...in 1638, a ship returned to Massachusetts Bay from the West Indies after a seven-month voyage. Its cargo included cotton, tobacco and, as far as we know, the first African slaves to be imported into Massachusetts. When the Pequot Indians lost a war with the English in 1638, the fate of the vanquished was to be enslaved by the victors. The defiant Pequots made poor slaves, however, and many of them were shipped to Bermuda in exchange for African bondsmen. In 1641 the Massachusett Bay Colony adopted a code of laws that made slavery legal. It would remain so for the next 140 years.
Men in Puritan-era Massachusetts bought, sold, and held African slaves from the 1630s onward. In 1641 Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first of Britain's mainland colonies to make slavery legal.
The first mention of a black person in the colony dates from 1633. An English visitor published "a true and lively" description of New England for readers back at home. It includes an account of Indians who ". . . were worse scared than hurt" when they came upon a black man in the woods. They sought help from a local farmer who "finding him to be a poor wandering blackamore [black man], conducted him to his master." It is possible that this man was not a slave but an indentured servant. In any case, it seems clear from the Indians' reaction that black men were a rare sight in Massachusetts during the first decade of English settlement.
Within a few years, the situation changed markedly. In 1636-1637 the Pequots fought and lost a war with the English, who enslaved Indians they took captive. The Pequots resisted enslavement, however, and frustrated that the Indians would "not endure the yoke," the Puritans sent them to Bermuda in exchange for African slaves.
On February 28, 1638, the governor of the Bay Colony noted in his journal that a ship arriving from Bermuda had African slaves aboard. "Mr. Pierce, in the Salem ship, the Desire, returned from the West Indies after seven months. He . . . brought some cotton, and tobacco, and Negroes." Earlier ships may well have carried enslaved Africans to Massachusetts, but this is the first documented case.
The slaves traveling on the Desire represented a public investment by the colony's leaders. In March of 1639, the General Court voted to reimburse the man who had purchased the Africans for his expenses; he was to repay the colony from the proceeds when he sold the slaves.
The legal status of slavery in the Bay Colony was codified two years later when Massachusetts adopted the "Body of Liberties." While this document guaranteed civil rights to British colonists, paradoxically it also specified that slavery was allowed in cases where slaves were "taken in just wars, [or] as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us." A 1670 law made it legal for the children of slaves to be sold into bondage; beginning in 1680, the colony had laws restricting the movement of blacks.
Because the colony was not well suited to plantation agriculture, most Massachusetts masters rarely owned more than one or two slaves. Slave-owners tended to live in coastal towns; their bondsmen were frequently used to assist in the family business. As a result, Massachusetts masters generally preferred younger slaves, who were less expensive than older ones but who could be easily trained for specialized tasks. It was not unheard of for a Massachusetts man to send a quantity of rum aboard a ship bound for the Indies with instructions for the captain to bring home a slave child.
The slaves who came to Massachusetts tended to be those "left over" after West Indian plantation owners had purchased the strongest or "likeliest" men and women for field work. The younger or weaker Africans were sent on to New England and sold individually or in small groups. In 1717 one New England trader advised his brother that, if he could not get a good price for all his slaves in the West Indies, to "bring some home; I believe they will sell well." Indeed, the institution of slavery played a central role in the economy of colonial New England.
Ships left Boston, Salem, and Newburyport with fish to feed the enslaved Africans laboring on the sugar plantations of the West Indies and lumber to build barrels in which to ship sugar and molasses. Vessels returned from the Indies loaded with molasses and often carrying a number of enslaved men and women to be sold in the Bay Colony. The molasses were distilled into rum, some of which was sold locally; the rest was shipped to Africa and traded for captured black men and women.
Since masters rarely owned enough slaves to justify building a separate residence, most slaves in colonial Massachusetts shared the living quarters and domestic routine of their master's family. Later apologists claimed this arrangement created bonds of affection and familiarity that eased the plight of the slaves, and it is true that in some cases conditions were less harsh in New England than on southern plantations. Still, the Puritan missionary John Elliot "lamented . . . with a bleeding and burning passion, that the English used their Negroes but as their Horses or the Oxen, and that so little care was taken about their immortal Souls."
In 1700 there were approximately 90,000 people living in New England. The black population numbered about 1,000, roughly half of whom lived in Massachusetts. Within the colony, the blacks were clustered in Boston and other coastal towns. Slaves were a small enough minority that Massachusetts slave owners had little reason to fear an uprising. Even so, in 1723 Boston passed a law forbidding slaves to be on the streets at night or to be found "idling or lurking together."
By the mid-1700s African slavery was well established in Massachusetts. Newspapers in coastal towns regularly carried advertisements for "likely" young Africans, just arrived or, better yet, "seasoned" for several months or a year in the West Indies. Tax collectors recorded the value of slaves owned, and wills show that slaves were distributed along with other property.
In 1752, black people made up 10% of Boston's population. On the eve of the Revolution, Massachusetts had over 5,200 black residents, more than any other New England colony but still a small number compared to colonies in other regions.
Massachusetts was the first state in the new nation to abolish the institution of slavery. As a result of lawsuits brought by African Americans, in 1783 Massachusetts courts declared that "the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and [the Commonwealth's] Constitution."
Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England, by William D. Piersen (University of Massachusetts, 1988).
From Slavery to Freedom; a History of African Americans, 8th ed., by John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. (Alfred A Knopf, 2000).
Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America, by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (Rutgers University Press, 2001).
Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts, by George H. Moore (D. Appleton & Co., 1866).
"Historical Notes on Slavery in the Northern Colonies and States," by Charles B. Richardson, The Historical Magazine, 1863.