Early on in Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North, C.S. Manegold’s intimate and sobering account of slavery’s hold on New England, we encounter Samuel Maverick, master of Noddles Island in Boston Harbor.
In the autumn of 1638, while visiting Maverick, Englishman John Josselyn was startled to find a black woman at his bedroom window. She entreated him in her native language and so impressed Josselyn with her urgency that he asked Maverick about her.
Oh, the master said, as Josselyn recounted in his 1674 travelogue, there were plans for the woman, formerly an African queen. Maverick was “desirous to have a breed of Negroes,” Josselyn wrote, “and therefore seeing she would not yield by persuasions to company with a Negro young man he had in his house; he commanded him will’d she nill’d she to go to bed to her, which was no sooner done than she kicked him out again, this she took in high disdain beyond her slavery, and this was the cause of her grief.”
Boston had, only a few months before, received its first batch of African captives for sale on the docks — brought to these shores in the hold of the ship Desire. Already the rapes were plotted and designed for profit.
Manegold, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, has taken on one of the most persistent American myths: that slavery was a negligible institution north of the Mason-Dixon Line and that whatever slavery there was in the North was of a much milder variety than the slavery of the South.
What happened to the defiled African queen and the young man after the enforced rape, we do not know. The written record is silent. We know only that slavery had arrived and that “like a poisonous snake gliding off a river rock, it laid its curse without much trace,” in the author’s chilling and apt metaphor.
To tell this story, Manegold has chosen to focus on a piece of ground, 600 fertile acres along the Mystic River claimed by John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, the man who envisioned the colony and the Puritan destiny as a “city upon a hill.” From this mount, Winthrop began the descent into slavery’s corruptions with a few Indians seized in war. His descendants continued that tradition and began to acquire Africans traded legally like hogs in Boston — or smuggled illicitly into the 17th century colony.
The farm eventually was sold and new owners deepened involvement with slaves, climaxing in the spectacular entanglements of Isaac Royall Jr., owner of vast sugar plantations in Antigua, master of hundreds of slaves, beneficiary of immense wealth built on the enslavement and forced toil of kidnapped Africans.
The cash thrown off by the slave trade enriched not only the Royall family. Harvard University shared in the lucre. Slave money founded the Harvard Law School and endowed a professorship of law. In fact, Barack Obama lived on the edge of Ten Hills Farm when he attended Harvard Law.
America is a land of bitter ironies.
Even though the percentage of slaves in New England never rose much beyond three percent in the 17th and 18th centuries, the institution of slavery was absolutely essential to economic development, Manegold makes clear. The trade was everything, as historian Barbara Solow has noted: “What moved in the Atlantic in those centuries was predominantly slaves, the output of slaves, the inputs to slave societies, and the goods and services purchased with the earnings on slave products.”
There was no escape from this poisonous snake. Not that any of Manegold’s dreary cast of white characters sought escape. Certainly not the dour and humorless Winthrops. Or the grasping Ushers and Royalls and their kin who followed them as lords and ladies of Ten Hills Farm.
The farm, vividly described, serves as a synecdoche, a part that stands in for the whole — the whole of Boston and New England, the whole of the North, the whole of the supposedly New World. And there can be no mistake that slavery and its shadow, falling now into the 21st century, still hold tremendous potency in the public consciousness. Philadelphia has seen nine years of contention over how to acknowledge George Washington’s enslaved Africans held in bondage at the nation’s first executive mansion, the President’s House.
(The extent of the local Philadelphia involvement in slave dealing is slowly coming to light as well, most recently with the cataloging of the voluminous Chew family papers, which contain a hair-raising and casual experience with slavery and the trade.)
Manegold tells this story with fluency and narrative energy. Her prose is elegant, although occasionally it skirts anachronism: “this was a time of alpha men” distracts rather than illuminates when applied to the early 18th century.
That’s a quibble. Manegold, who has delved deeply and resourcefully into historical records in this country and Antigua, makes vivid what has not so much been forgotten as suppressed. No easy task.