African Slavery in the Americas

The Manuscripts Division holds a wide array of archival resources documenting the history of African slavery in the Americas, chiefly for the United States and the Caribbean islands during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Relevant materials can be found in personal and family papers, subject-oriented open collections on African American slavery, and separately cataloged bound manuscripts. Most of this material may be identified in the Princeton University Library’s Finding Aids and New Catalog, generally by searching for subjects or keywords. In addition to “African American” and “slavery,” one can search for terms such as abolition, anti-slavery, colonization, manumission, plantations, slave, slave bills of sale, slave ships, and slave trade; or for specific personal and corporate names.

The oldest holdings on slavery in the New World are Spanish documents and business records pertaining to Indian slave labor on Latin American plantations and mines. Particular manuscripts and collections relate to slavery in Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. But Princeton’s holdings are best for the African and Caribbean slave trade. Good materials on the importation of slaves into the Americas are contained in the four record books of the Brig Nancy under the command of Captain J. B. Cook (Oversize C0199 no. 1226f). The records document the operations of a slave ship operating between Rhode Island and the plantations of Surinam, 1791-96. Professor Mitra Sharafi (University of Wisconsin Law School), studied these records when she was a Princeton graduate student in the History Department and presented her findings in an article in Slavery and Abolition, vol. 24, no. 1 (2003), pp. 71-100. Efforts to monitor transatlantic slavery after the abolition of the slave trade are documented in the Papers of George W. Storer (1789-1864) (C1433), who served in the U.S. Navy for more than a half century, including his years as a captain and then commander-in-chief of the Brazil Squadron, 1837-50, which, in part, had the goal of preventing American ships from transporting African slaves. During his tenure as commander of the Brazil Squadron, the fleet frequently worked with the British Navy and captured four slave ships.

The Francis C. Brown Collection on Slavery in America (C0605) contains nearly a hundred individual documents and printed items relating to slavery, chiefly in Louisiana but to a lesser degree Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, Alabama, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and the Carolinas. The collection amassed by Francis C. Brown, Class of 1958, includes so many representative examples that it is used regularly for class visits to the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. The finding aid has just been revised, with expanded descriptions. Similar materials are found in the Miscellaneous Slavery Collection (C1210). Another document collection, Louisiana Slavery and Civil War Collection (C0033), includes fascinating files on the estate of a manumitted slave named Marie Claire Chabert (1769-1847), of New Orleans. Mitra Sharafi explores these files in an article in Journal of Civil Law Studies, vol. 4 (2011), pp. 188-215, as evidence of the process by which slaves could buy freedom for themselves and family members. Slavery collections of this sort are complemented by relevant materials in the papers of eminent early Princetonians, such as Richard Rush, Class of 1797, within the Rush Family Papers (C0063); Samuel L. Southard, Class of 1804 (C0250); and John Miller, Class of 1836 (C0632).

Records of Caribbean slave plantations have been a growing area of strength in the Manuscripts Division. The earliest such collection is the Boarded Hall Estate Plantation Records (C1227), 1676-1887 (mostly 1712-1845). The records of this plantation on the island of Barbados were brought together by Sir George Harnage, Baronet, a captain in the British Royal Navy. An important recent acquisitions is the Sir John Orde (1751-1824), Collection on Slavery in Dominica and Jamaica (C1534), which is comprised of five boxes of accounts, land registers, letters, and documents pertaining to slavery and the plantation economy under British colonial rule in Dominica in the late 18th century and in Jamaica in the early 19th century. Sir John Orde was governor of Dominica, 1783-93; as well as lists of enslaved workers on the estates of Peter Campbell, Esq., plantation owner in the Jamaican parishes of Saint Elizabeth, Westmoreland, and Hanover, in 1817, 1820, 1823, and 1825. The John and Martha Bowen Letter Book concerning Bowen Hall Sugar Plantation (C1490) relates to the management of a Jamaican sugar plantation, including its varied finances, seasonal production and export of sugar and rum, and the treatment of slaves and “apprentices,” 1822-48.

Also relating to the later history of slavery and gradual emancipation in Jamaica is the Rae Family Estate Collection (C1222), covering the 1830s to 1850s. Account books of this Scottish family provide information concerning the slaves or “apprenticed labourers” who worked on their Jamaican plantations. Entries include the purchase of “negro hats,” medical bills for doctors who attended on apprentices and “free children,” the purchase or sale of apprentices, hospital bills, money paid to apprentices for attending funerals, money paid to constables or police officers for apprehending and returning runaway apprentices, or money paid for the freedom of apprentices. Also of interest is an 1818 manuscript appraisal of the Elizabeth Anne plantation estate with hundreds of slaves on Leguan Island in the Essequibo Islands-West Demerara region of colonial British Guiana (now Guyana), assigning monetary value to the enslaved workers, land, buildings, and livestock owned by Robert Gordon, Esq., a native of Aberdeen, Scotland (F-000052).

For information about research using these and other materials in the Manuscripts Division concerning slavery in the Americas, or about class visits by Princeton students, please contact Public Services, rbsc@princeton.edu

slave-bill-of-sale-1825
Kentucky slave bill of sale, 28 June 1825
Francis C. Brown Collection on Slavery
in America (C0605), Manuscripts Division

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