Tracing Early Black Intellectual Networks

Revolt Aboard Slave Ship, 1787, William Fox, A Brief History of the Wesleyan Missions on the West Coast of Africa (London, 1851), facing p. 116 as shown on, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. (Click image for details)
Revolt Aboard Slave Ship, 1787

In my continuing series on early African American intellectual life, today I want to examine early black intellectual networks by conducting a thought experiment. In this experiment, I will examine two documents, imagine how and why ideas in those documents appeared when they did, and examine the greater significance of these ideas and their dissemination. Engaging in such an endeavor will allow us to see the dynamism of early black thought and better understand it as a dialogue that was constantly in motion and contact with a wider world of ideas.

Attempting to do this experiment presents two problems. First, as with most early black thought, there is an issue with the availability of sources. Second, there are pragmatic concerns about being able to explore the fine grain, nitty-gritty of how intellectual networks functioned. Fundamental questions—which pose a problem for all intellectual history—such as how and why people transmitted certain ideas, are even more difficult for African Americans because of the lack of source material.

As I have shown in previous posts—and perhaps some naiveté on my part—I believe the existing sources and circumstantial evidence allow us to engage in writing a substantive intellectual history for early African Americans. For my thought experiment today, I want to look at two petitions filed by free blacks in Boston in 1773. Both petitions were part of a series drafted between 1773 and 1777 asking the legislature and/or the colonial governor to end slavery (for transcripts of these documents, see here and the Massachusetts Historical Society has digitized some of the originals here). Emotionally powerful, the petitions also allow us to tap into contemporary intellectual trends and how black thinkers such as Holbrook conceived of them (fellow AAIHS blogger Chernoh Sesay Jr. has also written about these petitions).

An example of one of the petitions filed by free and enslaved African Americans in Boston.

Embedded alongside the emotional appeals, in the first petition, Felix Holbrook, the free black author noted how God had “lately put it into the Hearts of Multitudes on both Sides of the Water, to bear out Burthens, so of whom are Men of great Note and Influence.” This is most likely a reference to the famous Somerset decision in England, where Chief Justice William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield declared slavery to be incompatible with the laws of England and only sustainable with positive law. Mansfield’s decision was not meant to free all the slaves and only applied to the plaintiff of this case, but nevertheless, the slave and free black petitioners interpreted it broadly and used it to buttress their claims for freedom.

We can expect slaves in Boston to have knowledge of the Anglophone world, but a second petition, filed a few months after the first and addressed to Thomas Hutchinson, displays a wider knowledge of slavery. “Even the Spaniards, who have not those sublime ideas of freedom that English men have” the petitioners argued, “are conscious that they have no right to all the service of their fellow-men, whom we mean the Africans ” and thus gave their bondsmen and women a number of rights, including one day to work for themselves. Money earned could then be made toward their own self-purchase and freedom, a legal process known as coartación. In their appeals, the petitioners filtered the information they had gathered from all over the Atlantic World to better articulate a case for freedom, even if from non-English sources.

The question remains, however, as to how the petitioners learned about the Somerset decision and coartación. Last month, I wrote about how many black Bostonians were literate and engaged with the print culture of the eighteenth century. As one of the most important legal decisions regarding slavery in Anglo-American law, Somerset received significant coverage in the American press. Indeed, it would have been hard to avoid reading about the case after it began circulating around the Atlantic world in the summer of 1772. Slaves and free blacks reading about Somerset could not help but be energized by the decision and understand it as an important legal precedent for freedom and a catalyst for their own local struggles.

Account of five “Spanish Negroes” stealing a ship in Boston Harbor in an attempt to return to Spanish-controlled territory.

Tracing coartación’s intellectual network poses additional problems. While many black Bostonians could read and write English, Spanish was another matter. Likewise, the practice would not have been widely publicized in the Anglophone press. Knowledge of it, then, most likely came from two sources. First, because of the numerous eighteenth-century wars between Great Britain and Spain (usually allied with Britain’s arch nemesis, France), colonial privateers raided Spanish ships, captured cargoes, and enslaved crewmen of color, whether they were legally bound or not. These “Spanish Negroes” arrived in nearly every port city around the British Atlantic, bringing an understandable hostility with them. They lodged numerous protests with colonial authorities and were often at the center—both actual and suspected—of slave rebellions, most famously the New York Conspiracy of 1741. It is easy to envision the black Spaniards who arrived in Boston (and likewise engaged in rebellious acts) told Afro-Bostonians about coartación to point out the hypocrisy between opportunity for manumission in “tyrannical” Spain and the lack of it in “free” British lands, thus spiting the white society that illegally enslaved them.

Cover page of enslaved sailor Britton Hammon’s narrative of his shipwreck, enslavement in Cuba, and return home.

In addition to the presence of “Spanish Negroes” in Boston, many African Americans were sailors who plied the Atlantic on the town’s many ocean-going vessels. Although technically illegal, Boston carried on a robust trade with Spanish America. Men like Britton Hammon, an enslaved sailor from New England who after being shipwrecked, captured by Indians, and sold as a slave to the governor of Cuba, escaped to write a narrative of his journey, would have interacted with Hispanophones of African descent on the docks and taverns in the many port cities they frequented. Communication difficulties aside, it is not hard to imagine black Anglophone sailors learning about coartación and taking it home to share. Whether learned from black sailors or black Spaniards living in Boston, the petitioners used coartación as a cudgel to shame liberty-loving Englishmen into abolishing a practice so odious that even the Spanish offered formal paths to manumission.

Combining the petitioners’ appeals with enslaved Bostonians’ literacy and their access to black Spaniards and sailors—in the case of Briton Hammon, he was both a published author and mariner—forces us to examine and seriously consider early black intellectual networks. In the end, the dialogue created and intellectual trends reflected in the petitions make a strong argument for both the independence and inclusion of black thought in the eighteenth-century Atlantic. On the one hand, African Americans sought information for pragmatic and tangible ends, such as the petitioners using legal knowledge from around the Atlantic to build a case to end slavery.

Yet, on the other hand, African Americans were also part of larger intellectual trends and networks. Indeed, I would argue they were key actors in the “republic of letters,” the transatlantic intellectual community of the eighteenth century that circulated the latest information in print, manuscript, and oral form. As historian Ned Landsman notes, the fact it was called a “republic suggested that participation was not confined to those of aristocratic birth or privileged place but was open to those who could contribute, including country gentlemen and artisans, and, significantly, not only metropolitans, but provincials.” [1] To Landsman’s robust list, I suggest we also add slaves and free blacks as active participants in this process. Their ability to acquire knowledge and effectively communicate it by word of mouth, writing, and even publishing and disseminate it through seaborne networks, demonstrated the many blacks voices in a cacophony of Atlantic intellectual exchange.

[1] Ned Landsman, From Colonials to Provincials: American Thought and Culture, 1680-1760 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 33.

Comments on “Tracing Early Black Intellectual Networks

  • This is a subject worthy of much more in depth research. You are correct is positing the fundamental question in all pursuits of intellectual history lies in tracing/verifying the source of intellectual discourse. The Spanish language literacy of the black Bostonians does pose an interesting question. This next statement is by no means one born of academia but is based on repeated observation. As stated in your article that Boston painted a robust and illegal trade with Spain implies rudimentary literacy among the trading class in Spanish. One vector of research may be an exploration of participation in this illegal trade by blacks. Again, I have repeatedly observed (in the modern world) that international port cities are more often than not rudimentarily poly-lingual. Trade vessels act not only as transport vehicles for goods, they are more often than not transport vehicles for ideas as well. All the best in your research.

  • thank you for this post! i have a comment on this point:. “Even the Spaniards, who have not those sublime ideas of freedom that English men have” the petitioners argued, “are conscious that they have no right to all the service of their fellow-men, whom we mean the Africans ” … might one also connect this to another intellectual subtext, namely a knowledge of john locke, who went to length to represent the spanish as brutish, terroristic and barbaric in their colonials despotims, as opposed, of course, to the civilized brits. if so, that sentence would be a double riff on slavery and freedom.

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