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Belinda Sutton

Belinda Sutton [also known as Belinda Royal/Royall] was the author of the earliest known slave narrative 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 and Harvard College professor, Isaac Royall, Jr. Belinda first worked for the family on their Antigua plantation, before Royall brought her and other slaves 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. 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.

Read the full, original biography by Roy E. Finkenbine in the African American National Biography

View complete story (pdf)

Read the full, original biography by Jeremy Rich in the The Dictionary of African Biography

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

"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

Bibliography

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.

Finkenbine, Roy E.. "Belinda." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e1272 (accessed Tue Sep 10 13:42:26 EDT 2019).

Harris, Sharon. Executing Race: Early American Women’s Narratives of Race, Society, and the Law. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.

Adapted by

James Almeida and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Map of the Gold Coast Colony and Adjacent Territories

Key Events

c. 1712

Born near the Valta River on the Gold Coast of Africa.

c. 1724

Belinda is captured and transported to the Caribbean island of Antigua.

c. 1732

Isaac Royall, Jr., Antigua planter and Harvard College professor, purchases Belinda around the time he is relocating his family and household (including Belinda) to Medford, Massachusetts.

April 1775

Fearing for his safety as a loyalist, Royall flees the colonies for Britain in April 1775. Belinda becomes the property of the state of Massachusetts.

1778

The state manumits Belinda, but her son, Joseph, is apparently sold off at the same time. She relocates to Boston with her invalid daughter, Prine.

1783

In the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison, the Massachusetts courts finally declared slavery unconstitutional.

February 1783

Belinda petitions the Massachusetts legislature for reparations payment in recognition of her years of unpaid labor. She is granted fifteen pounds, twelve shillings annually from the seized Royall estate.

June 18, 1783

The New Jersey Gazette reprints Belinda’s petition.

August 1783

A revised version of Belinda’s petition circulates in various British periodicals under the title “The Complaint of Belinda, an African.” This was in the format of a first-person slave narrative and added a tale of rape to the list of sufferings in the original.

1785

Described as Belinda Royal, she petitions again to force payment on the previously authorized request.

1787

Payment apparently having stopped, Belinda petitions successfully to have the pension extended (the legislature approved on November 23). In the same year, Matthew Carey publishes the original petition in his widely-circulated American Museum magazine, prompting renewed interest in Belinda’s story.

1788-1790

Belinda petitions again on March 13, 1788, for three years’ back pay. The estate administrator refuses to pay Belinda’s pension without further instructions in 1790 and the court orders him to do so.

June 4, 1793

Still waiting on payment, Belinda petitions the legislature for the last time.

c. 1793-1799

Belinda dies, presumably in the Boston area. The estate administrator noted that all remaining slaves from the Royall estate were deceased in a 1799 request to pay the remaining funds to Royall’s heirs.