Partus Sequitur Ventrem

In both Philip’s and Harris’ works, there is a question, spoken or non, about the association of blackness to property.

For Harris, she noted that slavery was a system that thrived from the division of color, facilitating the idea that ownership was a birthright of skin tone. On page 278, Harris says, “…the institution of slavery, lying at the very core of economic relations, was bound up with the idea of property.” There were many continuing underlying issues perpetuating the idea of whiteness as property, but the most notable was the monetary gain white slave owners were earning from their black slaves.

Philips examined every line of text from the Zong legal case and offered her own expert insight on the determination of the case. As she tore into insurance and property law, she highlighted several key points, one of which was the reasoning behind throwing the African slaves overboard. The insurance company would have to pay the Captain and the family buying the slaves money for “loss of property and income.” In the original case document, the slaves were referred to as “cargo.” Slaves were considered property.

I find it interesting that in both readings we hear cases for blackness as property, and in each case, the law stands on the side of white, property-owning citizens. Even though the law does not strictly mention skin color, it mentions property, and slaves had their statuses legally demoted to “domestic animal” and were branded as animals (Duke Law). This was because whites had adopted the Roman law of partus sequitur ventrem. It handled the legal status of animals in Rome, but the law had been twisted to fit the needs of slave owners by becoming “a legal doctrine concerning the slave or free status of children born in the English royal colonies” (Wikipedia, Duke Law). Both authors make strong legal arguments that blackness was a determinant of property, and I believe they are correct in their stances of black skin color sealing slaves’ fates as property.

Duke Law: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5386&context=faculty_scholarship

I realize Wikipedia isn’t a good source, but Duke Law stated the same idea. Wikipedia just said it better.

One thought on “Partus Sequitur Ventrem”

  1. I love that you thought about Philip and Harris together in this post. It’s interesting to think about the parallels but also the distinctions between what they’re saying about property, because enslaved people were very literally property with monetary value, which as you note is the central fact of Philip’s poem, but Harris is sort of switching things around and asking us to think about a much more metaphorical relationship between *whiteness* as property (it’s important, I think, that she uses the term “whiteness” and does not describe white *people* as being property). Something to think more about.

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