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.