Slavery in Colonial North America

Essay by 2016 Arcadia Fellow Teresa McCulla

Slavery is central to the history of colonial North America. For more than two centuries, European Americans treated enslaved men, women, and children as objects that could be bought and sold.[i] Harvard’s digitized collections can help scholars understand how the institution of slavery suffused every aspect of the colonial world.

The crude logic of enslaving human beings cast people as tools who required input (food and clothing) in order to produce the output of their labor. In the calculations of colonial-era businessmen, all of these components, including the body of the enslaved person, could be given a monetary value. For example, in February 1724, Harvard tutor Henry Flynt speculated as to the financial feasibility of operating a ferry with the assistance of a slave. “[I]f a man…buys a negro at 60 pounds who lives 20 year[s] his Labour is but 3 pounds a year,” he reasoned, “and his Victuals 26 pounds per annum makes 29 pounds which with 6 pounds wear and tare and 50 pounds rent makes 85 pounds.”[ii] The man Flynt imagined was an aggregate of calculations: a business investment to manage. Flynt applied such arithmetic to personal matters as well. When Flynt’s elderly mother passed away in the 1730s, he quibbled with his brother-in-law over Toney, the enslaved man who had worked for her. The men cared less for Toney’s fate, though, than the cash he represented. Toney became an element of Flynt’s mother’s estate to settle, alongside “all the household stuff” that Flynt could tally, which included “Brass Silver Iron bedding Linnen.”[iii] Flynt sold Toney to another enslaver and balanced the price of the man’s sale against the money he paid for his mother’s final expenses: “the Grave and bel ringing and pall etc.”[iv] Treated as an investment, Toney disappeared from Flynt’s diary after his sale. Most researchers consult the diary of Henry Flynt, an enormous tome, to understand the workings of Harvard College life and colonial accounting practices. However, the experiences of historical figures like Toney count as an equally important, if subtle, presence in this and similar records.

Enslaved people are particularly prominent in archived manuscripts related to trade and agriculture in the colonial Caribbean. For example, in 1763, Britain legislated the regulation of auctions in Barbados, events which included the sale of enslaved people.[v] In 1777, a Barbados official wrote to members of the British Council for Plantation Affairs to ask for more “India and Guinea Corn for the Negroes,” who toiled in sugarcane plantations there.[vi] Naval captains throughout the Caribbean also hired local people of color as temporary laborers to assist in the work of getting their ships in and out of ports, as they transported coffee, sugar, rum, and slaves among European colonies.[vii]

Legal manuscripts count as another important genre in the documented history of colonial slavery.[viii] Occasionally, enslaved people used the American court system to sue for their own freedom, but more often they stood at the center of trials, treated as disputed property or accused of crimes.[ix] One Delaware court case at the close of the colonial period demonstrated the multiple implications of interpreting a person as an owned object. In less than fifteen minutes, a jury convicted George, an enslaved man accused of raping a white woman, and sentenced him to death. The court treated George as a human in convicting him of a violent crime and executing him. But George’s execution also represented the destruction of property from the perspective of George’s enslaver. Thus, the judge ordered the jury to not only determine George’s guilt or innocence but also to “assess the value of the Negro, two thirds of which by law is to be paid by the County to the owner.”[x] Because the state had carried out George’s execution, it owed a debt to George’s owner.

The humanity of enslaved men, women, and children emerges in many other archival sources. For example, under the heading “January 8th A.M. Family Weighed 1747/8,” a teenage John Holyoke recorded in his diary the weights of all members of his household.[xi] Alongside his mother and siblings, Holyoke weighed his father, then president of Harvard College, and Juba, a slave. As this episode demonstrated, even as part of a child’s game, enslaved and free men could be assessed in the same units of measure despite the vast differences in their social situations. A generation later, a man enslaved to Cambridge widow Sarah Bordman left his own mark in an ephemeral document without writing a word. Shoemaker William Manning issued a bill to Bordman listing the costs associated with mending the shoes of “her negro Cato” between May 9, 1770 and July 4, 1771.[xii] Every two months, if not more often, Manning mended Cato’s shoes. During this time frame, he also provided four new pairs of shoes. Cato’s rapidly worn shoes recorded his labor for Bordman. Soles that required constant repair testified to the miles walked and work done by an enslaved man in colonial Massachusetts, even if Cato left no written memoir of his own.

In these ways, archival records that track the history of slavery add deep moral complexity to political, economic, and social developments, as well as daily life, in colonial North America and the new United States.

[i] Bordman family. Papers of the Bordman family, 1686-1837. Deed of sale, 1716/7 January 1. HUG 1228 Box 2, Folder 3, Harvard University Archives.

[ii] February 8, 1724. Diary of Henry Flynt, 1723-1747.

[iii] January 22, 1735/6. Diary of Henry Flynt, 1723-1747.

[iv] November 24, 1737. Diary of Henry Flynt, 1723-1747.

[v] Barbados. Laws, etc. An Act of Assembly of Barbadoes to regulate sales at outcry and the proceedings of persons executing the office of Provost Marshall General of the said island and their under officers, 1763. HLS MS 1046, Harvard Law School Library.

[vi] Barbados. A collection of autograph letters and original documents relating to the Island of Barbados in the 18th century, ca. 1730-1778. HLS MS 1047, Harvard Law School Library.

[vii] Bills of lading for the ship Lydia, 1766. Small Manuscript Collection, Harvard Law School Library; Holman, Gabriel. Bill of disbursments [for the] sch[oone]r Lydia: manuscript, 1790. MS Eng 659. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

[viii] Mexican Legal Documents, 1577-1805. "Denunció" of a black slave named Ana or Mariana of the city of Guastepeque, 20 December 1658. 1-8, Harvard Law School Library.

[ix] Saml. Agg. – Negro / John Forbes, Petition for freedom. Delaware. Court of Common Pleas. Records, 1790-1805. Small Manuscript Collection, Volume 3, Harvard Law School Library; Indict _ Felony in Stealing a Negro Woman called Hannah price $200 property of ___ Porter and for aiding Negro David, his slave and her husband, in Stealing said Hannah Plea Not Guilty. Delaware. Court of Common Pleas. Records, 1790-1805. Small Manuscript Collection, Volume 3, Harvard Law School Library.

[x] State / A Negro George the Slave of Susan H__. Delaware. Court of Common Pleas. Records, 1790-1805. Small Manuscript Collection, Volume 3, Harvard Law School Library.

[xi] Holyoke family. Holyoke family diaries, 1742-1748. Diary of John Holyoke, 1748. Interleaved almanac, 1748. HUM 46 Volume 6, Harvard University Archives.

[xii] Bordman family. Papers of the Bordman family, 1686-1837. Bill, 1771 August 23. HUG 1228 Box 2, Folder 39, Harvard University Archives.