I’ve always admired these three portraits of women from the Lynde family: the wife and daughters of Benjamin Lynde Jr., chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature and one of the justices who presided over the trial of Captain Thomas Preston following the Boston Massacre. As the portraits were produced by very esteemed and in-demand artists, their existence seems to me to represent the extreme wealth and prestige of the family, and by extension Salem, with which they were all identified. But since I’ve had my “enslavement enlightenment” lightbulb moment, I find I can’t look at them in the same way I used to: a little personal perspective on a challenge faced by many towns, cities, and universities these days. I can’t admire the rich folds of velvet and silk swathing these women without thinking of their other “possessions”.
Maybe I can look at the silk without guilt: there are references to at least two enslaved men in the various accounts of Justice Lynde’s household, implicating his wife Mary (Bowles) Lynde (1709-91), but I do not know if the Lynde’s two daughters, Mary Lynde Oliver (1733-1807) and Lydia Lynde Walter (1741-1798) are so-tainted. As Mary Jr. was married to a gentleman scientist (Andrew Oliver) and Lydia married the Rector of Trinity Church in Boston (the Reverend William Walter), I would like to think that they despised the institution and practice of slavery, but that might be anachronistic wishful thinking on my part as science, religion, and slavery seem to be compatible in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Mary’s 1751 diary is among other Oliver collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and I bet that would yield some clues. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts during the lifetimes of all of these women, and it would be interesting to know their reactions to that epic event. While the two Marys led much of their lives in the Lynde family home on the corner of Essex and Liberty Streets (demolished in 1836, and then of course the PEM engulfed that latter so that no longer exists either) in Salem, Lydia lived with her husband in Boston until 1776 when they decamped for Nova Scotia with other Loyalists, to return only in 1791. While The Loyalists of Massachusetts described both of Benjamin Lynde’s sons-in-law as “staunch Loyalists”, I’m just not sure that is the case with Andrew Oliver, Mary’s husband. He was certainly part of a conspicuous Loyalist family as his father was the last royal Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts and his uncle its last royal Chief Justice, but he seems to have been more passionate about science than politics and he and Mary remained in Salem during the Revolution.
At least I think they did: they’re pretty quiet, only emerging towards the end of the war as executors (she with her maiden name) of her father’s estate. I’d like to think that Mary and Andrew fulfilled the dictates of Benjamin Lynde Jr.’s will and freed his long-term “man” Primus joyfully, and on the most generous of terms. No advertisements for lost or runaway humans before that, thank goodness, only books. We do get some insights into Mary’s character from the ever-quotable Reverend Bentley, although they are not very complimentary: she was “of real piety but not of that mind which could have rendered her a fit companion for her husband who took a high rank in American Literature. She was feeble limited in her enquiries, & a century too late in her manners.” (Diary II, 335-6).
Addendum: There is a fourth portrait of a Lynde lady: Benjamin Lynde Jr.’s mother, Mary Browne Lynde, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum: I don’t remember ever seeing it, but it is featured in Lorinda Goodwin’s book An Archaeology of Manners: The Polite World of the Merchant Elite of Colonial Massachusetts (2002) as well as the Smithsonian’s catalog of American portraits, where it is attributed to none other than Sir Godfrey Kneller, the “Principal Painter” of the late Stuart courts. It is quite something to think of a Salem girl being painted by the same artist who portrayed James II, William and Mary, Anne, Locke and Newton! There is no online catalog of its object collections on the PEM website, so I can’t check out their attribution, though Goodwin lists it as unattributed. Mrs. Lynde Sr. appears to have been a very beautiful woman, but not only were her father and husband slave owners, she lived in an age in which slavery became integrated inextricably with the British Atlantic Empire. In 1713 Britain was granted the asiento, the exclusive contract to supply the Spanish American colonies with slaves, in the treaty that ended the War of the Spanish Succession, thus enabling its domination of the Atlantic Slave Trade for the rest of the eighteenth century.
Two Kneller portraits? Mary Browne Lynde and Princess Anne before her accession in 1702, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Chirk Castle © National Trust. After the asiento was granted to Great Britain by the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, the South Sea Company, in which both Anne and her successor George I were large shareholders, was awarded the contract to supply slaves to Spain’s colonies.