Seawall’s Secret: The Selling of More Than Two Dozen Black Africans

The following is an excerpt from Before Equiano: A Prehistory of the North American Slave Narrative by Zachary McLeod Hutchins, available wherever books are sold.

In the antebellum United States, formerly enslaved men and women who told their stories and advocated for abolition helped establish a new genre with widely recognized tropes: the slave narrative. This book investigates how enslaved black Africans conceived of themselves and their stories before the War of American Independence and the genre’s development in the nineteenth century. Zachary McLeod Hutchins argues that colonial newspapers were pivotal in shaping popular understandings of both slavery and the black African experience well before the slave narrative’s proliferation. Introducing the voices and art of black Africans long excluded from the annals of literary history, Hutchins shows how the earliest life writing by and about enslaved black Africans established them as political agents in an Atlantic world defined by diplomacy, war, and foreign relations. In recovering their stories, Hutchins sheds new light on how black Africans became Black Americans; how the earliest accounts of enslaved life were composed editorially from textual fragments rather than authored by a single hand; and how the public discourse of slavery shifted from the language of just wars and foreign policy to a heritable, race-based system of domestic oppression.

Sewall’s Secret

The Selling of More than Two Dozen Black Africans

Among the heroes of American abolitionism, colonial judge Samuel Sewall is often revered as the first to commit himself to the cause of universal emancipation. Sewall earned this reputation with The Selling of Joseph, a small pamphlet he published in 1700, which argues from the biblical example of Adam “that Originally, and Naturally, there is no such thing as Slavery.” Reading these words, John Greenleaf Whittier declared,

Honor and praise to the Puritan

Who the halting step of his age outran,

And, seeing the infinite worth of man

In the priceless gift the Father gave,

In the infinite love that stooped to save,

Dared not brand his brother a slave! (lines 50–55)2

But Whittier and the numerous scholars who have burnished Sewall’s abolitionist credentials over the centuries are wrong; Sewall did dare to buy and sell slaves. The Selling of Joseph was not Sewall’s final word on the topic of slavery, and his views on the matter were far more complicated than most have acknowledged.

In the three decades after he wrote The Selling of Joseph, Sewall placed at least fourteen slave-for-sale advertisements in the Boston News-Letter and the Boston Gazette, announcing his intention to sell more than two dozen enslaved black Africans to the inhabitants of Boston. These fourteen advertisements are typical of the period; their language suggests a casual regard for the breathing bodies to be seen and sold at Sewall’s warehouse, conflating dry goods and human lives. Yet for those who have hailed Sewall as an advocate for emancipation, the advertisements constitute an extraordinary counternarrative that must be weighed in opposition to the sentiments expressed in The Selling of Joseph and are, accordingly, reprinted here in full.

To be disposed of by Mr. Samuel Sewall Merchant, at his Warehouse near the Swing-Bridge in Merchants-Row Boston, several Irish Maid Servants time, most of them for Five years, one Irish Man Servant, who is a good Barber and Wiggmaker, also Four or Five likely Negro Boys.

A Negro Boy and Two young Negro Women to be Sold by Mr. Samuel SewallMerchant, and to be seen at his Ware-House by the Swing Bridge in Merchants Row Boston. (BNL 1715/4/18)

A Very likely young Negro Wench that can do any Houshold Work to be Sold, inquire of Mr. Samuel Sewall at his Ware-House on the Dock in Boston. (BNL 1716/4/9)

Two fine lusty Negro Men to be Sold by Mr. Samuel Sewall Merchant, and to be seen at his Warehouse at the Swing-Bridge in Merchants-Row Boston. (BNL 1716/6/18)

A Lusty Negro Woman, that can do any Houshold Work and speaks good English, to be Sold by Mr. Samuel Sew, Merchant. Enquire at Mrs. Flints in Queen-Street, Boston. (BNL 1716/10/15)

A Likely Negro Boy about Twelve Years of Age, to be Sold by Mr. Samuel Sewall, Merchant, Inquire at his Store-House near the Swing-Bridge, Boston. (BNL 1716/12/17)

Very good Loaf Sugar to be Sold by the parcel or Single Loaf, on Reasonable Terms: And a likely Negro Woman that can do any Houshold work, by Mr. Samuel SewallMerchant at his Ware-house in Merchants Row, Boston. (BNL 1717/9/2)

A Likely Negro Boy about Fifteen Years Old, speaks good English, to be Sold by Mr. Samuel Sewall Merchant, Inquire at his Warehouse, No. 24 on the Long-Wharff. (BNL1719/5/25)

Two Likely Young Negro Men, to be sold by Mr. Samuel Sewall at his Warehouse No. 24 on the Long-Wharff, Boston. (BNL 1719/6/8)

A Fine Negro Man and Two Young Negro Women, to be Sold by Mr. Samuel Sewall Merchant, Inquire at No. 24 on the Long Wharff. (BNL 1722/6/25)

To be Sold by Samuel Sewall Merchant, Three Likely Negro Women, Just Arrived, To be seen at his house in Winter Street.

To be Sold by Mr. Samuel Sewall Merchant, a Young Likely Negro Man and a Young Negro Woman, just Arrived, to be seen at his House in the Common. Also good Spanish Iron to be Sold by Messieurs Richard Bill & Samuel Sewall at their Warehouse on the Dock. (BG 1725/8/2, 8/9)

A Likely Negro Man that can speak very good English, to be Sold by Mr. Samuel Sewall at his House on the Common. (BG 1726/5/30)

To be Sold by Mr. Samuel Sewall at his House in the Common, Boston, several likely Young Negro Men & Boys, Just Arrived. (BNL 1726/6/23)

The number of advertisements and the regularity of their appearance demonstrate that Sewall participated in the slave trade as a matter of course; a single advertisement might be explained away as an exception or the outgrowth of some extraordinary circumstance, but these notices indicate that he participated in human trafficking throughout the last two decades of his life. Sewall’s slave-for-sale advertisements suggest that we have badly misread The Selling of Joseph. As Elisabeth Ceppi contends, “Sewall’s argument against holding black people as slaves promotes an ideal of white self-mastery that is compatible with slaveholding,” and Sewall clearly believed his ownership of other human beings was compatible with his tract’s arguments against slavery. Careful readers will find that The Selling of Joseph argues not that slavery must be abolished but that colonists are wrong to participate in the slave trade naïvely, without investigating the circumstances—the stories—behind the bondage of individual men and women.

Zachary Hutchins is associate professor of English at Colorado State University and co-editor of The Earliest African American Literatures: A Critical Reader