Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston by Jared Ross Hardesty (review)
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Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston. By Jared Ross Hardesty (New York, New York University Press, 2016) 272pp. $39.98

In Unfreedom, Hardesty seeks to move beyond the familiar dichotomies of slavery and freedom by examining slavery as part of a “continuum of unfreedom” in the early modern Atlantic world, grounding his analysis in the social and cultural history of colonial Boston. “In this hierarchical, [End Page 273] inherently unfree society,” Hardesty observes, “slavery must be put in the context of a larger Atlantic world characterized by a culture of dependence” (2). Mid-eighteenth-century Boston, a bustling provincial seaport, was a world of nested hierarchies headed by an unseen God, a distant king, and an array of local elites. It was also a world of household governance in which husbands ruled over wives; parents ruled over children; and “masters” ruled over apprentices, bound servants, and slaves. At the center of Hardesty’s analysis is a specific conception of freedom, independence, and rights. Eighteenth-century Bostonians, he argues, did not believe in “universal” human rights; rather, they believed that individuals held certain customary rights commensurate with their rank and social position (3). Slaves may have been at the bottom of this social order, but they were part of it nevertheless. Like other early modern people, enslaved Bostonians did not single-mindedly struggle to overthrow the social order or to achieve an idealized state of absolute freedom. They strove to learn the prevailing social system and to manipulate it to their own advantage (6).

This important insight leads to Unfreedom’s most productive methodological strategies and analytical discoveries. As Suzanne Meirs and Igor Kopytoff observed decades ago in Slavery in Africa (Madison, 1977), the modern Western ideology of “freedom” implies a false opposition between slavery and individual autonomy. For many slaves, the pursuit of “freedom” lay in the protections and rights afforded by successful attachments within a well-defined social hierarchy. Hardesty’s Boston was much like Meirs and Koptyoff’s Africa, where “the antithesis of ‘slavery’ is not freedom qua autonomy but rather belonging” (17). Taking advantage of extensive research in legal records and other sources, Hardesty develops this argument in a series of thematic chapters.

Hardesty begins with an engaging and illuminating analysis of the origins of enslaved Bostonians. He concludes that many of these people had experiences as slaves in Africa or in the West Indies that shaped their strategies for entering the social world of colonial Boston, seeking protections, and demanding rights. He then explores the households that these men, women, and children inhabited. Gleaning patterns from thousands of mid-eighteenth-century probate records, Hardesty shows that most of the enslaved Bostonians were owned not by gentlemen at top of the social hierarchy but by working men of the middling ranks (such as artisans and mariners) or by widows. In such households, one or two slaves comprised a large portion of their owner’s total wealth and constituted a crucial form of productive property (50). Moreover, Hardesty’s survey of newspaper advertisements for runaway servants reveals the range of other unfree workers—many of them Irish, Native American, or English—who labored alongside slaves. At this time, children were routinely separated from their families and bound out to masters: Middling parents apprenticed their sons to masters who could train them in a craft or trade, and local governments bound out the children of paupers to avoid the cost of their support (63). [End Page 274]

Living and working alongside other servants and laboring people, enslaved Africans sought to define their relationships with their masters in terms of rights and reciprocal obligations—ranging from the right to be protected from physical abuse and the right to form a family to the right to work on one’s own terms and to live away from one’s master (67). But, how successful were they? From Hardesty’s analysis it is hard to tell. His principal interest is not so much in the balance of power as in the efforts of slaves to assert themselves and lay claim to various forms of social honor, meaning, and belonging. He convincingly argues that the most important...