Slavery as a trade was practiced by the Portuguese and the Spanish in the 15th and 16th centuries. Subsequently, the Americans began to practice slavery. Slaves were brought into America in large numbers to work in the plantations. As the number of slaves grew enormously, the whites became nervous of their growing rebelliousness. They began to frame laws and regulations that were applicable only to the black population and these laws came to collectively be called the ‘Slave Code’. The slaves were bound to obey this code.
Virginia was the first state to have slave codes. Other states simply copied from it. The code could vary from state to state and even from colony to colony, but the underlying objective was the same – to subjugate the blacks and make them totally subservient to the whites and to keep them in bondage forever. The laws were barbaric in nature. They established the dominance of the whites. The blacks could not own property, or move about freely. They belonged to their masters who could deal with them as they wished. They were considered the personal property of the masters and they were referred to as part of the estate of the master. They were considered to be saleable good that could be bought or sold or whose labour could be given on hire. The master could deal with them in any manner, including torture them and put them to death.
The slave codes legalized slavery in America. It laid down the boundaries of a slave and his relationship with his white master. It varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it gave the white masters absolute power over the slaves, controlling every aspect of their lives and subjecting them to all kinds of punishment, including death. Though capital punishment was not specifically provided for, yet no white was punished for putting to death a black slave. Even the slightest rebellion among the slaves was death with death. Even the free blacks who helped the slaves to escape could be put to death. Slaves could not carry weapons and their homes were subjected to regular checks. Thirty nine whip lashes was the punishment for possessing a weapon. They could not raise a hand, even in self protection against the whites.
Slaves caught escaping were put to death. Death was also the punishment for petty crimes. The slaves could not defend themselves nor state anything in self defense. Slaves could only travel with the written permission of their masters. Sometimes slaves were whiplashed in public for evading capture for 20 days. For a second attempt at escape, he would be branded on the right cheek with the letter ‘R’. Getting away for more than 30 days would result in the loss of an ear and a fourth attempt at escape would earn him a castration. Slaves were not allowed to read anything except the Bible or write. The slave codes ceased with the commencement of the Civil War, but something known as the ‘Black Codes’ was formulated during the Reconstruction period.