New England Slavocracy

The New England Puritans were quick to enslave anyone standing in their way, and later found large profits in the transatlantic slave trade. By the mid-1700s Rhode Island had surpassed England in the slave trade, and English merchants complained that their shipwrights were being attracted to New England by higher wages for building slave ships. Over two centuries later, the Pequot tribe was given a gambling casino to forgive Puritan offenses.

Bernhard Thuersam,


New England Slavocracy

“It is not a coincidence that a justice from Massachusetts concluded that liberty was more important than property. His conclusion was rooted deeply in the history of slavery in the colony. To begin with, labor relationships in Massachusetts spanned a very broad spectrum of bonded or forced labor. Massachusetts depended not only on slaves but also indentured servants and enslaved Native Americans, who had a slightly different status than black slaves did.

Slavery began in New England during the first years of settlement in Massachusetts, and thus, the Puritans learned how to be slave owners immediately on arrival. As white New Englanders conquered their new settlements, they enslaved the Native American populations to both control them and to draw on them for labor. As John Winthrop did not immediately see Indians as slaves, it dawned on him quickly that they could be.

Winthrop recorded requests for Native American slaves both locally and abroad in Bermuda. Wars with the Narragansett and Pequot tribes garnered large numbers of slaves. The trading of Indian slaves abroad brought African slaves to Massachusetts shores. In 1645, Emanuel Downing, John Winthrop’s brother in law and a barrister, welcomed a trade of Pequot slaves for African slaves.

However, the enslavement of American Indians had a different tenor than the enslavement of Africans. The indigenous slaves represented an enemy, a conquered people, and a grave threat to [Puritan] society. African slaves represented a trade transaction, laborers without strings attached. Moreover, Indian slaves were part of peace negotiations and control of the region. They served as collateral with which to negotiate with Native leaders. Further, colonists could expel troublesome Negro slaves out of the colony, or they could just control them as slave property.

[In Massachusetts the first] slave law[was] written in the Americas, only two years after African slaves set foot in the colony. This law, appearing in Massachusetts first legal code, the 1641 Body of Liberties, was unique in its proscription. Rather than legalizing slavery outright, it outlawed slavery among the Puritans. However, the exceptions of stranger (foreigners who lacked protection from the king) and war prisoners gave an opening to enslave other human beings.

The exception in the case of war prisoners gave the colonists direct permission to enslave Indians captured in war, such as in the Pequot war they had just commenced. Conveniently, the slave trade had already begun to spread strangers throughout the Atlantic world.”


(Tyrannicide, Forging an American Law of Slavery in Revolutionary South Carolina and Massachusetts, Emily Blanck, UGA Press, 2014, pp. 11-13)

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