Law and History Review


Judges, Masters, Diviners: Slaves’ Experience of Criminal Justice in Colonial Suriname

Natalie Zemon Davis c1

“Two negroes hanged,” John Gabriel Stedman wrote in his Suriname journal for March 9, 1776, and then two days later, among his purchases of “soap, wine, tobacco, [and] rum” and his dinners with an elderly widow, he records, “A negro's foot cut off.” Stedman expanded on these events in the later Narrative of his years as a Dutch–Scottish soldier fighting against the Suriname Maroons:

And now, this being the period of the [court] sessions, another Negro's leg was cut off for sculking from a task to which he was unable, while two more were condemned to be hang'd for running away altogether. The heroic behavior of one of these men deserves particularly to be quotted, he beg'd only to be heard for a few moments, which, being granted, he proceeded thus––

“I was born in Africa, where defending my prince during an engagement, I was made a captive, and sold for a slave by my own countrimen. One of your countrimen, who is now to be my judge, became then my purchaser, in whose service I was treated so cruelly by his overseer that I deserted and joined the rebels in the woods . . .”

To which his former master, who as he observed was now one of his judges, made the following laconick reply, “Rascal, that is not what we want to know. But the torture this moment shall make you confess crimes as black as yourself, as well as those of your hateful accomplices.” To which the Negroe, who now swel'd in every vain with rage [replied, holding up his hands], “Massera, the verry tigers have trembled for these hands . . . and dare you think to threaten me with your wretched instrument? No, I despise the greatest tortures you can now invent, as much as I do the pitiful wrech who is going to inflict them.” Saying which, he threw himself down on the rack, where amidst the most excruciating tortures he remained with a smile and without they were able to make him utter a syllable. Nor did he ever speak again till he ended his unhappy days at the gallows.

(Online publication October 20 2011)



Natalie Zemon Davis is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emerita from Princeton University and Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Toronto <>. Among her many publications are The Return of Martin Guerre (Harvard University Press, 1983), Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford University Press, 1987), The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (Vintage Canada and Harvard University Press, 2000), and Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds (Hill and Wang, 2006). This article was originally presented in a shorter version as the 2010 John Ll. J. Edwards Lecture for the Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto, and she is grateful to colleagues there for their discussion. She thanks Sara Beam, William A. Christian, Jr., Colin Dayan, Malick Ghachem, Linda Heywood, Martin Klein, Paul Lovejoy, Melanie Newton, Rebecca J. Scott, and John K. Thornton for their valuable advice, although none of them is responsible for any errors in this essay. Her research assistant, Kate Creasey, was of great help in tracking down sources in the history of Dutch law.