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Slavery in Portsmouth NH

Brewster's Rambles #43/SeacoastNH.comBREWSTER'S RAMBLES #43

Slavery was not a Southern problem, but an American problem. Racism remains a deeply rooted problem today. This essay offers a rare and disturbing look at the day-to-day life of enslaved Africans in the New Hampshire seaport. Thought disturbing, it is an important reminder that Black slavery was common in "Yankee" New England.




MORE NH Black History

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and do not reflect current research or current values. The information in this 19th century article has been fully researched and reported on in an extraordinary book called Black Portsmouth by historians Valerie Cunningham and Mark Sammons.

ABOUT Charles Brewster

In the days when slavery was common in New England, Portsmouth had a large proportion of the slaves held in the State. There were in this town, in 1767, one hundred and twenty-four male and sixty-three female slaves. Their masters were generally kind to them, and they were permitted not only to enjoy their own social meetings, but were aided in sustaining a mock government among themselves.

Brewster's RamblesThere were Negroes of distinction then, and there was nearly as much ebony as topaz gloss on the face of society. Among the top of the Negro quality in former times, was Cyrus Bruce, for many years the waiter on Gov. Langdon. There could scarcely be found in Portsmouth, not excepting the Governor himself, one who dressed more elegantly or exhibited a more gentlemanly appearance. His heavy gold chain and seals, his fine black or blue broadcloth coat and small clothes, his silk stockings and silver-buckled shoes, his ruffles and carefully plaited linen, are well remembered by many of the present generation.

Some of the blacks were good mechanics. The parlor of the house of the late Richard Hart, on Russell street, was handsomely finished by Caesar, a house slave. Prime Fowle was the pressman of the first paper printed in New Hampshire. Through long service in bending over the press, he was bent to an angle of about forty-five degrees. He mourned the loss of his mistress and called her an old fool for dying. At funerals, it was the custom for the Negroes of the family to walk at the left hand of each white survivor, among the chief mourners. At the funeral of Mrs. Fowle, Prime should have gone on the left of his master, but he went on the right. His master whispered, "Go the other side." Prime did not move. His master touched him and whispered again, "Go the other side." This was too much. The old peppery Negro sputtered out, as loud as he could, "Go tudder side ye sef, y e mean jade."

Cuffee Chase, brother of Dinah Whipple, was of a resentful spirit, and could not easily forgive an injury. His master's horse bit him one day, and Cuffee in return deprived him for several days of his food, and had almost starved the animal before the family discovered the cause of his failure. The slave of Rev. Joseph Stevens, of Kittery, had a better apology for a similar act. His master, as he saw him picking some bones for dinner which had been already well trimmed, said to him, "Nearer the bone the sweeter the meat, Sambo." Not long after, he was sent to the pasture with the horse of a visiting clergyman, which he tied to a pile of rocks. To a reproof for the act, Sambo replied, " Nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat - nearer the rock, the sweeter the grass, massa."

Jonathan Warner had several slaves, among them Peter. One day Peter's hat being the worse for wear, he asked his master for a better covering for his head. "If you will make a rhyme, Peter, you shall have a new hat," said his master. This was discouraging to Peter, for he was never guilty of such a thing in his life. He left in a very thoughtful mood, and at length resolved to get assistance in his difficulty. He goes to the office of Wyseman Claggett, and states his case, "What is your name? " asked the counselor. "Peter Warner, massa."

"Peter Warner - threw his hat in the chimney corner," said Mr. C. playfully. "There is your rhyme, now go and get your new hat." Peter went home, repeating the rhyme all the way, and hastened to the parlor. "Massa, I've got the rhyme." said he, much elated. "Well, say it."

"Peter Warner - took off his hat and threw it - in the fireplace."

Peter received his hat, his master remarking that it was nearer to a rhyme than he expected of him.

Some slaves had intellect somewhat inferior to Peter's. Dinah, a slave in the family of Samuel Ham, on Freeman's point, could not count five. In planting corn, she would put in the hole three kernels, and then two. she could count no higher.

The slaves were permitted to hold their social meetings, and had a mock government of their own, as above stated. For many years they held their annual elections in June, usually on Portsmouth Plains. They elected a King, (who was also a judge,) a Sheriff and Deputy, besides other officers, and closed their election by a jolly time. They went up from town in procession, led by their King, Nero, the slave of Col. William Brewster. It happened that Nero was not one who in any respect could be called a calf, and even his legs were wholly divested of any alliance to that name. The full dress in small clothes required some filling in the back of the silk stockings, to give a proper contour to the person of the King. As the procession was moving on, an observing black hastily leaves the ranks, runs forward, and bowing to the King, somewhat damps his glory by the information that his calf "has got afore."

If any black was guilty of any crime which was regarded disgraceful to the ebony society, he was duly tried and punished. Nero's viceroy was Willie Clarkson, a slave of Hon. Peirse Long. A report comes that Prince Jackson, slave of Nathaniel Jackson of Christian Shore, has stolen an ax. The Sheriff, Jock Odiorne, seizes him, the court is summoned, and King Nero in majesty sits for the examination. The evidence is exhibited, Prince is found guilty, and condemned to twenty lashes on the bare back, at the town pump on the parade. There was a general gathering of the slaves on such occasions; and the Sheriff, after taking off his coat and tying up the convict to the pump, hands the whip to his deputy, Pharaoh Shores, addressing the company, "Gemmen, this way we s'port our government" - turning to his deputy - "Now, Pharaoh, pay on !" After the whipping was over, the sheriff dismissed the prisoner, telling him that the next time he is found this side Christian Shore, unless sent by his master, he will receive twenty lashes more. Prince, however, did not reform; for, soon after, he was found guilty of larger thefts and brought under the cognizance of the county court.

There is one other story told of a trial which took place here by the court of Nero, which is probably true, but for the truth of which we have no voucher. It was this: A culprit was under trial, when the old north clock, which regulated so many matters the last century, struck the hour of twelve. 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!

No general emancipation law was ever passed in this State, but most of those who were here held as slaves at the time of the Declaration, or during the war, were emancipated by their owners. A considerable number, however, who had grown old in their masters' service, refused to accept their freedom, and remained with their masters, or as pensioners on the families of their descendants during their lives. And until the two or three last returns of the census of the United States, some slaves have always been returned in New Hampshire.

 Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
This digital transcript  © 1999

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