- Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston by Jared Ross Hardesty
Unfreedom is part of a recent renaissance of scholarship on slavery in early New England, and it speaks to scholars studying the Atlantic world more broadly. The book examines eighteenth-century Boston, paying close attention to how enslaved Africans interacted with the other bondspeople who thronged the city's streets: Native American slaves as well as Euro-Americans bound as indentured servants, craft apprentices, and pauper apprentices. Emphasizing the extent to which African slavery was just one of many forms of coerced labor, Jared Ross Hardesty argues that scholars of slavery in the colonial era should discard what he calls the "traditional dichotomous conception of slavery and freedom" in favor of a model that envisions slavery "as part of a continuum of unfreedom" (2). Unfreedom contends that freedom mattered little to most enslaved Africans—or at least a lot less than one might expect. What these people cared about was bettering their lot within the bounds of slavery, whether that meant obtaining safer working conditions, securing access to a spouse, or pocketing a share of their earnings.
Chapter 1 examines the origins of Boston's enslaved Africans in the eighteenth century. Some had descended from the small number of blacks who had been in New England since the 1630s. Others had come to Boston from the West Indies or the American South. And a number had been shipped directly (or nearly so) from Africa. Hardesty argues that these three groups of bondspeople had a crucial commonality: their shared experience with slavery. Slavery was "deeply entrenched" in all the places from which they hailed and therefore "deeply embedded in their own experience" (13, 42). Due to their familiarity with slavery, Afro-Bostonians were not on the prowl for liberty; freedom would have struck all three groups of Africans in New England as "amorphous" and "abstract" (42). They sought instead to "channel … their energies into acquiring concrete material gains" for themselves within the confines of slavery (14).
The following chapter situates enslaved Africans in the unfree world of eighteenth-century Boston. As Hardesty explains, "[m]ost Bostonians, whether European, Native American, or African, were legal dependents: women, children, servants, and slaves" (9). Hardesty does some impressive sleuthing here, [End Page 627] correlating slave ownership in probate inventories with pauper apprentice lists kept by Boston's overseers of the poor to show that enslaved Africans lived in Euro-American households alongside bound whites. Of course, black slaves occupied the lowest rung on the great hierarchy of unfreedom, but Hardesty emphasizes that they nonetheless "had a place" in the social order, and, "like every other class of people in this society, [they] believed they possessed a set of defensible, customary rights" (70).
Slaves' "defensible, customary rights" had much to do with their families and communities, which Unfreedom explores in chapter 3. Hardesty posits that blacks in Boston "built strong and resilient social worlds" across lines of status, race, and gender (9). These networks mattered a great deal to bound Bostonians; Hardesty asserts that enslaved people "rarely … protest[ed] for freedom" but worked assiduously to safeguard their intimate relationships (103). Hardesty advances similar arguments in chapter 4, which considers bound labor in eighteenth-century Boston. Enslaved Africans used a variety of strategies to "ameliorat[e] their condition in the absence of a call for emancipation," he contends: they complained; they ran off to other masters who offered better working conditions; they engaged in violence; and they participated in protests alongside other workers (124).
The final chapter of Unfreedom examines the ways in which the enslaved appropriated Euro-American institutions—the law and Protestant Christianity—to "manipulat[e] the terms of [their] enslavement" (136). Hardesty argues that bound Africans managed to obtain a measure of justice in the court system, which adjudicated their cases as if they were servants because Massachusetts had neither comprehensive slave codes nor a separate slave court. As for the church, Hardesty shows that slaves benefitted from Christianity in a...