book report: Ten Hills Farm by C. S. Manegold 2010
A couple years ago, reporters from the Hartford Courant published a book on slavery in Connecticut called Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery and in my immature self-righteous belief that the North did little compared to the South, I refused to read it. I figured it was a white, liberal self-flagellation. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and I encountered the book this report focuses on, Ten Hills Farm, The forgotten history of slavery in the North by C. S. Manegold. This time I was ready to learn. And I did. Ms. Manegold smacks my northern arrogance around. She confronts it directly.
This matter of station has consistently and perhaps conveniently been confused with ideas about the supposedly "gentle" culture of slavery as it evolved in the North. Yet that assumption breaks down with even the scantiest analysis. The great shibboleth of northern slavery is that it was somehow "benign," softer than its southern cousin, even vaguely "familial" in some way, as though all could gather happily around a kitchen table, a master at the head. Yet the reality for these slaves could not hae been more at odds with that fine fantasy. For them, the most fundamental truth was this: Whites who ruled their lives at Ten Hills Farm and in the big houses along Brattle Street were, in many case, the very same men and women who had ruled their livers on warmer shores. p.180
There is nothing gentle and familial about the ownership of humans. Even worse was it was ongoing from nearly the founding of the colony of Massachusetts. At first Governor Winthrop, founder of Ten Hills Farm in modern day Medford, Mass. owned native american slaves. The third owner of the property, Isaac Royall owned at least 40, if not 80, in the colonies, and perhaps as many in the Caribbean climate, growing sugar cane and making rum to enlarge his fortunes. The somewhat religiously devout citizens of Boston tolerated or owned slaves.
By 1700, there were more than four hundred slaves counted in the colony. Thirty-five years later, when the Mastre bought Ten Hills Farm, the number was six times as great, and the total would continue growing. In 1754, when Massachusetts officials made their first formal tally of black slaves, 4,489 were included in the count. The second census, completed in 1765, showed the number growing still - up by more than one thousand to a total of 5,779 black men, women, and children without freedom. p.181She lists numerous examples of black slave families being separated to satisfy the financial whims of their white owners. Slaves were also executed for things or whipped or beaten without any recourse.
Around the time of the Revolutionary War, when white americans were declaring they refused to be slaves of England, the hypocrisy was getting harder to ignore. Even some whites were brave enough to be counter cultural and advocate for the abolition of slavery.
In A Disuasion to Great Britain, [James] Swan, cited the bible to underscore his point. Dueteronomy 15:13-14 required that slaves go free after a term of seven years, the colonial essayist reminded readers. Nor should those former slaves be sent off empty-handed. "Thou shalt furnish him out of thy flock ... and out of the floor, and out of thy wine press; of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee, though shalt give him. This is in token that thou dost acknowledge the benefit thou hast received by his labors." That argument failed, too. Slavery kept its grip, for now, at least. pp. 210-1It was a religious region, but as is typical, religion was not allowed to interfere with commerce and personal pleasure. Considering the amount of drinking and gambling this upper class indulged in, I'm sure they molded their religion to their lives, instead submitting to their religion. Treating fellow humans as neighbors instead of means to ends has been our difficulty since the beginning of time, see Cain and Abel. To this day we may tsk-tsk these hypocritical religious slave owners, but make every excuse for our tolerance for the murders of babies in wombs. Over and over again, as I read the history of our inhumanity to each other, I think of the phrase, "the veneer of civilization is very thin," from Iris Chang in her book the Rape of Nanking. I think we white wash our histories because we want to believe that someone in our past was noble. Reading history always helps to silence that notion.
Manegold writes well. She's read some of the books I have reported on here before. And she also points me to new ones for me to learn from, including the one about slavery in Connecticut. I think I am ready for the death of my notion that my state was innocent.