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Set at Liberty Stories of the Enslaved in a New England Town

Remarkably, some of the stories of Beverly’s black population have been preserved and can be found at Historic Beverly. These are stories of citizens, black and white, battling against the unjust system of slavery; of enslaved men fighting for freedom for our nation, though not free themselves; of a woman using the law to emancipate her family; and of the racism that affected the lives of Beverly’s black population long after they were freed from bondage. This exhibit presents these accounts using the archives of the Historic Beverly collection.

Note: All visuals used in this exhibit are from the Historic Beverly collection unless otherwise noted.

The Historic Beverly archive is far from complete in regard to the records of the enslaved in Beverly. Throughout this exhibit, assorted pieces of history have been put together to create a whole based on research findings within the Historic Beverly archive, along with church and probate records readily available to the public. There will be names mentioned throughout the exhibit that have a relatively full story and names that are mentioned briefly due to lack of historical evidence. It is our hope that this exhibit is the stepping off point for telling the lost stories of the enslaved individuals of the city.

The Beginning

. . . have made diligent Enquiry into the Exact Number of the Negro Slaves both males and females sixteens years and upwards.”

These are among some of the earliest words written about African Americans in Beverly, the result of a census of “Negro Slaves” ordered by the Massachusetts General Court in 1754. The inquiry found that Beverly had “28 slaves, 12 males and 16 females over the age of 16.” The total population of the town was about 2,000 people. At this time, the enslaved in Massachusetts made up nearly 2 percent of the total population. There was a deep-seated view, hearkening back to the Puritan belief in predestination, that Blacks were in servitude because God willed it. Robert Rantoul wrote that although many “conscientious persons” of the time would not engage in active trade with Africa, they would buy Africans if they were offered for sale, “because they supposed that an education in a land of gospel light was preferable to one in heathenish darkness.”

The historical accounts in this exhibit are presented in five parts:

  • Part 1 Set at Liberty describes the slave trade as it affected the New England Colonies and particularly coastal communities in Massachusetts, such as Beverly.
  • Part 2 Fighting Back features stories of the enslaved taking a stand against their captors, whether by battling them on board a slave ship, escaping their bondage, or challenging their owners.
  • Part 3 Three Soldiers and a Privateer explores the lives of four enslaved men who went to war against the British to win freedom for our country.
  • Part 4 “Ye Are the Children of One Father tells the story of two enslaved people and their relationship with Beverly's prominent Larcom family: Brutus Julius Mozambique, an African who was bought in Brazil, taken to Beverly, and trained as an indentured servant; and Cloe Turner, born enslaved in Beverly and freed 10 years later.
  • Part 5 Opposition to Slavery in Beverly chronicles the ways Beverly citizens dedicated themselves to stopping discrimination against the enslaved and people of color.

Both Europeans and Americans were engaged in the slave trade. More than 13 million were kidnapped and sold between 1619 and 1939.

The history of enslaved Africans in Beverly is tied to slavery in the British colonial world. It is rooted in 1619, when 20 to 30 enslaved Africans were brought to Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia by English traders who had captured a Portuguese slave ship. The need for labor in the new world soon made slavery the norm and any child born to an enslaved mother was also considered enslaved.

A scarcity of labor in the sugar and cotton plantations of the American south made the enslavement of Africans a vital part of the South’s economy. However, all thirteen colonies had enslaved populations whose labor made the British colonial enterprise possible. In the North, enslaved laborers were not as important to the economy, but nevertheless, many worked as laborers and servants for the wealthy and in the maritime trades.

First Enslaved People in Massachusetts

Massachusetts merchants entered the slave trade in 1638. The first mention of enslaved Africans in Massachusetts was in 1639, in a document written by John Joslin. He reported that Samuel Maverick of Noddle’s Island in Boston Harbor had three “Negro servants,” wording suggesting that they were owned by Maverick.

In 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony to legalize slavery. The law stated that captives taken in war or foreigners who “willingly sell themselves or are sold to us,” as well as anyone sentenced to slavery for a crime they had committed, were all legal.

Slave Ship Interior

This diagram of the Brookes, a British slave ship built in Liverpool in the 1780s, shows how captured Africans were forced to endure the “Middle Passage,” a journey at sea from Africa to the New World, tightly packed below deck in inhumane conditions. Between 1781 and 1785, this ship carried more than 600 enslaved Africans on the “Middle Passage” trip from West Africa to the Caribbean, many of whom died as a result of conditions on board. (Public Domain Image)

The Triangular Trade

The Triangular Trade was a three-part trading route between Britain and Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Initially, only the Portuguese and Spanish engaged in the Transatlantic African slave trade. The large profits to be made soon prompted other European countries, as well as traders from the Americas, to engage in the Triangular Trade.

In the first leg of the triangle, the British and Europeans shipped goods (such as knives, guns, ammunition, cotton cloth, tools, and brass dishes) to Africa, exchanging them for enslaved Africans kidnapped mostly from West Africa.

In the second leg of the triangle, the captured Africans were then transported to the Americas to be exchanged for goods. In this part of the journey, known as the “Middle Passage,” the captured Africans suffered inhumane conditions on board the ships; as a result, an estimated 10 to 30 percent of them died.

In the third and last leg of the triangular journey, goods were transported from the Americas back to Britain and Europe, where the process would start all over again.

Labor for Vital Sea Trade

In the American colonies, coastal towns such as Beverly needed slave labor more than inland farming towns. The Massachusetts slave census of 1754 counted nearly 4,500 people enslaved in the colony.

Many of the enslaved were not resigned to their circumstances. To find out more about the myriad ways they tried to gain their freedom, click below to go to the next section, “Fighting Back.”

This exhibit is supported in part by a grant from the Beverly Cultural Council, a local agency that is supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency. https://massculturalcouncil.org

Title illustration above, “Beverly in 1700,” is a painting by Avis Thomas that was commissioned by Historic Beverly and is in the Historic Beverly collection.