Slavery in New England and at Harvard
Harvard University’s early history is inseparable from that of colonial New England and, thus, from the system of slavery. Harvard was important to the region’s politics, society, and economy, and as slavery formed the basis of New England’s economic life, so it shaped Harvard.Go to footnote 94 detail
Leading historians agree that the colonial economy thrived based on “an economic alliance with the sugar islands of the West Indies.”Go to footnote 95 detail This trade involved the provision of food, fuel, and lumber produced in New England to plantations of the Caribbean, where those goods were exchanged for tobacco, coffee, and sugar produced by enslaved Africans—or for enslaved people themselves.Go to footnote 96 detail “This effectively made Boston a slave society,” according to one historian, “but one where most of the enslaved toiled elsewhere, sustaining the illusion of Boston in New England as an inclusive republic devoted to the common good.”Go to footnote 97 detail Yet slavery was not absent from New England.
By 1700, New Englanders had made at least 19 voyages to Africa and then to the West Indies, the chief route of the slave trade, as well as many more voyages between Massachusetts Bay and the Caribbean.Go to footnote 98 detail The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Body of Liberties, written in 1641, made slavery and the slave trade lawful. The first legal code governing slavery in British North America, it prohibited “bond-slavery,” “unless it be of lawfull captives, taken in just warrs, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are solde to us,” leading one historian to note, “the word ‘unless’ has seldom carried more baggage.”Go to footnote 99 detail Even as it paid homage to the Magna Carta, the Body of Liberties permitted the buying, selling, and trading of Indigenous people and Africans. Slavery would not officially end in Massachusetts until 1783.
Indigenous Slavery and African Slavery
Slavery in New England began when early colonists enslaved and sold Indigenous people while dispossessing these Native peoples of the land on which they had lived for generations.Go to footnote 100 detail
In 1636, the year Harvard was founded, merchants at Marblehead built and rigged a ship, 120 tons and very fast, called Desire. That summer, the Desire set sail carrying 17 Pequot War prisoners who were to be sold as slaves in Bermuda on the instructions of John Winthrop.Go to footnote 101 detail A towering figure in early colonial history who served several terms as Governor and Lieutenant Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop was a member of the original “Comittee as to ye colledg at New Toune”—that is, Harvard.Go to footnote 102 detail Winthrop himself enslaved the wife of a Pequot sachem and her two children in what he seems to have regarded as an act of Christian benevolence, reciprocity for her protection of two captured English girls during the conflict.Go to footnote 103 detail
Two years later, on February 26, 1638, the Desire returned to Boston Harbor carrying cotton, tobacco, salt, and an unspecified number of enslaved Africans who had been purchased on Providence Island. The Desire was among the first American slave ships.Go to footnote 104 detail It is possible that the man known to us only as “The Moor”—who was enslaved by Harvard’s first schoolmaster, Nathaniel Eaton, and in that capacity served Harvard’s earliest students—arrived in New England aboard the Desire.Go to footnote 105 detail
Not long after, in the early 1640s, a Bermuda minister named Patrick Copeland, grateful for Winthrop’s “remembrance of us in sending 12 New England Indians to us,” began recruiting the children of wealthy Caribbean plantation owners to attend Harvard.Go to footnote 106 detail As one historian has noted, “education, like the flag, follows trade”—and many sons of West Indian planters indeed followed trade to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Harvard.Go to footnote 107 detail
Harvard also benefited from land grants by the General Court (the colonial legislature) in 1653:
For the incouragement of Harvard Colledge and the society thereof, and for the more comfortable maintenance and provicon for the psident, ffellowes, and students thereof in time to come, this Court doth graunt unto the said society and corporation, for the ends aforesaid, two thousand acres of land wthin this jurisdiccion, not formerly graunted to any other, to be taken up in two or three places, where it may be found convenient; and to this end it is desired that the said corporation of the college doe appoint some persons in theire behalfe to finde out the places where such land may be freely taken, and to make retourne as soone as they may, that the Court may more pticcularly and expressly confirme the same.Go to footnote 108 detail
The Harvard treasurer Thomas Danforth personally selected four tracts in Rhode Island and Connecticut, territory from which the Pequot had been driven.Go to footnote 109 detail
One aspect of the original mission of Harvard College was to educate (and convert) Native students alongside white classmates.Go to footnote 110 detail In the 1640s, the fledgling Colony was in the throes of an economic crisis, and the College was on the edge of collapse: Christianizing Indigenous people opened up vital new avenues of financial support. Devoted Puritans in England lined up to support the mission, and Parliament opened its coffers to aid the colonization effort by “civilizing” Natives.Go to footnote 111 detail The Charter of 1650, which has governed Harvard with few interruptions for more than 350 years, committed the institution to “the education of the English and Indian youth.”Go to footnote 112 detail The Indian College building—Harvard’s first made of brick—was constructed in 1655. Ultimately, however, Harvard enrolled only five Native students in this era, and only Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck (AB 1665) received a degree during his lifetime.Go to footnote 113 detail (Joel Iacoombs also completed the requirements of the AB degree but died in 1665 before he formally graduated. Harvard University posthumously presented Iacoombs’s degree to the Wampanoag community in 2011.Go to footnote 114 detail) By 1670, the Indian College building had been given over to the College’s printing press, and in 1690, it was dismantled, and its bricks were used to construct a new building for the use of white scholars.Go to footnote 115 detail
As the colony grew, slavery—now primarily, but not exclusively, African slavery—remained central. In the colonial era, the system that W. E. B. Du Bois would eloquently describe more than two centuries later was just beginning to take shape:
The giant forces of water and steam were harnessed to do the world’s work, and the black workers of America bent at the bottom of a growing pyramid of commerce and industry; and they not only could not be spared, if this new economic organization was to expand, but rather they became the cause of new political demands and alignments, of new dreams of power and visions of empire… Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale; new cities were built on the results of black labor.Go to footnote 116 detail
The number of enslaved women, men, and children in Massachusetts, itself a small colony of some 33,000 inhabitants according to a 1675 census,Go to footnote 117 detail remained relatively low until the end of the 17th century, and enslaved people formed part of a larger world of unfree labor that also included indentured white servants.Go to footnote 118 detail In 1676, colonial administrator Edmund Randolph wrote that there were “not above 200 slaves in the colony, and those are brought from Guinea and Madagascar.”Go to footnote 119 detail Four years later, Governor Simon Bradstreet told the Lords of the Committee for Trade and Foreign Plantations that “there are a very few blacks borne here, I think not above [five] or six at the most in a year.”Go to footnote 120 detail Unlike white indentured servants, who eventually left their unfree status behind, these enslaved Africans faced lifetimes of uncompensated labor, both for themselves and for their descendants.
The enslaved population of Massachusetts rose quickly after the British Parliament’s revocation of the Royal African Company’s monopoly on English trade with Africa in 1696.Go to footnote 121 detail It was also at this time that some New Englanders “began to rebel against the growth of actual slavery on New England soil.”Go to footnote 122 detail
Antislavery sentiment was not, however, at the root of resistance in this period.Go to footnote 123 detail Rather, limited opposition to slavery grew largely out of a concern about the growing presence of Black people and the effect that would have on society, fears that had gained salience in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1677. These concerns culminated in the passage in 1705 of an act “for the Better Preventing of a Spurious and Mixt Issue,” which put a prohibitive £4 tax on all slaves imported.Go to footnote 124 detail The colonial legislature also adopted other measures designed to maintain the racial balance, such as the 1709 “Act to Encourage the Importation of White Servants,” which promised payment of forty shillings per white male servant imported into the colony and extended the 1705 import tax to include enslaved Native Americans.Go to footnote 125 detail Despite such efforts, the number of enslaved people in the Massachusetts Bay Colony rose to 550 by 1708, and in 1720, Governor Samuel Shute wrote that “With respect to slaves either Negros or Indians (but most Negroes) they may be computed at about Two Thousand” alongside an English population of 94,000.Go to footnote 126 detail By the middle of the 18th century, enslaved Black people constituted the main source of bound labor in Massachusetts, outnumbering indentured servants, apprentices, and Indigenous workers.Go to footnote 127 detail
Slavery at Harvard
The steward was a prominent role in the early years of the College, one that commanded respect and status.Go to footnote 131 detail Stewards were responsible for feeding the scholars on campus, along with collecting student fees, overseeing staff engaged in student services, and paying many of the College’s bills. They also provided lavish feasts for the annual Commencement celebrations. From Harvard’s founding, in 1636, through the beginning of the American Revolution, only 10 men—5 from the same family—held the position.Go to footnote 132 detail Of these 10, at least 3 owned enslaved people whose labor maintained the Harvard campus and sustained Harvard students.Go to footnote 133 detail
Among the Harvard stewards who owned enslaved people, Andrew Bordman (II), steward from 1703 to 1747, stands out for having enslaved at least eight individuals. The documentation of his slaveholding is also characteristic of the period’s sparse records, but the picture becomes clear when the evidence is viewed as a whole: First, a deed of sale shows that Bordman paid £40 to buy a man named Cuffe and that his brother-in-law, future Harvard President Benjamin Wadsworth, witnessed the purchase.Go to footnote 134 detail Separately, in the steward’s notebook, Bordman recorded the names of four children born to a woman named Rose: Flora, Jeffrey, Cesar, and Jane, an enslaved woman who died at the age of 22.Go to footnote 736 detail
Jane’s tombstone still stands in the Old Burying Ground near Harvard Yard, inscribed “Jane a Negro Servant of Andrew Bordman,”Go to footnote 135 detail and it is adjacent to a similar memorial of Cicely, a black woman enslaved by the Harvard tutor, fellow, and treasurer William Brattle.Go to footnote 136 detail We know that Rose and her other children were also enslaved because according to Massachusetts law at this time, children inherited the status of their mothers: if Jane was enslaved, then so too were her mother and siblings.Go to footnote 137 detail Two additional people enslaved by Andrew Bordman and his widow, Elizabeth Bordman, appear in extant records: Lucy, “Indian servant of Mr. Bordman,” was baptized in 1740.Go to footnote 138 detail Peter, “negro man servant of Mrs. Elizabeth Bordman,” married a woman enslaved in Charlestown in 1758.Go to footnote 139 detail We cannot know whether the Bordman family owned all eight of these people at the same time. But if Andrew Bordman owned even Rose and her four children all at once, this would have made him one of the largest slaveholders in the colony; in the only surviving tax assessment for the town of Cambridge during this period, from 1749, the largest number of enslaved people recorded in a single household was four.Go to footnote 140 detail Such was Bordman’s reliance on enslaved labor to feed Harvard’s students and fulfill his duties as steward.
On a single page of his 1759 Ames Almanack, Winthrop notes the death of his enslaved “negro man George.”
13 may, a few minutes before one in y morng [abt hi watr], our poor George died of a hectic, wch he was thrown into by y measles; havg never been well since he had yt distemp. He was aged 24 years & one day.Go to footnote 143 detail
Further down the same page Winthrop recorded that he procured a replacement:
had a new negro boy, wm I call Scipio. He now measures 3 feet & 11 inches, wtht shoes. By comparg his ht wth yt of our boys, I jdg him to be 8 ½ y old.Go to footnote 144 detail
It is unclear when Winthrop acquired this boy; not all of his notes are dated. In a subsequent note, this one dated February 6, 1761, Winthrop provides additional information about his own son’s age and height, the basis for his estimate of Scipio’s eight and a half years.Go to footnote 737 detail
The fact of Winthrop’s slaveholding is not new; it is noted in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, a compendium of biographical sketches of colonial-era Harvard alumni. But the story, as told in Sibley’s, is sympathetic. The passage on George’s death reads: “When [Winthrop’s] own slave boy, George, died of the measles, he was mourned as one of the family, not as an unfortunate investment.” As for Scipio, Sibley’s reports he “was watched over like the white children of the family.”Go to footnote 145 detail The truth, however, is that Scipio and George were undoubtedly purchased to labor for the Winthrops without compensation.
In 1773, a decade or so after Winthrop purchased Scipio and several years before the official end of slavery in the Commonwealth, human bondage captivated an audience at Harvard’s Commencement ceremony. Two candidates for the bachelor’s degree, Eliphalet Pearson and Theodore Parsons, participated in a public debate concerning the legality of slavery. Parsons, then 21 years old, took the antislavery position:
To me, I confess, it is a matter of painful astonishment… that those who are so readily disposed to urge the principles of natural equality in defence of their own Liberties should, with so little reluctance, continue to exert a power by the operation of which they are so flagrantly contradicted. For what less can be said of that exercise of power, whereby such multitudes of our fellow-men, descendants, my friend from the same common parent with you and me, and between whom and us nature has made no distinction, save what arises from the stronger influence of the sun in the climate whence they originated, are held to groan under the insupportable burden of the most abject slavery.Go to footnote 146 detail
Defending slavery, Pearson called for the abandonment of “tender sentiment” and a calm return to “the voice of reason.” Although he conceded “[t]hat Liberty to all is sweet” he went on to argue that slavery was a benefit to Africans, who had in his view been rescued by slavers: characterizing life in Africa as “an entire subjection to the tyrannizing power of lust and passion,” Pearson implored the audience, “reflect, I say, a moment upon the condition of a creature in human shape (for in such a state of degradation one can hardly call him a man), the misery, the wretchedness … and compare it with the condition of a slave in this country.” He concluded, the slaves’ “removal [from Africa] is to be esteemed a favor.”Go to footnote 147 detail
Slavery was not an abstraction to either man, nor to the other students and faculty at Harvard. Slavery had, by this time, long been a fact of everyday life in Massachusetts. Parsons’s impassioned argument against the institution was about more than overheard tales of abject brutality in the sugarcane fields of the Caribbean, to which New England was economically tied. His father, Reverend Moses Parsons, owned two men and a woman named Violet. Parsons’s son later recalled: “When it was generally believed that slavery was unlawful in Massachusetts, [the Reverend] summoned his slaves into his sitting-room, and there, in the presence of his children, declared to them that they were free. The men accepted the gift, or rather the declaration, for gift it was not.Go to footnote 148 detail Yet Violet, who would have been about eight years older than Parsons, roughly as old as his eldest brother, stayed with the Parsons family until her death at the age of ninety, and is now buried in the Parsons family tomb in Byfield, Massachusetts. John Thornton Kirkland, president of Harvard University, officiated her funeral.Go to footnote 149 detail
Theodore Parsons became a doctor. Six years after his graduation from Harvard College, at age 28, he shipped aboard the warship Bennington as its surgeon. He disappeared at sea a few days later, and his body was never found.Go to footnote 150 detail Eliphalet Pearson became Harvard’s Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages in 1786 and served as president of the University from 1804 to 1806. He died in 1826.Go to footnote 151 detail