The Public Humanist

Traces of the Trade: Massachusetts and the Economics of Slavery

On October 4 and 7, Mass Humanities starts its programming around the documentary, Traces of the Trade, to mark the 200th anniversary of the legislation that abolished the importation of slaves into the United States, as well as outlawed participation in the transportation of slaves, for purposes of selling them, from one place to another outside of the United States.

In fact, both slavery and the slave trade were outlawed in Massachusetts some twenty years earlier. In 1788, "participation in the trade was prohibited, on pain of 50 Pounds Sterling forfeit for every slave and 200 Pounds Sterling for every ship engaged," to quote W.E.B. Dubois (Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. New York: 1896, 33).

And slavery did, indeed, peter out in Massachusetts. Less obvious is the fact that the illegality of foreign slave trade did not slow down, much, the participation of Massachusetts businesses in the economy of slavery in the Atlantic world--even as Massachusetts businesses weren't foremost in the actual trading of slaves.

Nonetheless, on May 22, 1792, the ship Willing Quaker, home port Boston, MA, was noted to have arrived on the coast of Africa--for what purposes I am not completely sure, but its owner, Thomas Handasyd ("Colonel") Perkins was a known slave trader. On March 6, 1806, the ship Mendon, owned by Boston privateer and distiller Mungo Mackay, Jr., was seized while bound for Cuba with 75 slaves from Loango, Congo. The Boston Marine Insurance Company, which did insure some cargoes and ships for the slave-trading Browns of Rhode Island, specifically stressed that it did not insure slave cargoes--too risky--thereby confirming--at least to me--that such cargoes indeed still existed in its world.

But, by the nineteenth century, Massachusetts' main participation in the economy of slavery was of a more indirect nature. Massachusetts is not rich in natural resources on a grand enough scale to build a highly profitable economy. Shipping had become one of the economic mainstays of the state, dried cod one of its most profitable products, and the refining of molasses an important way of creating added value before the industrial revolution. And so, Massachusetts merchants happily plied almost incomprehensibly complex trades, in which "commission merchants" and other traders shipped all sorts of things from here to there and back, importing and exporting and trans-shipping a great variety of items.

The ways of commerce are, as we now are all painfully aware, if not mysterious, perhaps byzantine. Consider this: by 1832, five palm leaf dealers employed "hundreds of women and girls in Barre and in surrounding towns" in the home manufacture of more than 230,000 palm leaf hats (MHC Reconnaissance Town ReportBarre). In fact, women in farming communities all across Massachusetts and New Hampshire were making palm leaf hats during the 1830s and surrounding decades (Women, Enterprise, and Society).

I have but three questions: Whence the palm leaves? Whither the hats? And, finally: why were hundreds of Massachusetts farm women making hundreds of thousands of palm leaf hats?

Molasses, sugar, palm leaves, and cotton. Tea, coffee, rum. All of these were staples of eighteenth and nineteenth-century New England life. None of them were produced in New England, and obtaining all of them involved some practices we would now find morally objectionable, to say the least. Plantation slavery, for instance, or opium trading. With our programming, we will attempt to start addressing some of the questions surrounding these bits of economic history.

Some people ask, why point the finger at people in the past--they lived in their world, they made decisions that were fine on their moral compass. Take those hat-braiding women all across Massachusetts, for instance, they surely were in pretty dire need of cash rather than rich, exploiting slave-owners. And did they even know the destination of these palm leaf hats? I respond to that by pointing out that we don't know much about their moral compass until we study the past--that we can learn a lot about what we feel is right and wrong by studying the decisions of people in the past.

Traces of the Trade: Massachusetts and the Economy of Slavery--screenings, tours, and discussions in Sheffield, Boston, Whitinsville, Lowell, Salem, and New Bedford--is organized on the premise that we can't answer, or perhaps even formulate or address, the difficult moral questions surrounding the history of slavery until we know more about the history of Massachusetts involvement in the economy of slavery.

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