The Shackles of Freedom: the Slave Trade in Colonial New England
Five weeks ago, I found myself playing chicken with the Green Line. My brush with death in Brookline was worth it.
As a high school student, my primary sources mostly come as nice, neat internet transcriptions. I never expected to be staring at a three hundred year old letter in which Hugh Hall, one of Boston’s prominent slave traders, complains rather vehemently of seasickness. The letter was written in big, loopy handwriting, the polar opposite of Hugh’s brother Richard’s cramped impossibility, on yellowed old paper that felt somewhat slimy.
For a moment, I was overcome by the idea that I was touching Hall’s DNA.
I was researching the development of the New England economy in relation to the slave trade. This rested chiefly on the shoulders of the exploits of early traders in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. I had first to establish the prominence and profitability of the trade, then track its influence, culturally and economically, as it inserted itself into the daily life of colonists. Slavery as a domestic institution was rather invisible in colonial Massachusetts, but the colony’s involvement in a booming international trade was not, and New England merchants grew rich by supplying Caribbean sugar plantations with slaves.
During this time I uncovered the most astounding stories. John Usher, later the Receiver General of the Dominion of New England, conspired with a group of London merchants and his friend John Saffin, to smuggle slaves into Rhode Island. At this time, the Royal African Company held a monopoly on all trade to “His Majesty’s Plantations” with Africa. Usher’s ship was nearly intercepted and had to be redirected to Nantasket, where the cargo was unloaded and sold (according to a bill of sale from 1681 in the miscellaneous manuscripts collection) three months later across New England.
These long-dead personages began to acquire personal characteristics. Richard Hall frequently wrote home to his children in Boston. Elizabeth Shrimpton, the grandmother of Shute Shrimpton Yeamans, who had inherited his father’s plantation in Antigua, sent him a letter in which she debated to herself whether he’d receive the Boston share of her will. With these personalities emerging, details that become almost tangible before the researcher, one finds it hard to imagine the sheer callousness of their commerce. Hall mentions slaves in the same breath as rum and turpentine. The Royal African Company frequently petitioned the King that New England smugglers were disrupting their quotas as to affect their quarterly margins, displeasing their Caribbean customers. I stood amazed that they trafficked in human beings, and that this “smuggling” and these “quotas” often decided the fate of hundreds of captive men, women, and children.
I made three visits to the Massachusetts Historical Society. In each I was awestruck by the sheer volume of resources available to me: original documents, collections, microfilm, and digitized materials. The staff was very helpful in my attempts to locate evidence, and I oftentimes would have been lost in a jungle of information had they not hacked through some vines. For those researching slavery and the slave trade, the John Usher sections of the Jeffries family papers have proved very useful, as has the account book of Hugh Hall, the Shrimpton family papers, the wills in the Dolbeare family papers, and certain sections of the Winthrop family papers. The Sir William Pepperrell papers are, despite the label on the collection guide, an impenetrable morass of personal correspondence mostly related to the Siege of Louisburg, so deceptively organized by the archivists of 1898 that there are indeed indices to indices. I finally stumbled upon a bit of clarity with the discovery of Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, a collection of just the right sort of manuscripts by Elizabeth Donnan, conveniently stored at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here I found the Charter of the Royal African Company, as well as several petitions in regards to said company, and the account of a certain Captain Moore, whose schooner, the William, was “taken and retaken again,” by her captives.
I have always wanted to be a historian. My time at the Massachusetts Historical Society obliterated any lingering doubts in that ambition. Words cannot describe the joy of these encounters with the past, an opportunity I will never forget. With that in mind, I would like to thank all those at the Society who have aided me in my research, and for awarding me this tremendous opportunity.
**The MHS has awarded the John Winthrop Student Fellowship since 2013. This fellowship encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the Society in a research project of their choosing.
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