Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery

Volume 28, No. 1 - Fall 2016
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Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American SlaveryBy Margaret Ellen Newell
Cornell University Press (2015)
316 pages

Review by Colin G. Calloway

Although historians have reinserted Native Americans into the narrative of New England, the presence and experience of Indians as slaves has received little attention until now. In this long-awaited book, Margaret Ellen Newell shows “that slavery flourished in colonial New England, and that Native Americans formed a significant part of New England’s slave population.”

Indian slavery, like war and disease, exacted a terrible toll in the 17th century. The English kidnapped Indians during early contacts, but the Pequot War in 1636–1637 provided the first opportunity to acquire Indian captives in large numbers and justify their enslavement, “initiating and shaping a labor system that would characterize New England society for over 150 years.” Indeed, Newell argues, the English and their Indian allies made taking captives the war’s main purpose. Pequots were condemned to slavery in New England, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. More than 2,000 Indians were taken captive during King Philip’s War. Roughly 500 were shipped to global slave markets and ended up laboring on plantations in Jamaica and Bermuda, rowing galleys in the Mediterranean, or building forts in Morocco. The rest were distributed among English colonists, who took more captives in wars against the Abenakis. When the supply of wartime captives dried up, New Englanders imported Indian slaves from the Carolinas and Florida or transformed free Indians into unfree labor by “judicial enslavement,” as courts sentenced Indians to terms of servitude and slavery as punishment for crimes and debts. Indentures and apprenticeships of Indian children often merged into de facto slavery.

Slavery and involuntary servitude in colonial New England took many forms. Instead of laboring in gangs under the lash, Indian slaves in New England typically augmented the colonial labor force and lived and worked in colonial households, towns, and cities. Newell’s research in legal records reveals a system that stifled lives; rendered individuals vulnerable to perpetual exploitation, violence, and sexual abuse; and tore at family, community, and kinship ties. Indian slaves cost much less than African slaves and greatly outnumbered them before 1700. In the 18th century, however, African slavery surpassed Indian slavery. As race, rather than warfare or nationality, increasingly determined who became a slave, New Englanders developed laws and practices that lumped African and Indian slaves together as marginalized people of color.

Newell recovers the stories of individual Indian people caught up in a system of unfree labor that contributed to New England’s prosperity, linked the region to slave economies in the Atlantic and Caribbean, and played an important role in the racialization of society. Brethren by Nature is an important book about Indians in New England; it is also an important book about New England.

Colin G. Calloway, Ph.D., is a professor of Native American studies and history at Dartmouth College and author of many books on Indian history, including First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History.

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