Early American Places


NYU PressNYU Press


Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston

by Jared Ross Hardesty

Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2016

272 pages

ISBN: 9781479816149

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In this delightful work, Jared Hardesty places the experiences of Boston slaves within the wider Atlantic world, while also illuminating their lives within the context of eighteenth century New England. Unfreedom is the most significant contribution to slavery studies in New England since the publication of Joanne Pope Melish’s seminal Disowning Slavery in 1998.
— Harvey Amani Whitfield, University of Vermont

In Unfreedom, Jared Ross Hardesty examines the lived experience of slaves in eighteenth-century Boston.  Instead of relying on the traditional dichotomy of slavery and freedom, Hardesty argues we should understand slavery in Boston as part of a continuum of unfreedom. In this context, African slavery existed alongside many other forms of oppression, including Native American slavery, indentured servitude, apprenticeship, and pauper apprenticeship. In this hierarchical and inherently unfree world, enslaved Bostonians were more concerned with their everyday treatment and honor than with emancipation, as they pushed for autonomy, protected their families and communities, and demanded a place in society.

Drawing on exhaustive research in colonial legal records – including wills, court documents, and minutes of governmental bodies – as well as newspapers, church records, and other contemporaneous sources, Hardesty masterfully reconstructs an eighteenth-century Atlantic world of unfreedom that stretched from Europe to Africa to America. By reassessing the lives of enslaved Bostonians as part of a social order structured by ties of dependence, Hardesty not only demonstrates how African slaves were able to decode their new homeland and shape the terms of their enslavement, but also tells the story of how marginalized peoples engrained themselves in the very fabric of colonial American society.

About the Author

Jared Ross Hardesty is Assistant Professor of History at Western Washington University.

Jared Hardesty’s Unfreedom is a seminal study of enslaved life in colonial and revolutionary Boston. While many scholars have explored this topic in great depth, Hardesty provides a new conceptual framework for understanding the lived experiences of enslaved Africans, moving beyond a focus on resistance as a means of achieving freedom. Through meticulous research, Hardesty has reconstructed the everyday lives, motivations, desires, and social worlds of those in bondage. This study is a must read for anyone interested in slavery, African American culture, and early American history.
— Christopher Cameron, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
For too long, slaves in colonial America have been essentialized as freedom fighters. Jared Hardesty reveals in this path-breaking study that autonomy was what slaves strived for, not freedom. Instead of revolting against their bondage, Boston’s slaves tried to improve their condition by joining Protestant churches, using the law, and rising in protest against workplace iniquities. Hardesty throws their lives into sharp relief by portraying them as part of a society marked by many forms of unfreedom.
— Wim Klooster, Clark University
This book offers a fresh and inventive interpretation of what much previous scholarship has dismissed as a relative lack of resistance of New England slaves to their enslavement, an argument that has in turn supported the myth of northern slavery as a ‘mild’ institution. Hardesty provides a rich and detailed account of the efforts of enslaved people in Boston to obtain a measure of control over their lives. Rather than trying to attack slavery as a status, or even to end their own enslavement, many slaves strove to obtain public recognition, leverage against their masters, literacy, recognition of the legitimacy of their families, and material privileges. These efforts should not be characterized as accommodation, Hardesty argues, but as a powerful kind of resistance by which slaves not only reshaped the conditions of their own existence but redefined the terms and limits of bondage.
— Joanne Pope Melish, University of Kentucky
Well written and meticulously researched, this outstanding book is an important contribution to the understanding of slavery, New England history, Colonial America, and the 18th Century Atlantic world.
— Choice Connect