Women Petitioners: Belinda Sutton, an ex-slave in Massachusetts

In February 1783, Belinda Sutton petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a pension from the estate of Isaac Royall Jr, her late master. (In this petition she names herself simply ‘Belinda, an Affrican’, but in later documents she gave the surname Sutton, her married name.) She had been born in Ghana 70 years earlier and kidnapped by slavers when she was just 12 years old.  The petition is one of the earliest narratives by an African-American woman, and an early demand for reparations for the injustice and exploitation of slavery. The court ordered that she should have her pension, but she had to petition again a number of times in later years to continue receiving it.

The Petition of Belinda an Affrican, humbly shews.

That seventy years have rolled away, since she on the banks of the Rio da 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 the lightning of the clouds. The idea of these, the most dreadful of all enemies, filled her infant slumbers with horror, and her noontide moments with cruel apprehensions! But her affrighted imagination, in its most alarming extension, never represented distresses equal to what she hath since really experienced. For before she had twelve years injoyed 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, rushed into the hallowed shades! Could the tears, the sighs and supplications, bursting from tortured parental affection, have blunted the keen edge of avarice, she might have been rescued from agony, which many of her countrys children have felt, but which none hath ever yet described. In vain she lifted her supplicating voice to an insulted father, and her guiltless hands to a dishonoured 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 had never conceived of – a floating world – the sporting monsters of the deep and the familiar meetings of billows and clouds strove 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 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, untill, as if nations must be agitated, and the world convulsed for the preservation of that 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 lawless 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 feebly bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the laws of the land, is denied the injoyment of one morsel of that immense wealth, a part whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.

Wherefore casting herself at the feet of your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of virtue, and the just returns 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

And she will ever pray.

Belinda’s petitions in the Harvard Antislavery Petitions Massachusetts Dataverse (with links to images):

Petition of an African slave, to the legislature of Massachusetts (full text of the printed version of Belinda’s petition, reprinted in William & Mary Quarterly)

Belinda Sutton and her petitions.

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