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An Old Town by the Sea 5

OLD STRAWBERRY BANK by TB Aldrich (continued)


The mail and the newspaper are closely associated factors in civilization, so I mention them together, though in this case the newspaper antedated the mail-coach about five years. On October 7, 1756, the first number of "The New Hampshire Gazette and Historical Chronicle" was issued in Portsmouth from the press of Daniel Fowle, who in the previous July had removed from Boston, where he had undergone a brief but uncongenial imprisonment on suspicion of having printed a pamphlet entitled "The Monster of Monsters, by Tom Thumb, Esq.," an essay that contained some uncomplimentary reflections on several official personages. The "Gazette" was the pioneer journal of the province. It was followed at the close of the same year by "The Mercury and Weekly Advertiser," published by a former apprentice of Fowle, a certain Thomas Furber, backed by a number of restless Whigs, who considered the "Gazette " not sufficiently outspoken in the cause of liberty. Mr. Fowle, however, contrived to hold his own until the day of his death. Fowle had for pressman a faithful negro named Primus, a full-blooded African. Whether Primus was a freeman or a slave I am unable to state. He lived to a great age, and was a prominent figure among the people of his own color.

[Note 1. Some idle reader here and there may possibly recall the burning of the old stage-coach in The Story of a Bad Boy.]

Negro slavery was common in New England at that period. In 1767, Portsmouth numbered in its population a hundred and eighty-eight slaves, male and female. Their bondage, happily, was nearly always of a light sort, if any bondage can be light.

They were allowed to have a kind of government of their own; indeed, were encouraged to do so, and no unreasonable restrictions were placed on their social enjoyment. They annually elected a king and counselors, and celebrated the event with a procession. The aristocratic feeling was highly developed in them. The rank of the master was the slave's rank. There was a great deal of ebony standing around on its dignity in those days. For example, Governor Langdon's manservant, Cyrus Bruce, was a person who insisted on his distinction, and it was recognized. His massive gold chain and seals, his cherry-colored small clothes and silk stockings, his ruffles and silver shoe-buckles, were a tradition long after Cyrus himself was pulverized.

In cases of minor misdemeanor among them, the negroes themselves were permitted to be judge and jury. Their administration of justice was often characteristically naive. Mr. Brewster gives an amusing sketch of one of their sessions. King Nero is on the bench, and one Cato -- we are nothing if not classical -- is the prosecuting attorney. The name of the prisoner and the nature of his offense are not disclosed to posterity. In the midst of the proceedings the hour of noon is clanged from the neighboring belfry of the Old North Church. "The evidence was not gone through with, but the servants could stay no longer from their home duties. They all wanted to see the whipping, but could not conveniently be present again after dinner. Cato ventured to address the King: Please your honor; best let the fellow have his whipping now, and finish the trial after dinner. The request seemed to be the general wish of the company: so Nero ordered ten lashes, for justice so far as the trial went, and ten more at the close of the trial, should he be found guilty!"

Slavery in New Hampshire was never legally abolished, unless Abraham Lincoln did it. The State itself has not ever pronounced any emancipation edict. During the Revolutionary War the slaves were gradually emancipated by their masters. That many of the negroes, who had grown gray in service, refused their freedom, and elected to spend the rest of their lives as pensioners in the families of their late owners, is a circumstance that illustrates the kindly ties which held between slave and master in the old colonial days in New England.

The institution was accidental and superficial, and never had any real root in the Granite State. If the Puritans could have found in the Scriptures any direct sanction of slavery, perhaps it would have continued awhile longer, for the Puritan carried his religion into the business affairs of life; he was not even able to keep it out of his bills of lading. I cannot close this rambling chapter more appropriately and solemnly than by quoting from one of those same pious bills of lading. It is dated June, 1726, and reads: "Shipped by the grace of God in good order and well conditioned, by Wm. Pepperells on there own acct. and risque, in and upon the good Briga called the William, whereof is master under God for this present voyage George King, now riding at anchor in the river Piscataqua and by God's grace bound to Barbadoes." Here follows a catalogue of the miscellaneous cargo, rounded off with: "And so God send the good Briga to her desired port in safety. Amen."

CONTINUE to Chapter Six

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