It is very difficult for most conventionally-educated Americans to think of “slavery” and “New England” in the same sentence. Slavery, as commonly understood, happened in the American South where it was intimately tied to plantation-growing of cotton, or tobacco; or in the Caribbean islands where it was ‘required’ on sugar plantations. But as Wendy Warren points out in her new book, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (Liveright: 2016), the conventional view is wrong, or at least incomplete. Slavery did exist quite openly in the Boston colonies and those settlements that grew up around them in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and beyond. In fact, the iconic story of Squanto, the helpful Indian whose aid to the Plymouth colonists in their early years literally saved them—that story begins with enslavement. For how was it that a native American was able to communicate with the Mayflower voyagers in English? Warren tells us: Squanto was kidnapped in 1614 by Thomas Hunt, a ship captain associated with Captain John Smith (the one who romanced Pocohontas). From there, he was shipped to Malaga in Spain as a slave, released from captivity by Spanish priests interested in teaching him the ‘true faith,’ and managed to get to England. Then he was able to sign up for a voyage to the new world with the Newfoundland Company, and eventually made his way south to seek his family in New England. Unfortunately, most were dead of smallpox by then, but having been ‘saved’ by his captivity, Squanto lived to ‘save’ the colonists in Plymouth.
From these inauspicious beginnings, New England slavery proceeded almost unhindered by either moral scruples or economics. To begin with the morals, not even the Puritans disavowed slavery: the 1641 Body of Liberties document of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made this specific by outlawing both slavery and captivitie “unless it be lawfull captives, taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are solde to us” (35). In other words, slavery was forbidden for colonists, but for both the Native Americans captured in wars, and the Africans imported from Africa, enslavement was morally justifiable. The way this worked in practice, especially in a land and climate where plantations were essentially impossible, had to do with the Atlantic trade in which New Englanders played a critical role. As Warren puts it: “Slavery bridged the ocean between New England and the West Indies” (51). What this means is that though the slave plantations were located far away in the West Indian sugar colonies like Jamaica and Barbados, those plantations provided one of the chief means of profit for New England’s merchants, farmers and fishermen. The Atlantic world upon which the colonists (and indeed the entire economy of England—see my July 3, 2014 blog, “Slavery’s Role in Modern Capitalism”) depended, that is, was one of slavery: “slaves, the output of slaves, the inputs of slave societies, and the goods and services purchased with the earnings of slave products” (53). How did it work? In three main ways: New England merchants traded in slaves themselves, plus other slave-related goods like rum; New England farmers provided their surplus farm products to the slave colonies via those merchants; and New England fishermen profited by selling fish to the plantation owners to feed their slaves. This latter was highly profitable because rotten fish that New England fishermen couldn’t sell to English colonists could be sold to plantation owners to feed their slaves. Even at reduced prices, that is, the rotten fish that slaves had to eat still represented a gain to fishermen (and fish merchants) who would otherwise suffer a total loss.
If it were just by proxy that New Englanders involved themselves in the slave trade, that would be bad enough, for slavery in the West Indies was one of the most vicious and “deadly innovations known to humanity” (52). But New Englanders involved themselves in slavery in many other ways. One was by selling Indians captured in wars such as King Philip’s War and the Pequot War into West Indian slavery. This was why Native Americans did all they could to avoid being sold into West Indian slavery: it was literally a death sentence. But few were able to avoid it (except by dying), for the wars to exterminate the Indians were bitter and total and proceeded from the very beginning of English settlement (Plymouth itself was a military garrison). Indeed, this gets to an important distinction between two kinds of colonialism: extractive colonialism and settler colonialism. In extractive colonialism, native peoples are kept alive and their labor used, or rather exploited to ‘extract’ the riches of the colony. The Americas, however, belonged to the other type, settler colonialism—where the “primary goal is to attain control of the territory” (90). And the corollary to settler colonialism is that the indigenous people must be removed. The Atlantic slave trade thereby became one part of the solution to the problem of removal. That is,
it offered the English a way to remove Indians from the region [making a profit in the bargain], and then replace them with bodies [i.e. indentured servants or African slaves] who would want to work the land in a way meaningful to the colonizers (91).
Thus did the English colonists become active participants in slavery, first selling Native Americans into slavery to get rid of them, and then importing Africans as slaves to replace them. War was involved in both ends of the bargain: “Indian slaves in New England were, mostly, sold because they had been captured in wars, whereas African slaves were captured in wars so that they might be sold” (91). This seemed quite ethical to colonial New Englanders, for it was foreseen early on by Emmanuel Downing, John Winthrop’s brother-in-law who wrote to Winthrop in 1645:
If upon a Just warre the lord should deliver [the Indians] into our hands, wee might easily have men woemen and Children enough to exchange for Moores [Africans], which wilbe more gaynefull pilladge for us then wee conceive, for I doe not see how wee can thrive until wee get into a stock of slaves suffitient to doe all our business… (95).
Thus it was that slavery became a commonplace among those who could afford slaves in the early colonies of New England. Wendy Warren illustrates this by summarizing countless legal cases where slaves were involved in lawsuits, or wills, or criminal proceedings. One or two examples will suffice. An early will in 1678 in Milford, CT specifies the giving of “two of my negroes, a man and a woman, to my son George Clarke, which he shall chuse,” and a negro each to “my son Thomas Clark” and “to my daughter Sarah” (127). Slaves were also punished for “fornication,” either among themselves or with white indentured servants, the catch being that slaves were denied the right to marriage and family so any babies produced would be proof of illegality. A complex case in the 1660s involving three generations of slaves named Warro illustrates this. A prominent colonist named Daniel Gookin brought two of his slaves, Jacob and Maria Warro, to New England from Maryland, with two Warro children, Sylvanus and Daniel. First Daniel got in trouble fathering a child with a slave woman named Hagar. Then his brother Sylvanus, having been sold (or rented) to a William Parke of Roxbury, committed “fornication with Elizabeth Parker” an English servant of Parke’s, and was sent to prison for it. Just after his release, however, Sylvanus Warro was arrested and convicted of stealing from Parke, and sentenced to pay twenty pounds and whipped twenty lashes. Though he could endure the whipping, Warro could never pay such an amount of money, but the court then ordered him to pay weekly child support for the child he’d fathered with Elizabeth Parker, adding to his impossible burden. The court then said he could acquit the debt by being sold as a slave for the equivalent value. Meantime, Parker herself returned to England, and the child, Sylvanus Jr., was ordered, when old enough, to be put out to service for thirty years to compensate his master Parke for expenses he’d incurred in raising him. Meantime, Sylvanus Warro himself was sold by his original master, Gookin, to Jonathan Wade to serve him for the rest of his life. In the end, his son, Sylvanus Jr., served out his thirty years of service, and was brought before authorities in Boston for being a kind of vagrant: “a Lame Cripple.” The Boston authorities had no interest in supporting him, ailment or not, and ordered him to “depart out of this town” (175). In short, three generations of an entire family were exploited, punished, jailed, sold and exiled at the whim of owners or authorities with hardly a thought.
At last, in 1700, the diarist and Salem-witch-trial judge, Samuel Sewall, wrote The Selling of Joseph, the first writing from New England to call for the abolition of slavery. Insisting that all slaves were “the Offspring of GOD, and their Liberty…more precious than gold,” Sewall’s three-page pamphlet set off a storm of rebuttals from other colonists. For even Cotton Mather, New England’s iconic Puritan minister, had written that nature itself insisted that “there must be some who are to Command, and there must be some who are to Obey.” Mather also wrote Rules for the Society of Negroes, his attempt to keep Africans from making trouble by having them agree that “if any of them should, at unfit Hours, be Abroad, much more, if any of them should Run away from their Masters, we [i.e., we Negroes] will afford them no Shelter: But we will do what in us lies, that they may be discovered and punished” (232). At all events, Sewall was far ahead of his time, and with the news of slave revolts in Jamaica, there was little chance that his call for abolition would be heeded in 1700. But though it would take almost a century, slavery was finally ended in Massachusetts in 1783 when the decision in the Quock Walker case declared slavery unconstitutional in that state. Rhode Island and Connecticut more or less followed suit at about the same time, enacting “gradual emancipation” laws which said that children born to enslaved mothers after 1784 would not be enslaved for life, but could receive their freedom after some years: twenty-five years for Connecticut, and twenty-one years for Rhode Island.
Still, it is important to bear in mind that our puzzlement about the 3/5ths compromise in the United States Constitution (where three fifths of slaves, though they cannot vote, are counted by slave states to inflate their representation in Congress) may be due to our assumption that surely those moral New Englanders (not to mention our hyper-moral founding fathers) would have fought such a travesty to the bitter end. What we now see is that they all had a deeper hand in the slave game, and for far longer, than most of us could have imagined.