Thursday, November 19, 2015

Slavery in Massachusetts



Slaves recorded as having arrived at MA on December 12, 1638 on board the ship Desire (depicted here by a 19C artist). In 1641 MA became the 1st colony to officially recognize slavery.

Massachusetts was the first slave-holding colony in New England, though the exact beginning of black slavery in what became Massachusetts cannot be dated exactly. 

Slavery there is said to have predated the settlement of Massachusetts Bay colony in 1629, & circumstantial evidence gives a date of 1624-1629 for the first slaves. "Samuel Maverick, apparently New England's first slaveholder, arrived in Massachusetts in 1624 and, according to [John Gorham] Palfrey, owned two Negroes before John Winthrop, who later became governor of the colony, arrived in 1630."[1]

The first certain reference to African slavery is in connection with the bloody Pequot War in 1637. The Pequot Indians of central Connecticut, pressed hard by encroaching European settlements, struck back & attacked the town of Wetherfield. A few months later, Massachusetts & Connecticut militias joined forces & raided the Pequot village near Mystic, Connecticut. Of the few Indians who escaped slaughter, the women & children were enslaved in New England. Roger Williams of Rhode Island wrote to Winthrop congratulating him on God's having placed in his hands "another drove of Adams' degenerate seed." But most of the Native Americn men & boys, deemed too dangerous to keep in the colony, were transported to the West Indies aboard the ship Desire, to be exchanged for African slaves. 

The first documented reference to the slave trade in Massachusetts is in the journal of John Winthrop (the founder of Boston), who recorded on 26 February 1638 that the Massachusetts ship Desire had returned from the West Indies carrying "some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc., from thence..." Boston was one of the primary ports of departure for slave ships.  In Massachusetts, slaveholding probably was of limited economic importance except in Boston where craftsmen used slaves in their trades, but the slave trade out of Boston was much more significant.

"Such exchanges became routine during subsequent Indian wars, for the danger of keeping revengeful warriors in the colony far outweighed the value of their labor."[2] In 1646, this became the official policy of the New England Confederation. As elsewhere in the New World, the shortage & expense of free, white labor motivated the quest for slaves. In 1645, Emanuel Downing, brother-in-law of John Winthrop, wrote to him longing for a "juste warre" with the Pequots, so the colonists might capture enough Indian men, women, & children to exchange in Barbados for black slaves, because the colony would never thrive "untill we gett ... a stock of slaves sufficient to doe all our business."[3]

In 1644, Boston merchants began importing slaves directly from Africa, selling them in the West Indies, & bringing home sugar to make rum, initiating the so-called triangular trade. From 1672-1696, the British Parliament granted the Royal African Company a monopoly in the slave trade. Yankee slavers avoided the monopoly by smuggling slaves in through small coastal harbors. In 1681, John Saffin & other Boston merchants wrote to the shipmaster William Welstead, warning him, that the authorities planned to seize a slave ship heading for Rhode Island, & that he should intercept the vessel & direct it to Nantasket to offload its human cargo. In 1696 the British Parliament revoked the monopoly held by the Royal African Company, enabling Massachusetts merchants & shipmasters to engage freely in the slave trade.

By 1676, however, Boston ships had pioneered a slave trade to Madagascar, & they were selling black human beings to Virginians by 1678. For the home market, the Puritans generally took the Africans to the West Indies & sold them in exchange for a few experienced slaves, which they brought back to New England. In other cases, they brought back the weaklings, who could not be sold on the harsh West Indies plantations (Phyllis Wheatley, the poetess, was one) trying to get the best bargain they could for them in New England. Massachusetts merchants & ships were supplying slaves to Connecticut by 1680 & Rhode Island by 1696.

The break-up of the slave import monopolies & the defeat of the Dutch opened the way for New England's aggressive pursuit of the slave trade in the early 1700s. At the same time, the expansion of New England industries created a shortage of labor, which slaves filled. From fewer than 200 slaves in 1676, & 550 in 1708, the Massachusetts slave population jumped to about 2,000 in 1715. It reached its largest % of the total population between 1755 & 1764, when it stood at around 2.2 percent. The slaves concentrated in the industrial & seaside towns; however, & Boston was about 10 percent black in 1752.

Colonial governors in the 18C were specifically forbidden to assent to any law laying duties on or discouraging the slave trade. There were some attempts to regulate or even to eliminate the slave trade, but most were ineffective or of short duration. A miscegenation act of 1705-1706 included a £4 import duty on slaves brought into the colony, but an owner could recoup his expenses if a slave were sold out of the colony within a year, or if the slave died within six weeks of import. It has been argued that this act, rather than curtailing the slave trade, was simply a revenue-raising endeavor for the colony.

As in other maritime colonies of New England, the richest & most powerful families were among the chief slavers. Cornelius Waldo, maternal great-grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a slave merchant on a large scale, a proud importer of "Choice Irish Duck, fine Florence wine, negro slaves and Irish butter." His ship, Africa, plied the Middle Passage packed with 200 black people at a time crammed below-decks, though lethal epidemics of "flux" sometimes tore through the captives cutting into Waldo's profits. Peter Fanueil, meanwhile, inherited one of the largest fortunes of his day, which was built in large part on his uncle's slave trade. His philanthropy with this money gave Boston its famed Fanueil Hall.

Massachusetts, like many American colonies, had roots in a scrupulous fundamentalist Protestantism. Christianity was no barrier to slave-ownership, however. The Puritans regarded themselves as God's Elect, so they had no difficulty with slavery, which had the sanction of the Law of the God of Israel. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination easily supported the Puritans in a position, that blacks were a people cursed & condemned by God to serve whites. Cotton Mather wrote that blacks they were the "miserable children of Adam & Noah," for whom slavery had been ordained as a punishment.

A Massachusetts law of 1641, specifically linked slavery to Biblical authority, & established for slaves the set of rules "which the law of God, established in Israel concerning such people, doth morally require." When 2 Massachusetts slave merchants joined with London slave raiders in a massacre of an African village in 1645, the colonial government registered its indignation, because the two men were guilty of the Biblical crime of "man-stealing" (kidnapping Africans instead of acquiring them in the approved way, in exchange for rum or trinkets) - and because the slaughter of 100 or so villagers had taken place on a Sunday. Nonetheless, because of its Scriptural foundation, Massachusetts' attitudes toward slaves in some ways were more progressive than those of other colonies.

Slaves in Massachusetts usually lived with their owners & had more direct contact with family members than the way of life we associate with plantation slavery in the West Indies & later in the American south. The Massachusetts courts recognized the right of slaves to hold & dispose of some property; to keep wages for work done not on their masters' time; to bring suit in court; & the right to jury trials, legal counsel, & some legal protection. While slaves were generally taxed as property, they were also considered to be persons by the legal system. 

The diversified New England economy placed African Americans in a variety of occupations: domestic service, farming, skilled & unskilled labor, maritime trades, innkeeping, catering, & other small industries. Slaves in poor health, who were unable to work, were considered a burden. Towns passed legislation to avoid fiscal responsibility for the unemployed, the elderly, & the infirm, both slave & free. 


Daily life of African Americans was controlled through legislation. A 1703 law forbade blacks, Native Americans, & mulattos from venturing out after 9:00 p.m., unless on a master's errand. There were other laws governing curfews, marriage, shopping, ownership of livestock, travel, & trade. 

Like Connecticut & Rhode Island, however, Massachusetts had a problem with masters who simply turned out their slaves when they grew too old or feeble to work. Unlike the later Southern system, which took pride in its paternal care for slaves in their old age, Massachusetts masters had to be forced to keep theirs by a 1703 law requiring them to post bond for every slave manumitted in order to provide against the slave becoming indigent & the responsibility of some town. There are also instances on record of slave mothers' children given away like puppies or kittens by masters unwilling or unable to support them. There was no law against this.

Later reminiscences, long after slavery's end, emphasized the benign nature of Massachusetts slavery, but the laws & statutes of the time show it to be grim. Fear of an uprising no doubt was behind the 1656 exclusion of blacks (& Indians) from military duty. Concern about fugitive slaves, meanwhile, probably lay behind the 1680 act by which the colony imposed heavy fines on captains of ships & vessels that took blacks aboard, or sailed away with them without permission from the government. Protection of masters' property from slave theft certainly motivated the 1693 statute that forbade anyone from buying anything from a black, Indian, & mulatto servant.


Advertisements for slaves printed in the Boston Evening Post of July 16, 1739.

Boston, which had the largest slave population, also had its own layer of controls, on top of the province-wide ones. In statutes enacted at various times between the 1720s - 1750s, slaves in Boston were forbidden to buy provisions in market; carry a stick or a cane; keep hogs or swine; or stroll about the streets, lanes, or Common at night or at all on Sunday. Punishments for violation of these laws ranged up to 20 lashes, depending on aggravating factors.

Black slaves were singled out for punishment by whipping, if they broke street lamps, under a law of 1753; & a special law allowed severe whippings for any black person who hit a white one (1705-6).

There were several ways that a slave in colonial Massachusetts could gain his or her freedom. Perhaps the most straightforward, and by far the most dangerous, method was simply to run away. 

Another path to freedom was that of manumission (the legal act of freeing a slave), a tradition as old as the Roman Empire. Writs of manumission were all that was required to free a slave; however, for a short time after the passage of a 1703 colonial law, the government declared that no slave could be manumitted without posting a £50 bond with the municipal government. This bond was intended to ensure that the former slave could be provided with food & lodging, in case of unemployment or illness. Slaves could also be manumitted by purchasing their own freedom. 


Another option slaves had to gain their own freedom was by legal petition. In the early 1770s, groups of Massachusetts slaves & freemen petitioned the colonial government claiming that freedom was a right belonging to all men & women.  Even though there was much public discussion of liberty & freedom in the years leading up to the Revolution, the Massachusetts colonial government had little authority to end, or even curtail, slavery or the slave trade because of instructions from Parliament to the royal governor, & none of the petitions succeeded.

Many African Americans participated in military activities during the American Revolution. It is estimated that 5,000 African Americans served in the Revolutionary army. A much larger number (possibly 100,000) fled to British-controlled territory & many served with the British forces.  During the first years of the war, George Washington was reluctant to use African Americans in battle, but as the war progressed, both sides formed African American units.  In Massachusetts, where the small African American population included some free blacks, some African Americans served within regular militia, state, & Continental regiments, rather than in separate, segregated units.  

During the earliest battles of the American Revolution, African Americans fought alongside whites against the British troops within some of the militia units raised by the New England colonies. After the Continental Army was formed in mid-1775, the Continental Congress & General George Washington implemented a series of different enlistment policies regarding African Americans. In July 1775, no new free African Americans were permitted to enlist in the Continental Army, & some efforts were made by the Continental Congress to remove all blacks then serving from the existing regiments. However, as the Revolution continued & troops were needed to sustain the war effort, the Continental Congress & Army changed their policies. In January 1776, the Congress removed the restriction on reenlisting free African Americans.  In 1777, General Washington issued orders that regiments could enlist any free man (regardless of the color of his skin).

Emancipation in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Legislature in 1777, tabled a proposal for gradual emancipation. The 1778 draft constitution legally recognized slavery & banned free blacks from voting. It was rejected at the polls, for other reasons. The more liberal state constitution approved 2 years later contained a bill of rights that declared "all men are born free and equal, and have ... the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberty."

This provided the basis for abolishing slavery in Massachusetts, but it clearly was not the intent of the Legislature to do so. Popular sentiment & the courts were pro-abolition, however. And it was a 1783 judicial decision, interpreting the wording of the 1780 constitution, that brought slavery to an end in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts had a strong, politically active white working class which perpetually sought an end to slavery, not for the benefit of blacks but to remove them from local economic competition. "If the gentlemen had been permitted by law to hold slaves," John Adams wrote, "the common people would have put the Negroes to death, and their masters too, perhaps."[4]


1. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942, p.16. 
2. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, p.6. 
3. Greene, p.62.
4. Letters and Documents Relating to Slavery in Massachusetts, MHS Colls., 5th Ser., III (1877), pp.401-2.

Research for this article comes from the Massachusetts Historical Society and from Douglas Harper, a graduate of Dickinson College, is a historian, author, journalist, & lecturer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  He is the founder and maintainer of the Online Etymology Dictionary.  He is the author of  four books on Pennsylvania history.


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