Abusing Hugh Davis

Date of Presentation


Name of Conference

Sex and the State

Date of Conference


Location of Conference

Oxford, United Kingdom

Document Type

Conference Paper in Published Proceedings




“Abusing Hugh Davis” offers a two-fold examination of the a 17th century morality case from Colonial Virginia. I examine this well-known but ambiguous case and its uses by historians and lawyers. Hugh Davis was sentenced to be whipped for some interracial sexual transgression, but it unclear if the unnamed African was male or female. Hence, it is unclear if his central crime was interracial sex, or sodomy. I argue, against the weight of the historiography, that it was a case of sodomy. I draw on legal, historical, and religious texts to form these arguments. Indeed the striking similarity between Biblical passages on sodomy and the Court’s sentence provides a key, and henceforth ignored, insight into the nature of the case.

Here we have a case of English views of sexual deviance being exported to the colonies, and we can examine how that impacted the punishment meted out to Hugh Davis. Sodomy was, after all, technically a capital offense but few people were executed in the colonies for the crime. Davis is clearly about race, and sodomy was—certainly in the 17th century—fundamentally associated with the “other”: Sir Edmond Coke even argued it existed in England only because it had been imported by the Lombards, while prevailing views clearly associated it with the “savage” peoples European were increasingly in contact with. Despite the impossibility of being absolutely sure, it is clear Davis' crime was most likely sodomy.

This document is currently not available here.