Early on in New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, a telling story is related that dates back to 1638, not even two decades removed from the Mayflower, of an English colonist near Boston who owned three enslaved Africans – two women and one man – that he sought to turn into breeding stock. When one of the females refused, he ordered the male slave to rape her in an attempt to impregnate her. The rape victim went out of her way to report what had occurred to another Englishman nearby, who in his written account of their conversation seemed to show some sympathy; however, his very next journal entry was a humorous description of his encounter with a wasp. [p7-8] It is clear that as property she otherwise lacked recourse under the circumstances. What does this one unusual anecdotal incident at the dawn of the colonial New England experience really tell us? It turns out that it is far more instructive than the reader might at first suspect, as Princeton University Professor Wendy Warren’s fascinating new contribution to the history of slavery in colonial North America reveals in the pages that follow.
While many fine works of history in the past several decades have rightly restored the long-overlooked role of New England in the triangle trade that was central to the growth of slavery in the colonies, little attention has been paid to slavery as it actually existed in those northern colonies prior to abolition. The standard tale is that slavery never really caught on there, largely because the region lacked the climate and the crop for the plantation agriculture it was best suited for, and as such this untenable anachronism gradually faded away. There is so much truth to that summary that few have bothered to dissect the actual slave experience while it thrived in New England, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the southern colonies and the West Indies. This neglect has badly shortchanged the historiography of the origins of human chattel slavery in colonial North America.
By moving the focal point away from the traditional emphasis upon the Chesapeake, South Carolina, and the Caribbean, Warren has surprisingly uncovered how much slavery in New England actually had in common with slavery in those other more familiar locales. The rape story she opens with is unexpectedly emblematic of the institution of African slavery in the Americas. Slave women had no rights as property, and therefore no control over their own bodies, which meant they could indeed serve as breeding stock, a financial boon in Virginia even in Jefferson’s time as slavery became less profitable in the Chesapeake while prices soared for field hands on the cotton plantations of the deep south. It also meant that they could be compelled to sexual relations with their owners, which is why, as South Carolina’s Mary Chestnut drily noted in 1861: “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children . . .” That meant of course that English common law needed to be turned on its head, so that the children of slaves were condemned to inherit the condition of perpetual servitude from their mothers, regardless of whether their fathers were slave or free. This was codified in Virginia in 1662 as Partus sequitur ventrem but Warren reminds us that it was already clearly understood as such in Massachusetts in 1638. [p156]
Interestingly, Warren also reveals that a 1690 Connecticut law mandating a curfew for “Negroes” managed to presage portions of the slave codes popular in the south by several decades. Massachusetts adopted a similar ordinance. [p201] The ambivalence towards the cruelties inherent to slavery is nevertheless also evident. When it became clear that owners were freeing slaves when they became too old or infirm to profitably toil as units of labor, Connecticut passed a law in 1702 directing slave-owners to care for elderly slaves, whether or not they had been freed, something otherwise left to arbitrary custom in the south. [p176] But apparently those in New England were not immune to the cruel and unusual punishments inflicted upon wrongdoers who happened to be African slaves: Increase Mather chillingly reports that in 1681 the enslaved Maria, convicted of arson and murder, was burned alive at the stake. [p199] Regardless of geography, slaves were often underfed, and sometimes resorted to theft for sustenance. In Connecticut in 1699, a slave who stole “a bisket” on the Sabbath suffered the medieval punishment of thirty lashes and a brand to the forehead. [p211] Whipping and branding became quite common in the Antebellum south. Also echoing another common practice in the south, Warren reports that in 1698 hunting dogs were employed to track down a “Negro.” [p207-08] Warren reminds us that Amerindians were also enslaved, although this was much less widespread, but tellingly a 1697 broadside seeking a runaway Native American slave also neatly anticipates the runaway slave advertisements later so common in newspapers below the Mason-Dixon. [p212]
It is in her coverage of Amerindian slavery that Warren falls short, if only because she seems to promise more than she delivers. The slavery of Native Americans, who were often sold to the West Indies, is a little-known element of early Americana and probably deserves a book-length treatment of its own. Given the scant number of pages Warren devotes to the topic, she might have best simply left it alone. Yet, this is perhaps only a quibble when one considers how well the author succeeds in demonstrating that slavery was indeed integral to all geographies of the English colonies and was shockingly similar in its elemental form both north and south. That New England always seemed to harbor a certain sense of guilt about the immorality of slavery –and that it eventually acted to bring this heinous practice to an end – perhaps mitigates some of its culpability in perpetrating this great evil, yet by no means can that serve as an excuse to overlook or forgive its deep complicity in it. Every student of the history of the institution of slavery and of early American history would benefit from reading Warren’s fine book.