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Belinda Sutton, Petition to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1783

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Belinda Sutton was an enslaved woman in the Royall household, the largest slave-owning family in Massachusetts. The Royall family amassed their fortune by trading sugar, rum, and slaves. During the American Revolution, Isaac Royall was a Loyalist and, therefore, was exiled by Massachusetts in the 1778 Act of Banishment. In 1783, Sutton petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for an income from his estate. This petition is among the earliest narratives by an African American woman and it has been interpreted by some historians as the first call for reparations for slavery. Some scholars believe that an abolitionist named Prince Hall helped Sutton draft her narrative.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this document, and to whom was it addressed?
  2. Why did the author write this document?
  3. Do you think the author’s request will be granted? Why or why not?

Vocabulary Text
Rio de Valta (n): the Volta River, located in present-day Ghana in West Africa

felicity (n): happiness

supplicating (adj): begging or asking for something earnestly
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 . . . for before she had Twelve years enjoyed the fragrance of her native groves . . . 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!
melancholy (adj): sad or pensive

unpropitious (adj): unfavorable

sordid (adj): dirty
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!
ignoble (adj): characterized by lowness or baseness 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, compelled 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.
extirpation (n): removal or destruction

vassalage (n): a position of subordination or submission, in this case, enslavement
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.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What happens to Belinda when she is 12 years old?
  2. Why aren’t Belinda’s parents captured by slave traders?
  3. What is the “floating World” Belinda writes of in the second paragraph? What does she experience here?
  4. What paradox does Belinda perceive in her status as a slave?
  5. According to this passage, what does Belinda’s owner, Isaac Royall, do during the Revolutionary War? What might this reveal about him?
  6. Summarize the main idea of this passage in your own words.

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Explain how Belinda Sutton’s life illustrates slavery’s effects on the lives of enslaved men and women.
  2. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts awarded Belinda a pension of 15 pounds 12 shillings per year in 1783. View an image of the document, signed by Samuel Adams and John Hancock here. Scholars have since discovered that, despite being granted a pension from this request, Sutton re-petitioned Massachusetts five times over the next ten years because of missed payments. Explain how this source and Sutton’s story illustrate a debate over the meaning of rights and liberty.

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