Was there ever slavery on Nantucket?

Yes. People were enslaved on Nantucket as late as 1775. In the Nantucket books of deeds there are seven deeds of manumission by which masters freed a total of fifteen people who had been enslaved.

Enslaved people are also mentioned in Nantucketers’ wills and in probate inventories. The 1740 estate inventory of Samuel Barker lists several immediately after his stock of gingerbread. The youngest of them, a “Negro Child,” was valued at five pounds, the same as the gingerbread. Thomas Brock left a huge estate upon his death in 1750. In the inventory, listed between a tablecloth valued at one pound six shillings and a mainsail and jib valued at ten pounds, is an unnamed “Negro woman” worth one hundred twenty pounds.

It is commonly believed that slavery on Nantucket came to an end in 1773 when whaling master Elisha Folger paid a share of a whaling voyage directly to Prince Boston, one of a large African family held in slavery by William Swain and his heirs. The Swain family sued for the money and lost in court. Prince Boston, who was scheduled to be freed in 1778, then successfully petitioned for his immediate freedom, five years ahead of time. His brother Silas, however, had to make one more uncompensated voyage for the Swains in 1775 before gaining his freedom. The latest Nantucket deed of manumission is from 1775, when Benjamin Coffin freed Rose and her two sons, Benjamin and Bristol.

Most people enslaved on Nantucket were Africans, but some were Wampanoags. Many Wampanoags were caught up in “debt peonage,” through which they had to work without compensation for people to whom they owed money. “Indian debts” were bought and sold among Nantucketers. Wampanoag men convicted of crimes were required to go whaling, often for many years, and their labor was also a commodity among Nantucketers. Aside from debt peonage and punishment, some Wampanoags were simply enslaved and passed on to others in their masters’ or mistresses’ wills. In 1762, Hannah Wyer wrote, “I give unto Isaac and Mercy Chace my Indian girl.” She also bequeathed to Mercy a silver chain and a quilt.

Early in the 1700s, Nantucket’s Quakers had a revelation against keeping people in lifelong involuntary servitude. In 1729–30 Elihu Coleman wrote A testimony against that anti-Christian practice of making slaves of men, wherein it is shewed to be contrary to the dispensation of the law and time of the Gospel, and very opposite both to grace and nature. Published in 1733, it is among the first American publications denouncing slavery. Nonetheless, some Nantucket Quakers continued to hold people in slavery decades after Coleman’s publication. Benjamin Coffin, who freed Rose and her sons in 1775, was a Quaker.

By the time the Commonwealth of Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, there were no people enslaved on Nantucket.

In the 1800s, in the years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Nantucket became a safe haven for fugitives from slavery in other states.

To learn more about African Nantucketers, see Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, available from the NHA Museum Shop and from Spinner Publications of New Bedford.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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