Radical Mainers

Servants and Slaves in Colonial Maine

On Columbus Day in 1999, a group of city leaders from Bangor and New Bedford, Massachusetts gathered in the Queen City to honor a notorious slave trader. Dozens of Portuguese-speaking New Bedfordites had arrived in Bangor to celebrate “Portuguese heritage” and to present a monument with a plaque stating: “Estevan Gomez. A Portuguese navigator and explorer in the service of Spain landed in this area in 1525.”

Gomez, the Bangor Daily News reported, “found neither gold nor the mythical route to the Far East on his journey up the Penobscot River, but his 16th century visit has spawned a special friendship between the cities of Bangor and New Bedford, Mass.”

However, the monument, which still stands in a corner of Kenduskeag Stream Park today, neglects to mention that when Gomez failed to discover gold or a passage to the Spice Islands, he didn’t want to go home empty-handed. So he and his men kidnapped as many locals as their ship would hold and brought them back to Spain in chains to sell on the slave market. King Charles V is said to have been disgusted by the proposed sale, and he ordered the 58 men and women to be freed, but it’s doubtful they ever saw their homeland and families again.         

Maine is often called the cradle of the abolitionist movement, but it was no stranger to the institution of slavery, and recent scholarship has shown that the practice in this state was much more pervasive than has commonly been understood or acknowledged. During the early Colonial Era, European sea captains would often lure unsuspecting Indians onto their ships and sell them into slavery in the West Indies. During the imperial Indian wars of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the English would frequently kidnap both peaceful and hostile indigenous people to sell in faraway colonies.

During the same period, well-off English settlers imported African slaves to their tiny frontier settlements on the Southern Maine coast. In her groundbreaking study, Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery & Berwick in the Massachusetts Province of Maine, Patricia Q. Wall has identified more than 500 black people, most of them enslaved, who lived in just those two towns between 1645 and the year of Maine’s statehood, 1820.

The lack of documentation makes it impossible to know exactly when the first black slaves came to Maine, but it’s likely that some arrived as early as the 1650s. One of the first documented African-American Mainers was a woman named Susannah, who was bought by Alexander Woodrup, of Pemaquid, in 1686, though both were driven off by Indians three years later, according to the Maine Historical Society.

White Mainers were also active in the transatlantic slave trade. Some built slave ships or sailed to Africa to pick up human cargo, which they traded for sugar in the West Indies that was sold to the rum distilleries in New England. Slaves were also purchased off the boat in York and Wells from ships traveling from slave markets in Boston and Portsmouth, according to Bowdoin College professor Randolph Stakeman’s study, “Slavery in Colonial Maine.”

Although some Mainers certainly got rich off the slave trade, New England didn’t have large plantations that were reliant on slave labor, and only the wealthiest households kept slaves, usually as a kind of status symbol.

“The slave was the absolute property of his master, subject to his orders and to reasonable corrections for misbehavior, was transferable like a chattel by gift or sale, and was an asset in the hands of his executor or administrator,” said 19th-century Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons. “If the master was guilty of a cruel or unreasonable castigation of his slave, he was liable to be punished for the breach of the peace, and the slave was allowed sureties of the peace against a violent and barbarous master, which generally caused a sale to another master. And the children of the female slave, according to the maxim of the civil law, were the property of the master.”

There was little recourse if slaves were abused by their white masters. In one instance, Stakeman found that a Kittery man named Nathaniel Keen beat his slave Rachael to death in 1695, but was only charged with cruelty, not murder, and was fined “five pounds for the offense plus five pounds and ten shillings for court costs.”

Isolated from their families and communities, black slaves in Maine, as elsewhere, had few opportunities to form the social bonds necessary for any kind of collective struggle. Yet individual acts of resistance did occur.

In the Boston Post Boy of January 1, 1748, there appeared the following advertisement: “Ran away from Ichabod Goodwin of Berwick, a Negro man named Pompey, a short thick fellow, had on homespun doubt-breast light color jacket with pewter buttons, one of his ears was cut; there [also] went a white boy, 14 years of age. Reward of four Pounds.”

Pompey was recaptured, but when he ran away again, another advertisement was placed, on July 19, 1750, that noted “he had on a pair of Pot-hooks when he went away.” “Pot-hooks” were a type of iron slave collar with prongs extending inward that made it difficult to move or to lie down. As Wall observes, the casual reference to this torturous collar suggests the use of such devices may have been far more common in New England than is commonly believed.

Indentured Mainers

Throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries, New England stood in contrast to the American colonies down south, where the majority of white European settlers had needed to sign indentures to afford the cost of passage. The thin, glacial soil of Maine did not encourage the expansion of commercial agriculture, so after the arrival of the first colonists, immigration sharply declined and most of those who showed up were free men who scraped by on subsistence farms. But there were important exceptions, such as the case of Alexander Maxwell, who was forced into indentured servitude and savagely punished by the state for failing to obey his master.

“For his grosse offence in his exorbitant & abusive carages towards his Maister,” read the judgement of the court, “Itt is ordered that Allexander Maxwell…shall bee publiquely brought forth at the Whipping Post wherunto hee shall bee fastened till 30 lashes bee given him upon the bare skine.”

In the 1650s, Maxwell was among the hundreds of Scottish POWs who had been captured by Oliver Cromwell’s army during the Battle of Dunbar and were shipped to New England and sold as laborers. About 50 of these men were put to work at the Hammersmith Ironworks, in Saugus, Massachusetts. Maxwell was among the 25 others who were taken to South Berwick, Maine. There they were pressed into the employ of an Englishman named Richard Leader, a former manager at the Saugus ironworks, who had been granted the exclusive right to harness the water power of the Little River (now the Great Works River). The exact nature of his “offence” against his employer is unknown, but the court recommended that if Maxwell misbehaved in the future, his master had “full Lyberty to make sayle of the sayd Maxll to Virginia, Barbadoes, or any other of the English Plantations.”

Contemporary racists have sometimes used the Irish and Scottish “slave” narrative as a way to derail debates about the historical complicity of whites in the enslavement of blacks, and to minimize the unique monstrousness of African chattel slavery. But it should be noted that the difference between the Scottish indentured servants and chattel slaves is that these forced indentures were limited to a few years.

Maxwell apparently complied well enough to avoid being sold and sent to Barbados, and in 1657, just three years after he was ordered to be publicly whipped, he was granted his freedom along with a little piece of land. According to historian Carol Gardner, author of The Involuntary American: A Scottish Prisoner’s Journey to the New World, Maxwell is believed to have built a garrison house on Cider Hill Road in what is now the town of York. He later sold the property to John McIntire, and the McIntire Garrison House still stands on that site today.

Blacks and their children, on the other hand, were enslaved for life. Their fate was sealed in the early 1700s, when the ruling class enacted a series of laws creating a racial caste system. This was done out of fear that black slaves and white indentured servants would unite in revolution, as they did against Virginia’s governor during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.