NHA University

Exploring the Abolition Movement

NHA University Virtual Event: The First Abolition Movement
with Paul Polgar
Tuesday, December 1
at 5:30pm EST
Held Via Zoom
$5 for non-members
FREE for members
This presentation will trace the rise and fall of America’s first abolition movement, made up of a coalition of white and Black activists during the three decades following the American Revolution. 
Was there ever slavery on Nantucket?
By Frances Karttunen

Yes. People were enslaved on Nantucket as late as 1775. In the Nantucket books of deeds there are seven deeds of manumission by which masters freed a total of fifteen people who had been enslaved.

Enslaved people are also mentioned in Nantucketers’ wills and in probate inventories. The 1740 estate inventory of Samuel Barker lists several immediately after his stock of gingerbread. The youngest of them, a “Negro Child,” was valued at five pounds, the same as the gingerbread. Thomas Brock left a huge estate upon his death in 1750. In the inventory, listed between a tablecloth valued at one pound six shillings and a mainsail and jib valued at ten pounds, is an unnamed “Negro woman” worth one hundred twenty pounds.

It is commonly believed that slavery on Nantucket came to an end in 1773 when whaling master Elisha Folger paid a share of a whaling voyage directly to Prince Boston, one of a large African family held in slavery by William Swain and his heirs. The Swain family sued for the money and lost in court. Prince Boston, who was scheduled to be freed in 1778, then successfully petitioned for his immediate freedom, five years ahead of time. His brother Silas, however, had to make one more uncompensated voyage for the Swains in 1775 before gaining his freedom. The latest Nantucket deed of manumission is from 1775, when Benjamin Coffin freed Rose and her two sons, Benjamin and Bristol.
The Early Years of the
Anti-Slavery Movement
In the eighteenth century, slaveholding Quakers were not uncommon, both on Nantucket and the mainland. Although the morality of slavery troubled many Friends, the transition from denunciation to social action would take nearly a century. The topic was particularly controversial among New England Friends, many of whom owned enslaved people. In 1716, the Dartmouth Friends Meeting inquired of its neighboring meetings, “Whether it be agreeable to Truth to purchase Slaves & keep them Term of life?” The Nantucket Meeting responded that the practice was “not agreeable to Truth.”

Elihu Coleman (1699–1789), a leading member of the island’s Quaker community, was one of the first to publicly criticize slavery. His anti-slavery tract, A Testimony Against that Anti-Christian Practice of Making Slaves of Men (1733), put into writing the views of the Nantucket Meeting, declaring “that this practice of making slaves of men, appears to be so great an evil to me, that for all the riches and glory of this world, I would not be guilty of so great a sin as this seems to be.”
Artifact Highlight
Slate-Front Desk, 1745-60
Elihu Coleman (1699-1789)
Mahogany, walnut, brass, pine
38" H x 36" W x 20" D
Gift of the Friends of the NHA, 1989.174.1

Elihu Coleman was an island carpenter and housewright, and a leading member of the early Quaker community on Nantucket. He is perhaps best known for his antislavery pamphlet A Testimony Against that Anti-Christian Practice of Making Slaves of Men (1733), which he composed on island during the winter of 1729–30 in the impressive lean-to house now known as the Elihu Coleman House. 
What did the Rotches have to do with “The first act of emancipation in this commonwealth in consequence of the verdict of a jury”?
It was the master of one of their whaling vessels whose action precipitated the “Prince Boston Case.”

Following their Quaker principles, the Rotches were founding members of the Providence Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and took an active role in obtaining the freedom of enslaved men on their ships.

Prince Boston was born into slavery on Nantucket in 1750, one of eight children of Boston and Maria, a couple held by William Swain. Swain wrote a deed of manumission for Boston, Maria, and their youngest son in 1760, but he retained their other sons to serve him until each attained the age of twenty-eight. These young men he sent whaling and collected their shares in the profits of these voyages.

Prince Boston shipped on the Friendship, a whaling vessel owned by the Rotch family. While the Friendship was at sea, William Swain died, and at the end of the voyage Captain Elisha Folger delivered Prince Boston’s lay directly to him. John Swain, William’s heir, sued Folger for recovery of the money, but in 1773 the court decided against the Swains.

Photo: Portrait of William Rotch, 1998.1079.2.
Current Exhibition
 The Road from Abolition to Suffrage
 in the Whaling Museum's Williams Forsyth Gallery
This is a story of inspiring individuals who moved Nantucket—and the nation—towards a more just and equitable distribution of political power. It begins with a simple will written in 1710 endowing a formerly enslaved man with property and runs up to the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 granting voting rights to women.
NHA University Virtual Event: African American Women and the
Equal School Rights Movement in Massachusetts
Tuesday, December 15
at 5:30pm EST
Held Via Zoom
$5 for non-members
FREE for members
This talk examines the educational lives of four young African American women activists from Massachusetts: Sarah Parker Remond of Salem; Eunice Ross of Nantucket; Josephine St. Pierre of Boston; and Charlotte Forten of Salem (by way of Philadelphia). 
Museum Shop
Whaling Museum
Open 10am–4pm, Monday–Saturday
(Closed Sundays) 

Festival of Trees is now open at the Whaling Museum
through December 31

FREE admission to the Year-Round Community
Nantucket Historical Association | 508.228.1894 | nha.org