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In the 17th century, slavery was common, legal, and vital to the colonial Massachusetts economy. As the late legal historian, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. observed, “Merchants from Massachusetts, the most vigorous slave traders in the world, made enormous profits from the slave trade.”

In 1638, the first African slaves arrived at Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Few English settlers thought to question the ancient institution of slavery—although it never existed in England—and most whites condoned the profitable international black slave trade.

Despite losing their freedom and personal autonomy, however, Massachusetts slaves retained access to the courts. Unlike slaves elsewhere in the colonies, they could give legal testimony under oath and bring civil actions to obtain their freedom.


portrait of sewall

Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), a judge in the Salem witch trials, later publicly repented his role in those heinous proceedings. In 1700, he wrote The Selling of Joseph, the earliest known antislavery tract.
Oil Portrait by John Smibert, Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum


Insurrection on Board a Slave Ship, From William Fox, Brief History of the Wesleyan Missions, 1851

read an excerpt

The Selling of Joseph, 1700
Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society