From their earliest days, Cape Codders engaged in the enslavement of human beings. Cape ships and ship captains participated in the “Triangular Trade” which from the late 16th to early 19th centuries carried slaves, cash crops, and manufactured goods between West Africa, the Caribbean, American colonies, and the European colonial powers. This commerce, along with shipping salted codfish to the Caribbean to feed the slaves, helped make New Englanders rich, according to James Coogan in “Slavery and Indentured Servants on Cape Cod,” a talk given on May 20, 2013.
Northern colonists enslaved Native Americans before transitioning to the enslavement of Africans, though the practice never grew in the north as in the south due to the former’s lack of an agricultural demand for workers. Slavery’s development on the Cape was limited by the absence of wealthy landowners with large estates, so that most enslaved persons served as domestics for wealthy, educated residents.
Despite Boston being a hub for the Abolitionist Movement, with William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator one of its influential voices, for Cape Codders slavery was an accepted fact. Provided the enslaved were treated fairly, there was little concern for their plight. Early calls for slavery’s end were opposed by leaders and common folk in many Cape towns. Coogan believes this resulted from a fear of freed slaves flooding the northern mill job market. Also, many sea captains went south in the winter, and southern plantation owners came north in the summer, leading to a cultural racism that made slavery a non-issue.
Initially Cape Cod’s slaves were Native Americans. Tisquantum, or Squanto, who would serve as Wampanoag Sachem Massasoit’s’ go-between with (and possibly spy upon) the Pilgrim settlers, was enslaved as a boy and taken to Spain where monks gave him the education that would serve him later.
However, enslaving Native Americans on Cape Cod was limited when compared to that described in Andres Resendez’s “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America.” The book estimates that from 1492 and 1900, between 147,000 and 340,000 Native people were enslaved by the English, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish in North America. However, it barely mentions its presence in New England.
In addition, Josiah Paine’s “A History of Harwich, Barnstable County, Massachusetts” makes no mention of Native American slaves, though the author does include a brief reference to African or Negro Slavery on the Cape. Henry C. Kittridge’s “Cape Cod: Its People and Their History” devotes a couple of pages to enslavement on the Cape, including that of Native Americans, Africans, and white men.
Stories related to the enslavement of Native Americans on Cape Cod, however, are few. Slavery existed, and surviving records suggest that other than in response to the Pequot War and King Philips War (1636-1638), most were enslaved as payment of debts or punishment for crimes. There are a few reported instances of enslaved Native Americans being sold or inherited.
Enslaving Native Americans was in time replaced by enslaving Africans on the Cape, but little is known about them as well. Paine writes, “Not much is found of record regarding [Negro Slavery] but it is not to be doubted that many people before 1800 had slaves over which they exercised ownership, and which were bought and sold as personal property.” Though there is evidence of early efforts by Cape Codders to end the practice in Massachusetts, anti-slavery activities on the Cape remained limited, most happening in Sandwich due to its Quaker population, and had little result. In 1780 the state Constitution officially ended slavery in the Commonwealth, and in 1783 the state Supreme Court abolished the practice of owning slaves. But it was not until 1788 that selling slaves in Boston was finally stopped and the shipping of African slaves continued into the 1800s.
Raising the Abolitionist banner on Cape Cod was met with resistance from the leadership and people of the towns involved, often stemming from divisions within and between Cape churches over slavery, especially when they (or their members) benefited financially from the practice. However, Coogan said, overall attitudes began to change when Congress passed the Missouri Compromise of 1850 which strengthened the law requiring any fugitive slave to be returned to his or her owner. Bostonians fiercely resisted the Fugitive Slave Act, feelings that were heightened when in 1854 a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns was arrested. Burns' case attracted national publicity, including large demonstrations, protests, attacks, and violence. Federal troops were employed to ensure Burns was transported without interference to a ship headed back to Virginia. Later his freedom was purchased by Boston sympathizers.
Some local anti-slavery sympathy was garnered by the experience of Captain Jonathan Walker of Harwich, a coastal trader who brought fugitive slaves north to freedom on his boat. When he was arrested and punished by having his hand branded in 1844, the people of Harwich gathered in support of his wife and seven children. In time he would become a featured speaker on the Abolition circuit.
Nevertheless, Harwich was no friend of the Abolitionist Movement. An effort to hold an anti-slavery rally in “The Grove” in 1848 ended when the speakers were run out of town for criticizing the pro-slavery position of some Cape churches. Yet in January 1851, a meeting was held in its Union Hall to denounce the Fugitive Slave Law, and in September 1860, the Cape Cod Anti-Slavery Convention met in the Harwich Exchange with over a thousand in attendance. It called for “immediate and unconditional Abolition” while condemning Lincoln, who would soon be elected president, for being “too soft on slavery.”
The Civil War ended this practice. There is no record of how many owners or enslaved persons lived on Cape Cod, and only a few anecdotal stories of slavery remain. But it is clear that Cape Codders were complicit in the enslavement of both Native Americans and Africans.