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Sovereignty, Mastery, and Law in the Danish West Indies, 1672–1733

  • Gunvor Simonsen

Abstract

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, officers of the Danish West India and Guinea Company struggled to balance the sovereignty of the company with the mastery of St. Thomas’ and St. John's slave owners. This struggle was central to the making of the laws that controlled enslaved Africans and their descendants. Slave laws described slave crime and punishment, yet they also contained descriptions of the political entities that had the power to represent and execute the law. Succeeding governors of St. Thomas and St. John set out to align claims about state sovereignty with masters’ prerogatives, and this balancing act shaped the substance of slave law in the Danish West Indies. Indeed, the slave laws pronounced by and the legal thinking engaged in by island governors suggest that sovereignty was never a stable state of affairs in the Danish West Indies. It was always open to renegotiation as governors, with varying degrees of loyalty to the company and at times with questionable capability, strove to determine what sovereignty ought to look like in a time of slavery.

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Gunvor Simonsen is associate professor of history at Copenhagen University. Among other things, she has written about race and identity in West Africa (in today's Ghana) as well as on obeah, gender, and legal practices in the Danish West Indies (today the US Virgin Islands). Her book Slave Stories: Law, Representation, and Gender in the Danish West Indies (2017) reconstructs some of the narratives enslaved men and women crafted in their encounter with Danish judges in the Caribbean.

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Sovereignty, Mastery, and Law in the Danish West Indies, 1672–1733

  • Gunvor Simonsen

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