Sale Advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781

Slave-for-Sale Advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781
Author(s): Robert E. Desrochers, Jr.
Source: The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 3, Slaveries in the Atlantic World
(Jul., 2002), pp. 623-664
Published by: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
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Slave-For-Sale Advertisements and Slavery
in Massachusetts, 1704-1781
Robert E. Desrochers, Jr.
LAVERY and the newspaper grew up together in Massachusetts, in a
close and synergetic relationship that made slave-for-sale advertise-
ments a regular feature of the local press for most of the eighteenth
century. Indeed, New England’s long history of trading slaves in print
dated practically to the birth of the newspaper in colonial British America.
The Boston News-Letter, the first successful weekly published anywhere in
the colonies, had been in business barely a month when, on June 5, 1704,
local merchant John Colman initiated the practice by offering up “two
Negro men” along with a “Negro Woman & Child.” Unencumbered by
competition for roughly the next sixteen years, the News-Letter averaged
one new slave-for-sale notice in every second issue and brokered the
exchange of more than 5oo slaves through 1720. A die had been cast.
As the newspaper press in Massachusetts expanded so did the news-
paper slave trade. The Boston Gazette, established in December 1719,
quickly overtook the rival News-Letter and all future comers as the town’s
most advertising-friendly weekly.’ By 1781, when slave trading in the
Gazette ended for good, masters had placed I,Io3 different slave-for-sale
Robert E. Desrochers, Jr., teaches history in the College of Arts and Humanities
at the University of Texas at Dallas. For their thoughts and suggestions he thanks
Ira Berlin, Charles E. Clark, W. Jeffrey Bolster, Amy Turner Bushnell, Joyce E.
Chaplin, David W. Conroy, Adelaide Cromwell, A. Roger Ekirch, S. Max Edelson,
Carla Gerona, Jack P. Greene, April Hatfield, James H. Merrell, Philip D. Morgan,
Peter S. Onuf, Richard Ryerson, David Waldstreicher, Ronald G. Walters, Julie
Winch, Natalie Zacek, and others who commented on versions of this article at the
Charles M. Andrews Symposium in Colonial British American History at the Johns
Hopkins University and the Boston Area Seminar in Early American History at the
Massachusetts Historical Society.
1 On the relative volume of advertising in the Boston Gazette, see Charles E.
Clark, The Public Prints: The Newspaper in Anglo-American Culture, 1665-i74o (New
York, 1994), 112, 168, and Mary Ann Yodelis, Who Paid the Piper? Publishing Economics
in Boston, 1763-1775, Journalism Monographs, 38 (Lexington, Ky., I975), 34-35.
According to Lawrence William Towner, A Good Master Well Served: Masters and
Servants in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620-i750 (New York, 1998), 118 n 33, “from 1731 to
1750 the News-Letter offered 230 slaves for sale.” Over essentially the same 2o-year span
(1730-1749), the Gazette contained 416 advertisements alone and offered for sale more
than 3 times as many slaves (approximately 778) as the News-Letter.
William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, Volume LIX, Number 3, July 2002
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advertisements in its pages; counting repetitions, three-fourths roughly 3,2oo editions of the Gazette printed from 1719 throug included at least one such announcement (see Figure I). In all, a mately 2,000 people of African descent, newly arrived slaves a soned hands alike, appeared for sale in the Gazette alone. Mean masters sold untold other slaves in organs other than the Gazette despite its status as eighteenth-century Boston’s longest-lived ne remained one of three to five weeklies published in the town given time down to the American Revolution.2
Though slavery never flourished anywhere in New England t extent that it did in Britain’s southern and island plantation c relativism and static observations about its marginality obscure the in which New Englanders at certain times, in certain places, and certain conditions made the institution work. Too great a focus ery’s negligibility in Massachusetts has perpetuated the New E studies tradition of exceptionalism by masking ways in which d ments and trends in New England dovetailed with broader curre slavery and political economy in the non-plantation societies of t Atlantic and the North and in the larger Atlantic world.3 The extant advertisements in two Boston newspapers, the Boston News-L (1704-1720) and the Boston Gazette (1719-1781), provide a foundat a structural analysis of the Massachusetts slave market that th 2 I have not attempted to quantify the extent to which notices differe one newspaper to the next, though clearly some sellers marketed in more local newspaper. On Jan. 30, 1750, one owner publicized a “very likely Neg in the Boston Gaz., referring readers to “Yesterday’s Evening Post” for a full tion of the slave’s “qualifications, etc.” At the same time, however, for pol other reasons customers often patronized certain newspapers and not o 1720, for instance, only one of the 10 slave-for-sale advertisements that ap the Boston Gaz. also appeared in the Boston News-Letter.
3 Though slave trading permeated the Massachusetts press for nearly 8o no systematic study of the practice exists for that province or, for that mat where else in colonial British America. Lorenzo Johnston Greene’s classic st Negro in Colonial New England, I62o-i776 (New York, 1974; orig. pub. 1942 provides a mostly descriptive account of 125 slave-for-sale advertisements which he sampled from various I8th-century New England newspapers (inc years of the Boston Gaz., 1757-1759, 1769-1771). Greene culled the re Elizabeth Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave America, 4 vols. (1932; New York, 1969), 3:21-75, who collected at random a a number of Massachusetts newspapers. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondag North (Syracuse, 1973), 18-48, made fuller use of slave-for-sale notices, th tended again to favor description and also to favor New York and Pennsylv New England and Massachusetts. Other studies include Arthur Zilversmit, Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago, 1967), 35 Patricia Bradley, Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution (Jackso 1998), 25-32.
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Slaves advertised for sale in the Boston Gazette, July 8, 1728. As a poem on
“The News-Paper,” widely published in New England and elsewhere in
1770, bluntly put the matter of the print slave market, “No matter
whether good or bad, / We tell you where they may be had.” Flanked by
items that included a runaway notice from Philadelphia, the five slave-for-
sale advertisements here speak not only to the visible role of slaves in the
local economy, but also to the self-assumed role of the press as agent of
larger social identity in a colonial English Atlantic world tied together by
print, consumerism, and-not least-by the shared experience of slavery.
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both supported and helped to create.4 The newspaper slave tr helps chronicle the significance over time of slavery in Massa identifying a period of slavery’s marked growth there in the 1730s and a reversal of fortune in the 1740s and 1750s, when problems with and questions about the institution as a function system emerged. These problems contributed to slavery’s rapid dem Massachusetts beginning in the 176os.
Boston, the hub of the slave trade and much else in colonial
Massachusetts, never had a single slave marketplace.5 It had many.
Merchants routinely imported slaves per order, as when Antiguan dmigrd
Jacob Royall sent home for “a negro Boy” requested by Governor
Jonathan Belcher. Slaves not claimed prior to their arrival might be sold
right from the decks of the creaking vessels that transported them, per-
haps by a ship’s captain who doubled as proprietor of part or all of his
human cargo. Eighteen years almost to the day before his son signed the
Declaration of Independence, William Ellery of Newport, Rhode Island,
steered his brig Jenney into Boston on July 3, 1758, and thereafter gave
“constant Attendance” to selling the mixed sex cargo of new slaves that
it carried and he owned. More often, though, ship’s captains such as
Edward Stiles acted as agents for the merchant-slavers who employed
them. In August 1744, Stiles, commander of the sloop Adventure, sold a
cargo of “likely Negro Men and Women” for importer Peter Putch.6
Sometimes merchants themselves sold the slaves, as did “Messrs.
Gunter & Perkins, Merchants,” who on May 28, 1739, climbed aboard
“the Brigantine Endeavour” and auctioned off its “parcel of very likely
4 The Center for the Study of New England History at the Massachusetts
Historical Society kindly shared data on advertisements in the News-Letter. For this
study I examined extant issues of the Boston Gaz. from 1719 through 1785 and ran-
dom issues from 1786 to 1788. I have not systematically canvassed other
Massachusetts newspapers, the most important of which (besides the News-Letter,
which continued publication until 1776) included the New-England Courant
(1721-1726), the Boston Evening-Post (1735-1775), also known as the Weekly Rehearsal
(1731-1735), the New-England Weekly Journal (1727-1741), and the Boston Post-Boy
(1735-1754). For selected slave-for-sale advertisements in other Boston newspapers,
see Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade, 3:4-108, and
George H. Moore, Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts (New York, 1866),
69-70, 178, 207-09.
5 Despite the emergence in recent years of what might be termed the new his-
tory of northern slavery, the most thorough studies of the domestic slave market
pertain to the antebellum South. For recent works see especially Steven Deyle, “The
Domestic Slave Trade in America” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1995);
Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South
(Madison, 1989); and Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave
Market (Cambridge, Mass., 1999).
6 Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade, 3:48n;
Boston Gaz., July 3, 1758, Aug. 14, 1744-
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Negro Boys and Girls.” At other times they hired professional salesme Bids for a “parcel of likely Negro Boys and Girls” sold in August 17 could be registered at auctioneer James Russell’s warehouse Charlestown or, preferably, on board “the Schooner Post-Boy” dock nearby. Shipboard slave auctions lowered both the costs of billeting n slaves and the dangers of bringing them ashore. Despite the quaran- tining of entering ships aboard which sickness had been rampant at Spectacle Island in Boston harbor, infectious disease, especially smal pox, posed a real and deadly public health threat. Once landed, slave also stood a better chance of running away.7
Circumstances dictated that not every new slave could be so aboard ship, however, and such a sales strategy obviously did not app to resident slaves. On land, many a search for slave labor in Boston
began and ended along the bustling King Street corridor that connect the warehouses of Long Wharf to the commercial center of town (s Figure II). Three of Boston’s busiest public houses-the Roy Exchange, the Crown Coffee-House, and the Bunch of Grapes tavern lined that half-mile stretch. All offered fine drink and lively conver tion, and at times all served as clearinghouses for slaves. So did the S Tavern, a block away near the Town Dock. An advertisement from th November 20-27, 1727, issue of the Gazette announced a typical taver sale. “On Thursday the 30o Currant,” it read, “will be Sold by Public Vendue, at the Sun Tavern on Dock Square at Five a Clock P.M. Four likely Negros, and Sundry sort of Merchandize, all to be seen at the Place of sale from two of the Clock till the Sale begins.”8
Buyers also could have found slaves among “sundry other items” various establishments along Merchants Row, the narrow throughw that crossed over to the Town Dock at the bottom of King Street. Ma of Boston’s best-connected importers set up shop there, includin Charles Apthorp, who at least three times in the 1730s offered slav “just imported” from his prime storefront location on Merchants Ro Slave buyers, in addition to the neighborhood of Long Wharf and t Town Dock, commonly prowled the North End, with its dozens warehouse-lined wharves, busy shops, and genteel private residence Slave trading activity concentrated around Long Wharf (where mos new slaves entered), the King Street and Dock Square area (the heart town), and the densely populated North End. At one time or anothe though, newspapers promoted slave sales that took place on all t 7 Boston Gaz., May 28, 1739, Aug. 14, 1744. On quarantined ships, see A Repo of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, Containing the Records of Bost Selectmen, 1716 to 1736 (Boston, 1885).
8 Boston Gaz., Nov. 20-27, 1727.
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‘T &/67 TFerry to
Charles Town
H —
Boston in 1722. The Town House (a) is at the juncture of Cornhill and
King Street, a short distance from Dock Square and the Town Dock.
Detail from “The Town of Boston in New England by Cpt. John
Bonner.” Engraved by Fra[nk] Denning. Reprinted Boston, 1835.
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major streets and many of the narrow alleys of eighteenth-century Boston.9
Public slave auctions transpired all over metropolitan Boston, not
just aboard ships and in taverns. On consecutive Tuesday and Friday
afternoons in late May 1730 Jacob Royall, who as Boston’s most active
slave trader marketed slaves in the Gazette no fewer than nineteen times
between 1725 and 1734, vended “a Parcel of likely Negroes” near the
Dorchester burial ground. Wherever they occurred, auctions usually
involved many slaves, often new arrivals. But not always: in April 1767, a
lone thirty-eight-year-old slave woman stood on the block in the North
End home where she had lived for years. The proceeds of her sale went
to settle the insolvent estate of her recently deceased master, Captain
Moses Bennet. Advertisements noted forty-one other slaves sold as part
of estates. Auctions and estate sales notwithstanding, the vast majority
of merchant-slavers and individual slave sellers preferred to do business
on a one-to-one basis. Better than nine out of ten notices announced
private slave sales, not auctions.10
Masters consigned slaves only as a last resort and routinely traded
slaves in their homes. When John Knight wanted to sell his “Negro Boy”
in May 1732 he directed buyers to “his House in Sudbury-Street.”
Likewise, in 1774 Captain Jean Francois Magellon sold a seventeen-year-
old male slave who spoke English and French at “the House” he shared
with “Capt. Isaac McDaniel.” Tradesmen commonly had customers
inquire at their places of business. Anyone interested in John Boidwen’s
male slave, a teenager who knew some English, could inquire at Boidwen’s
cordwaining shop “near the Town House.” The line between shop and
home blurred for the many artisans who worked where they lived.
Merchant importers like William Clark usually maintained separate resi-
dences. In late summer 1727, Clark offered four “lately imported” men “to
be seen at his House near the Old North Meeting House, or at his Ware house
in Merchants Row.” In 1734 “John Phillips Merchant,” sold “A Parcell of
likely Negro, Men, Women and Boys” at “his Warehouse near the Swing
Bridge, or at his House in School Street.” Businessmen like Clark and
Phillips sought to sell imported slaves with dispatch because quick turn-
arounds lowered the costs of upkeep, freed capital, and-not least-
enabled them to pay their own substantial debts.11
9 Boston Gaz., Sept. 6, 1731, Aug. I, 1737, July 30, 1739. David W. Conroy, In
Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution ofAuthority in Colonial Massachusetts (Chapel
Hill, 1995), 124, notes that “at least sixteen sales of from one to ten slaves took place
in [Boston] taverns in the 1720S and 1730s.”
10 Boston Gaz., May 18, 1730, April 20, 1767.
11 Ibid., May 8, 1732, April 4, 1774, May 21, 1745, Sept. 18-25, 1727, Nov. 18,
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It is testimony to both the pervasiveness of slavery and the pow the press that middling tradesmen and artisans engaged in virtu facets of Boston’s urban economy bought and sold slaves in print side well-connected merchants, ship’s captains, and the “better Bakers, barbers, blacksmiths, braziers, builders, and butchers; c ters, coopers, cordwainers, distillers, and doctors; goldsmiths, smiths, hatters, ironmongers, joiners, midwives, nailors, painte printers; riggers, rope makers, saddle-tree makers, sawyers, shoema silk dyers, sugar bakers, tailors, tanners, and tobacconists all c among slave traders in the Gazette. As Tables I and II illustrate range of skills and work experience possessed by the slaves these ma sold, especially the males, reflected this diversity, even if flexi slaves’ ability to perform a wide range of indoor and outdoor remained by far the trait Massachusetts masters desired most. P and religious leaders and other men of standing, those whose co and words dominated much of Boston’s public discourse, placed than their share of advertisements. Thus did slave sellers in the Gazette
include a number of self-styled “esquires,” more than one judge, two
military men (a colonel and a major), a deacon, a doctor, a marshal of
the Court of Admiralty, and, from the grave, one provincial governor.
The considerable worldly possessions of “his late Excellency Governor
Burnett,” auctioned off in 1729, included “a Negro Woman” as well as
“about 12 Years service of a Mollatto Boy.” Regardless of calling or social
status, men dominated the newspaper slave trade. Women placed fewer
than 5 percent of advertisements that listed sellers’ names.12
By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, one-third to one-
half of all the slaves in Massachusetts lived and worked in and around
Boston. Slavery did not stop at the town line, however, and neither did
slave trading. Slaveowners from at least twelve Massachusetts towns out-
side Boston bought space in the Gazette, as on eight occasions between
1720 and 1738 did slavers from Newport, Rhode Island, who regularly
did business to the north and who did not gain a permanent newspaper
of their own until 1758. In February 176o, Joseph Whipple of
Providence, Rhode Island, advertised an entire slave family “cheap for
Cash.” From Connecticut, which likewise boasted no newspaper of its
own until the 1750s, came word in May 1728 of the approaching sale of
“an Estate in New-London,” where in June bidders could have their pick
of the deceased’s “Stock, Negros, or the Land only.” From its inception,
12 Ibid., Oct. 6-13, 1729. On slave occupations see Greene, Negro in Colonial
New England, 1oo-23; Towner, “A Good Master Well Served: A Social History of
Servitude in Massachusetts, 1620-1750” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University,
1954), app. M; and Towner, A Good Master Well Served, 103-23.
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BOSTON, 1704-1781.
Number of References Portion of Total
Versatile Labor 188 36.3%
“Fit for town or country” 119
Any work, “indoor or outdoor” work 69
Household Service 140 27.0
“Household work” 56
Cooking and kitchen work 28
Gentleman’s servant 21
Waiter, waiting table 8
Coachman 8
Family servant 8
Care of horses 7
Gardening 4
Crafts, Trades, and Skills 99 19.1
Service Trades 53
Cooper 8
Tailor 6
Blacksmith 6
Wig dresser/shaver 5
Distiller 4
Shoemaker 3
Baker 3
Cartman 2
Barber 2
Tallow chandler 2
Tanner 2
“Making of fish” 1
Leather dresser 1
Tobacco sorter, cutter, sp Gunsmith 1
Chimney sweep 1
Ladies’ hairdresser 1
Soap boiler 1
Chocolate maker 1
Ferrier 1
Potter 1
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Number of References Portion of Total
Construction Trades 19
Carpenter/joiner 5
Ship carpenter 4
Nailor 4
Sawyer 2
Shipwright 2
Mason 1
Caulker 1
“Fit for a tradesman” 12
Sailor 12
Musician 3
Rural Labor 91 17.6%
Farming/husbandry 53
“Country business” 30
Outdoor work 8
Total 518 100.0
Sources: Boston New the Gazette had, i sought to incorpo town’s commercial on in the newspap ters in an expansi tion, cooperation, Greater knowledg by the absence in m III shows, this tre the century wore advertisements inc had dropped to ju 13 Greene, Negro Yankees: The Developm England (Amherst, Brooker, quoted in Information in Early This content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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BOSTON, 1704-1781.
Number of References Portion of Total
Versatile Labor 98 24.7%
“Fit for town or country” 81
Any work, “indoor or outdoor” work 17.0
Household Service 282 71.0
“Household work” 175
Cooking/cookery 31
Washing 12.0
Sewing/needlework 12
Servant in a family 11
Ironing 9
Spinning 5
Baking 5
Dairy maid 3
Brewing 3
Gentleman’s servant 3
Carding 2
“Scowering” (scrubbing Child care 2
Kitchen work 1
Gentleman’s servant in town 1
Making and mending servant’s clothes 1
Kitchen manager 1
“Turtle dressing” 1
Knitting 1
Indoor work 1
Rural Labor 17 4.3
“Country work,” “co Suitable for farm Total 397 100.0
Sources: Boston New decade after that traders in the ear higher percentag the firm of Guio slaves for sale, anThis content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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Period Number ofMentions Percent
1704-1709 23 37
1710-1719 239 80
1720-1729 153 71
1730-1739 115 61
1740-1749 46 20
1750-1759 27 14
1760-1969 28 13
1770-1781 12 15
Total 643 43
Sources: Boston Ne trade in later ye to masters’ per Printing office functionally lit Peter delivered perhaps, news o mation, slaves m In short, as th realize that their its, more than on impending s determination the 176os, when Many masters co sell slave proper the same time, mously, includin to avoid public nameless only be 14 Clark, Public P in America, 1743 rather than be sol T. Stephen Whitm and Early NationaThis content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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than half of all advertisements bid customers to “Inquire of the Printer”;
two out of three notices in the Gazette required buyers to do so. Scholars
have long understood printers’ role in facilitating the exchange of a wide
variety of goods and services, not just slaves, but slave traders seem to have
utilized the service more than other advertisers, and printers’ mediating
function made them by proxy the most active slave traders in Boston. It
also made the printing office the busiest slave mart in town.15
Overall, two-thirds of the slaves advertised for sale were between the
ages of sixteen and thirty, though slaves aged over thirty and ten or
younger composed increased shares of the total after 1740. Males made
up 6o percent of the print slave market, a figure comparable to their
preponderance at midcentury in the larger black populations of both
Boston and Massachusetts at large. Neither the sex ratio of male to
female slaves nor the average age (19.6) of advertised slaves changed sub-
stantially over time (see Table IV). A third of the advertisements ran for
only a week; 95 percent ran for three weeks or less. Most sellers included
a short description of slaves’ physical characteristics, ranging from sex to
medical background, often accompanied by an equally brief and usually
enthusiastic character assessment (see Table V). The terminology used to
describe slave bodies included “able,” “strong,” “stout,” “sturdy,” “strait-
limb’d,” “hardy,” “brisk,” “spry,” “active,” or simply “valuable,” a seem-
ingly vague term that epitomized what all the other specifications really
meant. Endorsements of slaves’ dispositions included “quiet,” “faithful,”
“agreeable,” “handy,” “ingenius,” “tractable,” “industrious,” “neat,”
“good natur’d,” and “good temper’d.” Audacious sellers glossed over
slaves’ more obvious limitations. In 1743, one master offered a “Negro
Fellow, fit for many Sorts of Work” who had only one leg, assuring read-
ers that “by making use of wooden one” the man remained “capable of
doing considerable Business.” In the interest of selling slaves, though,
sometimes it paid to be less specific, as one slaveowner learned in May
1760, when he or she advertised a “remarkably healthy, and strong” slave
woman, “about Twenty Eight Years of Age.” Most sellers stopped there.
This one added that the woman in question had “a furious Temper, and
[was] somewhat lazy” and that “smart Discipline would make her a very
good Servant,” a candid assessment of a slave Bostonians avoided if they
could. Perhaps realizing as much, the seller removed the section about
bad traits when the advertisement ran again a week later.16
15 On printers’ intermediary position as slave peddlers, see Steven Deyle, “‘By farr
the most profitable trade’: Slave Trading in British Colonial North America,” Slavery
andAbolition, 10 (1989), 116-17, and Greene, Negro in Colonial New England, 42-43.
16 Boston Gaz., Nov. 15, 1743, May 12, 19, 176o. According to the Massachusetts
census of 1754-1755, the first that provided information on gender, males constituted
64% (I,5oo) of the approximately 2,355 “Negroes” in the province; males made up
65% (647) of Boston’s black population. The census of 1764 suggests that 58%
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Range ofAges of Slaves Sold (in years)
0-5 6-10 11-15 16-20 21-25 26-30 31-35 36-40 41-45 46-59 Total Average
Males 4 4 42 64 49 13 2 0 0 0 178 19.6
Females 4 7 22 40 28 14 0 1 0 0 116 18.9
Totals 8 11 64 104 77 27 2 1 0 0 294 19.3
Males 1 3 16 40 35 7 0 1 0 0 103 19.6
Females 3 5 12 28 18 5 3 1 0 0 75 19.0
Totals 4 8 28 68 53 12 3 2 0 0 178 19.4
Males 10 8 28 53 34 19 5 6 0 1 164 19.7
Females 4 5 31 33 20 16 7 3 0 0 119 19.5
Totals 14 13 59 86 54 35 12 9 0 1 283 19.6
Males 5 8 34 39 29 22 7 3 1 1 149 20.0
Females 6 3 16 23 15 9 8 4 1 0 85 20.3
Totals 11 11 50 62 44 31 15 7 2 1 234 20.1
Males 20 23 120 196 147 61 14 10 1 2 592 19.7
Females 17 20 81 124 81 44 18 9 1 0 395 19.4
Totals 37 43 201 320 228 105 32 19 2 2 989 19.6
Sources: Boston News-Letter, 1704-1720; Boston Gazett Some traders doubtless engaged in unscru tices, safe in the knowledge that courts and law tle relief. In 1762, for instance, when Captain J two men who turned out to be free, Oliv defended Sale, arguing that his client ha required to make “express Warranty” of the had taken upon himself the gamble of “their appeal lacked the swagger he would embrace in the course of asserting the rights of Engl paused long enough to call all slave traders (3,oi06) of the 5,235 “Negroes and Mulattoes” in Population figures cited in Greene, Negro in ColonialThis content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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Information Number ofAdvertisements Portion ofAdvertisements
(N = 1,487)
Sex 1,436 97 %
Number of slave(s) offered 1,393 94
Age(s) 880 59
Name of seller 643 43
Skills 619 42
Origins/ethnicity 258 17
Terms of sale 234 16
Reason(s) for sale 190 13
Language skills 151 10
Had smallpox 130 9
Sources: Boston News-Letter, 1704-172 and Sale prevailed, as the judg Costs.” Though it no doubt dis surprised no one. Caveat empt slave trading in Massachusetts.17
Provincial lawmakers reinforce a bill “to prevent frauds in the took sellers’ claims with a grain o away with being less than hone ality, work habits and abilities nobody did business with disho master who broadcast his slave’s being sold the slave proved u Shipyard. Therefore most slave s lying, a smattering of cheats and 17 Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, ed., and the Negro, 5 vols. (Washington, British Colonies Asserted and Proved Jr., In the Matter of Color: Race and (New York, 1978), 378.
18 Greene, Negro in Colonial New may have been owing to its inclusion representatives who favored regulat balked at spending public money o poor free black population. The timi probably contributed to the decline oThis content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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Sellers actually adopted a number of strategies to encourage faith. Importers sometimes retained newly arrived slaves for a p “seasoning” that shielded buyers against unhealthy slaves. In F 1737, Daniel Gosse auctioned “three likely Negro Women an Negro Boy,” all of whom had “been in the Country about 4 Mon that they have had the Winter for a Seasoning.” (Such a sale simultaneously reassured buyers and allowed Gosse to rationali the slaves had not been sold the year before.) Individual masters times guaranteed slaves to be “sound, and in good health,” espe during outbreaks of diseases like smallpox and measles. Others le out on trial. On December 18, 1738, the owner of a twenty-year-old woman offered her “for a Month” so that prospective buyers cou for themselves the veracity of the claim that the woman worked “t bly well with her Needle.” Similarly, on November Ii, 1734, the o a “very Honest Negro Young Man” offered “him out a few D Trial, provided he likes the purchaser.” If this latter example l unclear whether master or slave had the final say on potential bu still illustrates how trial periods may have helped ensure smooth sale permitting slaves and new owners to test each other, thereby pr the interests of buyers, sellers, and slaves, if not all equally.19
Even when slaves performed work in ways new masters deemed cient, sellers may not have lied. Some did. But some slaves pro exaggerated or faked ineptitude in order to escape owners and w tings not to their liking, an indirect method of asserting control ov circumstances of bondage. Aversion to rural life may help expla one twenty-two-year-old bondwoman, offered “on Trial for a M six Weeks” and reputedly “as good a House Negro as any in Am proved utterly “incapable of Country work” after her master mo of the city in 1773. Perhaps the woman could not adjust to rural lab her owner claimed. Real differences existed between urban and rural as
well as “Indoor and Outdoor” work, and many masters emphasized
slaves’ suitability for one setting over the other. On the other hand,
many slaves simply preferred life in Boston. Not-so-subtle manifesta-
tions of “incompetence” may have enabled this woman to return to a
more agreeable urban milieu. In July 1758 one enslaved man essentially
forced his own sale on an owner who claimed he “would take no Money
for him if he could be content to live with him in the Country.”20
courts and lawmakers offering little support, few small-time Yankee slaveowners
were likely to invest in black bound labor.
19 Boston Gaz., Feb. 14, 28, 1737, Dec. 18, 1738, Nov. II, 1734.
20 Ibid., Feb. 8, 1773, July 31, 1758. On slaves’ ability to shape and at times to
dictate their own sale, see Johnson, Soul by Soul; Shane White, Somewhat More
Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 177o-181o (Athens, Ga., 1991),
Io6-o7; and Boston Gaz., Dec. 20, 1762, Apr. 7, 1766.
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Purchasers cried foul most often, not over allegedly false claims about
skills, health, age, or other attributes, but rather when a new-bought slave
asserted his or her free status, as in the aforementioned case of Oliver v.
Sale. Similar suits occurred in Massachusetts more and more often after
1760, by which time, as Otis told the court in 1762 and much to the cha-
grin of slave traffickers, it had become increasingly “impossible . . . to
know whether” people of color in Massachusetts were “free or not.” It
became even more difficult in the years ahead. Nonetheless, that the sell-
ing of slaves in print continued into the early 1780s serves powerfully to
suggest that the practice worked well enough, most of the time.21
Like fugitive slave advertisements, those that offered slaves for sale
developed into a print genre that generally conformed to standards of
diction, length, and style established early in the century.22 Whether
they told the truth about the slaves they pitched, most sellers kept to the
formula and kept it simple. Any number of bare-bones advertisements
read like this one from August 1742: “To be sold, a likely Negro Boy,
about sixteen Years of Age, inquire of Mr. Benjamin Stoaks, living near
Charlestown Ferry.” All the same, in print sellers like Stoaks strove to
publicize slaves with all the casual indifference of any other market
exchange. Saddle-tree maker Arthur Gale advertised “A likely Young
Horse of 16 Hands high suitable for Saddle or Chaise” alongside “a
Likely Negro Man fit for Town or Country” in May 1735. With the right
bid anyone at the Sun Tavern by five o’clock in the afternoon on August
4, 1726, could have left with a dead man’s assortment of quilts, blankets,
silk and worsted hose, corks, breeches, “Fine Hats,” and “sundry other
Goods” that included, without fanfare, “One Negro Man.” Though
slaves sometimes shattered sellers’ detachment, for the most part print,
besides widening the circle of slaveholders and thus helping to keep the
apparatuses of slavery in Massachusetts churning along, allowed masters
to depersonalize what could be a complicated human experience. In per-
haps the most striking marker of this commodification, masters identi-
fied by name only two of the roughly 2,5oo black men, women, and
children they advertised.23
21 Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro,
22 On runaway advertisements as a print genre and print and slavery more g erally, see White, Somewhat More Independent, II6-20, and David Waldstrei “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Sla in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser (1999), 243-72. For a sophisticated reading of the coded language masters us turn people into slaves in print, see Alex Bontemps, The Punished Self: Surviv Slavery in the Colonial South (Ithaca, 2001).
23 Boston Gaz., Aug. Io, 1742; Boston Gaz., May 26, 1735, July 25-Aug. I, 1 John Eliot, “A Protest,” in Justin Winsor, ed., The Memorial History of Boston ..This content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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Hardly an impersonal event, sale would have been cruelly fam slaves, many of whom changed owners more than once in their li In August 1762, a master accentuated the claim that his “sober” sl lived “all the Time, except whilst in the Importers hands, Gentleman’s Family.” The eighteen-year-old youth had only “b America” for “3 years.” As Governor Dudley told the Board of T 1708, “the Winter halfe year” in Massachusetts often rendered ” Serviceable” slaves who had to be fed, clothed, and sheltered whether worked or not. Nothing of note had changed about the weather England by 1764, when an essayist in the Newport Mercury reiterate “long winters prevent the labor of slaves being of any advanta northerly climes. That climatic truth and other seasonal and shor work patterns, in agriculture and in industries such as sugar refinin rum distilling, induced masters to hire out slaves, sometimes fo stretches at a time, or to sell them. Twenty-nine-year-old Cyr instance, had already served at least four different Massachusetts m before running away from the fifth in September 1748.24
For-sale notices, though they obviously represent only a frac actual sales, offer a rough guide to the numbers of Massachusetts slav changed hands each year. From 1715 to 1719, the News-Letter carried age of about thirty-two for-sale advertisements per year, one for ro every nine slaves in Boston. In part that ratio, the highest in any fi span, may be inflated by lack of competition, for, as noted above, aft sellers could choose among at least three weeklies. At the same time, number of masters probably did have slaves “to be disposed of” in th half of the 1710s, thanks to a temporary increase in white immigratio especially to the severe recession that gripped Boston following the Queen Anne’s War in I713. It would not be the last time that war and nomic volatility altered the course of slavery in Massachusetts.25
vols. (Boston, i880o-88i), I:321-22n. Johnson, Soul by Soul, 125, observes tha auction block, slave traders wrapped customers’ “fantasies” of profit, e enhanced social status “around the slaves they had for sale” and sold them buyers; in print, sellers were far more matter-of-fact.
24 Boston Gaz., Aug. 30, 1762; Dudley, quoted in Donnan, ed., Docu Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade, 3:24; Newport Mercury, Jan. Boston Gaz., Sept. 20, 1748.
25 On white immigration see Clifford K. Shipton, “Immigration t England, 1680-1740,” Journal ofPolitical Economy, 44 (1936), 229, 232; Brid Cities in the Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625-17 York, 1938), 201, 25o; and News-Letter advertisements from Apr. 16-23, Jun 1716, Aug. 26, Sept. 30, 1717, Aug. 4-II, Dec. 15-22, 1718, Aug. 3-10, 1719. nomic conditions see Gary B. Nash, The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass. 54-65, 82-88.
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When the Boston News-Letter carried its first slave-for-sale notice in
1704, slavery had already existed in Massachusetts for more than si decades. The Puritans began to import enslaved Africans no later th 1638, and enthusiasts such as Emanuel Downing, John Winthro brother-in-law, had become convinced by the 1640s that the Ba colonists could not thrive without “a stock of slaves sufficient to doe all
our business.” Even slavery’s backers had their confidence in the system
easily shaken, however. Nagged by doubts about the ultimate efficacy of
slave labor in a town setting, Bostonians in particular were also trou-
bled, perhaps peculiarly so, by what Samuel Sewall in 1700 called “the
Numerousness of Slaves” among them. Though a French visitor in 1687
thought that “not a House in Boston [existed], however small may be its
Means,” without “one or two” black slaves, they probably composed no
more than about 3 percent of the town’s inhabitants at any time before
1720. Fear of strangers so different from themselves in terms of
“Conditions, Colour, and Hair” gave white Bostonians like Sewall pause
and helped keep slave numbers low, as did fears, possibly exaggerated
but not wholly unfounded, of insurrection. In 1690, officials implicated
two local slaves, one a “negro,” the other an Indian, in the plan of a
New Jersey white named Isaac Morrill to incite slave rebellion in
Newbury, Massachusetts, escape to Canada, and attack the northern
frontier in league with the French. Exposed, the plan came to nothing;
nevertheless, it and less extreme manifestations of “Uneasiness . . . under
their Slavery” showed blacks to be most “Unwilling Servants,” as Sewall
put the matter. The governor estimated that some 200 slaves arrived in
Boston between June 1698 and the end of 1707.26
Even that small trickle of slaves sparked social and economic con-
cerns that ignited in a public backlash against slavery and specifically
against “Negros.” Sewall fanned the flames with The Selling of Joseph
(1700), a stinging moral and legal condemnation of the slave trade that
accused white Bostonians of holding no better title to their slaves than if
some “stronger Party” sold them “for Slaves to a Ship outward bound.”
Sewall later confided that he garnered nothing but many “frowns and
hard words” for claiming “that all Men . . . have equal Right unto
Liberty.” Nearly three-quarters of a century would pass before such
notions gained wide currency. In 17oo, most white Bostonians did gen-
erally agree that white laborers, preferably English ones, besides making
26 Moore, History of Slavery in Massachusetts, Io; Sewall, The Selling ofJoseph: A
Memorial, ibid, 83-85; Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, A Topographical and Historical
Description of Boston (Boston, 1872), 48; Joshua Coffin, A Sketch of the History of
Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, from 1635 to 1845 (Boston, 1845), 153-54;
Greene, Negro in Colonial New England, 16o; Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of
the History of the Slave Trade, 3:24.
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more governable servants, made better Indian fighters and even added to the colony’s wealth as freeholders and families in ways that long slaves did not. White Bostonians also tended to believ “Negroes” were “much addicted to Stealing, Lying and Purlo Such was the opinion expressed in the first editorial in American paper history, published in the News-Letter in June 1706, a pie may have been penned by Sewall himself, whose antislavery apparently did not preclude, and indeed seems to have been informed by, racial antipathy.27
Between 1698 and 1705, the general assembly enacted a flurry of islation regarding slavery and black slaves: it barred all person buying or receiving goods from slaves; required masters to po before freeing slaves (more to prevent blacks from becoming charges than to discourage manumissions); stipulated that any found abroad after nine at night or at any time without perm could be whipped and jailed; forbade interracial marriages; targe sale out of the province any “Negroes or Molattoes” found guilty nication with whites; and provided for the laying of the lash up Negro or mulatto who struck a white person. Capping these proh efforts, provincial lawmakers in 1705 established a duty of four per head on all blacks imported, in an effort to encourage immig of white servants instead.28
The duty, which delegates from Boston had been instructed t port since 1701, failed in one important respect. Few whites cam by decade’s end Massachusetts Bay colonists found themselves s menting the local labor force with shipments of angry Yamasee war captives from the Carolinas.29 As they explored other labor 27 Sewall, Selling ofJoseph, 86; “Letter-Book of Samuel Sewall,” Collection Massachusetts Historical Society, 6th Ser., I (1886), 326; Boston News-Letter, Ju 1706. Thoughts on the disadvantages of black slaves also appeared in [Anon “Some Considerations Upon the Several Sorts of Banks Proposed as Med Trade: And Some Improvements That Might be Made in This Province, Hin (Boston, 1716), in Andrew McFarland Davis, ed., Colonial Currency R 1682-1751, 4 vols. (New York, 1964; orig. pub. 1910-I9II), 1:343, 346, and News-Letter, Mar. 3, 1718. See also John Saffin, A Brief and Candid Answer t Printed Sheet, Entituled, The Selling of Joseph (Boston, 1701), and Towne Sewall-Saffin Dialogue on Slavery,” WMQ, 3d Ser., 21 (1964), 40-52.
28 Massachusetts Acts and Resolves 1692-1714 (Boston, 1869), 325, 520o, 535, “The Representitives ar farther desired To promote the Encourrageing the of white servants,” May 26, 1701, in A Report of the Record Commissioners of ofBoston … Records of Boston Selectmen, i7o0 to 1715 (Boston, 1884), 5-.
29 Fifteen advertisements offering to sell “Carolina” Indians appeared News-Letter between 1707 and 1718. Lawmakers moved to block the influx of ern Indians in 1709 by expanding the previously enacted import duty on N include Indians. Massachusetts banned all further importation of Carolina This content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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white Bostonians did little to encourage much if any growth in African
numbers in the twenty years before 1720; in fact, the black presence in
Boston may have diminished in those two decades. In 1708, Dudley had
put the number of “Negro Servants” in Boston at about 400, one-half of
whom he said had been born there, with another 15o or so slaves scat-
tered throughout the rest of the province. By 1720, when Massachusetts
masters probably owned more than 2,000 slaves (including Indians),
Bostonians still owned only about 300-400.30
Countervailing portents of expansion did exist. Irish merchant
Thomas Amory quipped on arriving in Boston in 1720 or 1721 that
“good servants” were “scarce to be had” and therefore that “no one sells,
but endeavours to buy.” When the economy picked up in the early 1720s,
Bostonians found themselves in “great Want of Servants,” as a contributor
to the New-England Courant, echoing Amory’s earlier remark, observed in
1725. Years of fighting Spaniards, French, and Indians had not helped mat-
ters. At least one-fifth of all able-bodied males in Massachusetts, including
many urban laborers, served in Queen Anne’s War alone. A quarter of
them never returned. An outbreak of smallpox in 1721 had a more imme-
diately devastating impact, killing one in twelve Bostonians, including as
much as a third of the town’s enslaved workforce. The annual account of
mortality in Boston reported 134 black burials and 968 whites in 1721;
before the pox abated, 98 “Indians and Negroes” and 734 whites died from
September through November alone.31 It was not true, as one local
exclaimed in 1723, after a series of fires piqued fears of a black “combina-
in 1712, calling them a “malicious, surley and revengeful” presence; Catterall, ed.,
Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, 4:462; Almon Wheeler
Lauber, Indian Slavery in Colonial Times Within the Present Limits of the United States
(Williamstown, Mass., 1979; orig. pub. 1913), 292. Though Indians continued to be
held in thrall by white New Englanders throughout the I700s, especially as inden-
tured servants and especially in Connecticut, for-sale notices attest to the decline of
Indian slavery in most of i8th-century Massachusetts. In a society where an abun-
dance of African men and Indian women led to significant “red” and black intermix-
ture, racial identity was often more complex than masters made it out to be.
Nevertheless, only 6 masters offered for sale slaves identified as “Indians,” and all
but one did so between 1721 and 1729; Boston Gaz., Aug. 21, 1721, Mar. 4-II, 1723,
July 1-8, 8-15, 1728, Sept. 15-22, 1729, Nov. 8, 1748.
30 Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade, 3:24.
Population figures from Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D. Harrington, American
Population before the Federal Census of 179o (New York, 1932), 14; United States
Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to I957
(Washington, D. C., 960o), 756 (Ser. Z I-I9); Nash, Urban Crucible, 107. Colonial
population estimates are just that, though for a variety of reasons the records are
consistently more complete and accurate for blacks than whites.
31 William B. Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England, 1620-1789,
2 vols. (Boston, 1890), 2:456, 570; New-England Courant, Jan. II, 1725; Nash, Urban
Crucible, 58-6o; Boston Gaz., Mar. 19, 1722.
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tion to burn and destroy the town,” that Bostonians would “rat burnt in their beds by [Negroes] than suffer English servants t hither to work.”32 More accurately, when too few white worker Bostonians compensated for the recurrent problem of labor shor importing black slaves.33 In the twenty years after 1720, while B white population doubled, the town’s black population increased fold to about 1,400. By the early 1740s, slaves had increased from 3 to about 10 percent of the population of Boston, where one i families now owned slaves.34
The busiest period of slave importing in the history of Massachusetts
occurred in the late 1720s and early 1730s. In the parlance of the day,
merchants routinely called shipments of slaves “parcels.” From 1725
through 1729, the Gazette announced the intended sale of thirty-two sep-
arate parcels of slaves. Parcels constituted an even greater share of slave-
for-sale advertisements, roughly 29 percent, during the period 1730-1734,
when sellers marketed twenty-seven more. From 1735 to 1739, the number
of slave parcels tapered off to ten, a figure that is impressive in its own
right, considering that traders hawked just twelve more parcels of slaves
in the Gazette in all the years after 1739 combined. All told, parcels
accounted for about one-fifth of slave-for-sale notices in the fifteen years
before 1740, and just under a quarter of the advertisements, 1725-1734.
By way of comparison, slave parcels never represented more than 6 per-
cent of slave-for-sale notices in any half-decade after 1739.
32 Coffin, An Account of Some of the Principal Slave Insurrections, and Others,
Which Have Occurred, or Been Attempted, in the United States and Elsewhere, During
the Last Two Centuries (New York, i86o), 12-13, in Anti-Slavery Tracts (i86o), Ser. 2,
nos. 1-14 (Westport, Conn., 1970). One slave was executed and 8 others stood trial
for the 1723 fires. See New-England Courant, Apr. 8, 15, 22, June lo, July 8, 1723.
33 According to a register of London servants who came to the colonies between
1720 and 1732, cited in Abbot Emerson Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude
and Convict Labor in America, 16o7-1776 (Chapel Hill, 1947), 3Io, only 32 out of
3,257 emigrants headed anywhere in “New England.” On white emigration, see also
Richard S. Dunn, “Servants and Slaves: The Recruitment and Employment of
Labor,” in Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, eds., Colonial British America: Essays in the
New History of the Early Modern Era (Baltimore, 1984), 183-84; R. J. Dickson, Ulster
Emigration to Colonial America, i71.8-775 (London, 1966); and David W. Galenson,
White Servitude in Colonial America: an Economic Analysis (Cambridge, Mass., 1981),
124-25, 156-57. It does not appear to have been the case that the resumption of
white immigration after the Peace of Utrecht ushered in the permanent “decline in
the significance of slavery” in New England or that the institution had passed its
peak in Massachusetts by 1715. For a different view, see Duncan J. Macleod,
“Toward Caste,” in Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, eds., Slavery and Freedom in the
Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville, 1983), 220-z21.
34 1742 Boston census, in A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of
Boston, … Records of Boston Selectmen, 1736 to 1742 (Boston, 1886), 369; Nash, Urban
Crucible, 107, 4o01.
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Information about slave origins corroborates the efflorescence of
importing in the late 1720os and 1730s. Some 80-90 percent of all slaves
described as “newly arrived” (or words to that effect) appeared for sale
between 1725 and 1739. Notwithstanding the “parcel of choice Negro
Slaves” that Captain Samuel Lancelott “brought from Affrica” in 1730
and a shipment of slaves “lately Imported from Guinea” in 1737, most of
the slaves who came to Boston before 1740 did not come directly from
Africa. Rather, they had journeyed “by way of the West Indies,” where
New Englanders maintained strong trading ties and where they hoped
native Africans had become “seasoned” to new disease and work envi-
ronments, a process that often included achieving some fluency with
English. Slaves taken from the West Indies outnumbered those from
Africa approximately 135 to thirty-seven in this period. From the 1740s
on sellers rarely noted slaves’ West Indian background, which perhaps
reveals less about the personal histories or the collective acculturation of
Massachusetts slaves than it does about whites’ social expectations and
the descriptive language they reserved for new arrivals. Whatever the
case, 8o percent of all slaves identified as “West Indian” appeared for sale
in the 1725-1739 period (see Table VI).
Slaves from Barbados, where, as one late eighteenth-century writer
put it, “the inhabitants of Massachusetts were much connected,” had
always counted prominently among imports to New England. They con-
tinued to do so in the 1720O and 1730s. Barbadian Benony Waterman emi-
grated to Boston in 1726 and sent home for slaves in four of the next eight
slaving seasons, including “a parcel of young Negroes lately arrived from
Barbados” in July 1729. Family connections similarly helped Hugh Hall
transform the sea route from Barbados to Boston into an ocean of oppor-
tunity. Hall marketed West Indian slaves six times in the fourteen months
from July 1727 to September 1728; in 1729 he imported eighty Barbadians,
many of whom he resold to middlemen like Nathaniel Cunningham and
Daniel Gosse. Slaves of Barbadian provenance may have constituted a
third or more of Massachusetts imports in the 1720os and 1730s.35
35 Boston Gaz., May 18-25, 1730, May 30, 1737, Sept. 18, 1727; E. A. Holyoke to
Jeremy Belknap, Mar. 19, 1795, in “Queries Relating to Slavery in Massachusetts,”
Coll. MHS, 5th Ser., 3 (1877), 399; Boston Gaz., June 6, 1726, July 14, 1729, June 15,
1730, July 30, 1733 (Waterman); Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of
the Slave Trade, 3:33-35 (Hall). While the influence of Barbados on the development
of slavery in South Carolina and elsewhere has been well documented, scholars have
much to learn about ties between that island and slavery in New England. Winthrop
D. Jordan, “The Influence of the West Indies on the Origins of New England
Slavery,” WMQ, 3d Ser., 18 (1961), 243-50, deals primarily with the role of inherited
ideas about race, not with the actual exchange of slaves. See Peter H. Wood, Black
Majority: Negroes in South Carolina from i67o through the Stono Rebellion (New York,
1974), 3-34, and Galenson, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Barbados Market,
1673-1723,” Journal of Economic History, 42 (1982), 491-511.
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KNowN FOREIGN ORIGINS OF SLAVES ADVERTISED FOR SALE, BOS “Carolina” West Indies Africa New Less Than Year Indian Arrival in Country N 1704-1709 7 1 1710-1714 9 2 2 3 1715-1719 3 27 5 13 1720-1724 1 20 4 3 1725-1729 83 19 81 1 10 1730-1734 41 12 75 1 11 1735-1739 11* 6 32 5 6 1740-1744 1 14 6 13 1745-1749 6 2 4 3 1750-1754 3 7 1 6 1755-1759 6 1 3 1760-1764 40 9 6 6 1765-1769 5 5 1 7 2 1770-1781 1 Totals 1704-1781 19 174 128 225 2 (N = ca. 2,523)
* Three slaves from Bermuda counte Sources: Boston News-Letter, 1704-172This content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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No matter where they came from, newly imported West Indians an Africans represented at least 40 and perhaps more than 70 percent of slaves sold in the Gazette before 1740, with West Indians outnumberin Africans by more than three to one.36 Their combined presence lent crit- ical mass and an expansive Afro-West Indian flavor to emergent bla society and culture in New England. Occasionally, the press offered
glimpses of customs, practices, and beliefs the slaves carried from Africa
and the West Indies and adapted to life in New England. The bodies many runaways displayed visible reminders of Africa. When Caesar
Swift absconded from H.M.S. Lyme in November 1728, his master not the “3 Scars” he bore “on each Cheek”; when Jack ran from Boston w maker Edward Langdon on a February morning in 1732, Langdo recorded that his “upper teeth” were “artificially made sharp. Concerned mainly with recouping their slaves, neither owner expresse appreciation for the deep cultural meanings of these ritualized markings.
To Caesar and Jack, though, scarification and filed teeth symbolized n servility but having come of age in Africa, and served as reminders communal bonds that stretched across the deep to lands where they expected to return, and to people whose spirits remained with them. In May 1733, the Gazette told the story of a slave woman in Salem wh apparently wishing to hasten the awaited reunion, enacted what appea to have been an African-inspired graveside reincarnation ritua “Determined to go into her own Country, as she call’d it,” the wom “took a Bottle of Rum & two Biskets . . . into the Burying Place . . .
where she dug a hole & cover’d em” before taking her own life with knife. Seven years later, the Boston Evening-Post reported the suicide of Boston slave who, before dying, divulged that he too “had a Mind to to his own Country again.” In 1737, a “valuable Negro Man” was work ing on his master’s farm in Roxbury when he cut and then drowne 36 Sellers failed to specify origination for about 60o% of slaves advertise 1725-1739. If we estimate that only half the slaves of unknown origin were actua West Indians or Africans, foreign-born slaves would have made up more than 70 of slaves offered for sale in the Gazette in the I5 years before 1740o.
37 Boston Gaz., Oct. 28-Nov. 4, 1728, Feb. 14, 1732. On African transmigratio and African cultures in North America more generally, see Robert Farris Thompson “Kongo Influences on African-American Artistic Culture,” in Joseph E. Hollowa ed., Africanisms in American Culture (Bloomington, 1990), esp. 148-57; Thompso and Joseph Cornet, The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two World (Washington, D. C., 1981); Sylvia R. Frey, Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in Revolutionary Age (Princeton, 1991); Michael Mullin, Africa in America: Slav Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and British Caribbean, I736-1 (Urbana, 1992); Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: T Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge, 199 and Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation African Identities in the Colonial andAntebellum South (Chapel Hill, 1998).
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himself in a pond. Like the Ibo suicides described by a ninet century southern slave and recorded by the Georgia Writers Project, man probably believed that he could “mahch right down in duh tuh mach back to Africa.”38
Cultural survivals and adaptations such as these both informe lives and the deaths of individual Africans in New England and Afro-New England community life. As early as 1721 and on num occasions thereafter, Boston attempted to limit “Disorders” ste from black funeral processions that zig-zagged across town and i night. These burial practices, which reportedly attracted as many participants at a time when blacks numbered no more than abou seem to have been an adaptation of meandering funeral corteges com in West Africa. Whites reckoned them at best a “great Inconveniency they did most other black congregations. Historian and folklorist W D. Piersen estimated that two-thirds of the eighty Barbadian s imported by Hugh Hall in 1729 retained African day names. The other creolized Africans were the ones who developed and participate the celebrations of black kings and governors, also known as election festivals, that flourished in many New England seaport towns by mi tury. Not coincidentally, election-day celebrations emerged as a sync cornerstone of black communal life in eighteenth-century New E in the years following the importations of the late 1720O and 173 influx of foreign-born slaves breathed life into Afro-Yankee culture.3 Little is known about slave preferences in colonial Massachu though locals clearly had few options outside of purchasing wha could get from merchants such as Jacob Royall, Benony Water Hugh Hall, and others with ties to specific island markets. Like when New Englanders bought new Africans they generally chos slaves imported according to supply and demand factors beyon 38 Boston Gaz., May 7, 1733; Boston Evening-Post, Apr. 7, 1740, Sept. 19 Piersen, “White Cannibals, Black Martyrs: Fear, Depression, and Religious Causes of Suicide among New Slaves,” Journal ofNegro History, 62 (1977), 153.
39 A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, Containi Records of Boston Selectmen, 716–1736 (Boston, 1885), 87 (Sept. II, 1721); A Re the Record Commissioners of the City ofBoston, Containing the Boston Records fr to 1728 (Boston, 1883), 176-77 (May 4, 1723); Piersen, Black Yankees, 78, 7. F sions to funerals that attracted hundreds of blacks, see New-England Coura 22, 1723, and New-England Weekly Journal, Feb. 24, 1729. On election-day f see, esp., Piersen, Black Yankees, 117-40. The findings here refine observatio by Berlin, “Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on Mainland North America,” American Historical Review, 85 (1980), 51-54, and S Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black Amer York, 1987), 74, about the contribution of new Africans to the origins of blac tions in the mid-I8th-century North.
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immediate control. This does not mean that New Englanders received
“refuse” slaves; small shipments of healthy young slaves were the rule.
Prohibitive costs and much smaller market size dictated, however, that
northern employers could not compete with the tobacco, rice, and sugar
growers to the south. But such limitations did not totally preclude
choice. Like other slaveholding British colonials, Bostonians formed
opinions about blacks from the various West Indian islands and about
slaves imported from different African regions. Experience, Atlantic
hearsay, and, at least for those directly involved in the slave trade, a keen
sense of what kinds of slaves other colonists fancied and why, informed
such notions. Significantly, so did newspaper reports that enabled New
Englanders to guard against influxes of rebels from the latest island trou-
ble spot. Along with personal and business ties, white perceptions might
have helped sustain the market for slaves from Barbados. For what it was
worth, as the New England press reported one slave conspiracy after
another in the West Indies, particularly in Jamaica, Barbados remained
relatively free from slave “Mischief.”40
Savvy enough in their own right, Bostonians of the 1720s and 1730s
probably would have agreed with the Virginian who wrote in 1725 that,
in a pinch, “if they are young likely Negroes it’s not a farthing matter
where they come from.” In 1738, Peter Faneuil summed up the prefer-
ences of many Bostonians, asking Captain Peter Buckley to procure for
him “as likely, a strait limbed [West Indian] Negro lad as possible you
can about the age of from 12 to fiveteen years.” The slaves imported
before 1740 averaged about fifteen years of age on arrival, four to five
years younger than the average age of all advertised slaves. And, while
the majority of slaving vessels sailed into Boston in the 1720O and 1730s
carrying mixed groups of young “men, women, and boys,” overall males
predominated. Exact figures prove elusive, but nine of twenty-seven
slave shipments delineated by sex consisted of all males, compared to
just one all-female shipment. Thus, though New Englanders frequently
complained that slaves brought “from the West Indies, [were] Usually
the worst Servants they have,” purchasers such as Faneuil stood a good
chance of getting the young male slaves they wanted from one of the
islands in the 1720S and 1730s.41
40 The first report of slave unrest on Barbados appeared in the Boston Gaz., Jan.
8, 1854. On slave resistance on Barbados, see, among others, Dunn, Sugar and Slaves,
and Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies
(Ithaca, 1982), 105-14, 335.
41 The Virginian, an Eastern Shore planter named Thomas Cable, is cited in
Darold D. Wax, “Preferences for Slaves in Colonial America,” J. Negro Hist., 58
(1973), 396; Faneuil to Buckley, Feb. 3, 1738, in Proceedings of the Massachusetts
Historical Society, 7 (1863-1864), 418; Dudley, quoted in Donnan, ed., Documents
Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade, 3:25.
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Perhaps the surge in Boston’s slave importing would hav 1730 had a second devastating go-round with the smallpox not claimed the lives of roughly another 400 townspeople. T death toll among slaves, many of them recent arrivals, exce demic of 1721. Boston’s annual mortality report listed 16o in 1730, the most in any single year until 1752. If the seco bout in nine years with smallpox generated short-term deman it also helps explain increased demand in the early 1730s for slaves who had already survived the disease. Fears that slave tract or spread the pox lingered even after outbreaks subs smallpox immunity a chief slave-selling point. In the mont ing the 1730 epidemic, thirteen records, six times the normal age, mentioned that slaves had already “had the Small-Pox or elsewhere in the West Indies.42
Smallpox or not, the import trade slackened markedly course of the 1730s. Approximately 194 slaves of identifiably f gin had been sold in the Gazette between 1725 and 1729, c 140 from 1730 to 1734 and only 60o from 1735 to 1739. By the peak years of slave importing in Massachusetts had pas its height, and even though in human terms it probably a nearly half of all slaves ever marketed in the Gazette, the trade in Massachusetts from 1725 to 1739 never assumed m tions. On one hand, ships with as many as twenty and docked at Boston on numerous occasions in the 1720O a September 1727, for instance, the sloop Katherine arrived from with twenty-five slaves on board-children and adults females. Two years later, Hugh Hall entered the arrival of t more Barbadian slaves via Captain Peter King, along with sm of sixteen with Captain Grafton, twelve with Captain Forster, by way of Captain Laist in his account book. No revisionist however, could or should transform Massachusetts’s growi sizable slave contingent into the black majority of Sou where anywhere from ,000ooo to 3,000 slaves arrived annua late 1720s through the I730s.43
42 Boston Gaz., Feb. 16, Mar. 9, June 15, June 22, June 29, Aug 1730. On smallpox in early Boston, see John Duffy, Epidemics in Co (Baton Rouge, 1953), 43-68. The classic statement of the relationship importing and disease is Philip D. Curtin, “Epidemiology and the Political Science Quarterly, 83 (1968), 190-216.
43 Wood, “‘More Like a Negro Country’: Demographic Pattern South Carolina, 1700-1740,” in Stanley L. Engerman and Eugene D. G Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies (PrincetoThis content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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Slave shipments such as those cited above, relatively small t with, rarely made it into the newspaper intact.44 The parc appeared for sale in the Gazette before 1740 probably averaged than seven slaves apiece, a figure that itself exaggerates by a g the overall scale of Boston’s newspaper slave trade.45 As Table V just four of 1,393 advertisements that specified the number of be sold offered as many as nine or ten, and only one notice con more than ten slaves (it announced the forthcoming auction of Africans in Newport, not Boston). That three of these five plac date from the 1720S says as much about the outer limits of the its apogee as it does about the generally modest scope of slave tr Massachusetts. Comparatively small slave sales, the corollary o slaveholdings, remained the rule in Massachusetts, where even the heaviest years of importing, 1725-1734, the average number of per advertisement barely exceeded three (see Table VIII).46
Nevertheless, local historian Samuel G. Drake had it right i when he wrote that “the traffic in Slaves appears to have been object in Boston” in the second half of the 1720S “than at any before or since.” Increased demand played a vital role in that ment, as Massachusetts whites, alternately laying aside or attem 44 Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade, 33-34. In only one of the preceding examples did a single person purchase slave cargo; in July 1729, Hall himself bought and in all likelihood then re of Forster’s slaves. The next month Hall claimed 14 of King’s 23 slaves; 7 d buyers vied for the rest. The 25 slaves aboard the Katherine went at auction. 45 The average parcel size of 6.5 is skewed slightly toward the Io-year per 1720-1729, when the number of parcels and their average size were both h determining the average size of slave parcels, I have applied coefficients deri the discrete averages over time of shipments that did specify the number of averages are: 7.6 for 1720-1729, 6.3 for 1732-1737, 6.0 for 1748-1758, an 1766-1769. I allow that these averages, like most attempts to quantify th slave trade, require a great deal of further refinement. Failing to reckon wit however, would have rendered the average number of slaves per notice a lower than it already is. Frustrated by the vague and ubiquitous terminology parcels, historians of the import slave trade have rarely attempted even to ap the numbers of slaves they might have contained. One scholar who did w “Negro Imports into Pennsylvania, 1720-1766,” Pennsylvania History, 254-87. He derived his estimates from letters of slaving captains and mercha in Philadelphia that recorded the total numbers of slaves imported on partic sels. Thus he probably exaggerated by a good margin the actual size of slave p Pennsylvania newspapers, for, as noted above, at least in Boston bidde bought smaller shares of large shipments that they then advertised. A mo estimate is James G. Lydon, “New York and the Slave Trade, 1700 to 1774,” W Ser., 35 (1978), 384, who found that in New York from 1715 to 1764 “non-Af West Indian] cargoes averaged only five slaves per vessel.”
46 Boston News-Letter, Aug. 23, 1714; Boston Gaz., June 19, 1721, July 1 June 6, 1726, Aug. 28, 1758.
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Number of Slaves for Sale Number ofAdvertisements Proportion
Stated in Advertisement Containing
1 1,134 76.3%
2 156 10.5
3 44 3.0
4 27 1.8
5 13 0.9
6 7 0.5
7 3 0.2
8 2 0.1
9 2 0.1
10 2 0.1
19 1 0.1
“Parcels” 81 5.4
“Several” 15 1.0
Totals 1,487 100.0
Sources: Boston News-Letter, TABLE VIII
NUMBER OF SLAVES PER Advertisements App N ofSlaves Advertised Advertisement
1704-1709 62 96 1.5
1710-1714 140 200 1.4
1715-1719 162 238 1.5
1720-1724 59 87 1.5
1725-1729 157 479 3.1
1730-1734 94 277 2.9
1735-1739 96 191 2.0
1740-1744 100 141 1.4
1745-1749 126 169 1.3
1750-1754 113 141 1.2
1755-1759 82 115 1.4
1760-1764 119 172 1.4
1765-1769 96 125 1.3
1770-1774 67 78 1.2
1775-1781 14 14 1.0
Totals 1,487 2,523 1.7
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legislate away misgivings about black slaves, imported unprecedente numbers of them to work in their shops and homes, aboard their ship along their wharves, and on their farms. Perhaps this sudden enthusia for slave labor compels special emphasis, given the persistent view, carefu cultivated in later years by New Englanders themselves, that they accumu lated slaves as an inevitable and undesirable result of trading with and sup plying slaves to West Indian plantation regimes. In the 1720s and 1730 whites in Massachusetts mapped out an economic future in which slav played a heightened role, and they did so by design.47
At the same time, Massachusetts slavery did not exist outside th larger rhythms of the Atlantic world economy or of the British Atlan system of bonded labor, which is to say that demand-side explanation tell only part of the story. If for a moment slaves became an attract source of labor to Bostonians, a protracted slump in the Caribbean sug economy beginning in the 1720s had made them a viable alternative the first place. In 1732, a West Indian correspondent to the short-live Rhode Island Gazette observed that the “Inhabitants of Barbados” were
deserting fast and liquidating “their Slaves and Effects, owing to the low
Price of Sugar.” Without this supply of relatively cheap and obtainable
slaves, economic development in Boston might have proceeded much
differently and more fitfully, to say nothing of either the evolution of
Afro-New England society or slavery itself.48
A number of scholars have noted the conspicuous peacetime expan-
sion of the slave trade and slavery throughout colonial British America in
the second quarter of the eighteenth century. Patterns of slavery’s growth
in Massachusetts in the 1720os and 1730s locate that province squarely in
the mainstream of slaveholding trends up and down the mainland, par-
ticularly in other northern cities such as Philadelphia and New York. Gary
Nash identified “a period of relatively heavy imports” in Philadelphia in
the early 173Os, after which slave trafficking “slackened considerably.”
James Lydon’s study of the slave trade to New York suggests that West
Indian importations concentrated most heavily in that city around the
years from about 1725 to 1735. Each of these trends paralleled developments
in Boston with a precision that speaks to the vitality and interconnected-
47 Drake, The History and Antiquities ofBoston … (Boston, 1856), 574. On New
England’s historical amnesia regarding its slave past, see Joanne Pope Melish,
Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, I78o-i86o
(Ithaca, 1998). Following the 1723 fires, Boston selectmen on Apr. 19, 1723, bolstered
existing provincial legislation with i5 “Articles for the Better Regulating Indians
Negros and Molattos within” the town; Report of the Record Commissioners, . . .Boston
Records from 17oo to 1728, I73-75.
48 Rhode Island Gazette, Dec. 7, 1732. On the sugar economy and slave availabil-
ity, see Richard B. Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British
West Indies, 1623-1775 (Kingston, Jam., I994; orig. pub. I974), 389-446.
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ness of a rising intra-American urban market for slaves.49 In sho entrenchment of slavery in Massachusetts in the 17205 and 1730s em out of the confluence of several internal and external factors and m patterns of the institution’s enlargement elsewhere in roughly th years and for many of the same reasons, notably a period of g though unpredictable prosperity and growth, stable slave price absence of major military entanglements, and the remarkable escalat the Atlantic slave trade following the Peace of Utrecht.50
The landscape of slavery and of slave trading in Massach underwent fundamental change in the two decades after 1740. mid-175os, some 1,5oo slaves lived in Boston, an increase of few 200 since 1742, as the return of imperial war and declining eco fortunes dealt a double blow to both the supply of imported sla local demand for slave labor.51 In contrast to the fifteen years 1740, when as many as 70 percent of all slaves marketed in the Gazette were new arrivals, recent imports made up no more than io percent of slaves marketed from 1745 to 1759. The majority entrepreneurial merchants and ship’s captains who had sustaine import trade of previous years abandoned the scene; the role of t 49 Nash, “Slaves and Slaveowners in Colonial Philadelphia,” WMQ, 3d Se (1973), 227; Lydon, “New York and the Slave Trade,” 382. The best treat slavery’s evolution in the I8th century is Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: T Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, Mass., 1 Philadelphia and New York, see also McManus, A History of Negro Slavery York (Syracuse, 1966), and Wax, “Negro Imports into Pennsylvania,” 25 comparative analysis of slavery in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia from 1740, see Nash, Urban Crucible, Io6-ii.
50 On the generally favorable peacetime economic climate that energized g in Boston and other colonial American cities for much of the 1720S and 1 Bridenbaugh, Cities in the Wilderness, 303-407, and Nash, Urban Crucible, 102 a graphic representation of heightened American involvement in the Atlan trade, see Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison, 1969), 138.
51 An explanation of black population figures for Boston in the 175 order. The town conducted two counts within two years of each other, in 1754. The 1752 census gave the city’s black population as 1,541. The 1754 cou it at 989, an apparent loss of more than 5oo, or 1/3, in just two years. But who have puzzled over this wide discrepancy have failed to note that while count ostensibly included all slaves, the 1754 census counted only slaves age older. Thus in order to estimate Boston’s total black population from the 1 sus we must first estimate the percentage of the town’s black population not yet reached age 16. Slave-for-sale notices enable a tentative assessment under age 16 accounted for 1/3 of all those advertised for sale in the 1750s. If under 16 composed a similar share of the black population at large, then i likely that Boston’s black population actually did not decline substantia all-in the two years after 1752. For an earlier attempt to explain the 1754 c terms of manumission, mortality, runaways, and sale, see George A. Levesq Boston: African American Life and Culture in Urban America, 175o-186o (N 1994), 31-32.
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Number and (Percentage) of Sellers Who Placed:
Decade One Advertisement Two Advertisements Three or More
1720s(N=82) 57 (70%) 15 (18%) 10 (12%)
1730s (N=69) 47 (68%) 13 (19%) 9 (13%)
1740s (N=39) 34 (87%) 3 (8%) 2 (5%)
1750s (N=22) 19 (86%) 2 (9%) 1 (5%)
1760s (N=23) 19 (83%) 3 (13%) 1 (4%)
1770s (N=13) 13 (100%) – –
Totals (N=248) 189 (76%) 36 (15%) 23 (9%)
Source: Boston Gazette, 1720-1779.
who remained shifted to redistributing slaves already one or two at a time. In 1743, when the owner of an e slave girl had no luck selling her in the Gazette, he tur tion over to John Gerrish, a middleman who offered ment “at public or private sale.”52
As importing waned, the newspaper slave trade entirely internal, dominated by private sellers like rop Gray, cordwainer John Boidwen, and “Wm. Owen, Ta whose involvement with the market seems often to hav ing ways with slaves purchased from merchant-impo before (see Table IX). In late 1743, one slaveowner offered year-old slave woman who had “been in the Country te later another owner offered “a Negro Man about 22 o who had been imported about “12 Years” before. By t creole slaves-born “in this Country” or “in Boston slave parcels. Largely intracolonial, the newspaper Massachusetts was in one respect decidedly sluggish f 1740s and I75os. Not until the late 176os did sellers hav advertisements longer on average than they had in the sold slowly for most of the 175os as well. One master unmatched prowess “with a Scythe, Ax and Teem” for 52 Boston Gaz., Mar. I, Apr. 19, 1743.
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nine straight weeks from March through June 1758. Despite slow Massachusetts masters demonstrated their slave-selling resolve b ing 226 different notices in the Gazette in the 1740s, the most decade (and many issues from 1742 have been lost). In sharp cont previous years, in the 1740s more than nine of ten notices offe one or two slaves. From 1725 to 1739 nearly a third had include than two.53
A monthly breakdown of slave sales sheds additional light o changed local slave market. Heavy or light, Boston’s slave import son lasted from late spring to early autumn, with July and Aug busiest months.54 From 1725 to 1729, the biggest years of slave ing, 67 percent of all slave-for-sale advertisements appeared be May and October. From the late 1730s through the early 1750s, how fewer than half the notices appeared in those months, and a s trend toward winter sales emerged. Starting in 1735 and lastin 1754, fully a quarter of advertisements appeared in December, J and February. Since sellers marketed recently imported slaves only t times in those months and since winter had always been the se when masters most often found black labor superfluous and the maintaining slaves prohibitive, it seems clear that private owne could not or chose not to keep slaves in the months of cold an accounted for the expanded winter market.
In part the critical weakness of the paper money Massachuset issued in piles since early in the century helps explain these de ments. As the colony’s long-simmering fiscal crisis boiled to a “want of cash,” as a number of sellers described their predicamen vinced many masters to seek a going price for their slaves and to de payment in hard money. In 1746, Charles Apthorp, venerab importer and one of the wealthiest men in Boston, observed th Currency is very bad and I think must be worse.” By 1749, the s value of Massachusetts paper money had plummeted to one-tenth face, and even affluent slave-sellers like Apthorp, who early in decade had been willing to offer slaves on “Credit upon good sec began to insist that buyers come with “ready money” in hand troubles hinted at the deep structural problems of an economy, on credits earned in the carrying trade, that took a heavy hit as the eign sector entered a period of long-term decline. As early as 17 Boston Town Meeting griped that “Trade to the West Indies and 53 Boston Gaz., Feb. 25, 1740, May 21, Oct. 15, 1745, Dec. 27, 1743, N 1744, Mar. 20o, 1758.
54 Some 87% of all advertisements for imported slaves first appeared b May and October; 41% (42 of 103) debuted in July and August alone.
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languished. Six years later a Bostonian complained that “Trade in ge eral” stood “not above One half” what it had been even in 1735, add that it continued to wane. Though scholars disagree about the overall jectory of economic growth and development in Boston in the mid-ei teenth century, slave-trading patterns suggest that grousing Boston whose livelihoods depended on participation in a volatile Atlantic mar economy had good reason to fear for their economic health in the 17 and 1750s.55
Along with economic stagnation, hyperinflation, and a hea wartime tax burden, underemployed and idle slaves posed an especia thorny problem for masters. In many ways a sales pitch from March 174 set the tone for the next twenty years, offering “A likely Negro Girl ab 18” not because her master needed the money nor because she w “addicted to any thing ill,” but rather on account of her “Owner hav no Occasion for her.” Though seasonal fluctuations in slave employm had always been the rule in Massachusetts, no previous seller had rat nalized a slave sale that way; in subsequent years, dozens of masters town and country alike explained that lack of steady work had for their hands. If anything, employment prospects for slaves worsened the 175os. Forty-four out of fifty-three sellers who provided a reason fo proposed slave sales in the 1750os cited “want of employ,” a phrase t became both mantra and lament of the market. Fully a quarter of 55 Apthorp, quoted in Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt, 91; Boston Gaz., June 16, 1 Bridenbaugh, Cities in the Wilderness, 330-31; G. B. Warden, Boston, 1689-I776 (Bos 1970), 1o3-o4. On the currency crisis, see Nash, Urban Crucible, esp. 112-13, 136 173-75, 212-16; Bridenbaugh, Cities in the Wilderness, 2o5, 360-61; Warden, Boston, 102-48; Herman Belz, “Paper Money in Colonial Massachusetts,” Essex Insti Historical Collections, o10 (1965), 149-63; and John J. McCusker, Money and Exchang Europe and America, I6oo-1775: A Handbook (Chapel Hill, 1978), 125-37. While his ans generally agree that Boston weathered its share of economic storms in the middl the I8th century, Bridenbaugh’s social histories and Nash’s Urban Crucible make boldest claims for long-term economic decline. Economic historians tend to stress a tation and slow growth. For a range of views, see David Richardson, “Slavery, Tr and Economic Growth in Eighteenth-Century New England,” in Barbara L. Solow, Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System (Cambridge, 1991), 237-64; Jacob M. Pr “Economic Function and the Growth of American Port Towns in the Eightee Century,” Perspectives in American History, 8 (I974), 140-49; Allan Kulikoff, “T Progress of Inequality in Revolutionary Boston,” WMQ, 3d Ser., 28 (1971), 375-4 Warden, “Inequality and Instability in Eighteenth-Century Boston: A Reappraisa Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 6 (1976), 49-84; Terry L. Anderson, “Econo Growth in Colonial New England: ‘Statistical Renaissance,”‘” J. Econ. Hist., 39 (1 243-57; Jack P. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Mod British Colonies and the Formation ofAmerican Culture (Chapel Hill, 1988), esp. 55 and Gloria T. Main and Jackson T. Main, “The Red Queen in New England?” W 3d Ser., 56 (I999), 121-47. Sheridan framed the debate in “The Domestic Economy Greene and Pole, eds., Colonial British America, 55-59.
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advertisements from the 1750s included words to the effect tha were out of work.56
Though upstart Rhode Islanders’ quick rise to dominance African slave trade pushed many Massachusetts slavers out of th ness, locally owned ships still occasionally returned carrying sm tingents of (increasingly African) slaves. Captain Robert Ball, f put in with “FOUR fine likely Gold Coast Negroes” in March 17 rest of Ball’s words read more like an apology than a hard sell, signif the extent to which demand for slaves in and around Boston had dimin-
ished. He explained: “All which Negroes the Seller who was the Importer
chose out of a considerable Number … to carry to a Southern Colony”;
changing his mind and “having several more” than he needed, Ball
attempted instead to “dispose of the above [in Boston].” It seems more
likely that Ball became just another Bostonian with more slaves than he
knew what to do with.57
As an alternative to outright sale, masters resorted with increasing
frequency to hiring slaves out, a strategy that allowed them to put money
in their pockets while retaining nominal ownership of slaves they did not
need or could not support. But the benefits of hiring came at the cost of
a subtle erosion of masters’ control over mobile and more autonomous
slaves, who parlayed the social capital they gained on the job into
dynamic new understandings of their status, the value of their labor, and
the possibilities for freedom. In 1761, an enslaved Bostonian named
Cesar, though “frequently seen” in “some of the neighbouring Towns,”
avoided being taken up “as a Runaway” by telling people “he was there
Working for his Master.” As economic woes urged masters to alter their
slaves’ work arrangements, the actions of daring bondmen like Cesar
brought them closer to the realization that hired hands fit their variable
labor needs more efficiently than did bonded ones.58
As early as 1725, a writer in the New-England Courant had cautioned
Bostonians about “going much above themselves” in their zeal for slaves.
Despite such admonitions, optimistic over-investment in slaves in the
flush importing years of the 1720os and 1730os probably played a role in the
subsequent reversal of the next twenty years. At the same time, black
56 Boston Gaz., Feb. 25-Mar. 3, 1740. Unemployment affected some owners and
some slaves more clearly than others. For example, the long-term decline of ship-
building in Boston probably had a lot to do with the impending sales of 4 ship’s car-
penters, each of whose masters parted with them, they said, for lack of work; Boston
Gaz., July 18, 1749, Jan. 29, 1754, Apr. 16, 1754, Aug. 28, 1758.
57 Boston Gaz., Mar. 8, 1748. On the rise and annual voyages of Rhode Island
slavers, see Jay Coughtry, The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave
Trade, z7oo-i8o7 (Philadelphia, 1981).
58 Boston Gaz., Sept. 21, 1761.
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families that grew despite both a skewed sex ratio and the physical isola- tion occasioned by masters’ small holdings and whether masters wan them to contributed to what was beginning to look by the end of th 1730s like an overabundance of slaves. In March 1738, Robert Temp advertised an enslaved man, his wife, and their son, “the main reaso being his belief that the couple would continue to add “one [child] ev Year” for “Many Years to come” to a household already “Overstocke with Servants of that Colour.” Two months later, “a Certain Person Town” offered to “Sell or Exchange for a Negro Boy” a female slav “who promises to be as good a Breeder, as any one can well desire, an to afford [the buyer’s] Family a greater stock then he cares for.” Master parted with black children who did little or no work on the easiest terms. During the 1740s alone, eighteen owners offered slave childr “to be given away”; in all previous years combined, just two such not had appeared. Though some sellers insisted on preserving family uni masters’ attempts to limit black fecundity helped ensure that the future of slave labor in Massachusetts would depend in part, and as it h before, on infusions from elsewhere. Not that the future looked brig in early 1742 to such masters as the one who tried to give away “a Ne Male Child, about three Weeks old.” No one had claimed the infant a month and a half later. In short, as thick clouds of economic auster settled over Boston, it hardly mattered to the vast majority of employer that war and competition had stalled the import slave trade. For most the 1740s and 175os even Robert Ball’s four Gold Coast slaves migh have struck most Massachusetts whites as four more than they cou either afford or gainfully employ.59
In the 1740s and for most of the 1750s, war and economic downtu challenged whites’ commitment to the institution of slavery, and th wavered. Despite these recent troubles, Bostonians celebrated victory the Seven Years’ War by introducing a new generation of foreign-bo blacks to slavery in America. Victory in the north seemed imminent July 1758, when a parcel of boys and girls “imported from Africa” u ered in the most intense period of slave importation since the 173os. the early 176os, a number of employers appears to have been less co cerned with finding work for slaves than with finding the right slave f 59 New England Courant, Feb. 22, 1725; Boston Gaz., Feb. 27-Mar. 6, May 29 1738, Jan. 19, Mar. 2, 1742. Deyle, “‘By farr the most profitable trade,”‘ 125 n counted 6 ads offering to give away slave children in the New-England Wee Journal following its inception in 1727 through the 1730s. The practice of givi away slave children may have been more common in Massachusetts than elsewhe An extensive study of various colonial newspapers led Bradley, Slavery, Propagan and the American Revolution, 32, to observe that “advertisements for free babies w rare” outside the province.
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the job, as Gazette subscribers placed a third of all the “s notices that ever appeared in that paper in the nine years and 1764. An advertisement from March 1762 offered “a likely between 14 and 15 Years of Age … only [for] the want of a lar In July 1765, a Gazette patron offered to exchange a “healthy about 14 or 15 Years of Age” for “a Negro Man, between 20 “work upon a Farm” outside of town. Two eager buyers e advertisements stressing their willingness to “give a good pric the slaves they wanted. One of the spendthrifts was Antig Isaac Royall, whose slave-trading experience in the 175os an mized the tendencies of the day much as the slaving acti brother Jacob had in the 1720s and 1730s. In early 1752, R economic duress, decided to cut his losses, leasing his count selling the slave family of four that ran it for him. A decade la 1762, he re-entered the market, this time to hire an overseer stood “the Management of Negroes,” specifically the reti who worked his farm in Medford, Massachusetts. Times ha Two general phenomena distinguished this slaving groun its predecessor. First, it involved nowhere near the number the larger wave of the 1720S and 1730s. Second, the overwhelm ity of slaves who came to Boston in the late 175os and especial 1760s arrived direct from Africa, “snatch’d from Afric’s fancy as the poet Phillis Wheatley later described her own passage 1761. Africans composed an increasing share of Massac imports since the late 1730s. In the 1740s and 1750s, when imp erally lagged, slaves of identifiably African origination outnum Indians nearly seven to one. But Wheatley and the other A came to Massachusetts in unprecedented numbers in the early destined to become key players in a colonial dispute over t ment” of their masters, and ultimately of themselves.61
As slaving trends in previous decades tied Boston to cad wider British Atlantic, the peak years of African importation coincided with the pinnacle of that trade in other norther Newport to New York and Philadelphia and across the Upp South in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. Parliam of the African coast in 1750 meant, as historian Sarah De that American slavers “could now purchase and sell slaves pleased without paying a premium for the privilege.” The 60 Boston Gaz., July 3, 1758, Mar. 22, 1762, July 22, 1765, June 23, 1761, Feb. 18, 1752, Apr. 5, 1762.
61 Wheatley, “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Da Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North-America” (1772 Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773), 74.
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revocation of the Assiento closed Spanish ports to English ing opportunities to New England slavers and thousands priced African slaves into American markets. Boston steered for the Windward Coast and points in between at in the 176os, twice carrying home aboard his schoon “parcels” of Africans, one of them the frail eight-year became known as Phillis Wheatley.62
Noting that African importations peaked in Massachus where in British colonial America in the late 175os and ea clear the possibilities and reach of the Atlantic slave mar sufficiently explain the dynamics that made such an exp in Massachusetts. Casualties in the Seven Years’ War hit Massachusetts
especially hard. Nearly 94 percent of New England’s 2,500 troops in 1756
hailed from Massachusetts, and only about half of them returned home
“present and fit.” Many did not return at all; the 1764 Boston census lists
almost 700 more adult women, many of them war widows, than men.
White immigration failed to offset the loss. As Bernard Bailyn has shown,
only 77 of 9,364 migrants from Britain to the colonies in the years before
the Revolution made Massachusetts their final destination. As they had
before, imported slaves with little say in the matter thus came to fit the
rebuilding plans of Bostonians who hoped their lives had been fractured
by imperial war for the last time.63
A construction boom following the Great Fire of 1760 that leveled
349 buildings in Boston, including “Two Tenements of free Negroes”
near Oliver’s Dock, may help explain why in 1761, for the first time since
1749, no master complained that “want of employ” had prompted the sale
of a slave. With work to be done and a limited supply of able bodies to
do it, masters across the slaveholding spectrum retained black workers
they might have sold in years past.64
From the start, though, signs of slavery’s revitalization in the confi-
dent days following the fall of French Canada coexisted with indications
62 Deutsch, “The Elusive Guineamen: Newport Slavers, 1735-1774,” New
England Quarterly, 55 (1982), 243-44; Boston Gaz., May 24, 1762; Boston News-Letter,
June 3, 1762. On the African trade to the colonies in the 10 years before the Stamp
Act, see McManus, Black Bondage in the North, 22-24; Berlin, Many Thousands Gone,
93-194; Nash, “Slaves and Slaveowners in Colonial Philadelphia,” 229-30; Wax,
“Africans on the Delaware: The Pennsylvania Slave Trade, 1759-1765,” Pa. Hist., 50o
(1983), 40; Lydon, “New York and the Slave Trade,” 381; and Coughtry, Notorious
Triangle, 27, 30, 34-35.
63 Fred Anderson, A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven
Years’ War (Chapel Hill, 1984), 230-31; Josiah H. Benton, Jr., Early Census Making in
Massachusetts, 1643-1765 (Boston, 1905), cited in Nash, Urban Crucible, 245; Bailyn
with Barbara DeWolfe, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling ofAmerica on the
Eve of the Revolution (New York, 1986), 205, 209.
64 Boston Gaz., Mar. 24, 1760.
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that the institution, like the local economy, still stood o Though it elicited scathing attacks on the “blessed Effects Negro Slaves in to the Country!” the influx of Africans fai a decline in the black population in and around Boston, t drop since the seventeenth century. In 1752, the town’s bl reportedly stood at 1,540o; in 1764, enumerators count “negroes and mulattoes” in all of Suffolk County, with Bos accounting for three quarters of that total. Many whites, less haps, than others to forget the lessons of the recent past, sim share the renewed enthusiasm for slave labor. The initial others soon withered in the face of harsh reality. As Carl wrote in 1955, “the colonials welcomed the prospects of pea as portents of happier days to come.” But “disillusionmen quickly,” and nowhere more so than in postwar depressed December 1763, a “very honest” man who had taken up “Am for the king complained that he had “no money” to “purch a familiar problem.65
Even as new Africans arrived and even as some employe to publicize their desire to acquire slaves, chronic under- a ment returned with a vengeance. Twice as many sellers rat sales owing to “want of employ” in each of the five years 1766 than they had annually in the 1750s. In November 176 of a teenage boy with “a great genius for a tradesman” sold “three or four” months after buying him; other masters Boston’s second honeymoon with slave importing ended a as it began.66
It was in this context that Parliament’s attempts to tax the colonies put slavery in Massachusetts on the road to ruin, moral and ideological onslaught that the institution did no scholars have at times credited the revolutionary commitment ual liberty, rights, and freedom with the downfall o Massachusetts in ways that sacrifice complexity for causality. fixed picture of slavery’s peripheral role in the non-staple colonial Massachusetts fails to explain why black bondage when it did, or for that matter how revolutionary idealism process. The end of slavery in Massachusetts cannot be und out first carefully accounting for what antislavery was up aga 65 Ibid., Dec. I, 1766; Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt, 250; Newport 19, 1763. The 1764 count of “negroes” in Massachusetts gave figures level only. I have extrapolated here based on figures from the censu Bostonians made up 78% of blacks in Suffolk County.
66 Boston Gaz., Nov. 16, 1761.
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It has been argued here that following a period in the 1720S and 1730s,
the gears of slavery in Massachusetts had with the possible exception of a
few years around 176o been grinding since at least the 1740s. This collec-
tive and very specific experience, not ideology alone or some vague sense of
economic incompatibility, provided the crucial precondition to the institu-
tion’s demise in the Bay Colony. Especially in Boston, where the message
of freedom flowered first and rooted deeply among a population that con-
tained by far the most slaves in the province, slaves thrown out of work by
economic circumstances posed perhaps the most serious but by no means
the only difficulty for masters; attempts to make the system more flexible,
and thus profitable, by hiring out slaves created as many new problems as
they solved. Not that economics played the determining role in disman-
tling the system; it had, after all, muddled along for years. Racism itself
was a factor: many Massachusetts whites supported emancipation only
insofar as it represented to them the first step in eliminating the black pres-
ence altogether. Working-class opposition, particularly the hostility of a
generation of free white workingmen who had felt the sting of underem-
ployment themselves, who deeply resented competition from slaves, and
who became increasingly willing and able over the years to oppose slavery
politically and violently, also made a difference.
The defiance of slaves contributed immensely to and transcended
doubts about the effectiveness of the bond labor system, as did long-
standing white anxieties, cultivated in no small part by the press, about
slave behavior, the diasporic dimensions of slave resistance, and the seem-
ingly high social costs of slaveholding. In July 1734, Gazette publisher
John Boydell urged authorities in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to exact
“just Punishment” on a “Gang of Negroes” suspected in a series of rob-
beries there, hoping that it might “deter others of the black Tribe which
now pour in upon us from the like Crimes.” It did not, and in the years
after 174o even slave-for-sale advertisements served to remind whites not
only of their own economic uncertainty but also of troublesome slaves.
In July 1741, Robert Auchmuty tired of “the Charge and Trouble of send-
ing” his slave Cesar “to the House of Correction,” whence the slave
returned “in a more confirmed wicked Disposition than at first,” and
offered him on “reasonable Terms,” provided he was sold in North
Carolina. Enough masters followed Auchmuty’s lead in shipping “ill-
minded slaves” out of the province that a new breed of slaving entrepre-
neur appeared on the scene in Boston in the 1750os to serve their needs.67
67 Ibid., July I, 1734, Nov. Io, 1741; T. H. Breen “Making History: The Force of
Public Opinion and the Last Years of Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts,” in
Hoffman, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute, eds., Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections
on Personal Identity in Early America (Chapel Hill, I997), 67-95.
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Fueled by egalitarian rhetoric first espoused by Samuel Sewall beginning of the eighteenth century, a society facing economic tion and uncertainty found in the imperial crisis an opportuni recast nagging problems with slaves and slavery as the problem o ery. Like slavery itself, which, as a contemporary observed near of the century, “never was formally and expressly abolish Massachusetts, the newspaper trade withered rapidly into extinc the era of the American Revolution. According to the first feder sus, slavery in Massachusetts had ended by 1790; on December Io a woman in her thirties, “capable of all House Hold Business, eith Town or Country,” became not only the last of a mere fourteen offered for sale in the Boston Gazette after 1775 but also the last sla marketed in that paper. No one offered any public reflections on the passing or the significance of a once-lucrative trade, howeve leaving to posterity the stomping on its grave. The symbiosis of new pers and slave trading forever changed the way masters conduct business of slavery in Massachusetts and in the process underwr growth of the institution there in the eighteenth century. At th time, the evidence of slavery in public print reveals a great deal the short- and long-term rhythms of slavery in early America, abou nomic and other factors that drove those rhythms, and about asp the integration of Atlantic labor markets and patterns of consum As new sources promise to generate fresh insights about the transatl slave trade, traditional ones such as notices of slaves “to be sold” eared newspapers still have much to tell us about the magnitud dynamics of slavery and the slave trade in colonial British America.6 68 Samuel Dexter to Jeremy Belknap, Feb. 23, 1795, “Queries Relati Slavery in Massachusetts,” 386; United States Bureau of the Census, H Families at the First Census Taken of the United States Taken in the Ye Massachusetts (Baltimore, 1966); Boston Gaz., Dec. 10, 1781. The closing thou refers specifically to the dataset of slaving voyages compiled by the W.E.B Institute of Afro-American and African Studies at Harvard University. Se Eltis, Stephen Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, eds., The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM (Cambridge, 1999), an Perspectives on the Slave Trade” (special issue), WMQ, 3d Ser., 58 (2001), 3-2This content downloaded from on Wed, 02 Oct 2019 21:47:33 UTC
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