Belinda Sutton [also known as Belinda Royal/Royall] was the author of one of the earliest known slave narratives by an African woman in the United States and a successful early petitioner for reparations for enslavement.
Belinda was born around 1712, probably near the Volta River on Africa’s Gold Coast (in today’s Ghana). Her narrative describes a happy childhood, interrupted when she was captured by European slave raiders who came to her village when she was about twelve. They marched her to the coast, where she was taken across the Atlantic with approximately 300 other slaves. Belinda was purchased by a wealthy Caribbean planter, Isaac Royall, Jr. Belinda first worked for the family on their Antigua plantation, before Royall brought her and other enslaved people to his home in Medford, Massachusetts.
Royall, the colony’s largest slaveholder, was a loyalist who fled to England at the outset of the American Revolution. Belinda and the other Royall slaves journeyed to Boston and lived in unofficial freedom among a community of slaves, free blacks, and sympathetic whites who were petitioning the colony/state to abolish slavery.
As the Revolution was drawing to a close and a Massachusetts court was abolishing slavery for the new state in 1783, Belinda petitioned the state legislature demanding reparations for unpaid labor from Royall’s estate. Royall also left money to establish the first professorship in law at Harvard College. Belinda was illiterate, and historians have speculated that the famous African American activist Prince Hall may have drafted the petition on her behalf. The legislature granted Belinda fifteen pounds and twelve shillings annually, which Belinda repeatedly petitioned to collect. She disappears from the historical record after her last petition in 1793, apparently having died by 1799.
While this last extension marks Belinda’s final appearance in the historical record, her petition became an abolitionist tool on both sides of the Atlantic, solidifying her legacy. Both the initial petition and a dramatized, first-person version circulated in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Although portrayed and deployed as a petition for freedom, Belinda was in fact one of the first claimants for reparations for unpaid labor, an important step in the continued reckoning with the legacies of slavery.
"Belinda Sutton and Her Petitions": http://www.royallhouse.org/slavery/belinda-sutton-and-her-petitions/
"Belinda Sutton" http://freedomsway.org/belinda-sutton/
“Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery” https://www.mass.gov/guides/massachusetts-constitution-and-the-abolition-of-slavery
Carretta, Vincent, ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
Finkenbine, Roy. “Belinda’s Petition: Reparations for Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts.” William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2007): 95–104.
Harris, Sharon. Executing Race: Early American Women’s Narratives of Race, Society, and the Law. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.
James Almeida and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.