Book Review: New England Bound

Wendy Warren’s “New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America” highlights the necessary relationship of the slave trade between the New England colonies and the West Indies, and focuses the vast research available from the time period with precise aim at the symbiotic nature between the institution of slavery and the prosperity of Colonial New England. By critically examining primary sources, diving deeply into the nature of the relationship between the slave trade and the growing wealth of many New England merchants, Warren is able to create the scope of the slave trade in the early American colonies and highlight the relationship between slaves and New England wealth in a way that has not previously been connected, examined or explored.  She goes further with her thesis than even establishing that symbiosis, however, to implicitly state that the social and economic life of the New England colonies rested on upon a foundation of institutionalized chattel slavery.[1]

Although ambitious in both scope and material, Warren’s relatively brief work takes a thorough look at the formation, practice and growth of industrialized slavery in the colonies of New England, and her precise and supported interpretations of sources highlighted connections that are often overlooked between economic growth, trade and slavery, indicating and demonstrably showing that the former could not have experienced such conclusive growth without the later.  Her early chapters draw on the early beginnings of slavery within New England as settlers began flocking to a new world, with the first mention of African slaves occurring in 1638.[2]  Although common to associate slavery in America with the Antebellum South, to do so does a great disservice to the entry of the institution very early in American history.  According to Warren, the common and acceptable practice of slavery in New England almost from the beginning of colonization is a critical piece to understanding the growth of slavery in the country as a whole, and the particular practice of slavery in the pious and prosperous Northeast.[3]  Very early in New England history, the colonies were indisputably tied to other English holdings – especially in the Indies – where slavery was not only a normal part of society, but a critical feature of it.[4]  Founding colonies was labor-intensive work, and while colonists made several attempts to meet this demand through either indentured servitude or through the enslavement of Native Americans, neither of these enterprises were as sufficient or profitable as imported, African slaves.[5]  Since Puritan society rested upon the idea of a social hierarchy, equality was not a necessary or doctrinally sound idea, and slavery did not contradict the religious beliefs of the early colonists.[6]

Although plantation-style slavery never developed in Colonial New England as it did in the American south, it was common in industries in the West Indies, one of the chief trading partners with the early colonies.  New England was able to trade food to the Indies – in many cases “racializing” food and exporting goods that were not fit for European consumption but was more than sufficient for slaves – and received cash crops like sugar and tobacco that could not be grown in the New England soil.[7] The establishment of this trade relationship cemented the need for slave labor in the colonies, and formed the basis for the institution of slavery in New England, lasting past the revolutionary war.[8]

Warren also points out that, by necessity, the experience of slavery in New England was much different than what could be expected either in the south or in the West Indies.  Slaves in the Northeastern colonies were very much a part of the daily lives of their masters, often working side by side and inside the household instead of segregated to back-breaking plantation work and separated from their white masters.[9]  Although proximity and access differed from that of other places and slaves were thereby members of their master’s household, it would be a mistake to think that it meant they were members of the family.[10]  Slaves were set apart socially and culturally, and many prolific writers of the New England colonies like Cotton Mather maintained that control over slaves was necessary and obedience must be demanded.[11]  Slavery reached its peak in New England around 1750, and then began to decline with revolutionary ideology and a growing abolitionist movement.[12]

While Warren’s thesis and supporting sources are sound, the vast scope of the often-overlooked aspect of New England’s history make it difficult to explore in its entirety without taking licenses to gloss over aspects that should be more thoroughly examined, and the jump from chapter to chapter, while connected, feels like moving from one book to the next.  The book’s theme is cohesive, but individual chapters are less-so, and the layout could have been made more acceptable for the lay-reader who is less than familiar with the topic.  While breaks in chapters make sense in the context of the chapter itself, they make less sense with the scope of the work overall, and make the reading seem choppy instead of smooth-flowing from one overarching focus to the next.  A thorough look at all of the themes in this book would require an encyclopedia’s worth of pages, so an in-depth approach to any one of this books’ many tributaries would be impossible to convey in a single work, making the choppiness more understandable.  The abrupt beginnings and endings, however, seem to alienate the reader from the topic which is a critical mistake for a book that focuses on something so fundamental important to the understanding of American history and the institution of slavery in the United States overall.  Legislative matters and interpersonal relationships could have been better served interspersed throughout a more cohesive, over-arching progression through events rather than be given their own respective chapters, and the timeline throughout the work is not consistent.  The reader, therefore, is forced to go back and forth between multiple chapters that all rest on the same decade, attempting to piece together chronological events.  The book could have been better off as a chronological progression from the origins of the New England colonies through the revolution, with all aspects of slavery discussed in their particular space, rather than disjointed into multiple chapters for the same period of years based on the chapter’s particular theme.

Although structurally and chronologically the book falls short of its potential, the content within it is more than adequate to paint a clear picture of early American history and put institutionalized slavery in the North Eastern colonies in its rightful place of prominence.  By highlighting just how essential slavery was for economic success in Colonial New England and hinting towards the abolitionist sentiments already on the horizon by the early to mid-18th century, Warren leaves room for growth in future works while setting the stage for a comprehensive view on slavery’s symbiotic relationship with the colonies’ economic success.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Warren, Wendy. New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016.

[1] Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), 1-16.

[2] Ibid, 17-49.

[3] Warren, 17-49.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 49-82.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 84-97.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 259.

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