The Slave Trade

Most of the slave trade in the 17th century occurred through Boston ports, with Massachusetts as the center of the slave trade in North America

Most of the slave trade in the 17th century occurred through Boston ports, with Massachusetts as the center of the slave trade in North America

 

Massachusetts was the first slave-holding colony in America, and the first slaves were thought to have come into the region between 1624 and 1629. The first mention of African slavery in the Americas is during the Pequot War in 1637, in which Pequot Indians attacked European colonists encroaching on their land. A militia from Massachusetts amongst others counter-attacked, capturing and killing most of the Pequot. Those Indians that were captured were traded to the West Indies on the ship Desire to be exchanged for African slaves, salt, cotton, and tobacco.

West Indies Africans, exchanged for Pequot Indians, sailed the Desire to American slavery.

West Indies Africans, exchanged for Pequot Indians, sailed the Desire to American slavery.

 

Most of the limited slave trade in New England during the 17th century occurred in Massachusetts, and specifically in Boston. Boston merchants made New England’s first direct importation of slaves from Africa to the West Indies in 1644, but the competition with slave monopolies on the Gold Coast and Guinea limited its success. By 1676, Boston ships was able to secure an exclusive slave trade to Madagascar, and those ships brought the slaves to Virginian plantations. Domestically, Puritans usually took Africans to the West Indies and sold them for more experienced slaves they used in New England. The most profitable slaves were males that could work in plantations, and as those were the ones African countries were willing to part with (women were preferred for field work in Africa), males made up higher percentages of the traded slaves.

The picture depicts the inspection of a slave during a sale

The picture depicts the inspection of a slave during a sale

With the decline of monopolies in Africa and need for labor in cities, Boston led New England in pursuit of the slave trade. From fewer than 200 slaves in 1676, and 550 in 1708, the Massachusetts slave population jumped to about 2,000 in 1715. It reached its largest percentage of the total population between 1755 and 1764, when it stood at around 2.2 percent. The slaves concentrated in the industrial and seaside towns, however, and Boston was about 10 percent black in 1752.

African slaves that were sold into slavery were often kidnapped from their villages and stolen from their families

African slaves that were sold into slavery were often kidnapped from their villages and stolen from their families

A Massachusetts law of 1641 specifically linked slavery to Biblical authority, and established for slaves the set of rules “which the law of God, established in Israel concerning such people, doth morally require.” When two 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 getting them in the approved way, such as in exchange for rum or other goods) — and because the slaughter of 100 or so villagers had taken place on a Sunday. Nonetheless, because of its religious foundation, Massachusetts’ attitudes toward slaves in some ways were more progressive than those of other colonies.

Boston, which had the largest slave population, also had its own system of controlling slavery, on top of the province-wide ones. In statutes enacted at various times between the 1720s and 1750s, slaves in Boston were forbidden to buy provisions in market; carry a stick or a cane; keep pigs or swine; or even be on  the streets, or in public areas at night or at all on Sunday. Punishments for violation of these laws ranged up to 20 lashes, depending on other factors.

Owners had the right to punish their slaves whenever they wanted, but some laws were put in place to curb excessive violence

Owners had the right to punish their slaves whenever they wanted, but some laws were put in place to curb excessive violence

The American Revolution led to the end of slavery in the North. Enlightenment ideas of natural rights contrasted with the idea of slavery, and often Patriots took up the cause for emancipation. Samuel Johnson, John Jay, and Nathaniel Niles amongst others wrote against the system of slavery, and encouraged others to let their slaves free. Britain had a large financial stake in the slave trade (between 1729 and 1750, Parliament approved more than 90,000 for maintenance of slave stations on the African coast), so New England resistance to slave importation in the years leading up to the Revolution could express anti-Crown sentiment. Emancipation in the North also involved a religious component. Quakers came later to abolition than many people realize. Not until 1758 did Philadelphia Yearly Meeting condemn not only the slave trade, but slavery itself. Still, the Society of Friends was the most visible of the anti-slavery sects, though somewhat marginalized during the Revolution because many Friends had been Loyalists. During the war, both the British and Americans needed slaves to fight alongside them, with the incentive of freedom being given if they fought. More slaves went to the British, as they believed they would be victorious, but northern colonies began to offer their slaves manumission or freedom in exchange for military service as well. Over 5,000 blacks fought in the Revolution, causing a decrease in black populations with their deaths. With the American victory, surviving slaves got their freedom, and the Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783. The newly freed slaves came back to Boston to work as skilled artisans or sailors, resulting in employment competition in the city.

More slaves chose to fight for British because they believed they would ultimately win the Revolution, but a strong percentage of blacks did fight alongside the colonists

More slaves chose to fight for British because they believed they would ultimately win the Revolution, but a strong percentage of blacks did fight alongside the colonists

 

Sources used on page –

“African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts.” African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Historical Society, 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <http://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=60>.
“Northern Emancipation.” Northern Emancipation. Slavery in the North, 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <http://slavenorth.com/emancipation.htm>.
“Slavery in Massachusetts.” Slavery in Massachusetts. Slavery in the North, 2003. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <http://slavenorth.com/massachusetts.htm>.

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