Slavery and the Slave Trade in Colonial New England - Joanne Pope Melish

A Society with Slaves

Less than two decades after their first settlement on the coast of what would become New England, English colonists had begun to use unfree labor—not only English indentured servants but also Native American Indian war captives and enslaved Africans—to help them clear their land, plant and harvest their crops, care for their animals, and perform household tasks. Soon many of these colonists also entered the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. Thus the New England colonies, like Virginia, South Carolina, and other colonies to the south that are more commonly associated with the practice of slavery, became slave holding and slave trading societies early in their development.

Whites, blacks, and Indians lived in New England in a variety of shifting conditions of freedom and servitude. From the outset of English settlement, most whites and Indians, and a few Africans, were free. Some whites, however, were indentured or apprenticed for specific terms of service as payment for their passage to New England. Other whites, as well as some blacks and Indians, were indentured for terms of service when they became orphaned, widowed, indebted, convicted of a crime, or dependent in some other way and unable to support themselves. Some Native peoples and most blacks were enslaved for life.

Native Enslavement

Native American Indians became servants and slaves in English colonial households in a variety of ways. Before 1700, most Indians entered servitude as prisoners of war. In 1637, at the end of the war waged by the New England colonies against the Pequot Indians of south-eastern Connecticut, about 250 Pequot captives were sent to authorities in Massachusetts and Connecticut to be distributed among the towns as household servants. While some of these people served in English colonial households for specific terms and then were released, many served for life. The onset of King Philip's War in 1675 led to a second wave of Native enslavement, as Massachusetts and Rhode Island authorities held mass auctions of Narragansett and Wampanoag captives and also awarded captives to individuals as compensation for service or loss during the war. Indian non-combatants, of friendly tribes as well as foes, were also kidnapped and enslaved or sold. A third route to servitude for New England Indians was conviction for debt or crime; unable to pay fines and claims, Indians were frequently sentenced to long terms of service.

By 1700, the enslavement of Indians had become so widespread that several New England colonies and towns passed statutes and ordinances that attempted to regulate and, in at least one colony, Rhode Island, to prohibit it. But these measures were ineffective, and by that time Indians were serving in English colonial households throughout New England.

Captive New England Indians, especially young men, were also exported from New England to the West Indies to work as enslaved laborers on the huge and profitable sugar plantations that were becoming England's greatest source of colonial revenue by the late sixteenth century. In 1638, several such Pequot captives were exchanged in the West Indies for enslaved Africans, who then were brought back to New England and sold as laborers. (1)

The Atlantic Economy and the African Slave Trade

The exchange of Africans for Pequots was one transaction in an extensive Atlantic trade in natural resources, manufactured goods, and unwilling laborers that European trading companies and their agents had been developing since the early sixteenth century. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the New England colonies became small outposts in an expanding Atlantic world economy that closely connected Europe with Africa, the Americas, and the islands off their coasts.

Europeans initially established ports and outposts on the coast of Africa to trade guns, iron, textiles, and other manufactured products to Africans for gold, ivory, dyewoods and natural products of other kinds, not slaves. In the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese used Native peoples as their labor force, primarily for mining silver. But disease and mistreatment had decimated the Native population by the time advances in transportation technology had made the export of agricultural products economically feasible. Successful experiments with the use of enslaved African labor on early plantations by the Portuguese on Madeira and other islands off the African coast provided a model for later Portuguese, Dutch, and English plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. The Europeans on the coast of Africa expanded their commercial activities to include trading for slaves.

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Diagram of the hold of a slave ship, from an Abstract of the Evidence given to a committee of the British House of Commons in 1790-91 by anti-slavery groups.
Courtesy of the Lilly Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana University.

The growing demand in Europe for sugar and, to a lesser extent, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, and indigo, in the seventeenth century sparked an explosive growth in plantations in the Americas and a rapidly rising demand for enslaved African laborers throughout the eighteenth century. By the end of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1870s, about 12 million Africans had been herded onto boats on the Atlantic coast of Africa, of whom about 10 million reached the Americas alive. Of those, about 28%, or 2.8 million, made port in the British colonies in the Caribbean or mainland North America and worked as enslaved laborers there, the majority on sugar plantations. (2)

New England and the Triangular Trade

Not all the sugar went to Europe. The product most in demand on the coast of Africa in exchange for slaves was liquor, and the northern British colonies became major manufacturers of rum, for domestic consumption as well as for the slave trade. By the mid-1700s, there were more than sixty distilleries producing rum in Massachusetts alone. New England rum would be exchanged for slaves on the coast of Africa; the slaves would be transported to the British Caribbean, where they would work to produce molasses and sugar; sugar products would be transported to New England to be manufactured into rum. This three-legged trade network was called the triangular trade.

The production of rum was not New England's only involvement in the triangular trade. Beginning in 1644, Massachusetts began to outfit slave ships to engage directly in the trade of rum and other products for enslaved laborers on the coast of Africa and to transport them to Caribbean sugar plantations. Massachusetts remained the principal American slave trading colony until 1700, after which Rhode Island became the center of the American slave trade. By the end of the legal trade in 1808, North American vessels, over half of them New England owned, had accounted for 2,000 slave trading voyages that had transported about 220,600 African slaves to the Americas. Close to 10,000 of them had been brought, either directly or by way of the Caribbean, to labor in New England. (3)

The Origins of New England Slaves

Transatlantic traders obtained slaves on the coast of Africa at European trading factories or castles from who purchased them from African merchants. African societies had had slaves and an internal trade in slaves before European contact. However, slave status in Africa and in the Creole communities of mixed European-African culture and often ancestry that developed around the European slave trading "castles" on the African coast was more fluid than the permanent, heritable, and depersonalized status Europeans ultimately imposed on Africans in the Americas. In Africa, men and women became slaves by capture in war, in exchange for goods, through indebtedness and other forms of dependency, and as legal punishment. In African societies and Creole enclaves on the coast, slaves' descendants could become assimilated into the communities in which they were enslaved, and could even rise in status to become dignitaries and rulers; just as easily, free persons could be reduced to servitude by a reversal of fortune. The first generation of Creole and African slaves was able to maintain a measure of fluidity in their status in the Americas until rigid slave codes were introduced in the face of greatly increasing numbers and the consolidation of plantation culture.

The special experience and skills of Creoles, and often their age, made them less useful and more dangerous as laborers on volatile sugar plantations than slaves from the interior of Africa; thus Creoles brought to the Caribbean islands often were sold again and transported, with other "refuse" slaves too old or otherwise unsuitable for plantation labor, to more marginal societies on mainland North America. In this way, Creoles may have been some of the first slaves brought to New England. When a few of them began to gain their freedom through manumission or by running away, they formed the first communities of free people of color in New England, communities that slowly grew on the margins of white communities with slaves. (4)

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Escaped New England slaves often found refuge in free black communities in larger towns, like Boston. The master of this runaway is from Deerfield, but is advertising for his slave's return in Boston, 90 miles away. To read this advertisement, click here.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA.

New England Slavery in North American Context

New England, like the Middle Atlantic colonies, remained a society with a relatively small population of slaves in most areas for as long as slavery remained legal there. Only in Rhode Island, the center of the American slave trade, did slaves become as much as 10% of the population, at the peak of New England slavery in the 1750s. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, slaves never accounted for more than 2-3% of the population. In contrast, by the 1750s slaves outnumbered whites in South Carolina by almost two to one, laboring two and three hundred strong on huge rice and indigo plantations. In Virginia and Maryland at the same time, slaves made up 36% of the population on large farms that produced tobacco and other products.(5) These became slave societies, in which slavery dominated the economy, law, politics, and social order.

Only in a few places, and for a brief period, did the institution of slavery play such a dominant a role in the northern colonies. In New England, Africans were concentrated in coastal towns and cities and in a few agricultural centers. For example, in 1754 three quarters of adult blacks in Massachusetts lived in Sussex, Essex, and Plymouth counties, and one third lived in the city of Boston alone. In Rhode Island a year later, one out of four blacks lived in Newport. (6) Nonetheless, the importance of slavery increased steadily in New England as well as in the Middle Atlantic colonies up to the American Revolution. The increasing desire for New England products fostered by the expansion of the Atlantic economy brought a sharp increase in the demand for labor. In response, the importation of slaves to the region, now directly from Africa, grew steadily. The slave trade became the cornerstone of the New England economy.

The Work of New England Slaves

By the mid-1600s, African slaves had appeared in every New England colony, working alongside enslaved and indentured Indians and indentured whites. In 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony on the British mainland to give legal recognition to chattel slavery as a lifetime, heritable status, and the other New England colonies had followed suit within eleven years. By 1700, about one thousand African slaves lived in the region. Seventy years later, the enslaved population would reach nearly 15,000. Colonists of all sorts, from wealthy aristocrats and pious ministers to middling farmers and artisans, owned slaves. (7)

The African population was most densely concentrated in towns and cities. In port cities, they loaded and unloaded the boats and worked in shipyards, ropewalks, and other maritime industries. Frequently they were hired out as laborers to their owners' neighbors or as sailors to captains of merchant ships (and sometimes slave ships). Slaves also performed much of the domestic labor in the homes of middling and wealthy colonists.

The majority of slaves, like the majority of whites, lived and worked on the farms clustered around small towns like Deerfield. As English families from areas close to the coast moved west toward the Berkshires in search of more or better land, they sometimes brought a slave or two with them; or, once settled, a member of such a family might make a trip back to Boston or Newport to purchase a slave from a cargo just arrived from the Caribbean. Therefore, even the families living on isolated farms on the frontiers of settlement often had one or two slaves. In these settings, slaves performed agricultural and domestic labor alongside the white men and women of the household. This labor sustained the household and also produced products for local, regional, and Caribbean markets.

Only in the Narragansett country of southern Rhode Island and in a small area of eastern Connecticut were there plantations large enough to require the labor of twenty or thirty slaves. There they planted, tended, and harvested agricultural products and raised animals that were exported, along with fish and naval stores, to meet the needs of the growing population of slaves and colonists in the West Indies. Everywhere, enslaved women performed household labor, cooking, washing, spinning, weaving, and caring for children. They also worked in the dairies making cheese for export. Enslaved men learned and practiced the trades of smithing, carpentry, stone masonry, and cooperage and learned to perform many other skilled tasks in the field, home, barn, and mill. A small number were employed in saltworks, iron furnaces, spermaceti candle works, and other manufacturing operations. Many hired out part of their time or participated in trade in other ways and negotiated agreements with their owners to keep part of their earnings.

The Lives and Culture of Slaves

Because most New England slaves did not live and work in large groups, they usually lived in attics, cellars, and back rooms in their owners' homes rather than in separate quarters. Although their isolation in small numbers in white households restricted their domestic arrangements and subjected them to surveillance, their concentrations in cities and towns meant that they were able to maintain a rich network of relationships and create a distinctive culture that blended a variety of African and indigenous traditions with English practices adapted to their tastes. As the colonists became confident that Christian baptism would not mean freedom, most slaves became Christians, adapting African ideas and customs in subtle ways to Christian faith and practices. The influx of slaves directly from Africa after the 1740s reinvigorated African aspects of African American culture, evidenced by the appearance in New England slave communities of celebrations such as "Negro Election," a West African custom the slaves adapted to English conventions.

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Phillis Wheatley, the first African to publish in America, serves as an example of how masters in New England occasionally educated their slaves along with their own children.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA.

Slaves in Deerfield

At the time of the raid on Deerfield in 1704, there were at least two slaves living in the village. The Reverend John Williams owned a married couple named Frank and Parthena and had owned a man named Robert Tigo (possibly Roberto Santiago) who had died nearly ten years before. There may have been other African and possibly Indian slaves in the village. Another slave named Primus, who reportedly "fought in the meadow" during the raid, may have lived nearby in Hatfield. By 1752, 12 families owned 21 slaves on Main Street alone, and it is likely that there were many more living elsewhere in town. By that date, one free black man named Abijah Prince also was living on Main Street. (8)

Free Communities of Color

From the earliest days of slavery in New England, a small number of enslaved Africans and Afro-Indians had escaped bondage. Some ran away and eluded capture, a few were manumitted for a heroic act or other reason, and a few more were freed in the will of an owner as a reward for faithful service or, increasingly, as an act of troubled conscience. At first, manumitted blacks usually continued to work for and even live with or near their former owners, so that even very small towns might have one or two free black residents, but runaways moved to another town or, more frequently, to larger cities, especially ports where they might find work. Small free black communities slowly developed on the margins of these cities. There free men of color worked as laborers, exchanged skills learned in slavery for wages, or shipped out as sailors on board merchant and sometimes slaving ships. Free women of color frequently worked as day laborers in the homes of middling and wealthy whites.

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After being freed from slavery in the governor of Rhode Island's household, Pompey Brenton became one of the influential leaders in New England's eighteenth-century free black community.
Courtesy of

Free people of color maintained close relations with their family members and friends who remained enslaved, often participating with them in religious observances and celebrations such as "Negro Election." Free people of African and Indian descent who had formed families in the context of servitude often maintained enduring ties with their familial tribes and sometimes moved to rejoin relatives on tribal land.

A Gradual End to New England Slavery

Opposition to slavery grew slowly in New England. Enslaved people of color themselves were its most vigorous opponents, using freedom petitions and lawsuits to plead their cause in colonial assemblies and courts beginning in the early 1700s. Religious opposition from the Society of Friends (Quakers) had spread to a growing number of Puritan ministers by the 1770s. But it was the American Revolution that finally produced conditions under which abolition could gain public support. The Revolutionary natural rights argument seemed to apply to slaves as well as to the colonies, and the war itself disrupted the trade to the West Indies that made slavery profitable. In the 1780s, Rhode Island and Connecticut passed post nati emancipation laws stipulating that children born to slaves would be freed after reaching adulthood. In Massachusetts, a freedom suit resulted in a 1783 court decision that the 1780 state constitution effectively abolished slavery, although its wording was ambiguous and slaves were still taxed there until 1785. By the 1820s, nearly all slaves in New England had been freed. As their communities continued to struggle against persistent racism and disadvantage, free people of color began to achieve a place of stability and modest prosperity in New England towns and cities.

Further Reading

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