A young scholar pushes the boundaries of history to re-create the life of a slave in Puritan New England.
Historians of the Colonial period give thanks for the remarkable literacy and record-keeping habits of the first New Englanders, but the colonists said little about one aspect of their society: slavery. How then can historians re-create the lives of enslaved Africans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who had no chance to tell their stories themselves?
In the Journal of American History, Wendy Anne Warren, a graduate student at Yale, goes as far as the evidence allows -- and perhaps even a step beyond. In a 10,000-word essay, Warren portrays the life and times of an enslaved woman who was evidently raped near Boston in 1638. The only historical trace of the woman is a brief aside in a travel narrative by an Englishman.
Warren's article, titled "'The Cause of Her Grief': The Rape of a Slave in Early New England," won the Organization of American Historians' top prize for an essay by a graduate student in 2006. Now that it's appearing in print, in the journal's March issue, it's sure to prompt fresh discussion about how historians can best deal with the limitations of their sources.
Warren did not unearth any new documentation regarding the woman, but rather rereads the existing evidence to limn the economic and psychological context of her world -- with an emphasis on how colonists viewed themselves as part of an "Atlantic" colonial project, stretching down to the West Indies, in which slavery was central. When the evidence runs out, she speculates -- unabashedly.
"I liked the fact that Wendy was willing to go out on a limb," says Edward Linenthal, a history professor at Indiana University, editor of the Journal of American History, and also a member of the committee that awarded the prize. Some judges, he said, wondered whether the speculative nature of the piece placed it outside the boundaries of mainstream scholarship, but they finally rewarded Warren's strong voice and, in his words, her "moral excavation of the past."
The incident that caught Warren's attention passes fleetingly in a book called "Two Voyages to New England," published in 1674, 36 years after its author, John Josselyn, visited his fellow Anglican Samuel Maverick at his fortified house on Noddle's Island. (Noddle's Island, formerly 1,000 acres or so of heavily forested land, has since been absorbed into East Boston via landfill.)
On October 9, 1638, at 9 a.m, "Mr Mavericks Negro woman" appeared at Josselyn's window, evidently distressed, "and in her own Countrey language and tune sang very loud and shrill." Upon asking his host what the problem was, Josselyn learned that Maverick "was desirous to have a breed of Negroes," but the woman had refused to have sex with a male slave -- so Maverick had ordered that man to proceed anyway. The slave viewed this as a violation "in high disdain beyond her slavery."
The passage stayed with Warren. "Her individual resistance touches me," she writes. The woman's appeal to a stranger who didn't even speak her language "ensured her life would be remembered," however dimly.
. . .
Interest in recounting and analyzing the details of slavery in New England has spiked in academia in recent years, reversing a period of neglect. (The Massachusetts Historical Society unveiled an online exhibit on the topic at masshist.org, in February.) In history books, New Englanders "are always freeing the slaves," as opposed to actually owning them, wryly observes John Wood Sweet, a professor at the University of North Carolina and author of "Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830" (2003). Yet by 1700, there were more than 1,000 slaves in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
But for individual slaves in the 1600s, the documentary trail is sketchy at best. Maverick, Warren says, arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony around 1623, and inherited Noddle's Island from a business partner in 1628, also marrying the man's wife.
He may have got the idea to buy slaves, Warren suggests, during a yearlong trip in 1635 to buy corn and supplies in Virginia; or from those English business partners; or even from Governor John Winthrop, whose son was one of the first settlers of Barbados, which had a slave-based economy.
"Mr Mavericks Negro woman" arrived in the Massachusetts colony in 1638, on the Salem-based slave ship Desire, which came via Providence Island, an often-overlooked Puritan colony off the coast of Nicaragua, against which the Massachusetts Puritans often measured their own venture.
Because of the small scale of New England businesses and farms, slaves in New England often lived lives closely interwoven with those of their owners. The woman probably lived under Maverick's roof, with his wife and five children, although we don't know what tasks she performed. Pequot Indians, who still wielded power, may have looked down on her; Puritan children may have thrown stones at her in the Boston streets.
It's unclear when or why the idea of breeding slaves occurred to Maverick, nor are details of the forced sex known, so Warren leans heavily on rhetorical questions at this point in the tale. Records show a half-dozen structures on Noddle's Island -- "signs of prosperity for Maverick, and of multiple locations for an attack." When the forced sex occurred, "did it happen at night?" Warren asks. "Did the man or Maverick feel enough shame about their actions to want it done in the dark, hidden?"
"Did the Maverick daughters know what was happening?" For that matter, was the man a villain or a fellow victim? Slaves in the West Indies who were forced to "breed" often aborted fetuses, even resorting to the use of sharp sticks -- did "Mr Mavericks Negro woman" achieve that kind of "bittersweet victory"?
Warren acknowledges that her account may strike some readers as infuriatingly inconclusive. But she counters: "I offer this: We have known for a long time a story of New England's settlement in which 'Mr. Mavericks Negro woman' does not appear; here is one in which she does."
So far, the infuriated readers remain hypothetical. Natalie Davis, a historian at the University of Toronto whose book "The Return of Martin Guerre," about the curious case of a 16th-century French peasant who assumed the identity of another man, also makes creative use of fragmentary evidence, calls it "a splendid essay."
"In the areas where she had collateral evidence, she did a good job," Davis says. "And when she did not, she made that clear. She lived up to good historical practice."
Noddle's Island is gone, but you can get to the site of Maverick's house, more or less, by taking the Blue Line to the Maverick stop. "Go as I did," Warren writes, "on a blustery midweek day in early October -- the same time of year as the attack. Follow Maverick Street from Maverick Square right down to the docks, and look across the harbor to Boston's center, just as a scared African woman must once have done."
Although her owner's name is everywhere, Warren writes, "it is 'Mr. Mavericks Negro woman' who haunts the spot."
Christopher Shea's column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.