Music Matters
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Forgotten History: How The New England Colonists Embraced The Slave Trade


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The ugliest chapter of American history, slavery, started earlier than you might think, in the early days of the New England colonies. Not only did some colonists import African slaves, they enslaved and exported Native Americans. My guest, Wendy Warren, scoured original documents from the 1600s, including ledgers, letters and wills for her new book, "New England Bound: Slavery And Colonization In Early America." She's an assistant professor in the department of history at Princeton University.

Wendy Warren, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about slavery in the New England colonies?

WENDY WARREN: This project started as a fluke encounter with a passage in the middle of a 17th century travelogue written by a man named John Josselyn, who was an amateur scientist and who had come to the New England colonies on a sort of fact-finding mission for potential investors back home. So he wrote about the animals and plants he saw in New England for people who were very interested in what North America looked like. It was a new world to them, although not to Indians. And his role was to tell them what he saw.

In the middle of this travelogue, he wrote about an encounter he had had one morning while staying at the house of a man named Samuel Maverick, who owned an island in Boston's harbor. And Josselyn woke up, he said, to the sound of a woman crying at his window. When he went to ask her what was wrong, she sort of wailed at him but he couldn't understand what she was saying. So he went to Samuel Maverick to ask what had happened. And Samuel Maverick told him that he had wanted to have a, quote, "breed of negroes," and to that end, he had ordered an enslaved African man that he owned to, quote, "go to bed to her, willed she, nilled she." So willy-nilly, she wanted him to or not. And the man had done so. He had raped her. And she had been very upset by this and came the next morning to John Josselyn's window and complained about it.

So I read this story and I was struck. I was struck by two things, really. According to what I knew of American slavery, the development of chattel slavery in North America, it wasn't supposed to be happening this early, that it took the English a while to figure out how you could use chattel slavery. In particular, the idea that slavery could be inherited - that the child of an enslaved woman would be enslaved is an idea that you have to formulate. And American historians had said that that didn't happen till much later in the century, really with the development of cash crops. But this was happening in 1638. That was - struck me as odd.

And the second thing that was odd was of course where. It was in Boston. It was in New England, which never has a cash crop and isn't associated with slavery really at all, certainly not chattel slavery, and certainly not that early, which is the moment of stern Puritans in black hats. It didn't seem right to me.

GROSS: So you used the word chattel slavery. What was chattel slavery mean?

WARREN: So chattel slavery is commodified slavery. It's where people have a price. They can be bought and sold. It's where you have a price on your head.

GROSS: So what surprised me, too, reading your book was not just how early slavery had started in New England but also that Indians were enslaved.

WARREN: That's right. Indians were enslaved. It's not the primary objective of the English when they go to North America. What they want is the land. But the - there are Indians all over North America, of course, and they're not readily usable, I guess, as labor in the way that the Spanish - so the Spanish in Latin America encounter sedentary civilizations, large sedentary civilizations, and by sort of allying or co-opting the authorities who are already in charge of those sedentary civilizations, they are able to harness the labor to their own ends.

But that doesn't exist in North America. You have much more mobile populations, smaller, more scattered populations. And they're not useful as a labor force. The English, moreover, want the land really. They want to settle. They want to establish what we call a settler colony, where large numbers of English people come over of both sexes and what they want is to establish sort of satellite little Englands or New Englands. In that sense, Indians are in the way. Some of them are removed by wars. So a very bloody process of...

GROSS: And removed, you mean, like, killed?

WARREN: Killed or displaced. Some, it turns out, are actually sold, war captives. About a thousand at least, maybe, are sold to the West Indies, part of the Atlantic slave trade.

GROSS: Yeah, so it's just a really weird thing happening in New England. They're importing slaves from the West Indies, slaves who came from Africa, and at the same time, the New England colonists are exporting Indian slaves. And so, like, one logical question is since you have this back and forth trade of slaves - I just feel weird even asking this kind of thing about human beings, but - how come the New England colonists didn't use their Indian slaves as opposed to exporting them and as opposed to having to import slaves from the West Indies?

WARREN: Well, when you're dealing with chattel slavery and you're going to keep slaves under pretty violent conditions, it's safer, I guess, to export them, so African slaves are exported far from their land of origin. It's harder for them to rebel, run away. And I think keeping enslaved Indians, similarly, in New England would be very dangerous.

They have friends and kin around who might rescue them. They know the terrain. It's easier to sell them at a slight profit to the West Indies. And so in some cases - not in all cases, but in some cases, that was done.

GROSS: What kind of numbers are we talking?

WARREN: Well, the numbers are tricky but certainly hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand are sold out. It's all very hard to quantify.

GROSS: So you write that slavery and colonization went hand in hand. In what respect?

WARREN: So New England is a group of colonies - what we call New England is a group of colonies on the periphery of the English Empire, so to speak. They're not very important, seemingly. You know, they don't have a cash crop. They're not very profitable in and of themselves. But what they can do is carry and provide for the West Indies, which are really, really important because they're growing sugar, the crop of this time.

And so New England, while it never has a very large population of slaves within the colonial borders, is deeply connected to the West Indies. So New England we - again, we think of it as this place of pious people doing some sort of pious labor. And they're succeeding through, you know, the Puritan work ethic.

To some extent, that's true, I suppose. But it's also very true that they're deeply connected to this other kind of colonization, this other kind of world going on further south in the Caribbean.

GROSS: So the sugar, the tobacco that they were relying on, you know, early in the history of the English colonies in New England, that all came from the West Indies, which relied on African slaves for labor.

WARREN: Right, so in the West Indies, you have one of the most deadly forms of slavery ever invented, sugar slavery. But it's also hugely profitable. So you have large numbers of African slaves being imported into these islands where you're growing this crop, sugar, which is making immense profits. But it's killing these slaves at huge rates as well - 50 percent mortality rates and higher in these islands.

Because sugar is so profitable, these islands are given over entirely to this crop, which means they're not growing their own food. They don't have wood to create houses, and they don't - they're not bothering to be the carriers of the produce of what they're producing. New England merchants are happy to step in here.

So by the 1660s, 1670s, for example, in Boston's harbor, one historian has estimated over half the ships are going directly to or from the West Indies. And that's a lot. That's a strong connection early on in these Puritan colonies to this deadly enterprise going on down in the south.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Wendy Warren. We're talking about her new book "New England Bound: Slavery And Colonization In Early America." Let's take a short break here, and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is historian Wendy Warren who teaches at Princeton. She's the author of the new book "New England Bound: Slavery And Colonization In Early America." So when we think of the Puritans in New England, we think of them as having come here for religious freedom.

But there were some Puritans who actually owned enslaved Africans. And it's hard to reconcile this vision of religious freedom with the practice of slavery. How was that reconciled? Like, what was their justification that they used to justify this to themselves?

WARREN: Well, I wouldn't say that they came for religious freedom, or I guess I would limit that a little and say they came for freedom for themselves, to practice as they wish. But they certainly weren't embracing any sort of melting pot. They were actually quite exclusive of anyone they felt veered from their doctrine.

GROSS: Not about diversity (laughter).

WARREN: No, they were not about diversity. They were, in fact, leaving because they wanted more exclusive control over what was appropriate. So if they were exceptionally exclusive, they were not unusual in embracing slavery. The Bible approved of it, they felt. And the English approved of it, so did all of Europe. It wasn't anything anyone was questioning at the time.

And so in that sense, they weren't very exceptional at all. They didn't have any problem with slavery.

GROSS: And even, like, John Winthrop, who wrote about the Puritan mission in New England and wrote the famous phrase about we shall be as a city upon a hill, his son - was it? - became a slave owner.

WARREN: Right, so several of his sons were involved in West Indian slavery. Some of them were trading with the West Indies pretty aggressively. Samuel Winthrop, I think, was his 12th son and owned a plantation in Antigua. I think when he died, he owned 60 slaves. John Winthrop Jr., who stayed in New England mostly, owned slaves.

And Henry Winthrop, who was kind of the family ne'er-do-well, went early to Barbados and tried to get into cash crops and slavery. At no point did John Winthrop Sr. object to any of this, and nor is there any reason he should have, according to the temper of the times.

GROSS: I have to say, when I was in school, and I'm talking about, like, you know, grade school, high school, during the times when we learned about slavery, we never learned about slavery in the North. We never learned about the enslavement of Native Americans. Did you?

WARREN: No, I mean, No. I grew up in California. We hardly learned about New England at all, to be sure.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, we had to sing songs about the Pilgrims growing up in Brooklyn.

WARREN: No, it was a little exotic for us, New England. But I just had two kids go through kindergarten. They both did sort of the pilgrim play for Thanksgiving. And it wasn't exactly what I write about, I should say. There's a lot more friendly - you know, the term colonial New England, when I encounter people in airplanes or wherever I encounter people who find out I'm a historian, and they hear colonial America or colonial New England, colonial, that adjective, is really just a place marker for them.

It's this synonym with ye old or quaint. You know, it doesn't mean what it actually means, which is the process of colonization, this bloody process of removal and replacement and clearing of land and warfare. It's just - it's very sanitized in the mind - and of my students. They don't really know what happened.

So I don't think you're alone in not having learned about the role of slavery. And you're certainly not alone in maybe not of learning about what colonial New England was about or colonial America.

GROSS: For the colonists who came here, how familiar were they with the institution of slavery? England was a slave trading country, but how many slaves were actually in England?

WARREN: I don't know how many slaves were in England. We know that Elizabeth complained in 1596, I think. She said that there were too many slaves in London - she meant African slaves - too many already. So they're involved. John Hawkins is a famous trader early on in the 16th century. His coat of arms actually has a slave on it, a man in bondage, an African slave.

The English get to colonization later than the Spanish and Portuguese. They're a little - England's behind the times, you could say. So they rushed to catch up in the 17th century. The Spanish have already been in Latin America by that point since, you know, 1492. So the English are over a century behind the Portuguese and Spanish.

In a way, that helps them because many things have been established already. They don't have to figure everything out from scratch. They've heard what the Spanish have encountered. So things are less surprising, certainly. But they're behind the times.

GROSS: So the first documents kind of legalizing slavery and setting out the justification and legalization come from the New England colonies. And the first one is in 1641, ironically named the Body of Liberties. You're right, it's based on the Magna Carta. And there's this phrase in it that says it is ordered by this court and the authority thereof that there shall never be any bond slavery or captivity among us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us.

I mean, wow, it's basically saying there will not be any slavery unless we buy the slaves. (Laughter) I mean, am I interpreting that incorrectly?

WARREN: No, I think that's right. You know, they're Puritan. They're concerned about - they have a sort of legalistic mind that you could almost say, are they doing things by the book, literally? They're very invested in one particular book. And so they write down these laws in 1641, which are based on English law, based on many precedents.

But there is this line, as you just quoted, that suggests initially if you read it, that there isn't going to be any slavery. And then there's this unless that's so capacious as to negate the whole first part of the line. And then in fact, they do have bond slavery. And they have it very early.

They have it at the time those laws are written, as evidenced by what Samuel Maverick is doing in Boston's harbor.

GROSS: So then other colonies adopt laws. There's the Connecticut code of laws of 1646. And that made reference to Indian and African slavery as a legitimate form of punishment for wrongdoing. Would you explain that?

WARREN: Oh, well, it seems that slavery is a legitimate punishment. It seems that if you committed certain crimes and you were a certain kind of person, although sometimes English people are sent away initially in the - early in the century, that perpetual slavery is a punishment you could face, which is very interesting.

And so early on in the 1640s in Connecticut, they're acknowledging that there's a trade out of the region, that you could be sold out of the region or kept in the region as a perpetual slave.

GROSS: So would this mean that if you were a Native American and did anything that was considered lawbreaking by the colonists' laws, such as resisting colonization, that you therefore could be legally enslaved?

WARREN: Well, sure. And this is where the idea of just wars comes into play. They say if you've been captured in a just war, and, of course, the wars of colonization for most English colonists are just wars because they're bringing Christianity and civilization to this land. So by nature - by definition, they're just wars.

GROSS: And the people who are writing the laws are the people who are behind all of this, so of course they're going to be just in those people's mind.

WARREN: Yes, as is always the case throughout history, (laughter) that seems to be the case here as well. So if you're fighting against the English, you are, by definition, you know, a combatant in an unjust - you're on the unjust side. And so, yes, you could be sold for perpetual slave.

GROSS: You write about how terrifying it must have been for Africans who were taken away on slave ships, who survived The Middle Passage coming to, in this case, the islands of the Caribbean, and then having to be forced to board another ship to New England, which is what happened to some of the Africans who were enslaved.

They didn't know where they were going. They didn't know how long the voyage would be. And surviving The Middle Passage was, you know, almost impossible, I think. So to endure that and then have to go back on a ship must have been just incomprehensibly horrible, terrifying.

WARREN: Yeah, I mean, these records - this is a horrible period to write about. And certainly, it's not hard to get overwhelmed by the trauma that these people must have endured. In the 17th century, if you ended up in New England, you had almost certainly been taken from West Africa. So you had undergone a traumatic removal from your own family in a war or a raid, already sort of a life-altering experience most people would have a hard time recovering from.

Even undergone The Middle Passage - up to three months in a horrible early modern ship, tight packed in for maximum efficiency and probably also maximum discomfort, huge mortality rates onboard, very violent experience - you end up in Barbados. Almost certainly, most ships in the 17th century went first to the West Indies. So you've seen sugar slavery - as I said, one of the deadliest institutions known in early modern history.

And then but what is, as you point out, interesting to me is if you ended up in New England at some point, you almost certainly got back on another ship. While we don't have any records, I mean, to write this book required a lot of - developing a lot of empathy with the time period and sort of trying to understand what happened.

But certainly, what happened is you got on another boat and you didn't know where you were going. So I've always wondered, did you think you were going to repeat The Middle Passage and go somewhere worse? And how on earth did you get on the boat, if that was what you thought? Did you have any idea where you were going?

And when you got off the boat in New England, what on earth did you think? And I know that one thing that must've struck any enslaved African who got off the boat in Boston or Salem, was just how few other Africans would have been around for the first time because Barbados was heavily populated - I mean, was heavily majority enslaved Africans.

But New England was not.

GROSS: My guest is Wendy Warren, author of the new book "New England Bound: Slavery And Colonization In Early America." We'll talk more after a break. Also, rock historian Ed Ward will tell us about an obscure American band that helped kick off London's pub rock movement. And writer Sarah Hepola will explain how giving up drinking led her to rethink casual sex.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with historian Wendy Warren, the author of a new book about slavery in the New England colonies called "New England Bound: Slavery And Colonization In Early America." It's based in part on original documents from the 1600s, including journals, letters, ledgers and wills.

So the first anti-slavery publication was published in 1700. It was called "The Selling Of Joseph" by Samuel Sewall. He was a wealthy Boston merchant and chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. What did this publication advocate?

WARREN: So Samuel Sewall's an interesting guy. He was involved in the Salem witchcraft trials, and he was the only judge to later publicly recant his participation in those trials. He stood up in front of a congregation and apologized. He said he was wrong. So he's a man given to self reflection. He's not above humbling himself in public. And he writes this pamphlet called "The Selling Of Joseph" in which he says, basically, he's troubled by the numbers of slaves that he sees in Boston and he wonders if this is an OK thing. And he says, no, it's not, that this is not God's work, that we're bringing these slaves and then we're not helping them and it's wrong.

And it's a startling pamphlet to read. What's more interesting to me - so people often put him in sort of - he's the origin of a lineage of Northern anti-slavery sentiment. But what's more interesting to me is that he's actually, for his time, wrong. A man named John Saffin responds to him and rebuts him point for point. And according to the thought of the time, Saffin is right. He says, no, what are you talking about? There's a hierarchy in the world. God developed this hierarchy. Some people are born to serve, and this is them and the Bible justifies this.

He says, moreover, it's not wrong to take them from Africa because we're Christianizing them, you know, what do you mean that that isn't right? Of course we're saving them.

And Sewall's pamphlet falls into oblivion, really. It's not, (laughter), it's not welcomed by anyone in the region. His own son later advertises for slaves. So even in his own family, he has little effect.

GROSS: So you read a lot of documents from the period, from the 1600s when you were doing your book, and I'm interested in hearing about the experience of reading these documents - wills, ledgers, journals - that talk in very, like, straightforward terms about slavery, you know, just, like, that's a fact of life, it's what these people do. They own slaves. They buy slaves. They sell slaves.

Did you get your hands on original documents?

WARREN: Oh, yeah. A lot of the book is original manuscripts, which historians call primary sources. So it's reading handwriting from the 17th century, the archaic spelling. In fact my spelling has gone to pot because I know, you know, I read so many idiosyncratic spellings of words. They're all over New England Archives, these manuscripts. And, yes, as you said, they they sort of casually mentioned slavery in the oddest places. You know, I was reading a cobbler account book and turned the page, and they made six pairs of shoes for - the word they used is [expletive], which means, you know, African slaves. They're doing - they're making a different sort of shoe, is the implication for an African slave, probably a lesser quality shoe. And then there's these tragic stories that appeared throughout the records.

So one problem with my source base is that enslaved people usually only appear in records when they've run afoul of authorities. In that sense, it's a skewed population that in that I'm mostly dealing with people who have committed some sort of offense, and that's probably not how most people live their lives. Most people get along and sort of live normal lives. I saw a lot of people when they're caught in fornication records, particularly pregnant people because the evidence is very visible, and those cases could be very sad and compelling. There was one case...

GROSS: Can I interrupt here and say that fornication, marriage, having children - those were all outlawed for slaves.

WARREN: Some people did it, but technically it's not approved of. Yes.

GROSS: So it's criminal if you did?

WARREN: Yes. Fornication for everyone - that is, say, sex outside of marriage, is an infraction that has to be dealt with.

GROSS: But probably not if you're a slave owner raping a slave?


GROSS: That's probably - that's probably acceptable under the law.

WARREN: Yeah, maybe. I don't know of any - there weren't any instances where slave owners were accused of doing that in the records I looked at, although certainly we know from other places where slavery happened that that very well may have happened. There are pregnant slaves where fathers aren't named, and it would be very easy to place suspicion upon an owner or someone around in a position of authority, but that never came to light in these records.

But there are very tragic cases. There's a woman who's impregnated. She's Indian, and she's in a house in Weymouth, Mass., and she's having a horrible pregnancy. And the woman who owns her, her mistress, you know, brings another colonist to examine her and they talk about how bad the pregnancy has been. There's discharge, and she's in pain. And it sounds horrible, as pregnancy could be for early modern women. So they bring in other women to examine her. There's some concern about the pregnancy. The baby's eventually stillborn. But what's interesting to me is this woman doesn't give birth in the house of her owner when she feels labor coming on. She runs away and goes to a house of an Indian family nearby. And what's interesting to me about that is how her actions sort of give lie to protestations of benevolence from her owners even though they've brought in people to take care of her and look at her pregnancy and inspect her, when labor happened, she leaves them and she goes somewhere else for support.

GROSS: Isn't one of your areas of research now sexuality during slavery, in slave systems?

WARREN: Now it is. Yes, after this book.

GROSS: After this book. And why are you researching that?

WARREN: You know, it's interesting to think of how people fulfill basic needs in systems that try to prevent that. Right now I'm interested in enslaved women who find themselves in the Caribbean in long-term relationships with their owners and how they navigate what is essentially a long-term situation of rape from which they derive some material benefits. I'm interested in what that experience is like in a situation where you're never allowed to refuse and yet you're somehow differentiated from your peers because of this special situation your owner has put you into.

GROSS: So in the work that you're doing now researching sexual relationships in slave systems, it's basically going to be a lot of rape.


GROSS: And that's going to be - just strikes me it's going to be a very, like, difficult subject to write about on two levels. One, finding the documentation. And two, I mean, that's a lot of suffering in addition to the suffering of just being enslaved and not having freedom, you're also being raped.

WARREN: Yeah, it's not - it wasn't an easy experience, slavery or colonization, to be colonized. And it's not easy to research, I'll say that. You take a lot of breaks. But I think it's important. It's rewarding in a way to bring these people, their experience, to life.

GROSS: I found it interesting in your acknowledgements at the end of the book, you thank Yale Graduate School's parents' support and relief policy, the U.K. statutory maternity leave and Princeton's family-friendly leave policies. And you write, (reading) Many people, mostly feminists, fought long and hard to achieve these kinds of policies and I'm very grateful to have benefited from their victories.

I was really glad that you chose to include that in the acknowledgements. And maybe you can describe a little bit how that enabled you as a mother to continue doing your work and to continue to have a career.

WARREN: You know, I had parent leaves, and people don't usually thank inanimate statutes in their acknowledgments, but I thought in this case - when I left graduate school, my cohort of friends scattered. Some went to wealthy institutions and some went to places that didn't have parent leave policies. And I thought it was worth acknowledging that I had been to places with generous policies and that they did help me write, I think, a better book and helped me keep my sanity (laughter).

GROSS: So the more that historians like you uncover about early American history and the American colonies and how slavery dates back that far, do you think that Americans need to constantly re-evaluate who we are as Americans and how our history was built? We certainly know a lot about slavery in the South. We're learning more about slavery in the North. But it sounds like understanding about slavery in the colonies, that that's still pretty new territory.

WARREN: I mean, I think speaking as and for colonialists, it would be great if we knew more about sort of the first two centuries of European colonization of North America. And it would be great if we understood that it wasn't a pleasant process, that it was time of warfare and brutality and a lot of fear and trauma. And it would be great if we understood that slavery was there right from the beginning, that it was embedded in the process of colonization, that in some cases it drove the process of colonization. I think that would be fantastic. What would it do for us? You know, as a country, I don't know, maybe offer us a little bit of humility about the origins. The Puritan story tends to be held up as an exemplar of a sort of noble endeavor. And while I think the Puritans had some sort of really idealistic goals, they lived in a pretty muddy world, and it's hard to keep your hands clean in that kind of world. And when it came to slavery, their hands weren't clean. Nobody's hands were clean.

GROSS: Wendy Warren, thank you so much for filling in on a chapter of very early American history that a lot of people don't know much about. Thank you for joining us.

WARREN: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Wendy Warren is the author of the new book, "New England Bound: Slavery And Colonization In Early America."

After a break, rock historian Ed Ward will tell us about an American band that helped start London's pub rock scene in the '70s. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.