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For sale in 1654: two Irish boys.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick

COLUMN: ALBERT B. SOUTHWICK

Diane Rapaport, a lawyer for several years before she became so enthralled by Colonial Massachusetts court records that she gave up her law career to spend full time in the archives, has written many articles about the vagaries of New England life in the 1600s. She has spent uncounted hundreds of hours poring over ancient documents, patiently deciphering the puzzling calligraphy of the 17th century. Two years ago, she published a collection called "The Naked Quaker - True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England." It is fascinating stuff.

First, it is a stark reminder of the passionate, brutal nature of that society of long ago. We can hardly imagine what daily life was like then - not only the daily challenges of nature, but the system that enforced the law by means of whippings "on the bare skin" until the blood flowed, branding with a hot iron, public humiliation in the stocks and pillory, and sale into slavery.

Slavery and its close cousin, indentured servitude, were accepted conditions in New England and the other colonies in the 17th century. Slaves and servants were both bought and sold on the open market. The difference was that slavery usually was permanent. Indentured servitude was supposed to have a time limit. That became an issue with Philip Welch and William Downing, two Irish immigrants.

Downing and Welch had been kidnapped by shipmaster George Dell, brought to Boston in 1654, and sold to Samuel Symonds, a magistrate and judge. Downing was about 11, Welch 14. Indenture usually was set at five to seven years, but because of their youth, Mr. Dell signed over William to nine years and Philip for 11.

The two toiled away on Judge Symonds' Ipswich farm for the next seven years. But then, in act of remarkable rebellion, they said they would work for him no longer and demanded their freedom. The outraged judge had them arrested and brought to trial. Testimony from other Irish witnesses described how English soldiers stole Irish lads from their beds at night and sold them into servitude. The jurors on the county court in Salem sympathized with the lads and said they should go free "unless the contract between Captain Dell and Judge Symonds was legal." That issue was resolved by a panel of four judges - including Judge Symonds. They found that the contract was legal. Judge Symonds argued that if the panel found otherwise, it would threaten "the Bargains of so many others in the Country." Plenty of landowners then had indentured servants. After the Battle of Worcester in 1651, where Oliver Cromwell's army defeated the Scots, dozens and perhaps hundreds of Scottish prisoners were packed off to the New World as indentured servants. That sort of forced labor was part of the system.

So was slavery. My great-great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Earle of Leicester, owned a slave named Sharp. I like to think that Sharp was treated kindly. At any rate, Mr. Earle in his will gave Sharp his freedom and also some property on the eastern side of Asnebumskit Hill in Paxton.

Ms. Rapaport recounts a number of slave narratives, including the case of Silvanus Warro. In 1672, he was convicted of stealing money from his master and of fathering a child with a white woman. The Boston court ordered that he be given 20 lashes on his bare skin and ordered him to pay 20 pounds plus child support of "two shillings six pence per week." Warro, penniless, was soon back in jail for failing to pay up.

The Warro case has interest for Worcester, for his first master was Daniel Gookin. Mr. Gookin was instrumental in getting the first Worcester settlement established in 1685. He also worked with John Eliot to convert the Indians. He had purchased Silvanus Warro in Maryland 30 years previously and apparently remained concerned for the slave's fate, although he had sold him several years previously. He argued that Warro had earned his freedom and prepared a petition, asserting that "if any have right to him tis myself who bred him from a child." But the court ruled otherwise and Warro remained someone else's slave for the rest of his life.

Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, but the indentured servant system lived on. For many thousands of poverty-stricken Europeans, it was the only way they could pay for passage to the New World.

Life in 17th century New England was, in Hobbes' famous phrase, "nasty, brutish and short." As Ms. Rapaport shows, it was also sometimes bizarre - a place where a church meeting in Newbury was disrupted by a Quaker woman without a stitch of clothing on, and where the president of Harvard College was fired for endorsing the Baptist idea of adult baptism rather than infant baptism. It seems somewhat miraculous that such a society could evolve into one dedicated to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But it did.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 18, 2010
Words:836
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