Early Accounts of Slavery in Massachusetts
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
While Slavery is often labeled as an issue of the regional divide, it existed in the North for hundreds of years before federal emancipation. In Massachusetts, the first documented reference to slavery in 1636 was more than 140 years before the Mumbet and Walker cases. It wasn’t until the Massachusetts census in 1790 that slavery officially became obsolete in our state’s daily life. Early educational accounts of the horrific slave trade are almost completely from the singular perspective which views those sold into slavery as “property,” leaving gaps in the historic enslaved perspective. Here are a few documents which highlight the experience of slaves in our state.
John Winthrop Journal
John Winthrop, the first governor of the colony which would eventually form the state of Massachusetts, kept a record of the daily events in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, from the journey aboard the Arabella in 1630 till his eventual death in 1649. In February of 1638, Winthrop wrote in his journal that a trading ship had arrived from the West Indies carrying, “some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc.”(Dunn et al, eds., Journal, 1996, p. 246)
Hugh Hall Account Book
As the major seaport in New England, Boston became integral to the slave trade as early as 1644, when Bostonian merchants initialized the triangular trade through the importing of slaves from Africa to the West Indies in order to bring home products of sugar, rum, and cotton from the Caribbean. Hugh Hall was one such wealthy entrepreneur. Hailing originally from Barbados, Hall traded with the island he was born in, keeping track of all of his merchandise in an account book from 1728 to 1733. On over twelve pages, he specifically notes the purchase of slaves, keeping track of when they died or were sold out of the province in order to collect fees.
Here, on page five of his journal, Hall writes, “ Tho Stevenson Nt Proceeds. Negro dead
Remit. in good Fish. P first. If the Negro had Lived.” The account is one of several which notes of a slave dying during the journey. His writing is very matter of fact with a brisk nod to the slave dying and a recollection of what would have been gained if they had survived. This reference to slaves more as property than as human beings continues as a theme in the rest of his entries.
In another account on page 8 of his journal, we see slaves just being listed like livestock, sandwiched between candles and the next patron’s list of goods to be imported. This dehumanization of the slave trade was an apparent fixture in Massachusetts society until abolitionist thinking takes hold a few decades later.
Receipt of Cato's Purchase
Another way we can trace slavery in Massachusetts is through receipts of payment, such as the one below.
The document shows a bill of payment detailing Otis Baker’s purchase of an enslaved boy named Cato in 1763 from Henry Ward. (The witness to Cato’s eventual manumission in 1777 was Jeremy Belknap, the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society) The document reads, “I do hereby acknowledge to have received … One Thousand Four Hundred Pounds Old Tenor [paper money] in full for a Negro Boy named Cato whom I have this Day sold to him...I hereby promise to defend against the Lawful Claims of all Persons whatsoever.” Here, we see the dehumanizing purchasing tone continuing: Cato isn’t seen as a person, but as a “Claim” of property purchased for $1400. Through documents such as these, we see that the slave trade was running strong less than two decades before slavery was delegitimized in Massachusetts Courts.
1767 Draft of Tax on Slave Trade
In 1767, we see one of the first attempts to legally curb the slave trade through the drafting of a tax on the import of slaves into Massachusetts. It was hypothesized to have been written in March of 1767, with the intent of it taking action the following month.
In the draft, the word forfeit appears regularly. If, “any person before sd. duty be paid or be secured to be paid as aforesaid shall purchase, or receive by gift, or in any way be possessed of any slave or slaves,” they have to pay the due and forfeit the slaves. If slaves traveling into the area as seamen or with the owners are alienated, their owners face the punishment of forfeiture. Through legislation, while we see many passive continuances of the slave trade, we see the first major attempts to delegitimize or at least weaken the trade-in Massachusetts by making it inconvenient to be a slaveholder. It is these early seeds of activism that sprout into judicial review in the following decades, ending slavery in our state.