Book Review

Two histories of slavery, in black and white, in the 18th century

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kenney
March 11, 2008

Mr. and Mrs. Prince How an
Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century
Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend

By Gretchen Holbrook
Gerzina Amistad, 256 pp., illustrated, $24.95

White Cargo The Forgotten History
of Britain's White Slaves in America

By Don Jordan and Michael Walsh
New York University Press,
320 pp., illustrated, $18.95 (paper)

In early June of 1785, Lucy Terry Prince represented herself and her husband before the Vermont Governor's Council seeking protection from a group of men who had been harassing them and destroying their property.

Not only was Mrs. Prince not a lawyer, but she was black, and further, a freed slave.

She won her case, and the selectmen in her town of Guilford were ordered to protect the family and resolve the dispute.

As Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina recounts in "Mr. and Mrs. Prince," this legal victory was one of many striking events in the lives of a family now brought to light from the shadows of county courthouse records and local historical society annals.

Abijah Prince was in his late 40s when, Gerzina writes, he "took his life into his own hands" by joining a militia unit in Deerfield, Mass., on the eve of the French and Indian War. He was then able to make a deal with his new owner to purchase his freedom with savings from his military pay.

With freedom, Prince became a landowner in Northfield, Mass., and the new Vermont communities of Guilford and Sunderland. In time, he secured his wife's freedom, as well as that of their children. He died in 1794 and his wife, Lucy, in 1821.

Gerzina, head of the English Department at Dartmouth College, had assumed that Prince acquired these properties "through the goodness of whites who had known him when he was a slave." But as she and her husband, Anthony Gerzina, pursued the story, "we were discovering that, like his freedom, Bijah got everything he owned through his own ingenuity."

While his story is a unique one, of equal interest is that of the communities of which the Princes were a part.

In Deerfield, in the 1750s, there were some two dozen slaves and free African-Americans. These smaller frontier towns, writes Gerzina, "presented a picture of slavery that went against so much of what we think we know about American slavery."

In them, free blacks could buy property and attend school, while slaves could shop in local stores, and even travel freely, especially on their masters' business. The law, Gerzina writes, "recognized the rights of free blacks, but also upheld the institution of slavery," and slaves could be bought and sold, as Prince himself had been.

At about the same time as Lucy Prince was appearing before the Vermont Governor's Council, a bizarre chapter in the history of slavery in America was being written in England.

The American colonies had long been a place to dump Britain's convicts, a practice that was abruptly ended by the Revolution.

But as British journalists Don Jordan and Michael Walsh report in "White Cargo," even as the peace treaty was being negotiated in the summer of 1783, "an extraordinary plot" was being hatched at the highest levels of the British government "to smuggle convicts into the United States by disguising them as ordinary migrants."

They would be coming as indentured servants, "the deceptively mild label," that had described the hundreds of thousands shipped to the colonies. While some came as "free-willers," having sold the rights to their labors for a period of years, others had been forcibly exiled, and "many were effectively enslaved."

When the war made it impossible to ship convicts to America, many were confined in "prison hulks" moored on the London waterfront. Warnings of a growing health crisis prompted the plot to again transport them to America.

Lord North, the prime minister during the Revolution, was involved in the planning and sought the approval of King George III.

The king's response was almost gleeful. "Undoubtedly," he wrote, "the Americans cannot expect to ever receive any favour from me, but permitting them to obtain men unworthy to remain in this Island I shall certainly consent to."

At least a half-dozen ships with convicts landed in the United States, mainly in Baltimore. Prospective employers funded the trips, but that practice ended as passage to America became increasingly affordable for free emigrants looking for work.

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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