The African slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean existed for centuries before the English colonization of what came to be called New England. By the 17th century, when the English joined the race for land and resources, merchants, traders, religious leaders and the crown were quite willing to use slaves (Indians and Africans) to help achieve their objectives. In her provocative and compelling New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, historian Wendy Warren asks if the early colonists disapproved of slavery. Her answer, deeply researched and well documented, is a “resounding no.”
Slavery, as Warren shows in significant detail, was part of life in America’s English colonies from the very beginning. Puritan theology was not opposed to it, nor was Anglicanism. Puritans, with the authority of the Bible, believed in a hierarchical system where those who were “perpetually” enslaved, Africans and Indians, were the lowest of all. Warren’s research demonstrates conclusively that the realization of John Winthrop’s vision of “a city on a hill” was possible only because of a flourishing economic system joining the West Indies and New England with slavery at its center. Leading colonists owned and sold slaves and wrote about slavery. The author
s documentation includes wills, probate records, ledgers and personal correspondence. She shines a light on many heartbreaking stories of enslaved individuals whose travails have remained largely untold in histories of the period.
Warren brilliantly traces in detail the development of the system from 1638, when the first documented shipment of enslaved Africans arrived in New England, until the publication of Samuel Sewall’s The Selling of Joseph, the first New England anti-slavery tract, in 1700. Although there were many other aspects of the arrangement, including family connections, the basic situation was as follows: West Indies sugar meant great wealth for owners, but it was necessary for the New Englanders to grow crops and catch fish to be sent to the West Indies where English colonists there, with the profits from sugar, bought what they needed to sustain themselves and the slaves who produced the sugar. A large part of the early New England economy, perhaps as much as 40 percent, had direct ties to the West Indies sugar plantations. If enough people had said no, the system might have ended but they did not. Enslaved people worked in homes in New England but usually no more than one or two at a time. Hostile Indian slaves were sent to the West Indies where harsh working conditions often amounted to a death sentence.
The first legal approach to chattel slavery in North America, the Body of Liberties, came from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641. The legislation made the perpetual bondage of Indians and Africans lawful. The Connecticut Code of Laws of 1646, published in 1650, made reference to Indian and African slavery as legitimate punishment for crimes.
This groundbreaking book gives us a new interpretation of the early colonists with regard to slavery, showing that it was part of New England life from the beginning. It also recounts the realities of settlement, violence and Indian removal, and how slavery became an accepted part of life in the colonies. Authoritative, extremely well written and humane, this important book presents a challenge to earlier accounts of the earliest English colonists in New England.