Slavery in Puritan Times


For the documentary

Slavery in Puritan Times

      The history of slavery spans nearly every culturenationality, and religion and from ancient times to the present day. We don’t usually relate slavery as part of New England’s history.  Massachusetts was the first state to ban slavery and became a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment in the early 1800’s when abolitionist newspapers and pamphlets sprang into existence.  Despite these noble endeavors, the reality is that slavery in the northern colonies had originated a few hundred years before the abolitionist movement began.

The Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were Godly people, but, like their peers around the world, they didn’t hesitate to enslave a defeated people group. They simply legalized and carried on the practice that predated European arrival. Over the next few centuries, many New Englanders grew wealthy in the slave trade before the importation of slaves was outlawed.

The Puritans failed to fully integrate the sacred and the secular when it came to their involvement in slavery. They were eager to save the souls of Native Americans and the Africans, but not their bodies. Many didn’t hesitate to purchase the indenture of captured white Europeans.

Squanto, the Native American who befriended the Pilgrims in Plymouth, was once a slave of the English. In 1614, Squanto was captured in Massachusetts by Captain Thomas Hunt. He lured Squanto and twenty-three other friendly Native-Americans on board Hunt’s ship with the promise of trade.

Once on board, Hunt locked them up below the deck and sailed with them to Malaga, Spain where he sold them off as slaves.  During his years in Europe, Squanto learned English. Upon his return to the Americas as a freeman, he discovered those in his village had all died of a contagious disease.

Slavery was widely practiced by the native populations long before the arrival of Europeans.  Native Americans had always enslaved other Indians defeated in war, so it was an established practice the Europeans continued not long after their arrival. Also, the indigenous population, in turn, captured and enslaved a number of European settlers.

Mary Rowlandson was a colonial woman who was captured by Native Americans during the King Phillip’s War and held for eleven weeks before being ransomed. Her three children were also taken, but the youngest died of her injuries inflicted during her captivity. Mary was sold into slavery to another tribe. On May 2, 1676, Rowlandson was ransomed for  £20 raised by the women of Boston.


The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was published in 1682It garnered readership both in the New England colonies and in England, and was considered by some the first American “bestseller.”


The Pequot Wars that started in the 1630’s were the beginning of the settlers efforts to get serious about terminating resistance with superior force. Those captured were traded for the more valuable Africans, often referred to as  “Moors” who had a reputation as better field workers and were more docile.

New Englanders justified the wars of territorial expansion by their belief that they were the New Israel tasked with driving out the Canaanites. They viewed their practice of slavery as the equivalent of the type allowed in the Old Testament.


Captured native women and children were used as slaves locally but most were taken to the West Indies. The first recorded slave ship in the Americas was the Desire in 1638.  Seventeen Pequots (fifteen males and two females) were taken aboard in manacles along with the cargo of dried cod and strong liquor. They were bound for Bermuda but ended up in the Bahamas. The return cargo was cotton, tobacco, salt and “many Negroes” from Tortuga. The Africans became the colony’s first black slaves.

In a previous blog, I wrote about Sir George Downing, my scoundrel ancestor uncle. George apparently inherited his conniving spirit from his father, Emanuel Downing who had a slavery scandal of his own. In 1645, Emanuel asked a favor of his brother-in-law John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Downing was lobbying to start a new Indian war as a means of gathering native warriors to trade for Africans. The man had no principles as he wanted to war against the Narragansetts who had been the Puritans’ allies against the Pequots. Downing suggested that this action could end the “worship of the devil” at powwows and at the same time “easily have men, women, and children enough to exchange for Moores,” as Africans were often called.

“I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business,” Downing proclaimed.  He also pointed out that “we shall maintain twenty Moores cheaper than one English servant.”

Winthrop,  to his credit, declined Emanuel Downing’s petition. Emanuel Downing, by the way, was Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing’s father-in-law.  Emanuel was officially added to my list titled “Ancestors of Whom I am Not Proud.” It was a good thing Emanual returned to England never to return again to the American colonies.