‘She had…a Womb Subjected to Bondage’: Reconsidering the Origins of British Colonial Descent Law

Rather than approach the uncertain origins of Virginia’s maternal descent law from a strictly Anglo- or Eurocentric perspective, I contemplate whether West African laws and customs governing maternal descent may have been in partial or modified operation, not just on the coast of West Africa where the British settled, but also in the Virginia colony.

Lecture Description

In December of 1662, Virginia’s legislators decided to pass an act which made the free or enslaved status of a child born to an “Englishman” and a “negro” woman in the colony contingent upon the free or enslaved status of their mother. Such a choice was and remains remarkable to scholars because it stood in direct contrast with the paternal descent laws that prevailed in England. In trying to explain Virginia’s decision to implement a maternal rather than paternal descent law, legal historians and slavery scholars generally contend that legislators codified local custom and/or drew heavily upon Roman slave law, canon law, British laws related to bastardy and animal husbandry, the law of nations, or laws governing Iberian systems of slavery. Rather than approach the questionable origins of British colonial descent laws from a strictly Anglo- or Eurocentric perspective, this presentation considers the ways that West African customs and laws may have influenced English thinking about matrilineal descent and possibly influenced their decisions to implement matrilineal descent laws in their North American colonies.

CATEGORIES

Legal and Constitutional Slavery

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Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

VIEW SPEAKER : Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers


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