For many New Englanders, slavery was an evil that afflicted the South – certainly not enlightened New England. After all, the New England states fought in the Civil War against slavery. The region was peppered with underground railroad stops, including at our own Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland. The Abolitionist Anti-Slavery Society of New England, founded in 1832, was among the first abolitionist groups in the country.

Cover courtesy of University of Massachusetts Press

Although these facts suggest a principled New England, they do not begin to tell the whole story. And while slavery ended some 150 years ago, the subject remains relevant. A thorough understanding of the region’s involvement in creating the institution of slavery in North America is necessary before we can adequately respond to racism today.

In “Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England,” Jared Ross Hardesty helps complete the picture with a meticulously researched history that turns on its head the notion that New England was beyond reproach with respect to slavery.

“In crafting this narrative of a free New England, whites absolved themselves of the sins of slavery,” Hardesy writes. “White New Englanders, in short, made slavery – and its legacies – history.”

Relying on original texts, Hardesty illustrates New England’s full complicity in building – and thriving upon – the institution of slavery dating back to the 1600s, when European settlers arrived to find plenty of land occupied by Indians, and a shortage of workers.

In order to flourish, the settlers developed a business model described in a 1645 letter from Salem, Massachusetts, resident Emmanuel Downing to former Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop: warring with Indians, then capturing and trading them for enslaved Africans held in the Caribbean. Within 15 years, present-day Maine was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony where it remained until becoming a state in 1820.

The Downing-Winthrop letter notes that the colonies required a “stock of slaves suffitient [sic] to doe [sic] all our business.” The economics of slavery were compelling to the colonists. Downing wrote that the colony could “maynteyne [sic] 20 [slaves] cheaper then one English servant.”

The region benefited from slavery in three ways. First, slavery provided a large supply of low-cost labor. Second, New Englanders profited from transporting slaves in its growing marine industry in which even non-mariners could profit by buying shares in vessels that transported slaves. Finally, the region sold supplies to the Caribbean areas that were distribution points for the slave trade.

Slavery was legally institutionalized in New England starting with the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s 1641 Body of Liberties, a document that ostensibly outlawed it. The law, however, included exceptions that provided a statutory basis for racially based slavery. To the extent that laws restricting slavery emerged, they were designed with massive loopholes and were not enforced. “New England colonists accepted slavery as customary, rational, and moral by the middle decades of the seventeenth century,” Hardesty writes.

Hardesty enriches his work by introducing readers to enslaved people and detailing their terrifying stories of abduction and horrific experiences in transit; many were shackled in overcrowded, virtually airless cargo holds where smallpox was rampant. He details the violence and sexual exploitation perpetrated against enslaved people. Take Venture Smith, who watched his father’s gruesome murder at the hands of slavers in Africa, then – a mere child – was kidnapped, sent to Barbados aboard a smallpox-infested ship and subsequently to New England, where he remained enslaved.

Hardesty also describes the many ways in which people, once enslaved, resisted slavery by forming families, engaging with community, negotiating with slaveholders, publishing critiques of slavery and – in some cases – resorting to violence. Over time and taken together, these actions helped to subvert and reshape slavery in New England.

Slavery’s decline in New England coincided with the colonies’ revolt from England. As colonists talked about liberty, natural law and human rights as a basis for freedom from England, they inevitably had to confront slavery.

By the time the American Revolution began, the institution of slavery was beginning to dissolve in New England. Nevertheless, the structures of institutional racism were slow to abate. For example, although the Massachusetts Supreme Court held in 1783 that slavery was contrary to the Massachusetts Constitution, enslaved people who sought emancipation had to petition the courts for freedom, which was time-consuming and expensive.

The process of disentanglement from slavery in New England lasted about a century, from 1760 until 1865, when the Civil War ended. Even then, racism based on economics and employment persisted, and a new plague of virulent racism swept the country.

“Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds” is an accessible, concise history of slavery in New England. Hardesty relies on original source documents, which he supports with a solid foundation of additional research. He succeeds by connecting that research with the lives of enslaved people and with larger world trends of the time. The book confronts New Englanders with the uncomfortable reality that the abhorrent institution of slavery was fundamental to the establishment and growth of our own region. It shines a light on the way forward: acknowledge our complicity, come to understand and then to confront the legacy of slavery, and, most important, to move into a future that actively rejects racism.

Dave Canarie is an attorney who lives in South Portland and is a faculty member at USM.


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