The Seaflower, Native Slaves, and King Philip's War
In 1676, fifty-six years after the sailing of the Mayflower, a similarly named but far less famous ship, the Seaflower, departed from the shores of New England. Like the Mayflower, she carried a human cargo. But instead of 102 potential colonists, the Seaflower was bound for the Caribbean with 180 Native American slaves.
The governor of Plymouth Colony, Josiah Winslow--son of former Mayflower passengers Edward and Susanna Winslow--had provided the Seaflower's captain with the necessary documentation. In a certificate bearing his official seal, Winlow explained that these Native men, women, and children had joined in an uprising against the colony and were guilty of "many notorious and execrable murders, killings, and outrages." As a consequence, these "heathen malefactors" had been condemned to perpetual slavery.
The Seaflower was one of several New England vessels bound for the West Indies with Native slaves. But by 1676, plantation owners in Barbados and Jamaica had little interest in slaves who had already shown a willingness to revolt. No evidence exists as to what happened to the Indians aboard the Seaflower, but we do know that the captain of one American slave ship was forced to venture all the way to Africa before he finally disposed of his cargo. And so, over a half century after the sailing of the Mayflower, a vessel from New England completed a transatlantic passage of a different sort.
The rebellion referred to by Winslow in the Seaflower's certificate is known today as King Philip's War. Philip was the son of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who greeted the Pilgrims in 1621. Fifty-four years later, in 1675, Massasoit's son went to war. The fragile bonds that had held the Indians and English together in the decades since the sailing of the Mayflower had been irreparably broken.
King Philip's War lasted only fourteen months, but it changed the face of new England. After fifty-five years of peace, the lives of Native and English peoples had become so intimately intertwined that when fighting broke out, many of the region's Indians found themselves, in the word of a contemporary chronicler, "in a kind of maze, not knowing what to do." Some Indians chose to support Philip; others joined the colonial forces; still others attempted to stay out of the conflict altogether. Violence quickly spread until the entire region became a terrifying war zone. A third of the hundred or so towns in New England were burned and abandoned There was even a proposal to build a barricade around the core settlements of Massachusetts and surrender the towns outside the perimeter to Philip and his allies.
The colonial forces ultimately triumphed, but at a horrifying cost. There were approximately seventy thousand people in New England at the outbreak of hostilities. By the end of thee war, somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand were dead, which more than three-quarters of those losses suffered by the Native Americans. In terms of percentage of population killed, King Philip's War was more than twice as bloody as the American Civil War and at least seven times more lethal than the American Revolution. Not counted in these statistics are the hundreds of Native Americans who, like the passengers aboard the Seaflower, ended the war as slaves. It had taken fifty-six years to unfold, but one people's quest for freedom had resulted in the conquest and enslavement of another.
"Mayflower: a story of courage,
community, and War"
Nathaniel Philbrick, Author
Published by Penguin Books, 2006
pages xiv and xv
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