On Slavery, Freedom, and Belonging

Last month, I wrote a post contemplating how historians can write African American intellectual history before the American Revolution and mass literacy. As I argued in that piece, I believe that looking at the lived experiences of enslaved men and women in legal and ecclesiastical records can help us better understand this early history. While it is near impossible to discern thought from these sources, we can examine the actions of many different slaves and free blacks and, by doing so, see many interesting themes emerge.

Today, I want to explore belonging. By belonging, I mean the desire of many people of African descent—legally defined as strangers—to find a place for themselves in New World societies. It includes both mainstream colonial (white) society and alternative communities crafted by the marginalized and unfree. As slaves and free blacks keenly understood, having a place in a community brought with it certain protections and rights otherwise denied to outsiders. Belonging could literally mean life or death, as it offered opportunities for employment, access to social services, and legal recourse against the many abuses slaves faced.

Jack, a slave brought before Boston’s criminal court in May 1709 accused of stealing gold coins from merchant David Gwin, helps us to better understand belonging. While being investigated, Jack had the opportunity to tell his life story. Hailing from Barbados—whether born in Africa or from there is unclear—Jack belonged to merchant Benjamin Hale who hired his slave out as a sailor. While on a voyage transporting timber from Tobago back to Barbados, a French privateer seized Jack’s ship and the slave as contraband. The privateer captain registered his prize in Martinique where he sold Jack to a sugar planter. The slave remained in Martinique for four years until one night he escaped in a canoe with four fellow slaves and, according to his testimony, the gold coins found on him in Boston. The fugitives rowed to Montserrat and from there to Antigua. Once in St. John’s, Jack found work on a privateer and a short time later avenged his earlier capture when he and his crewmates seized a French vessel laden with fine “white Sugar.” After registering the ship, the crew travelled to English St. Christopher where Jack left the privateer and found work on a “New England Sloop” captained by Thomas Diamond. Jack returned home with Diamond and his crew, arriving in Boston in the fall of 1708. Immediately after his arrival, Jack indentured himself to a farmer, Edward Clap of Dorchester, for four years in exchange for a new set of clothes and a cash payout at the end of his term. In the spring of 1709, Clap gave Jack permission to move to Boston and find work for himself. It was shortly after his arrival in the capital that Jack found himself accused of stealing David Gwin’s gold.

Jack’s testimony was not only an attempt to tell his side of the story, but also an elaborate exercise in belonging. Indeed, if we follow Jack’s story closely, he had ties to six different communities. Each of three times Jack joined the crew of a ship, he embedded himself into an intimately-connected maritime community and was recognized as such. Philip Morris, a sailor onboard Diamond’s ship along with Jack, went before the court as a witness. While Morris could not recall if Jack had any gold coins during their trip to Boston, he did confirm all the other details of Jack’s story. This acknowledgement suggests that Jack and Morris were on familiar terms, most likely sharing stories of exploits and adventures to help pass the time on the long voyage to Boston. Maybe Jack and Morris were not friends, but they were coworkers, men whose very lives depended on the other while at sea. The conditions of seafaring created a rough equality where as long as Jack could pull his weight—and as an experienced mariner, he could—he had a place as a crewmember.

Copyright National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (http://www.nga.gov/feature/watson/watsonhome.shtm)
Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” depicts an enslaved sailor as a member of a ship’s crew–similar to Jack’s experience. John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778. National Gallery of Art, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund 1963.6.1. Copyright National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (http://www.nga.gov/feature/watson/watsonhome.shtm)

Although part of a society of sailors while at sea, Jack’s race mattered much more when he was on land. On the one hand, it marked him as an outsider in most Euro-American societies. On the other, it gave him access to the dynamic networks and communities created by slaves and free blacks. In his narrative, Jack recalls being a member of two black communities. In Martinique, he became close enough to fellow slaves to plan an escape. Being a member of this group allowed Jack to channel his—and other slaves’—desire to escape into collective action. Using the muscle power of his four co-conspirators and his own maritime knowledge, Jack stole a canoe and found refuge on an English island. Then, once Jack arrived in New England, he joined Boston’s budding black community. In his testimony, he claimed to have stashed his gold coins with a free black woman named Dinah. Unfortunately, court officials did not call Dinah to testify, but Jack’s mention of her is important. If his story is true, it suggests something interesting. Jack had been in Massachusetts for less than a year and he already trusted Dinah enough to protect his money. It seems to demonstrate that for people of African descent, finding belonging amongst fellow slaves and free blacks was a relatively rapid process, most likely built upon similar concerns, and understood to be important to surviving and even thriving in the colonies. While this statement is not to suggest total group solidarity, there does seem to be mutual understanding.

Finally, Jack had ties to the dominant white community in New England. In fact, he belonged to New England society just as much as he belonged to the black community. Jack was the indentured servant of Edward Clap, the Dorchester farmer, giving Jack a place in the social order. Granted, his ties to white society were ultimately tenuous and only through his master, but nonetheless important. Having these bonds allowed Jack to travel to Boston, look for work, and earn money all—in theory—without raising the ire of colonial authorities. Jack’s testimony suggests that he understood the importance of these ties and the world he inhabited. We only have to look at his actions. After Jack escaped slavery in Martinique, he was effectively free and even found a decent amount of success hiring himself out as a sailor. Yet, he sacrificed his de facto freedom to become an indentured servant in Massachusetts. Why? I would argue it has to do with belonging. As a free black stranger, Jack would have been suspicious and drawn the attention of colonial authorities, possibly even being exiled from Massachusetts. The indentured servant of a local farmer, however, had the ties necessary to create a new life in a new land.

Until Jack allegedly stole from David Gwin, it appears as if he understood the usefulness of belonging to multiple communities. That said, there were often real and stark limits to belonging. To find meaning in Jack’s story and the pre-modern black understanding of belonging in general, then, is to also acknowledge racist attitudes towards people of African descent and the oppressive and stifling laws passed to govern their behavior. Jack was in a position to be accused of theft after all and, unfortunately for us, I was unable to find the verdict of the case to know whether he was found guilty or not.

Nevertheless, Jack’s story illustrates how membership in various communities was dynamic. Having multiple memberships gave black men and women access to many different opportunities at the same time. As an indentured servant within Boston’s black community, for example, Jack could both find employment and a group of similar individuals to socialize with after work. Building ties across communal bounds despite the many limits suggests that early African Americans had a multifaceted understanding of belonging and conceived of their world as one built upon bonds of mutual dependence and interconnectedness.

In the face of a world that sought to deny free blacks and slaves a place in society—what sociologist Orlando Patterson calls “social death”—belonging mattered. Finding a way to engrain oneself in multiple communities—including those of the oppressor—allowed people like Jack to find a place, independence, and a modicum of success, however defined, in New World societies. While Jack did not leave behind a written record, his experiences, when we place them in the proper context and attempt to find meaning, it allows us to better understand the mindset and thus a small part of the rich intellectual history and traditions of early African Americans.