Slavery in the Age of Reason - Archaeology at a New England Farm

Article excerpt

Slavery in the Age of Reason - Archaeology at a New England Farm. By Alexandra A Chan. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007. 284 pages. $48.00 (hardcover).

It is one of great puzzles of New England's historiography: why the collective scholarship of many generations of fine scholars has created a literature on colonial African slavery which remains, in the twenty-first century, still so desperately thin?

It was in 1638 after all, just eight years after the arrival of the Arbella, that New England's first black slaves disembarked in Boston, and it was Massachusetts that was the first British North American colony to legally sanction human bondage. While the number of slaves was low by the standard of the middle colonies, let alone the South or the Caribbean, it was still considerable. A 1754 census recorded 2,700 slaves spread across Massachusetts, of whom nearly one thousand resided in Boston, representing one in fifteen of the adult population.

And yet, histories of eighteenth-century Boston, home to Crispus Attucks and Phyllis Wheatley, a lynchpin of the triangular trade, remain unexpectedly and almost uniformly quiet on the experience of its African-American population. In part, the silence reflects the difficulty of reconstituting the lives of men, women and children whose very status was designed to constrain human agency and identity, but that alone is an insufficient explanation. The absence reflects, perhaps more, the questions that historians have chosen to ask of their sources, for, as Alexandra Chan demonstrates in her unique and very welcome contribution to our collective knowledge, in colonial newspapers, legislation, court records, private correspondence and memoirs, the subject of black slavery was in constant discourse.

In a beautifully written work of considerable ambition, intense curiosity and admirable inter-disciplinarity, Chan travels a lonely path first cleared by Lorenzo Greene, Robert Twombly and William Pierson, and in doing so contributes a significant addition to the literature on slavery in pre-revolutionary New England. Chan's subject is the Massachusetts estate of Isaac Royall (1677-1739) and his eponymous son (1719-81), full members of the Anglo-American New England elite, occupying positions of political, economic, social and cultural power in the generation before Independence. The Royall family arrived in New England from an Antigua sugar plantation abandoned amid rebellion plots that cost the lives of 77 slaves, burnt at the stake, including their own slave driver, Hector. They purchased a 500-acre Medford estate in 1737, which was so rapidly developed it was valued at £40,000 in 1739, making Isaac Royall Sr, one of New England's wealthiest men. Over the next thirty-five years, the Royalls became a fixture of the colonial gentry and the largest slaveowning family in Massachusetts.

Chan's work is primarily one of historical archaeology and draws heavily on 1999-2001 excavations, which she led, of sections of the remaining acre of land on which the Royall house, and its slave quarters, still stands. Self-consciously an historical archaeologist who "spends as much time in the archives as the dirt," Chan undertakes a thorough examination of historical records, as well as drawing heavily on insights from ethnography and cultural studies.

Positioning the Royalls as members of a community increasingly defined by shared patterns of distinctive consumption and display, Chan looks to the archaeological record to cast fresh light on the visual representations of elite authority, encapsulated in ceramics, glassware and other material culture, which the Royall family assiduously fostered. Chan's empathy and interest, however, lies outside the Royalls' parlour. Her prime interest is in the reconstruction of the slave experience of life on the estate. …