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The Rise and Fall of the Slave Trade in Massachusetts Part I

By Cliff Odle

In 1620, the Pilgrims reached land in the new world and set up a colony. Plymouth, as they called it, would be their new home where they could worship freely, separate from the Church of England. Four years later, a gentleman by the name of Samuel Maverick arrived with two African slaves. Their arrival marked the beginning of a trade that would last more than two centuries, and challenge the meaning of freedom even after the trade was abolished.

In 1643, the Puritan citizens of the Plymouth colony joined forces with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, The New Haven colony and the Connecticut colony to form the New England Confederation. One of the first articles in the confederation established guidelines to legalize the slave trade, placing Massachusetts among the first colonies to do so. It would be nearly twenty years before the first southern colony did the same.

The settlers needed an inexpensive form of labor to handle the heavy tasks that came with starting a new colony. At first, they looked to the Native American tribes as a source of labor, as the Spanish did before them. But the Pequots and other tribes proved to be too unreliable and too dangerous to be considered useful slaves. In their place came slaves from Africa and indentured servants from Europe. At first, the African slaves were treated like indentured servants. This meant that they would work for a master for several years, until they had worked off the price of their passage to the new world. Indentured servitude soon gave way to "life-long" or "chattel" slavery. Laborers were now considered property, not people. Additionally, their children became slaves as well.

In 1708, they were over a thousand slaves in Massachusetts, a number that rose steadily for decades and established Boston as the center of the American slave trade. By 1750 there were over 13,000. Boston slave merchants established a trade as far off as Madagascar; off of Africa's southeast coast, trading Caribbean rum for slaves who were victims of inter-tribal warfare.

African slaves lost their previous identity in the New World. Those who survived the horrors of the Atlantic crossing were stripped of their names, their customs, and their religion. They were given new first names (either "common" names such as John or Thomas, or historical names such as Caesar or Cato) and the surnames of their masters. They were forced to accept a strange new religion with a single god that replaced the many gods and spirits that they had known before. According to their masters, this religion justified their situation. The Puritans used their beliefs to justify all things, including the slave trade. Puritan theologian Cotton Mather preached directly to the slaves calling them the "miserable children of Adam and Noah," and told them that God had doomed them to become slaves. Other preachers used a misreading of a biblical story concerning Noah and one of his sons, saying that the Africans were to suffer "The curse of Ham." By 1703 a series of laws appeared on the books restricting the movements of the slaves.

The growing numbers of slaves made many white people nervous, and they feared slave rebellions and riots. Many colonists also felt that the skin color of the Africans made them inferior to whites, and that it was beneath them to mix with their company.

Money from the trade filled the coffers of many prominent Bostonians. Men such as Cornelius Emerson, the great-grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Peter Fanueil profited greatly from the trade. Fanueil used his money to build Faneuil Hall, later called "the Cradle of Liberty".

Most African Americans in colonial Massachusetts were slaves; however, there was a small, but growing, population of blacks who were not. Many of these "Freemen" were either slaves that had purchased their own freedom, were given their freedom by their masters, or where decedents of slaves that had done one or the other. Like other ethnic groups, free black people tended to band together in their own communities, such as Boston's Beacon Hill, one of the earliest examples of such a neighborhood. It was called "The Back of the Hill" in colonial times and was considered an undesirable place to live by most whites.

Free African colonists worked hard trying to build a future for their children, but it was nearly impossible, as opportunities for blacks to move up in society were few and far between. While working to improve their own lives and those of the families, in a society still dominated by the culture and economy created by slavery, free Africans also worked towards a day when one person could never own another.

Sources and Further Reading:
Greene, Lorenzo Johnston; The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942

Kaplan, Sidney and Emma Nogady; The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. University of Massachusetts Press. Amherst, MA.1989

Melish, Joanne Pope; Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and 'Race' in New England 1780-1860, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998

Edited by Marisa Calleja

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