“Cape Cod Facts,” by Oliver Knowles (Brewster)
Printed in the Cape Codder, Thursday, October 7, 1948
When slavery is thought of one’s mind turns naturally to the South, but it is a fact that slavery was very common on the Cape, even in the early days and until as late as the eighteen hundreds. That there were not more slaves here was simply because there were less rich men to own them.
Most of the retiring se-captains brought one or more negroes to serve them during the rest of their days, and these were bought and sold as they were in Dixie. They were even bequieathed in wills, one of which is especially remembered because of it’s [sic] quaint phraseology. It was registered in Yarmouth in 1769 and read, “—To my wife I leave the sole use of the girl ‘Peg’ and one-half of the use of my man ‘Cezer’ for the rest of her natural life.”
Even white men and Indians were enslaved; sometimes for life, although most of the whites were Quakers who had aroused the ire of the Church. Negroes were considered better workers than the Indians so there was a greater traffic in them. Every small breach of the law either real or imagined, was used as an excuse to enslave men until the insidious practice became so common that the famous James Otis of Barnstable was moved to mention it in one of his patriotic speeches, and he declared, “—the Negros and the Indian, together with the white man should be free.”
It is known that the Church did not frown on the custom, for in 1697 the Reverend Mr. Cotton allowed his Indian slave to act as janitor of the meeting-house while the worthy Reverend pocketed the yearly wage of one pound for himself.
Labor was cheap in those days, and for twenty bushels of corn and fifty shillings a man was sold in Sandwich to serve for a period of five years. This was during the year 1640 when less than five hundred pounds of real money could be found in the whole Plymouth Colony.
Around 1800 a negro was captured in the Congo by a Truro whaler and when the ship returned home he was sold as a slave in the Cape town. He was known as ‘Pomp’ and probably hastened the abolition of slavery on the Cape when he hung himself in his frenzied loneliness so far from his native home and people.
Soon after this several of the towns forbade the use of slaves and the practice disappeared from the entire Cape with the death of the last old slaves in 1840.