Belinda was a slave, the property of Isaac Royall, Jr. in Medford, Massachusetts, from 1768 to 1778. The Royalls, one of the richest families in New England, had moved from Antigua to Medford in the early 1700s bringing 27 slaves with them. The home they built was a splendid example of eighteenth century architecture at its best; it included Slave Quarters, the only such building in the Northern United States. Three days before the battle of Lexington, Isaac Royall, Jr. fled first to Nova Scotia and then to England. His estate was confiscated and his home occupied by several notable personages during the Revolution. In 1783, after Royall’s death, Belinda filed a petition to the Commonwealth claiming she was entitled to a per annum payment by his estate for her service. In it she recounted how, as a child of twelve, she had been seized in Africa and transported to New England.
The Petition of Belinda an Affrican, humbly shews: that seventy years have rolled away, since she on the banks of the Rio de Valta, received her existence – the mountains Covered with spicy forests, the valleys loaded with the richest fruits, spontaneously produced; joined to that happy temperature of air to exclude excess; would have yielded her the most compleat felicity, had not her mind received early impressions of the cruelty of men, whose faces were like the moon, and whose Bows and Arrows were like the thunder and lightning of the Clouds. – The idea of these, the most dreadful of all Enemeies, filled her infant slumbers with horror, and her noontide moments with evil apprehensions! – But her affrighted imagination, in its most alarming extension, never represented the distress equal to what she hath since really experienced – for before she had Twelve years enjoyed the fragrance of her native groves, and e’er she realized, that Europeans placed their happiness in the yellow dust which she carelessly marked with her infant footsteps. – even when she, in a sacred grove, with each hand in that of a tender Parent, was paying her devotions to the great Orisa who made all things – an armed band of white men, driving many of her Countrymen in Chains, ran into the hallowed shade! – could the Tears, the sighs and supplications, bursting from Tortured Parental affliction, have blunted the keen edge of Avarice, she might have been rescued from Agony, which many of her Country’s Children have felt, but which none hath ever described, – in vain she lifted her supplicating voice to an insulted father, and her guiltless hands to a dishonored Deity! She was ravished from the bosom of her Country, from the arms of her friends – while the advanced age of her Parents, rendering them unfit for servitude, cruelly separated her from them forever!
Scenes which her imagination never conceived of, – a floating World – the sporting Monsters of the deep – and the familiar meetings of the Billows and the clouds, stove, but in vain to divert her melancholly attention, from three hundred Affricans in chains, suffering the most excruciating torments; and some of them rejoicing, that the pangs of death came like a balm to their wounds. Once more her eyes were blest with a Continent – but alas! How unlike the Land where she received her being! Here all things appeared unpropitious – she learned to catch the Ideas, marked by the sounds of language only to know that her doom was Slavery, from which death alone was to emancipate her – What did it avail her, that the walls of her Lord were hung with Splendor, and that the dust troden underfoot in her native Country, crowded his Gates with sordid worshipers – the Laws had rendered her incapable of receiving property – and though she was a free moral agent, accountable for her own actions, yet she never had a moment at her own disposal!
Fifty years her faithful hands have been compelled to ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall, until!, as if Nations must be agitated, and the world convulsed for the preservation of the freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human Race, the present war was Commenced – The terror of men armed in the Cause of freedom, complelled her master to fly – and to breathe away his Life in a Land, where, Lawlless domination sits enthroned – pouring bloody outrage and cruelty on all who dare to be free.
The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole ugmented by her servitude.
WHEREFORE, casting herself at your feet if your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of Virtue, and the just return of honest industry – she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the Estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her, and her more infirm daughter, from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their lives.
The Medford Historical Society, in whose possession the petition is, suggests that it be read with caution, moving though it is. As Belinda describes it, her home in Africa was inland not on the coast, so it is more likely that she was kidnapped by black rather than white traders. Noted abolitionist Prince Hall, a free black who helped Belinda draft her petition, may have wanted to draw attention to those who he thought bore the moral responsibility for the slave trade—white men. Another curious matter: the names of the deities Belinda uses were not known in the Volta region she claims to have come from. Belinda or Hall, the Society speculates, may have wished to show that Africa had civilizations and religions that deserved the respect of white Christians. At any rate, the Massachusetts House and Senate were sufficiently impressed by Belinda’s plea to award her 15 pounds, 12 shillings per year. According to the Medford Historical Society, “the pension awarded to Belinda might be regarded as one of the first cases of reparation for slavery and the slave trade.”
The Royall House and Slave Quarters (shown) are National Historic Landmarks. Additional information about the family and its enslaved workers can be found HERE. If you are within striking distance of Medford, Massachusetts, you may wish to hear historian Lois Brown give a talk called “Marked with the furrows of time”: Belinda, the Royalls, and Accounts of Freedom, on Saturday, June 8, 2013 – 3:00-5:00 p.m. More information about this event can be found HERE. Credit goes to J.L. Bell for his blog ENTRY alerting me to the Royall House and Belinda’s petition.