Slavery in the New England Colonies

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On Thursday, October 5, Bates held its annual Andrews Lecture in the Muskie Archives. This year, Wendy Warren, an assistant professor of History at Princeton University and the recent author of New England Bound, came to deliver a speech on slavery in the New England colonies.

“This is her first book,” began Professor Joseph Hall of Bates, “but what a book! It has won The Organization of American Historians Merle Curti Social History Prize, it has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a finalist for the Berkshire Conference Book Prize and also a finalist for the Harriet Tubman Prize…”

Warren started her talk with an account from 1638 in Massachusetts: “a young English man named John Johnson embarked on a tour of New England, on a sort of fact-finding mission for potential investors back home in England. He was a young man on what we might now call a gap year,” to which the audience giggled.

In the account, Samuel Maverick, a wealthy New England colonist, had a female African slave who was formerly a queen in her country. She came to Johnson one morning grievingly singing in her native tongue. When Johnson came to Mr. Maverick to ask what the matter was with her, Maverick explained that he wanted to create a “breed of negroes” and had her raped by another slave.

“So people often want to know how I came to write this book,” said Warren, “and the answer to that is because of this woman, I started the project for a more humanistic and moral reason, because I had read about a woman who was grieved, who was upset, and alone and scared, and it can be hard to read about people like that as an historian and not upset yourself. And so I decided that I would try to understand why she was in Boston and why nobody knew who she was.”

Indeed, characters came and disappeared in the archives. Warren never found out what happened to Samuel Maverick’s slave woman, as she was never mentioned again. Her story as a slave in New England is part of a collective of stories of uprooted peoples in colonial America. It has been estimated that as many as two thousand enslaved Africans lived in the New England Colony by 1720.

“So what did enslaved people do in New England?” asked Warren. “Bizarrely, they did the same labor as English colonists in the seventeenth century. I find it quite startling that this system could take someone from a home in West Africa, uproot them, violently transport them to the Caribbean and then to New England, and then place them to work doing the most mundane tasks…they ran warehouses, they were apprentices to cobblers, they baked, they farmed. They also did the work of colonization: they cleared land, they participated in military battles, they made way for English settlement. They were, we might say, coerced colonists caught in a violent process of abduction and exploitation.”

Another prominent case in Warren’s book was the case of John Juan in the New Haven Colony. Juan wanted to leave New England for New York to join his countrymen once his master, his master’s wife, and his own wife died in the same year. In order to leave, he had to sell the land and house that his master had given to him, but no one wanted to buy it and urged him to live in that home for the rest of his days.

“But next we come to the almost direct words of an enslaved man who had spent, by this point, more than thirty years in New Haven,” said Warren near the end of her talk. “Juan said, ‘if he should be sick, nobody would comfort him and therefore, he would sell it and go to his country folks.’”

“What can be said about such a human desire, so heartbreaking, so familiar, so similar to the grief felt by so many uprooted people who found themselves marooned in strange environments surrounded by strange people,” concluded Warren. “An old man, Juan looked around New Haven and saw no community, underscoring the loneliness a slave could feel in New England and the psychic toll that isolation can take.”

Ultimately, as has been seen with so many other annals of American history lately, Warren’s work is about recognizing past injustices and giving them a human face.

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