Royall Pain

Picturing the history of slavery in America conjures up southern plantations, but at the time of Paul Revere’s ride, slavery was very much alive in the northern states, too. Boston’s John Hancock owned slaves, as did Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin.

On his way to Lexington, Paul Revere rode right by the stately home of Isaac Royall Jr., one of the wealthiest men in New England and one of Massachusetts’ largest owner of slaves. Little did Royall know how his fortunes would change the very next day.

It was Issac Royall’s father, Isaac Sr., who brought 27 slaves to Medford, Massachusetts, from the island of Antigua in 1737, where he had made his fortune, owning a sugar plantation. The 600-acre estate along the Mystic River was called Ten Hills Farm, and it was originally owned by the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop (another slave owner). Isaac Sr. commissioned the building of the home seen here in the left of this drawing, and the slave quarters, on the right. The Royalls’ slave quarters are the only ones known to still exist in the northern states of the original thirteen colonies.

Issac Jr. inherited his father’s farm (and his slaves) upon his death only a few years after moving to America.

How did Issac Royall Jr.’s fate change after Paul Revere’s ride? Royall was a Tory, meaning he was a supporter of the British, and not the colonist revolutionaries. When the first shots of the revolution were fired the next day, Royall’s status changed dramatically. He fled his farm soon after, escaping to Nova Scotia, and then England. He died soon after. The house was eventually used as a headquarters for leaders of the Continental Army, including George Washington.

The fortunes of Harvard University changed too, due to the Royall Estate. When the property was sold by the relatives who inherited it, a portion of the sale was donated to Harvard as Isaac Royall’s will had stipulated, to be used as an endowment for its first ever law professor.

There are records of over 60 slaves who worked for the Royalls throughout the years in Medford. When their owner fled, the existing slaves were left to forge lives on their own. One 63-year-old slave named Belinda eventually hired a lawyer and won a pension of “15 pounds and 12 shillings a year” from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1783. After all, it was argued, she had been kidnapped at the age of 12 in Guana and spent a lifetime as a slave and was now left with nothing. She was one of the first slaves to ever argue for reparations for a life lost. Slavery had been ruled illegal in Massachusetts in 1780, due to the freedom clause in its young constitution.

From the Petition of Belinda Royall in the Medford Historical Society:

“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, 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 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 accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.”

On the cold, damp March day that I drew the remnants of the Royall Estate, all was quiet, empty and still. It was a good day for ghosts.


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