Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.
Henry David Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts (1854), an essay based on a speech given on July 4, 1854 in Framingham, Massachusetts, following the return and re-enslavement of Boston refugee Anthony Burns to Virginia in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
My romantic appreciation for “Old Salem” the olden/golden time of daring sea captains who brought home and commissioned the material culture I so admire, must be tempered by the historical myopia of its most expressive creators. While Henry David Thoreau’s generation included many Salem residents who were ardent and influential abolitionists, several generations later the Salem’s participation in the trans-Atlantic slavery system was forgotten quite conveniently. This must have been a national trend which at long last is provoking the equally-national revisionist trend we are in now, but still, we can’t let the authors of these histories and reminiscences of limited memory off the hook, for it is a fact that the first ship which brought enslaved Africans to Massachusetts was the Salem-made Desire, captained by a Mr. William Pierce of Boston. As noted in Governor John Winthrop’s manuscript history of Massachusetts, in 1638 the Desire, returned from the W. Indies after seven months. He [stopped] at Providence[Isle] and brought some cotton and tobacco and negroes &c, and salt from Tertugo [Tortuga]. Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts. He met there two men sent forth by the Lords &c. of Providence, with letters of marque who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniards, and many negroes.
This was not a one-off cargo but the beginning of a trade, rationalized by the labor demands of a colony that had already incorporated indigenous slavery into its framework and was overwhelmed by all that land on the horizon: only very cheap, preferably free, labor turn it into something of value. Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emmanuel Downing, writing from his Peabody estate in 1645 rather than the elaborate Salem house he later lived in, explained it very succinctly in a letter to the Governor: If upon a just war [with the Narragansetts] the Lord shall deliver them into our hands, we might easily have men, women and children enough to exchange for Moors, which will be more gainful pillage for us then we conceive, for I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business, for our children’s children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, so that our servants shall desire freedom to plant themselves, and not stay but for very great wages. And I suppose you know very well how we shall maintain 20 Moors cheaper than one English servant. Winthrop and Downing are very clear, even casual, in their acceptance of slavery, but their early twentieth-century historians don’t acknowledge their clarity, or seek to engage with it. Here’s what Ralph Delahaye Paine has to say about the Desire, in his popular The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: The Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912).
Well, I’m sure you can characterize his interpretation by the subtitle of his book, but still, it’s a bit alarming to see “negroes” in one sentence followed by this ship Desire was a credit to her builders with nothing in between! No judgement, no context, just obvious approval of the “genius” of Salem’s merchants and shipmasters, “for discovering new markets for their trading ventures and staking their lives and fortunes on the chance of finding rich cargoes where no other American ships had dreamed of venturing.” In one of my favorite domestic remembrances of Old Salem, there is a similar dismissiveness, or non-engagement: in Old Salem, “Eleanor Putnam” (1886; really Harriet Leonora Vose Bates) recalls Salem shops, Salem Schools, and Salem sea captains, but even though she discloses that the manuscript memories of her cousin the sea captain references the slave trade, she doesn’t engage—she is much more interested in telling her readers precisely how he took his rum!
That’s pretty much how the Colonial Revival “Old Salem” generation dealt with slavery: the occasional reference, but minimal engagement or recognition that it was a foundation of the golden era which they hold in such high esteem. It is convenient that slavery became illegal in Massachusetts in 1783, so that the Salem of Samuel McIntire and the early republic can be depicted without its taint. But this limited view would not last forever: the ultimate antiquarian George Francis Dow, the force behind Pioneer Village, the restoration of the John Ward House, and the Essex Institute’s pioneering period rooms, published Slave Ships and Slaving in 1927. Dow’s book is largely based on first-hand accounts of those who experienced the slave trade over the early modern era—except for those enslaved, of course— and while he references the Desire (though he makes her a Marblehead-built ship) he does not note either the year or the specific date of August 25, 1619, when enslaved African-Americans first stepped foot in North America, in the Jamestown port of Point Comfort, traded for rations by the crew of the White Lion, an English privateering ship sailing under Dutch authority which had captured its human cargo from a Spanish slave ship in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the date now, and the 400th anniversary of this consequential date is upon us. It’s being marked by an ambitious series in the New York Times, initiatives and events by commissions across the country, and a nationwide bell-ringing moment (at 3 pm) initiated by the National Park Service. In its recurring role as the guardian of serious historic interpretation in Salem, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site has invited the community to engage in its bell-ringing event (on the deck of the Friendship) at 2:45 on Sunday, followed by an interactive tour of slavery at the site. I can’t imagine a better place to reflect—looking out over the water, on a ship—and I love the bell-ringing ritual, as it brings us back to the days of the fiery abolitionists, and very far away from those of the Old Salemites. In the same Independence Day speech which I quoted at the beginning of this post, Henry David Thoreau remarked that Every humane and intelligent inhabitant of Concord, when he or she heard those bells and those cannons, thought not with pride of the events of the 19th of April, 1775, but with shame of the events of the 12th of April, 1851 (when the first refugee from slavery after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Thomas Sims, was returned to Georgia): the distortion of revolutionary ideals by slavery was so very clear to him, and them, and I think (hope) it is for us as well.