work that originated the debate on comparative slavery’s cruelty under different imperial regimes, asserting that Spanish imperial law promoted greater humanity toward slaves. Although disputed, it remains an important work and is much discussed in later scholarship. Later criticized for ignoring French Caribbean slave law.

  • Watson, Alan. Slave Law in the Americas. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

    Asserts the centrality of understanding Roman law and its impact upon the slave codes created by the Spanish in the Caribbean, supporting an interpretation of slavery as somewhat humane due to the ameliorative aspects of slavery under Roman rule.

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