J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

“A People not insensible of the sweets of rational freedom”

On 13 Jan 1777, the Massachusetts legislature considered a petition from eight black men on behalf of “a great number of Negroes who are detained in a state of Slavery in the Bowels of a free and Christian Country.”

That petition drew on the natural-rights philosophy that underlay the Declaration of Independence and similar documents in the preceding years. The authors wrote:

That your Petitioners apprehend that they have, in common with all other Men, a natural and unalienable right to that freedom, which the great Parent of the Universe hath bestowed equally on all Mankind, and which they have never forfeited by any compact or agreement whatever—But they were unjustly dragged, by the cruel hand of Power, from their dearest friends, and some of them even torn from the embraces of their tender Parents, from a populous, pleasant and plentiful Country—and in Violation of the Laws of Nature and of Nation and in defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity, brought hither to be sold like Beasts of Burden, and like them condemned to slavery for Life—Among a People professing the mild Religion of Jesus—A People not insensible of the sweets of rational freedom—Nor without spirit to resent the unjust endeavors of others to reduce them to a State of Bondage and Subjection.

Your Honors need not to be informed that a Life of Slavery, like that of your petitioners, deprived of every social privilege, of every thing requisite to render Life even tolerable, is far worse than Non-Existence—In imitation of the laudable example of the good People of these States, your Petitioners have long and patiently waited the event of Petition after Petition by them presented to the legislative Body of this State, and can not but with grief reflect that their success has been but too similar.

They can not but express their astonishment, that it has never been considered, that every principle from which America has acted in the course of her unhappy difficulties with Great-Britain, pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your Petitioners.
The ask was for a law to free all adults enslaved in Massachusetts, and to ensure the liberty of all enslaved children when they reached the age of twenty-one (essentially treating them as apprentices).

The legislature didn’t enact such a law. The Massachusetts courts eventually made the first big step to making slavery unenforceable in the state.
Here are the signatures and marks of the eight men who submitted the petition, as shown in its digital form, courtesy of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions project.

The most famous of those men was Prince Hall. Others joined with Hall in the first African-American Freemasons lodge.

Today I’m focusing on the sixth man, whose given name was Nero. I’ve seen his surname transcribed as Funelo, Funilo, and even Suneto. I posit that that surname was Funels, a phonetic spelling of Faneuils, and that this man had been enslaved by one of the Faneuil family.

TOMORROW: Nero Faneuil in court.

3 comments:

Dan Mandell said...

Ah, I should have checked with you about the signatories when I was dissecting this petition!

Richard Subber said...

Thanks for the reminder that, yes, we had slavery in Massachusetts.
The terrible effects are with us still.

J. L. Bell said...

I didn't focus on Nero Faneuil until the end of Black History Month approached and I wanted to unearth something new from that part of Revolutionary New England. He's still a mystery in most ways.

Eric Hanson Plass of Boston National Historical Park has done good work on Lancaster Hill.