As the authors of NEQ’s March 2014 issue explore the workings of power across racial and cultural divides in colonial America, “dynamic” is a word that pops off the page. Jacqueline Henkel opens her essay with a compelling set piece: in the fall of 1652, Monequassun delivers his conversion narrative to a group of Puritan dignitaries. Time and again, he notes, his resistance has given way to compliance: he reluctantly leaves his home to reside in the praying town of Natick; he accepts the Christian message he originally rejected; he overcomes his anxieties about learning how to read to become the town’s schoolmaster; and in a particularly painful act of capitulation, he cuts his hair. The authenticity of the confession is problematic for historians, as indeed it was for contemporaries: adapted to English norms, it is derivative, and included as it was in John Eliot’s Tracts, it was translated and shaped by parties eager to use it to rally English support for New World Indian missions. Henkel proposes subtle and sophisticated ways to tease out meaning from the tension “between genre and voice, between a rhetoric of authenticity and the personal and historical detail,” as well as between “orality (as authentically immediate and truth revealing) and written discourse (as transparent and official).”
The texts Kelly Chaves investigates are merchant account books. Taking a long view (1672–1740) of indigenous participation in Nantucket’s whaling industry, she is able to show that the debt that ultimately culminated in Native Americans’ involuntary servitude to their English merchant masters originally helped them enjoy some of the benefits of a market economy. Native Nantucketers, who had plied the waters surrounding their island for centuries, chose to enter the English cod fishery, an occupation that offered them a means to exercise their formidable skills and to support their families. Most of them, Chaves has found, “eked out a modest living aided by, but not enslaved to, credit.” As whales replaced cod as merchants’ preferred prey, however, the stakes changed, and Natives lost their autonomy, their community cohesion, and all too often their lives.
Like the rest of the country, Jared Hardesty reminds us, eighteenth-century Boston relied on unfree labor to run its economy. Whereas other regions employed slaves to work their farms, however, Boston “depended upon skilled laborers who could provide specialized services such as shipbuilding (which employed around thirty different trades), blacksmithing, coopering, and printing,” and “artisans and merchants trained their slaves to perform such skills.” That training not only enhanced the value of masters’ slave property but gave slaves some leverage to negotiate the terms of their labor as well as to “lodge protests against working conditions, defend their perceived rights as workers, and craft a workplace identity.” “Rarely did [slaves] assert claims for freedom,” Hardesty observes, but they were nonetheless able to “secure a greater degree of autonomy than we might expect.”
Ultimately, however, they were still slaves. Chernoh Sesay looks at those individuals who did assert claims for freedom, not only for themselves but on behalf of all enslaved people of African descent then residing in Massachusetts. Influenced by the rhetoric of Revolution, a number of free and enslaved men, aided by sympathetic whites, appealed to the governor and legislature of Massachusetts between 1773 and 1777. Their petitions are moving and multifaceted, alternately conciliatory and defiant. Although they were ultimately lost in the shuffle of Revolutionary-era politics, they commanded attention when they appeared, and they played a part in shifting public sentiment regarding slavery. More important, the petitions established a standard for African American activism that would ensure that “abolition would be a movement not only about but also of black people.”
With an exchange between Michael P. Winship and Francis Bremer about the function and uses of Puritan conversion narratives, narratives much like that Monequassun delivered in 1652, the March issue comes full circle. It is a circling ’round that demonstrates the dynamism of NEQ, where ideas are constantly being reexamined in the light of new evidence.
—Linda Smith Rhoads