Wednesday, November 23, 2016

What We're Reading: Pilgrims, Puritans, and Slavery


New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, by Wendy Warren

The recent direction in American colonial studies and the study of the American Revolution, led by historians such as Alan Taylor, has been to cast a wider eye on the American continent, to look beyond just the 13 original English colonies, and to examine as central to American history the interaction between the colonies and the people and territories that surrounded them, and their role in the larger regional and international economic and trade systems in which they were enmeshed. The trend in historical research on American slavery has been to examine it as an institution that was not just an isolated 19th-century American Southern phenomenon, but one that had significant continental and international antecedents as part of the Atlantic world, tangled in highly dependent and supportive ways with the economic system of the nation as a whole. Edward Baptist’s recent book on American slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, is representative of this approach, one that places slavery as much economically as politically central to America’s early development. New England Bound uses both of these contemporary perspectives, while making an even more fundamental argument about European slavery in the New World. Warren argues that slavery and colonization were inextricably tied together; they were two sides of the same coin. The viability of early colonization attempts invariably depended on slave labor, either directly in the colony or through some critical mercantile relationship.




A 17th-century map of the English plantations on Barbados in the West Indies.
New England supplied much of the food for its slave population.
The subject of this book is discrete: the institution of slavery in the 17th- and 18th-century New England colonies. Most of us don’t think of New England as a place of slavery, but the Pilgrim and Puritan seekers of religious freedom endorsed it without question. We think of American slavery as defined by that of the 19th-century American South. Historical scholarship has made some inquiry into slavery in the early colonial period, but hardly any at all concerning slavery in New England during that time. This is not a very long book, but the research, one suspects, was prodigious. Most of it is from primary sources: letters, wills, probate records, legal cases, and other public records. Warren combed them for any mention of slave owning or transactions involving slaves. Slave holding was never as pervasive in New England as it later became in the South, but it was extensive enough for most colonists in the New England to know about and to see in their daily lives the slaves that were held by wealthier colonists, an ownership that was a visible sign of social status. Those wealthier colonists would usually own one or two slaves, often as household servants or for working at artisan tasks. Some slaves were employed in cultivation, but never in the huge numbers that were involved in the cash crop agricultural industries of the West Indies and later in the American South.


The burning of a village of Pequot Indians at Mistick Fort during the Pequot War.
Captured Indians were often sold by settlers as slaves to planters in the West Indies.


There are a number of things about slavery in New England that Warren wants us to understand. New England was part of a far-flung Atlantic world of trade and colonization, and the trade in slaves was a common and accepted part of commerce in that world, from the early days of the Portuguese and Spanish in the New World to the later employment of slaves in the colonization of the English and French in North America and the Caribbean. The English were involved in the Spanish and Portuguese slave trade even before they had themselves had colonies with slaves. New England merchants and ship masters continued to be involved in that trade in the Atlantic world, but the major contribution of New England shipping to the establishment and exploitation of slaves was their role as the vital transportation link in commerce with the British West Indies. Planters in the West Indies put almost all their arable land into the extremely profitable cultivation of sugar cane. The food for slaves was imported from the farms and fisheries of New England, a trade that in turn sustained the New England economy.



Portrait of Judge Samuel Sewall by John Smibert,
1728. Sewall was one of the few voices to

speak against slavery in New England. In 1700,

he wrote  a largely ignored anti-slavery tract,

The Selling of  Joseph.

Readers of New England Bound may be surprised to learn about the extent of Native American slavery in the colonies. This is a subject that is also receiving growing historical interest in recent years (see for example, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez). Warren explains the differences between Native American slavery and African slavery, and the dynamic between the two in the colonies and in the Atlantic slave economy. The acceptance of slavery in New England was not just an acceptance of African slavery, but an acceptance of the enslavement of other races and of gradations of indenture. The Squanto of Thanksgiving mythology was able to communicate with the Pilgrims because he had been abducted by a British captain and sold into slavery in Spain in 1614. Somehow making an escape to England, he learned the rudiments of English and eventually found passage back to America, where he found that most of his family and tribe had died of smallpox.


Readers of New England Bound may be surprised to learn about the extent of Native American slavery in the colonies. This is a subject too, receiving growing historical interest in recent years (see for example, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez). Warren explains the differences between Native American slavery and African slavery, and explains the dynamic between the two in the colonies and in the Atlantic slave economy. The acceptance of slavery in New England was not just an acceptance of African slavery, but an acceptance of the enslavement of other races and of gradations of indenture as well. The Squanto of Thanksgiving mythology was able to communicate with the Pilgrims because he had been abducted by a British captain and sold into slavery in Spain in 1614. Somehow making an escape to England, he learned the rudiments of English and eventually found passage back to America where he found that most of his family and tribe had died of smallpox.

Warren examines the work of New England divines and documents how religion in New England was accepting of the institution of slavery. It would be hard to locate a nascent abolitionism in New England Protestantism, although she notes the early anti-slavery tract, The Selling of Joseph, by Samuel Sewall. New England was part of a 17th-century Atlantic world that accepted slavery, and thought little of it as a moral evil. The existence of slaves, and the need to settle legal issues involving slaves as they arose, resulted in an accrual of laws and judicial rulings that, over time, served to establish slavery in the New England colonies. On the matter of slavery, Warren dispels the myth that New England was a better or more enlightened group of colonies than colonies anywhere else in the Atlantic world. Things might have been harsher elsewhere, but that was more a matter of exigencies than scruples. New England was not very different from the rest of the world it knew, in either racial attitudes or complacency about the slavery of others. Slavery and racism in America Warren shows us had early and broad national origins.

What makes New England Bound unsettling, however, is not that it traces a long history of racism and slavery, but rather the existential argument it makes. Warren’s argues that there was a symbiosis-- one that was dependent and determinant--between successful colonization and slavery throughout the Atlantic world during this period; that is the major argument of this book. The colonies survived and we became a nation because of enslaving others. That forces a profound and paradigmatic shift in how we view slavery, our wealth, and even our national existence.





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