Nonfiction Worth Reading: New England Bound, by Wendy Warren

New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most Americans know about slavery on southern plantations, and about New England’s role in achieving abolition. As school kids, most Americans learned about the horrors of plantation slavery, and were taught to take pride in the wisdom and perseverance of  the Northern states as leaders of the abolition movement. What we weren’t taught anything about was the institution of slavery in New England, where many Native Americans and the first Africans were enslaved within a decade of the founding of Plymouth Colony. More than a few studies of this topic have been published in the past decades or so and are gradually making inroads into the public’s awareness of this hidden history.  Wendy Warren’s meticulously researched new book is a welcome addition to the discussion.  Prominent 17th century families such as the Winthrops and the Mathers, and countless ordinary families either owned slaves, trafficked in them, or built their fortunes on the forced labor, deprivation, and pain of several thousand kidnapped individuals.

New England Bound draws upon such primary documents as court records, journals, and runaway slave notices to illustrate the breadth of this system in the context of the Triangle Trade. But more interestingly, the author has interpolated some of the ways in which the lives of those enslaved were impacted by the experience.  For example, Indian captives were locally available but proved to be difficult to manage because, being natives, they had recourse to a network of kin; for this reason, they proved less reliable than Africans, and most Indians  were sold/shipped off to the West Indies. Warren does a particularly effective job of presenting the  psychological effects of being ripped away from one’s family and social network  to an alien environment oceans away. Slave laws prevented the forging of new connections (families, networks of friends)  for these victimized people, whose sense of isolation must have been profound, whether they were island bound or working in a New England farmstead.

Writing in a flowing style, Warren provides much food for thought. She also looks into the earliest anti-slavery tracts, the very first written at the end of the century by none other than Samuel Sewall of Salem Witchcraft fame. Reading this book will forever change the reader’s conception of America’s first hundred years.

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4 thoughts on “Nonfiction Worth Reading: New England Bound, by Wendy Warren

  1. tonymarkp says:

    I don’t know how old you are, but in my American, Maine public school education, I was taught in history classes about slavery in New England. I recall being a teenager and learning about slaves in New England, who even had names and were mistreated. Maybe the education system was different where you’re from, or perhaps later the education system in New England changed after I finished it. Needless to say, your review seems to participate in a particular point of view that sees Northern education systems as the kind that denies ever having slaves. We from the North were taught we had slaves in the North, at least when I was a child. If this is different today, this is a travesty. My age is 42, just to corroborate American public education curriculum history in Maine in the 1980s and 1990s.

    • You’re right, I’m older than you. Part of my viewpoint comes from working for 30 years in CT house museums, where the majority of visitors express surprise that slaves were owned up until the 1840s in this state. Anyway, sounds like your teachers did a good job!
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • tonymarkp says:

        Had to be something like that! My Junior year high school paper was on native americans in Maine. The times have changed and I’m so glad you loved your read. It’s a good one, for sure, just for the historical details. Your review sparked my interest in the book, but I had no idea where you were coming from with your opinion.

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