Acknowledging Northern Slavery: How We Did It in Royalston

Isaac Royall Jr., portrait by Copley

Isaac Royall Jr. was the largest slaveholder in Massachusetts.  At least 60 slaves served on his three estates in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and hundreds more on the sugar plantation in Antigua that was the source of his family’s fortune. Before the American Revolution, he was a member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council.  A bequest of some remote rural property to Harvard University funded the Isaac Royall Professorship of Law.  Two years later that professorship became the foundation of the Harvard Law School, which until very recently still used as its seal the three sheaves of wheat (symbolizing prosperity) that Isaac Jr. had chosen for his family crest.  C. S. Manegold tells his story in her book, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North.

On the waterless island of Antigua, captured Africans toiled in the cane fields for twelve hours a day. A strict and lengthy code of laws restricted their every movement. In times of drought, many of them—but none of their masters—died of heat and dehydration, like the cattle.  There were four times as many slaves as whites, and that ratio kept on increasing until by the time of the Revolution there were nine Africans to every white. And after a while, there were so many runaways in the hills that the possibility of a slave insurrection kept the whites in constant fear.  Like many of his white neighbors, Isaac Royall Sr. decided that his family would be safer somewhere else.

In 1730, he bought a large farm in Medford, Massachusetts and began to upgrade it into an estate worthy of an Antigua aristocrat. In 1737, following the brutal suppression of an unusually terrifying slave plot, his family, including seventeen-year-old Isaac Jr., sailed north to their new home. Their three-story mansion, complete with slave quarters, is now a museum, with a strong emphasis on the history of the forgotten people who made their prosperity possible.

Royall House and slave quarters

With the outbreak of the Revolution, all that prosperity was suddenly at risk.  After temporizing for several years without committing himself to either side, Isaac Jr., now in his late fifties and master of the estate, fled to England, leaving his slaves and much of his family behind him. His Medford property became the headquarters of a Patriot general, and ultimately the property of the new government.

Isaac Jr., along with his friends John Hancock and Paul Revere, was also one of the three original proprietors of the small town I live in. A larger than life-size copy of John Singleton Copley’s portrait of him hung above the Town Hall staircase until a year or two ago, when it was sent out to be restored. At the town’s 225th anniversary celebration in 1990, there was an Isaac Royall skit complete with elaborate eighteenth-century costumes. More recently, several successive performances of the Royalston Follies have included skits featuring the three proprietors drinking together in a Boston tavern and commenting humorously upon town events taking place two centuries after their deaths.

For the 250th celebration, we did a bit better. The Friends of the Library invited Ms. Manegold to give a presentation about her book.  There was a bus trip to the Isaac Royall House and Slave Quarters.  And the Royalston History Pageant, in which town residents spoke the words of other townspeople from the past 250 years, included two letters from Isaac Royall and a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature from seventy-year-old Belinda, one of his former slaves.

One letter, a request to a British nobleman for “a little temporary relief” from the poverty occasioned by the loss of Royall’s estates, prayed that God would “bless His Majesty’s measures with success, and that it will open the eyes of the deluded colonists to see that their true interest is to be subject to Great Britain.”  The other, to an American official, begs to be allowed “to take possession of the land and property that are mine,” and insists that its writer was “ever a friend to the province,” that he had merely been forced to leave America by business and ill health, and that he had “only shown compassion for the poor American prisoners.” Belinda’s petition recounts her capture in Africa at the age of twelve and the fifty years of servitude that followed it, and asks the Massachusetts authorities to authorize payment, out of Royall’s confiscated property, of a pension granted to her in his will. She received the pension, but only for one year.

We could do better still.  Rather than remembering the darker side of its founder’s history once every twenty-five years, Royalston might, for instance, install a permanent plaque next to his portrait to educate future townspeople about the whole of his story.  Perhaps we could learn from the efforts of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, and somehow memorialize the lives of the people whose efforts made his eminence possible. It’s all part of a fuller understanding of who we are.

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