Giving them liberty: A look into New England Bound and its portrayal of the history of slavery in North America; By Okezue Bell

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pursuit of religious freedoms, the Puritans entered America during the Great Migration of 1630 to 1640. They came as a large group, looking to purge the Anglican Church of its Catholic practices, resulting in their behaviour being the antipode to what they emigrated to New England for. They embraced Calvinism, which ultimately informed their non-separatist tendencies and desire to assert their beliefs on non-Puritans, as they were mandated by God to do so if they were to live a favourable afterlife. The caveat of predestination was that only a select few – who were unknown to the Puritans – were destined for such salvation. Their god-complex views led them to believe that all of those whom they interacted with that were outside of the Puritan faith were inferior, which justified taking their property, committing violent acts, and forcing them to accept Christianity. Effectively eliminating much of indigenous culture, especially in the case of Native Americans, who were forced to relinquish only their language, but their relationship with the not indoctrinated Natives, and oftentimes leaving their settlements. 

Wendy Warren’s New England Bound explores the overlooked instances of the Puritans’ abuse of outside groups, namely Natives and Africans, detailing their use of chattel slavery for the Puritans’ financial gain, connecting the Puritans’ arrival New England and the proliferation of slave trade. European colonists of the Puritan faith used coercion/military force, constricted communication, and slavery to shape the interactions they had with major indigenous groups, particularly Africans and Native Americans, to control the narrative of throughout New England the 17th century, which benefitted their economy with regard to land, wealth, political and cultural influence.

The Puritans heavily enforced their religious beliefs through violence and excommunication to further their economic agenda and retain power over those outside of Puritanism, especially the Indians, shaping their interactions with the group to be that of a hierarchy that placed Puritans above the Natives. Puritan religious intolerance became increasingly evident in 1631, shortly after their arrival in New England. They believed that the land of the New World was destined for them due to their belief in divination, and they also believed the Native Americans to be inferior. The classical conception of land in England was that it was an individual holding, owned by a people, though the Native Americans had opposing views, seeing it as a common resource. After observing the lack of similar lifestyles and behaviours that the Native Americans had, along with their spiritual beliefs, such as animism, led the Puritans to view the Native Americans as barbaric and inferior, and therefore they were justified in usurping the land from the indigenous group; they also believed that the Native Americans could be converted to Christianity. This caused slight unrest in the Puritan community, as Roger Williams, a Puritan minister in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, attempted to voice his view that their forceful theft of the Native American land was questionable. He was promptly banished from the colony, preventing him from voicing his concerns further, and ultimately fortifying the Puritan narrative that their siege of land was justified and morally correct.

 The underlying importance of William’s excommunication in 1630 for spreading ideas they deemed dangerous was that they silenced any ideas or interactions in support of the Native Americans. In 1676, Puritan minister Increase Mather prescribed that the Puritans were given the land over heathen people. 

The Puritans intentionally constricted the Native’s communication and interactions, as well as their physical to benefit their economy. They limited Native American communication by only conversing with them via sign language for nearly a decade, only speaking with them for the purpose of bartering the transport of their high-demand furs for metal weaponry. The Puritans also exploited the Native’s lack of exposure to foreign ailments; the diseases the Englanders brought killed nearly 90% of the Native American population by the end of the 17th century, as they viewed the natives as expendable, and likely already condemned to damnation. Trade was the focal point of the Puritans’ interactions with the Native Americans, which led to the Pequot War, a struggle for bartering/trade control, from 1636 to 1637, in which the Puritans brutally slaughtered the Native American people in the battle, which astonished the Natives, whose typical style of warfare more so involved taking hostages than mass casualties. After the start of the King Philip’s War in 1675, in which the Natives and the Puritans (as well as their solicited Native allies) clashed, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony again attempted to stifle the Native Americans by forcefully relocating nearly 500 Nipmuc Indians to the Charles River, and then to the Boston Harbour, where they were placed in camps – primarily in Deer Island – without medical care, food, or clothing, ultimately dying. Alternatively, the Puritans sold them into slavery in the West Indies. They disregarded the fact that many of the imprisoned Natives were those who had accepted the English settlements in 1621. The Puritans still believed that their betrayal worked to their advantage, especially with the concurrent revolts. In New England Bound, Warren cites that the Puritans’s decision to sell the Indians into Caribbean slavery was fueled solely by racism and their understanding of religious conviction, but was also a strategic play to use the Indians to expand their territory. The Puritans eventually won King Phillip’s war by killing the Narragansett Tribe’s chief around 1678; the victory solidified their capability to control the Indian’s dynamics, even despite the damages New England colonies suffered because of the war.

The de facto interactions that the Puritans shaped between themselves, and Africans was that of slave and master, using their governing powers and religious texts to propagate slavery, thereby increasing their influence and continuing the slave cycle. The Puritans codification of slavery created the facade that they did engage in slavery, but as debunked in New England Bound, and evident in their treatment of the Natives, the Puritans were willing to indulge in these acts so long as they could control external interactions and maintain power across the trade, including indentured servitude, purchasing slaves, or legally deemed slavery. 

It is important to acknowledge that in New England Bound, there is a dispute of Puritan ministers on whether to abolish the slave trade in the early 1700s, but the opportunity of slave labour appeals to the Puritans, and opposing views, both external and internal, are silenced, as shown in the case of the Indians and Roger Williams. As stated by Warren, slightly unlike the Puritans enslavement of the Natives, the capture of Africans was racially motivated, and eventually became opportune. 

The West Indies became the primary location for indentured slaves to be transported to. New England Bound poignantly notes that the Puritans did supplant the Indian slaves with the African ones, but rather expanded their slave empire. The Caribbeans whom they sold their slaves to would be responsible for growing the cash crops, such as tobacco and indigo, and this trade vitalised the New England colonies’ economy, optimising for the expansion of their land and additional profits. Warren also describes the systems that the Puritans used to retract manumission from slaves, supporting the fact that the Puritans manipulated the situation to support their economy, and therefore tried to preserve it by making from indentured servitude difficult and lawfully ambiguous, oftentimes making the rules pliable enough for governmental powers to manipulate slave cases.

The use of violence in both war and relocation, the manipulative nature of slavery, and the imposition of the Puritan and Calvinist culture on the indigenous Indian and African groups exemplify the massive extent to which the Puritans were able to dictate the flow of their interactions of non-Puritan peoples. Additionally, their constant maintenance to create a unified belief system and viewpoints in their communities, alongside their brutality, made it easy for them to overwhelm indigenous groups and force them into various forms of servitude that would prove economically beneficial for the Puritans of New England. The advancement of their socioeconomic status led to them becoming a major controlling power in New England and with transatlantic trade, fortifying their position in the New World throughout the 1700s and into the 1800s.

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My name is Okezue, a developer and researcher obsessed with learning and building things, especially when it involves technology or science. Check out my socials below or contact me: [email protected].

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