Here in the Great White North we’re slowly coming to terms with the fact that slavery in America was a pervasive phenomenon. In the wake of industrialization — largely built on the labor of unmarried women from the countryside and waves of European immigrants — we have crafted a long-enduring myth that slavery was a uniqely Southern phenomenon and that Northern wealth was formed entirely on free, self-enterprising labor. While it is true that slavery persisted longer in the South than in the North, it started here contemporaneously — this historians have known for some time.
What is new are many recent scholarly reports and newspaper articles which help us understand slavery’s role in the formation of the North’s industrial economy. Northern banks funded the purchase of Africans and African-Americans and insured slave ships. Textile factories — the driving force of the industrial economy — processed cotton grown by slaves. Shipbuilders, sailors, and captains grew wealthy on the “triangle trade” that took finished goods and rum out of New England and brought slaves to the South. Slaves in Africa died by the millions to bring ivory to American markets. (One estimate concludes that five Africans died for every pound of African ivory.) Northern towns thrived because (for a time) slave labor ran households and performed manual labor. The patrons of some of America’s most revered institutions of higher learning and culture were deeply involved (though at a distance) in the despair and death of thousands.
So as we collectively celebrate African-American history month this February, let’s consider race and slavery on a local rather than sectional level. If you’re in New England, you might find the following lectures and reports enlightening:
- How The North Promoted, Prolonged & Profited From Slavery — a WGBH Forum Lecture (audio/video)
- Complicity: How Connecticut Chained Itself to Slavery — an amazing special report from the Hartford Courant
- Slavery and Justice — a report from and about Brown University
- Slavery and Law in New England — a WGBH Forum Lecture (audio/video)
- Memory of the Slave Trade in New England — a WGBH Forum Lecture (audio/video)
- New England and the Slave Trade — a WGBH Forum Lecture (audio/video)
What do you know about the history of slavery in your region or country?