“There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. … This exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by authority.”

The 91st Article of the "Body of Liberties"

Slavery and Anti-slavery in Massachusetts and New England

Dutch merchants had introduced African slaves to the Virginia Colony as early as 1619, but according to the earliest records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the first shipment of enslaved Africans to New England was not until 1638. They were delivered by Capt. William Peirce on the ship Desire to the Puritan settlement at Salem, north of Boston. Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop wrote, “Mr. Peirce, in the Salem ship, the Desire, returned from the West Indies after seven months. He . . . brought some cotton, and tobacco, and Negroes,…and salt….”1Mather, Increase, 1677, Relation of the Troubles Which Have Happened in New England by Reason of the Indians There, from the Year 1614 to the Year 1675. The Pequot slaves represented the few survivors of this war after they were surrounded and massacred at Mystic, Connecticut, by colonial militias led by John Mason. Pequot Village was renamed New London, Connecticut. Pequot River was renamed the Thames, and the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made it a felony misdemeanor to speak the name Pequot, punishable by whipping and a fine.

Capture of a Brazilian Slave Ship
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The Africans were from slave plantations in the Caribbean and had been acquired in exchange for Native American prisoners of war (POWs)—Pequot Indians defeated by English colonists in the Pequot War of 1637-1638.2Winthrop, 1790, p. 225 The Mass. Bay Colony sent 15 Pequot boys and two Pequot women to Bermuda as slaves. In addition, 38 captive Pequot women and children were sent to Boston to be divvied up among the towns according to each town’s contribution to the war effort.3Winthrop, 1790, p. 225 Native Americans were swapped for Africans because African slaves were regarded as better workers than Native people, who were both defiant and more susceptible to European diseases.41645 Letter to John Winthrop from Emanuel Downing, quoted in Moore, George H., 1866, Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts. Warriors often fought to the death rather than be enslaved, and many who escaped with their lives joined resistance movements against the English.5Fisher, Linford D., 2017, Why Shall Wee Have Peace to Bee Made Slaves: Indian Surrenderers During and After King Philip’s War, Ethnohistory 64 (1): 91-114.


Engraving depicting the assault on the Pequot fort during the Pequot war
Source: John Underhill. Mashantucket nation

Native people of the Northeast had a tradition of slavery as a form of restitution for a wrong or payment for a loss. They also enslaved some of their captured enemy, especially youths who might at some point be suitable for adoption into the band or tribe. The status of a slave was always temporary and nontransferable and therefore more like the European concept of indenture. Native people did not accept the European concept of slavery. Also, in the traditional division of labor among Native people of New England, agricultural activities—growing and harvesting crops and processing plants—were women’s work.6Gookin, Daniel, 1674, Historical collections of the Indians of New England and their several nations, numbers, customs, manners, religion, and government before the English planted there. Massachusetts Historical Society Collections Paper 13: http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/sc_pubs/13/ As colonists early discovered, captive warriors did not adapt well to plantation life or conditions of slavery. After being traded to plantations in exchange for African slaves, Native men refusing to work risked execution.7Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Archives Indian, 1603-1705:
Records detailing the interactions between the Massachusetts Bay government and native peoples in New England and New York, Volume 30.

In 1641 the Massachusetts Bay Colony legalized slavery, encoding it in their Body of Liberties. These laws spelled out the civil liberties of English colonists and also specified that slavery was to be allowed when the slaves were prisoners of war (which included Native people), had willingly sold themselves into slavery, had been sold to colonists outside of Massachusetts by others, or were sentenced to slavery as punishment for a crime.8The book of the general lawes and libertyes concerning the inhabitants of the Massachusetts. reproduced in facsimile from the 1648 edition, Thomas G. Barnes, ed.: https://history.hanover.edu/texts/masslib.html The Body of Liberties Act states:

“There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. … This exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by authority.”9The Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641): www.mass.gov; On line transcription section 91: www.history.hanover.edu

In other words, slaves could be owned, but not bought or sold within Massachusetts. Ironically, while Massachusetts was the first to legalize slavery, and among the first to attempt to restrict the slave trade, it was also among the last to outlaw slavery. Another irony is that Georgia was the last colony to legalize slavery, not until 1750.10Slavery in Colonial Georgia, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org

The Body of Liberties did not explicitly endorse slavery as an institution, however, and anti-slavery sentiments, statutes, and court cases of the times often argued against the immorality of slavery. However, the claim that Massachusetts was from the beginning “hostile to slavery as an institution”11Washburn, Emory, 1840, Sketches of the Judicial History of Massachusetts, p. 284. Quoted in Warren, Wendy. 2016, New England Bound. is questionable. By 1670 Massachusetts had legalized mandatory inheritance of slave status, such that the children of slaves became the property of their parents’ owners.12William, George W. ,1883, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, Volume 1.

The ownership of slaves by families became established in Massachusetts by the early 1700s, although estimates of the number of slaves vary widely.13Rantoul, Robert S., 1882, Slavery in Essex County 1722 and 1730, Essex Institute Historical Collections 7: 37, 73. In 1680, forty years after slavery was recognized in Massachusetts, the Colony reported only 170 enslaved men, less than one percent of the nation’s total.14From Table 1. Slave Population of the American Colonies and the United States 1680-1860, in Berlin, Ira, 2009, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves.
Unfortunately this number is not broken down by town, so how many of those 170 were on Cape Ann is not known. The Massachusetts 1754 Slave Enumeration reported 2,270 slaves in Massachusetts (which until 1820 included Maine), and 442 slaves in Essex County, where Cape Ann is located.15Massachusetts State Archives, 1754 Slave Enumeration.
The enumeration was incomplete, however, with some towns, as well as some slaveowners, not responding to the census.

1754 Slave Enumeration for Essex County


Other towns in Essex County were either part of other towns at that time or did not respond to the survey.

Gloucester (which until 1840 included Rockport) claimed 61 slaves aged 16 and older in 1754 and was the fourth largest slave owning town behind Boston with 939, Salem with 83, and Ipswich with 62.16U.S Census Office, 1909, A Century of Population Growth from the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth, 1790-1900, Vol. 900, p. 156, Table 80: Male and Female Negro Slave Population of Massachusetts, by Counties and Towns: Census of 1754.
The period from 1740 to 1750 had the largest number of slaves in New England, including an estimated 1,300 Native Americans. In his 1892 History of the Town and City of Gloucester, James Pringle reports there were “around 300 Negroe slaves” on Cape Ann at the time of the Revolutionary War, with descendants of only two “ex-slave families” still living in Gloucester as permanent residents after the Civil War.17Pringle, James R., 1892, History of the Town and City of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Massachusetts, p. 86. According to raw data in the 1790 census, Massachusetts including Maine had 6,001 slaves “including about 200 half-breed Indians.”18American Statistical Association Collections, i. pp. 208-214; Mass. Historical Society Collections Series I, iv. p. 199. However, because the Massachusetts Constitution outlawed slavery in 1780, the 1790 U.S. Census officially reported “none” for the number of slaves in Massachusetts and Maine.19Add a Tooltip Text By 1880 an estimated 5.5 million Native Americans had been enslaved in the Americas in addition to 12.5 million Africans.20Fisher, 2017, p. 91.

The Anti-Slavery Movement in Massachusetts and New England

After 1750 more voices were heard in protest against slavery based on the argument that the practice was a violation of Christian principles, first argued as early as 1644.21Williams, Roger, 1644, Bloody tenant of persecution for cause of conscience. London. See also Rutherford, Samuel, 1649, Chapter 21: Of the Samaritans, and of the Non-Compelling of Heathers; How the Covenant Binds Us. In Rutherford, 1993, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience: http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/freedis21.htm Controversies and debates regarding the morality of slavery were carried out in New England parlors, ministries, meetinghouses, workplaces, and schools. Increasingly, cases involving the ownership, treatment, inheritance, and manumission (freeing) of slaves were heard in the courts.22Dow, George Francis, ed., 1911-1921. Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts (8 vols.), Volumes 1 and 2: Essex Institute.

After 1780 leaders of anti-slavery movements could point out that the practice of slavery was a violation of the Constitution of the Commonwealth, enacted that year. Article I of the Massachusetts Constitution, on which the United States Constitution is based, states:

“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.” 23https://malegislature.gov/Laws/Constitution#partTheFirst; see also Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery: www.mass.gov.

Brom and Bett vs. Ashley 1781

Elizabeth Freeman also known as “Mum Bett”
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Despite the glaring inconsistency between Article I and common practice, slavery was not officially made illegal in Massachusetts until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. Official histories of Massachusetts appear to downplay the fact that Massachusetts did not make slavery illegal by any act of its own legislature. From 1780 on, however, many slaves won their freedom by judicial processes in the courts—by petition or in case-by-case litigation using arguments based on Article I of the Commonwealth’s constitution.24See examples of petitions and court cases in “The Struggle for Freedom” at https://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=55. See also Williams, Ehraim & Dudley Adkins Tyng, eds., 1852, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Volume 51. The earliest example is Brom and Bett v. Ashley, 178125Freeman, Elizabeth, 1853, Slavery in New England. Bentley's Miscellany 34: 417–424 in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Elizabeth Freeman (“Mum Bett”) on the basis that her enslavement was inconsistent with the state’s constitution. In her testimony Mum Bett said:

“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman— I would.”

Slave Ships: A Deadly Passage

The anti-slavery movement actually began in England, Ireland, and Scotland and led to small changes.26Abolition of the Slave Trade, British National Archives: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/abolition.htm. For example, Britain passed legislation to restrict the number of slaves that could be carried on a vessel at any one time. Conditions on slave ships were notoriously horrible, with unacceptably high mortality rates. It was not uncommon for a quarter of the people crammed into cargo holds to die on route to their destination, with mortality rates sometimes exceeding 50 percent.27National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC: https://nmaahc.si.edu.

Examples of Mortality Rates on Slave Ships

ShipCountryYearEnslaved BoardedEnslaved LandedPercent Mortality
Carolus SecundusNetherlands170542517659%
John and BettyEngland172717514020%
Kongen of AsanteDenmark179734230910%

The slave trade was more than lucrative enough to accommodate such losses. On a single voyage of his ship MacDonough, for example, Rhode Island merchant George DeWolf purchased 400 slaves for an estimated $16 each and sold them in Cuba for $500 each, and with his huge profit was able to buy a coffee plantation.28Warwick (RI) Digital History Project: https://www.warwickhistory.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=265:george-dewolf-continued&catid=56&Itemid=125).
Slaves represented vast wealth in the domestic economy as well. It is estimated that by 1860 enslaved people represented $2.7 billion, 60 percent of the nation’s wealth.29National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Thus, in 1788, in an effort to regulate the Atlantic slave trade, the British parliament passed an act restricting the number of persons who could be transported on a ship at any one time and also imposed a per capita importation tax on slaves in hopes of reducing the slave trade while making it slightly more humane. On March 26 of that same year, seeking to halt the importation of slaves and illegal re-enslavement of freed slaves for sale to other colonies in the Americas, Massachusetts enacted “301787 Chap. 48. State Library of Massachusetts: https://archives.lib.state.ma.us/handle/2452/104408.
An Act to prevent the Slave-Trade and for granting relief for the families of such unhappy Persons as may be kidnapped or decoyed away from this Commonwealth
.” The penalty “upon residents of the Commonwealth for each Slave bought or transported” was 50 pounds, plus 200 pounds for every vessel engaged in the slave trade.31Moore, George H., 1866.,Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts.

Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes
Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain

An Act to prevent the Slave-Trade

Britain’s Slave Trade Act of 1807 subsequently prohibited the importation of slaves to and from Britain and its colonies, and in the same year the 9th U.S. Congress followed suit by abolishing the importation of slaves to the United States from Africa, which went into effect in 1808.32Clarkson, T., 1808, History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament; The U.S. Act of 1807: http://abolition.nypl.org/print/us_constitution/. Although the importation of slaves was made illegal, slavery as an institution was not. The law applied only to new slaves and slaveowners were not required to free slaves they already owned. In violation of the importation law, trafficking to the Caribbean continued until after the Civil War.33Fisher, 2017, p. 101. In Massachusetts the practice of slavery ended randomly after 1788 as individual families, farms, institutions, or businesses—one by one, for one reason or another, after one court case or another, or following one anti-slavery demonstration or another—gradually ended the practice.

In 1840, American abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman published Right and Wrong in Massachusetts, in which she described the status of slavery in New England at that time:34Chapman, Maria Weston, 1839, Right and Wrong in Massachusetts.

“The position of New England in 1829, was a most cheerless one for Freedom. All the great interests of the country were nearly or remotely involved in slaveholding, through all their various arrangements, civil, ecclesiastical, mercantile, and matrimonial; yet all disclaimed its alliance. Every body was, in some way or other, actively or passively, sustaining slavery; yet every body disclaimed responsibility for its existence, opposed all efforts for its extinction, and was ‘as much anti-slavery as any body else’…The moving principles of Northern and Southern life, had become inseparably mingled below the surface of events, like the roots of giant trees beneath the soil.“

Native Slaves

Enslavement of Native people in the Americas began prior to the Pequot War era of the 1630s. Humphrey Gilbert, Fernando Gorges, John Mason, John Smith, and their captains, such as George Weymouth, Edward Harlow, Nicholas Hobson and Thomas Hunt—all explorers for the Plymouth Company or for powerful nobles with king’s grants to North America—had repeatedly used deception and force of arms to capture Native people and bring them back to England for display or to sell them into slavery.35Prince, Thomas and Nathan Hale, 1826, A chronological history of New-England: in the form of annals, being a summary and exact account of the most material transactions and occurrences relating to this country, in the order of time wherein they happened, from the discovery of Capt. Gosnold, in 1602, to the arrival of Governor Belcher, in 1730.

Kevin Watson, Patricia Raynor and Ronnie Chameau , Penacook Descendants in Bermuda
Source: Glenn Tucker: The Royal Gazette

From the very beginning, explorers and traders bought or kidnapped Native people from coastal areas of the Americas to be sold into slavery, a fact often omitted from history textbooks. In the late fifteenth century Columbus enslaved Arawaks to labor for Spain. In the early sixteenth century the English exported Beothuk from Newfoundland to slavery in Europe and the French exported Natives of coastal Maine and the St. Lawrence Valley to slavery in Haiti. The international African slave trade was also well established by 1600 by the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch.

The enslavement of Native people by the English escalated following King Philip’s War—the Wampanoag war of 1675-1676 against the English, initiated by Metacomet, Massasoit’s second son, whom the English called King Philip. Native communities were dispersed or eradicated throughout New England—warriors killed and women and children sold into slavery along with men who surrendered to sue for peace, including even groups that had struggled to remain neutral.36Schultz, Eric B. and Michael J. Tougias, 2000, King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict. Descendants of the neutral Pennacook, for example, shipwrecked in 1676 on route to a plantation, reside on St. David’s Island in Bermuda today.37Stewart-Smith, David, 1998, Pennacook Indians and the New England Frontier circa 1604-1733.

The debarkation port for Native American slaves was in Charleston, South Carolina, which by 1717 had sold and shipped approximately 50,000 Natives.38Gallay, Alan, 2003, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670 – 1717, p. 299. Each colony had its own policy regarding Native POWs, but surrenderers invariably faced execution, overseas enslavement, local enslavement for periods of up to 30 years, or forced relocation to internment camps on Massachusetts’ frontiers.39Newell, Margaret Ellen, 2015, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. See also Gookin, Daniel, 1677 Historical Account of the Doings and Sufferings of the Christian Indians in New England in the years 1670-1677.
The “frontiers” at that time included present-day Lowell, Worcester, and Natick, where “Praying Indian villages” had been established for the protection of Native converts.40Eliot, John, 1671, Brief Narrative of the Progress of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New England, in the Year 1670: http://www.bartleby.com/43/12.html. During the 18th century, however, even those protections failed.
Periodically between 1688 and the Revolutionary War, colonists were invited to petition for warrants to conduct scalp-hunting expeditions against enemy Indians.41Burton, Richard F., 1864. Notes on Scalping, Anthropological Review, 2: 49–52. Depending on the conditions of war at a given time, bounties on Native men, women, and children ranged variously from £300 for the scalp of a male combatant to £10 for the scalp of a female noncombatant under the age of 12.42Thornton, Russell, 1987, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. Volume 186 of Civilization of the American Indian Series.
Locally, Indian scalps were hung from the rafters of the Salem Courthouse. In 1774 on the eve of Revolution, magistrates asked that the scalps be removed because of “unsightliness and falling dust”.43Rantoul, Robert S., 1882, Essex County and the Indians, Essex Institute Historical Collections 19: 126-142. This state-sponsored genocide of Native people in Massachusetts, like the hidden history of slavery on Cape Ann, was never openly acknowledged and has only recently come to light.

Commodities and Labor in the International Slave Trade

Boston merchants began importing slaves directly from Africa in 1644 to be sold to plantations in the West Indies in exchange for sugar and molasses to make rum, initiating New England’s so-called triangular trade.44Triangular trade: https://www.slavevoyages.org/.
Ships left New England ports for ports in West Africa with hogsheads (barrels) of rum, iron ingots (African currency) and manufactured goods. In West African ports they then picked up enslaved people, palm oil, ivory, animal hides and gold dust, and sailed back via the West Indies. There they sold the enslaved people to plantations, picked up sugar and molasses, and sailed home. Some triangular trade included stops in Brazil or Cuba for coffee and in the Carolinas for cotton and indigo.
Cotton, tobacco, sugar, molasses, coffee, and the laborers needed to produce them were the commodities that drove the domestic and international slave trade. Northerners were consumers of these commodities and also converted them to manufacturers that supported their economy, such as raw cotton to cotton cloth and molasses to rum.45Moore, George H., 1866, Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Massachusetts had 63 distilleries, for example, which annually produced about 700,000 gallons of rum.46Ostrander, Gilman M., 1956, The Colonial Molasses Trade, Agricultural History 2nd ed., Vol. 30: 77-84
Triangular Trade Route
Source: Barbora Putová
Luxury commodities such as sugar, salt, pepper, coffee and cocoa, not to mention cotton, tobacco, indigo, and tea, had come to be seen as indispensable to European and colonial quality of life.47Bishop, John Leander, Edwin Troxell Freedley, and Edward Young, 1864, A History of American Manufacturers, from 1608 to 1860…. Volume 1: https://archive.org/details/historyofamerica01bishuoft. Because of this, slavery was everywhere deeply woven into everyone’s everyday life. As a consequence, both active and passive participation in the slave trade grew, and slave ownership ranged in scope from one or two domestic servants per family household, or one or two helpers per family farm in the North, to hundreds of agricultural workers in forced labor on southern and foreign plantations.48Morris, Richard B., 1946, Government and Labor in Early America: http://www.ditext.com/morris/labor.html. See also Loranzo, Johnston Greene, The Negro in colonial New England, 1620-1776.