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New England Kept Slavery, But Not Its Profits, At a Distance

Entangled with, yet critical of, colonial oppression and the evils of slavery, the true history of Boston can now be told.

The import needs of Massachusetts were higher than most, for, in addition to the clothing, tools and other amenities of life that every colony imported, the Puritans were at the cutting edge of early modern intellectual culture. Their ideal society would be literate and learned, connected to Europe’s universities and seminaries by paper and ink, books and print. The high-value commodities needed to pay for these imports proved elusive. Not that New England was poor. The colonists quickly learned, with assistance from the region’s Indigenous peoples, to produce abundant food supplies. The region’s forests yielded all the fuel and building materials they could want. Subsistence was relatively easy.

But New England’s colonists hadn’t uprooted themselves and crossed the ocean in pursuit of mere subsistence – they hadn’t been poor in England. Yet there was no market in England for the cheap stuff they could produce. By the early 1640s, migration to the colony slowed and then stopped. English merchants might no longer be willing to send ships to Boston because they would find so little there to fill their hulls for a return voyage. Colonists began to return home. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was in danger of joining a long line of failed colonies.

Financial salvation came through the Caribbean, more than 2,000 miles away. In the 1640s, the English colony of Barbados began a rapid transformation to sugar production. Barbadians purchased ever larger numbers of African labourers to produce this valuable crop. The island’s limited arable land was quickly given over to sugar cane, its trees cut down for construction and fuel, while its population skyrocketed. Profits from sugar were so great that the plantation owners of Barbados were willing to pay high prices for food for their enslaved labourers and themselves, timber for sugar mills, housing, fuel and barrels to export their sugar. Selling to Caribbean planters, Boston’s merchants found a market for things that New England farmers and fishermen could easily produce. They could then trade West Indian sugar in London for manufactured goods.

With this trade network in place, New England saw tremendous growth in colonial settlement. From the initial hearth centred on Boston in Massachusetts Bay, a narrow slice of territory defined by the 1629 charter, migrants spread out and founded new colonies along New England’s southern coast at New Haven, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and to the north in New Hampshire and Maine. The small Plymouth colony joined this larger system as well. Boston’s leaders organised a political alliance (the New England Confederation or United Colonies), its clergy promoted a common form of church governance across the region supplied by the graduates of Harvard College, and merchants in Boston linked the region’s produce to Atlantic markets.