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Slaves at the William Pitt Tavern


The Stavers Family and Slavery (consinued)

James and the Stolen Goods 

The Court of sessions Minutes for November 1778 record the conviction of two women -- Sarah Giles and Jane Cooper -- for receiving stolen goods from Stavers' slave, James. On July 31, 1777 James sold to Sarah Giles: 12 gallons rum, 2 bushels corn, 2 bushels salt, 40 lbs pork, and 4 gallons cherry brandy. On November 15, 1777 James stole and relayed to Jane Cooper: 3 gallons rum, 30 lbs salt pork, 1 bushel Indian corn, 1 bushel salt, 1 lb tea, 8 lbs sugar, and one ruffled shirt. All these goods were stolen from James' master John Stavers

Stavers did not charge James with the theft. Instead he charged Sarah Giles and Jane Cooper at the local Justice of the Peace court, Samuel Penhallow (whose saltbox house stood at the south-east corner of today's Court and Pleasant Streets). The value of the stolen goods was high enough that the case was referred to the Court of Sessions in Exeter.

Though separate incidents separated by six month, both women used the same method, threatening James. They

... with Force and Arms did presume
privately to buy and receive of and
from one James a Negro Servant or Slave
belonging to John Stivers of said
Portsmouth, Innholder, knowing him the
said James to be the Servant & Slave of
the said John Stivers, certain Goods,
Wares & Merchandize & Provisions ...

The women entered pleas of innocent, but in a jury found them guilty. They were fined double the value of the stolen goods, and -- in keeping with the procedures of the time -- paid everyone's court costs.

Why James wasn't prosecuted is unclear. He may have convinced Stavers that it was an unwilling and forced theft. It may have been black "invisibility" before the law; this latter interpretation seems likely, since James is not listed among the summoned witnesses.

Why the women made James steal for them is unknown. They were farmer's wives, married to William Giles and Philip Cooper, both yeoman of Portsmouth. Perhaps the chaotic economy of the Revolutionary War created desperate shortages in their homes; perhaps these were compounded by the absences of husbands away at war. Perhaps they were spiteful about Stavers' rumored political stance. Perhaps they were merely dishonest.

How might James have viewed all this? If he was African and had witnessed a court session there, he would have seen a mix of parallels and contrasts in American law . Africans would not have seen American law as founded in family and community obligations like west African justice. Like their arbitrary and unwilling enslavement in an artificial "family" American law might have seemed founded solely in coercion. James' experience -- ignored by the law -- provides an illustration of the paradoxical legal status of enslaved people.

 

 

 

 

 

A Curiosity: Albino Negro

In 1764 an advertisement appeared in the local paper:

To be seen at Mr. John Stavers's,
A White Negro Boy About Nine Years old,
born in Virginia, his Father and Mother
both black, his Wool quite White, his
Eyes and Noses most wonderful to see;
price Six Shillings Old Tenor -- may
be seen any Hour from Six in the Morning,
until Ten at Night. Any gentlemen or
ladies, that have a desire to have him
brought to their Houses, by applying
to the Owner at the Sign of the Earl
of Halifax, shall be duly attended on.

Evidently the child's owner was staying for a while at Stavers' tavern, perhaps making an itinerant living by collecting admission fees. The commercial exploitation of this child's rare appearance occurred in the context of an 18th-century tradition of public entertainments held at taverns. Portsmouth tavern keepers hosted travelling exhibitions, performances, concerts, etc, Stavers mostly in his third-floor "great room." This exhibition -- exploitative in the eyes of modern Americans -- was just another passing curiosity to 18th-century white American society. It was a prelude to the common 19th-century's practice of commercial exhibition of nature in the context of circuses.


Copyright © Valerie Cunningham. Compiled with assistance by Mark Sammons. Published online exclusively by SeacoastNH.com and first online here in 1999.

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