From early notes on 17th-century slavery for THE MANOR: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island.
I came to this book through the boxwoods that I saw behind the house when I rowed up Gardiner’s Creek on Shelter Island and reached the 1737 house that stands near the water. I soon came to realize they were part of a larger more interesting landscape–a landscape both agricultural and historical in a much wider and more dramatic sense than my search for the “earliest introduction of boxwood” to America. Even after that recognition, I had another coming my way that revealed the darker side of the landscape. Slavery was here. Not that its presence was hidden away, or deliberately concealed by later generations. At the inner entrance gate on the drive there is a very large stone inscribed “To the memory of the Colored People of the Manor from 1651,” and a fenced graveyard in the pine woods that is known as “the slave graveyard.” More than 200 people, including the last in 1907 or 8, a Julia Havens who was the housekeeper at Sylvester Manor, are supposed to have been buried there.
From the beginning of its written history Shelter Island poses the question, the same one posed all over the Atlantic world as slavery became a commonplace. How did people so quickly adapt to being slaveholders? This seems like a disingenuous question until one realizes that the real question being asked is “How quickly would we ourselves adapt?”
Along with that question there are others. How did they treat their slaves? What is one to make of Nathaniel Sylvester’s will, where he carefully 1680 lists all 23 people who lived in bondage on the island by families, so different from other lists where the relationships between husband and wife, parents and children, are not given? Was this because the Sylvesters were Quakers? Was it just a convenient way to list these people? What about resistance in all its forms–passive, such as working very very slowly, or active–running away, taking a canoe, escaping to “the main,” as Connecticut was called?
How did the Africans and African-Caribbeans we know were on Shelter Island in 1680 interact with the native population, the Manhansetts?
How different was the multicultural scene from Barbados where the native population had been eradicated by disease or enslavement before Africans began to arrive in numbers, but where the numbers of people from different African nations, speaking many different languages and several creole languages as well would have created a tower of noise and incomprehension.
Slavery here on Shelter island is a stark presence recognised as an incontrovertible wrong, but there is a feeling also that the people who carved this stone saw slavery as something in Sylvester Manor’s past that was thrillingly ornamental, and that their recognition of slavery as a wrong, in the mid-19th century when abolition was fashionable in their Cambridge circle, was a mark of their high degree of civilized understanding, as well as a romantic tribute to themselves.